Change is seldom comfortable, but it is often necessary. It is certainly necessary if our attitudes and actions are not in accord with God’s Word. As Peter learned, personal changes can have a far-reaching impact on people’s lives and God’s work.
Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Well, if life is like a staged production, it seems to go off script a lot, doesn’t it?
Life is unpredictable. Characters enter and exit at random. Scenes change without warning; plans constantly change. In life, it seems like the one constant is change. That is why we have to keep our eyes on the Production Manager—our Savior, who is directing the play of life.
I cannot imagine all the changes involved in the transition from Old Testament Judaism to New Testament Christianity. The book of Acts is a bridge crossing from the old covenant to the new covenant, and at times it is a pretty steep climb.
The church that came into existence in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost was primarily a Jewish church. As the apostles and other believers carried the gospel message beyond Jerusalem, it was only a matter of time before the gospel began to reach the Gentiles.
Now here in Acts chapter 10, the changes, amazingly enough, are going to involve who can sit at the table of fellowship together and, just as dramatically, what is on the menu that you can enjoy together.
Can Gentiles be invited to the table? Can Jews eat the same food as Gentiles? Are they going to have to divide up when the church has dinner on the grounds after Sunday services? Let me tell you, these were significant issues that touched on the nature of the church, and God is about to use two men to bring dramatic changes.
I am going to divide this critical chapter, Acts 10, into three scenes. Scene I takes place at the home of a Gentile seeker:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. (verses 1-2)
The name “Cornelius” is interesting because a very special event made it famous. History records that around eighty-five years before the birth of Christ, a Roman general named Cornelius was victorious in a civil war and liberated thousands of slaves. All the male slaves took his name to mark the beginning of their new lives. It is quite possible that this centurion is a descendant of one of those freed slaves.
What we do know is that Cornelius and his household are “God-fearers,” which means they have turned away from Roman idols to follow the God of Abraham.
Cornelius is having his quiet time one morning when God gives him a vision—verse 3: “He saw clearly in a vision an angel of God.” This angel tells Cornelius to send men to Joppa, about thirty miles south, to bring Simon Peter back to his house. He is not told why, but he immediately obeys.
This brings us to Scene II, which takes place on a rooftop. It is around noontime, and Peter is having his devotions up there where the breeze is a little cooler. He has been staying at the home of Simon, a tanner.
God is already preparing Peter for changes. He has been staying with a tanner, an “unclean” profession since it involves constant contact with dead animals. Peter understands that cleansing comes from the blood of Christ alone, not ceremonial tradition.
Now verses 11-13:
[Peter] saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
Peter’s response is, “By no means, Lord” (verse 14). He is saying, “I’m not going to eat Gentile, non-kosher food. No, Lord.” By the way, the words “No” and “Lord” never belong in the same sentence.
Furthermore, Peter says, “I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” He is still following the dietary restrictions of the Mosaic law.
That means that Peter has never eaten a pork chop, he has never had link sausage with his scrambled eggs, and he has never enjoyed a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. He has no idea what he has been missing!
The voice from heaven tells him, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (verse 15). In other words, “You don’t say no when God says yes.” And, beloved, that also means you should not say yes when God has said no.
This vision is repeated two more times. The point is clear: Old Testament dietary laws are no longer in effect, and there is to be no distinction between Jews and Gentiles in the New Testament church. Immediately following this vision, the Lord informs Peter that men are knocking at his door, and he is to go with them.
Scene III opens at the estate of Cornelius. Peter, accompanied by some believers from Joppa, has arrived. Verse 24 tells us, “Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.”
Peter explains the uniqueness of this gathering in verse 28:
“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”
It looks like Peter learned something from his earlier vision after all.
Cornelius then tells Peter about his vision and says to Peter, “We are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord” (verse 33).
With that, Peter launches into a brief history of Jesus’ ministry and the church in verses 34-43. He concludes that the grace of God is available to both Jew and Gentile equally.
Following Peter’s explanation of the gospel—and especially his assurance in verse 43 that “everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name”—evidently, everybody in Cornelius’s household believes. They become Christians—they receive the Holy Spirit. And verse 46 tells us that Peter and his companions now hear Cornelius and members of his household “speaking in tongues and extolling God.”
Do not misunderstand: this does not mean that every believer is going to speak in tongues. In fact, 1 Corinthians 12:30 makes it clear that every believer does not speak in tongues.
So why are they doing that here? Well think about it: these are the first Gentile converts; empowering them to speak in languages they had never learned before is God’s way of demonstrating that what happened at Pentecost to Jewish believers is now being duplicated among Gentile believers. This confirms that the Holy Spirit belongs to Gentiles as much as to Jews.
Following that demonstration, these new believers are immersed in water, identifying with the death, burial, and resurrection of their Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. They are welcomed into the church. Beloved, we cannot miss the stunning historical and theological significance of these events. They establish the fact that the New Testament church is not segregated by ethnic or cultural differences but includes everybody equally who follows Christ in faith.
Peter, in fact, highlighted this truth with these words at the beginning of his sermon:
“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him . . . [this is the] good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all).” (verses 34-36)
Let me ask you this today: What does God want to change in your life? Do you need to begin thinking biblically instead of traditionally or ethnically?
What are you holding on to that God wants you to release? Who knows? If you are willing to make some changes in your attitude, God just might use you to begin a movement in your household, your business, maybe even your world!