The events in Acts 10:44-48 occurred as part of Peter’s first sermon to the Gentiles. Peter received a vision from God. In that vision, a sheet unfolded from heaven. On that sheet were animals of all kinds, including animals that were unclean under Jewish law. God commanded Peter to eat, but Peter refused because of Jewish dietary laws. God replied that He has made these animals clean and what He made clean could be eaten. This vision was a metaphor for God’s command to expand Christianity to include the Gentiles, who were also considered to be unclean by the Jews.
At the same time Peter had his vision, Cornelius had a vision. Cornelius was a Roman centurion in Caesarea. He and his family members and servants were God-fearing people. They accepted both the Jewish concept of one God and Jewish ethics. They may even have attended the local synagogue. Because they were Gentiles, they were not people Peter and others in the Jewish community would have thought to be included in God’s plan of salvation.
As a result of that vision, Cornelius sent representatives to see Peter and invite him to come and teach him and his family. Just as in Peter’s vision, God made no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. It was during that meeting that the Holy Spirit came and touched Cornelius and his household. God sent several Jewish believers to accompany Peter, so together they could be witnesses when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius and his household.
Cornelius was a tough Roman soldier, but he was also drawn to the Jewish faith. He worshipped in the synagogue, but in a different section that was reserved for Gentile converts. Since the Jews treated the Gentiles with disdain, it’s a wonder that Cornelius put up with that treatment. Well, he did, because he was a seeker. Something told him that there was more to life than his earthly life. Something told him there was a God. His desire to know God was stronger than the rude treatment he received from the Jews. Even though the Jews welcomed Gentile converts, these converts were never completely accepted. Cornelius’ beliefs changed his behaviour and his personality. He gave alms to the poor and supported the synagogue.
Honest seekers find what they are looking for. Jeremiah 29:13 states that God promises to hear the prayers of those who are looking for Him. God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to these Gentiles as a sign of His plan to accept them into the church without prior conversion to the Jewish faith. This more than makes up for humiliation and ridicule.
When God sent the Holy Spirit upon the Gentile believers, He sent a clear message to them and to everyone who witnessed the event. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Nothing other than belief is required. Only trusting in Christ brings forgiveness of sins.
When the Holy Spirit touched Cornelius and his family, Peter immediately saw it as an opportunity to baptize them. Since they had received the substance of what the sign of water baptism points to, and since they had been changed by the Holy Spirit, it was inappropriate to withhold the sign that they were part of the body of believers. Baptism is not about salvation or going to heaven. The thief who died on the cross and believed in Jesus was not baptized before he died. Baptism is about being obedient to God, who commanded believers to be baptized once they became his disciples. The baptism of Cornelius and his household must have been one of the most joyous and moving in history. It, like all baptisms with water, was the outward sign of the inner Spirit baptism which had taken place. History was made, and consequently the Christian church took a whole new direction.
Acts 10 marks the expansion of Christianity to include the Gentiles. This expansion was approved by both Peter and Paul. Without expansion, Christianity would have remained a sect of Judaism. Acts 10:44-48 marks a major shift in Peter’s ministry. It was his conversion of sorts. He was torn between custom and convictions. The Holy Spirit whittled away the hardness of Peter’s heart toward those he had been taught to avoid. The Holy Spirit was the true preacher. It makes God’s Word come alive through-or in spite of-our words. It changes our perceptions of others and what they can or cannot do. It changes our own character and leads us to other people whom God loves.
God knows how hard it is for us to change, but He can’t let us remain where we are. We can’t remain tied down with harmful ways of thinking and tied to human sin. He shows us the truth and challenges us to apply what He has taught. He expects a faithful response to His commands. Sometimes this makes us feel uncomfortable, but God doesn’t care about how we feel about His commands. He only cares that we act on them. God knows that our discomfort will pass. When we set aside our discomfort to do what He has commanded, He knows the experience will accomplish its task and we will be changed.
The Holy Spirit allows us to see things in new ways, just like Peter saw things in a new way because of his vision. The Holy Spirit opened Peter to new insights. It also gives us new insights into who needs to be a part of our church family. These insights force us to open our eyes and hearts to those who the world rejects. There is no room in the church for divisions caused by race, colour, social status or other reasons.
Jesus’ friendship is one of mutual love and respect. Friends like Jesus expand our world, expose us to new and creative possibilities and sustain us when we are in need. The disciples did not have any idea what God was doing, what God was capable of, and who God was able to reach. They were close-minded and thought that the only way to God was the same way they came to God. We are the same. We often think that the way people should come to Christ is the same way that we came to Christ. The problem is that this is not the way God thinks or acts. God sees the entire picture, but we can only see a part of it. God sees a church where everyone is welcome, but we sometimes only see a church where people who look, think or act like us are welcome. Jesus said that the two Great Commandments are to love God and love people. When we emphasize the love of law instead of the law of love, we are going against God’s will. We must suspend the rules we have come to rely on and welcome what God is doing in our churches, our communities and our world.
During World War I, a Protestant chaplain serving with American troops became friends with a local Catholic priest when his unit were stationed in Italy. When it was time for his unit to move on, the chaplain joined them, but he was killed shortly thereafter. When the priest learned of the chaplain’s death, he wrote to the chaplain’s commanding officers and offered to bury the body in the cemetery behind the priest’s church. The officers knew that the chaplain and the priest were friends, and so they gave permission. The Catholic Church authorities, on the other hand, were opposed. They told the priest that the body could not be buried in the cemetery because the chaplain was a Protestant.
After the war, one of the men who served with the chaplain visited Italy and met with the old priest. The veteran wanted to pay his respects at the chaplain’s grave, and to his surprise he was taken to a grave inside the fence! The veteran knew of the church’s refusal to allow the body to be buried in the cemetery, so he asked the priest if he had received permission to move the body. The priest shook his head and said, “They told me where I could not bury the body, but they did not tell me that I could not move the fence.”
God did the same thing for the Gentiles. He moved the fence that the Jews built to keep the Gentiles out. He moved the fence to include all of us. He has a way of colouring outside the lines of our limited experiences. In return, we need to welcome everyone. Even though the local church may say that it welcomes everyone, there are people in our community who will never really understand that because they are suspicious of our motives or they have their own prejudices or attitudes.
Sometimes we, like Peter, are called to a ministry of proclamation and closeness. We don’t know who received the greater blessing in this story: Cornelius or Peter. What we do know is that God was at work through the Holy Spirit to break down barriers so that God’s Word could be heard. The Word has the power to re-negotiate our prejudices of others, about what they can or cannot do. The Word has the power to change our characters as well by leading us closer to other people whom God loves.
We, like the Spirit-filled Gentiles in the Book of Acts, need to rediscover the depth of our disbelief and disobedience even if that is not the politically correct thing to do. We need to realize that we hunger and thirst for the story of Jesus and his love for everyone. We need to run to the waters of baptism and drown our old sin-filled lives. We need to be raised from spiritual death and filled with a passion for the Gospel, because it will make one helluva difference in our world.
- Jeremiah, Dr. David: The Jeremiah Study Bible, NKJV (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing, 2013)
- Jude Siciliano, O.P., “First Impressions, 6th Sunday of Easter (B).” Retrieved from www.preacherexchange.org
- Ogilvie, L.J. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 28: Acts (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.; 1983)
- Witherington, B. III: The Acts of the Apostles: a socio-rhetorical commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; 1998)
- Jacob Myers, “Commentary on Acts 10:44-48.” Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1294
- Rick Morley, “Even Astonished.” Retrieved from http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1585
- Samuel D. Zumwalt, “Easter People Baptize.” Retrieved from http://www.predigten.uni-goettingen.de/archiv-81060-521-8-e.html
- Jeremiah, Dr. David: The Revolution that Changed the World (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers. Inc.; 2015, pgs. 179-194)
- Exegesis for Acts 10:44-48. Retrieved from www.lectionary.org
- Rev. Gayle Pope, “Acts 10:44-48.” Retrieved from firstname.lastname@example.org
- Jude Siciliano, OP, “First Impressions, 6th Sunday of Easter (B).” Retrieved from www.preacherexchange.org
- Swindoll, Charles R.: Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary: Acts (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers; 2016; pp. 206-208)