An Angel Arranges for Cornelius to Hear About Jesus
Cornelius was a Roman military officer, a Centurion, who was stationed in Israel around the same time the early Christians in Jerusalem were forming their first church. Roman centurions were usually disliked by the Jews. Cornelius and his family lived in Caesarea, a wealthy costal town on the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Herod had built a fancy palace on the beaches of Caesarea along with elegant gardens and an outdoor swimming pool.
Scripture says that Cornelius was a good man. “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” (Acts 10:2) Cornelius was kneeling in prayer one afternoon when suddenly a bright angel appeared in front of him and spoke his name. “Cornelius!” “What is it Lord?” Cornelius answered trembling in fear. The angel told Cornelius that his prayers and his gifts to the poor had pleased God. But he needed something more.
The angel told Cornelius that God had a special message for him that he needed to hear. A man named Peter was preaching nearby in Joppa and God wanted Cornelius to bring Peter to his house and listen to his message. Then the angel told Cornelius to send his men to Joppa (a town 30 miles away) and invite Peter to come back with them. The angel told him that his men would find Peter in Joppa at Simon the tanner’s house which was by the sea.
Cornelius was still trembling as he called three of his soldiers in and told them about the angels’ visit. He told them to go to Joppa and bring Peter back so they could hear what God had to say. His men set out the next morning for Joppa to find Peter.
The next day around noon in Joppa Peter stopped working and went up on the house roof top to pray. Houses back then had flat roofs and often families used the roof tops as an outdoor living area. While Peter was praying the Scriptures say that he went into a trance. “He saw heaven open and something like a large sheet was let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air.
Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean..’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything unclean that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and the sheet was taken back to heaven.” (Acts 10:11-16)
Peter woke up and lay there on the roof top wondering what in the world this vision could possibly mean. Why had God given it to him? But he didn’t have to wait long to find out! A minute later there was a knock at the gate downstairs and Peter could hear several men asking Simon if a man named Peter was there. Peter jumped up and ran downstairs and asked the men what they wanted. And of course Cornelius’ soldiers told Peter the whole story of how an angel had come to Cornelius and told him to invite Peter to come to his house and preach Gods’ message.
Slowly it began to dawn on Peter why God had just shown him the vision of the sheet of unclean animals! In the vision God had instructed Peter not to call anything unclean that God had made clean! Was God trying to teach him that no person was to be thought of as unclean any more? Did God actually want him to go to Cornelius’s house even though he was a Gentile?
Peter would never have gone back with the soldiers to Cornelius’s house if he hadn’t had the vision. Cornelius was an Roman; not a Jew, but an unclean Gentile! As a good Jew, Peter had never associated with a non-Jewish person. Peter had never eaten food that wasn’t kosher and he had never eaten a meal with a Gentile! Jewish religious laws forbid him to ever go inside the home of a non-Jew. Peter had never questioned his Jewish religion.
But times they were a changing! The vision with the sheet of unclean animals and reptiles and birds seemed to be God’s way of telling Peter that Jesus’ death and resurrection had changed everything. The old ways were gone and the new Way was here. With Jesus even those unclean Gentiles could be made clean. It was almost more than Peter could take in.
Peter invited the Roman soldiers in to rest from their travels and he agreed to go back to Cornelius’ house with them the next day. Peter asked several believers to join him on the trip and the next morning they all started back to Caesarea.
In the meantime, back in Caesarea, Cornelius had been running around telling his family and friends that a shining angel had just appeared to him and had commanded him to bring Peter to his house to preach a message. What could this special message be - just from God? They all wanted to know! A large excited group of family and friends and friends of friends all rushed over to Cornelius’ house and gathered in anxiously waiting for Peter to show up and tell them what God wanted them to know!
Cornelius’ noisy house was buzzing with anticipation when Peter finally arrived. Cornelius met Peter at the door and fell down at his feet to worship him. “Stand up,” Peter told him, “I am only a man myself.” (Acts 10:26)
Peter walked inside and the first thing he told the crowd that had gathered was that it was against the Jewish law for him to be there talking with them since they were the un-clean Gentiles. But then Peter told them that God had just taught him a new lesson. – That he should not be prejudiced or call any person un-clean. That through Jesus people are put together that wouldn’t have been together otherwise.
Then Peter began preaching to the group in Cornelius’s house. This was the first time that Peter had ever preached to Gentiles. He told them how he had been a disciple of Jesus’ and had watched Him heal the sick. He told them about Jesus’ death and resurrection and how God had appointed Him to be judge of the living and the dead. But when Peter told them that those who believe in Jesus receive forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, everyone in the house was listening intently and every person there believed in Jesus as their Savior all at the very same time! Scripture says that “faith comes by hearing the Word of God.” (Romans 10:17) And when this group heard God’s Word about Jesus, they all had faith!
Right then the Holy Spirit fell on all the people in the house who believed, and immediately they all began speaking in tongues together and praising God. (Acts 10:46) It must have been something to see! The Jewish believers that had come along with Peter were astonished that the Holy Spirit had been given to this group of Gentiles. The Holy Spirit had fallen on them and their fellow Jewish believers the same way with tongues when they had believed so they knew that God was accepting these Gentiles too! They had thought that God’s salvation was only reserved for the Jews. God was breaking down the barriers and prejudices between Jew and Gentile. It was almost more than they could take in!
“Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” Peter asked. “They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:47) So Cornelius and his family and friends were all baptized in the name of Jesus by Peter. And they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days and give them more teachings. What an electric party it must have been!
The word got back to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem that Peter had visited in a Gentile house and preached to non-Jews. The apostles and believers were angry and called him in for questioning. “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them!” (Acts 11:2b) So Peter explained to them how God had sent him the vision of the unclean animals and how the Holy Spirit had fallen on the Gentiles when they first opened their hearts to Jesus. The Jewish believers were amazed at this and tried to be open to where God was leading them. “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life,” they said. (Acts 11:18b) Until now all of the believers in Jesus had been Jewish. But the Jews were learning that God wanted everyone to have eternal life!
What can we learn from this story from the Bible? First we learn that when we are Christians the Holy Spirit teaches us to live differently. The Jewish believers learned that God didn’t want them to call any person “un-clean” or leave anyone out. The Holy Spirit opens us up to love other people who aren’t like ourselves. Are we open to follow where God is leading us?
We also learn that believing in Jesus is all important. Those in Cornelius’ house received the Holy Spirit the moment they believed in Jesus. We receive the Holy Spirit when we believe in Jesus too. Do we wonder why the Holy Spirit doesn’t fall on us and set us aflame with tongues like He did for those at Cornelius’ house? We do receive the Holy Spirit when we believe and He does guide us and change us even if we don’t have tongues. Just as God makes us all different, He gives the Holy Spirit to us in different ways. To some the Holy Spirit comes quietly as a Dove and to others the Holy Spirit comes as wind and fire and with fanfare.
Perhaps Peter and the other Jews would never have believed that these un-clean Gentiles were really believers in Jesus if they hadn’t had this evidence of tongues! The Jewish believers knew that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought salvation, but perhaps they needed a sign to fully understand that this salvation was for everyone and not just for the Jews. And these tongues might have been that sign to help them accept these “un-clean” Gentiles who weren’t like themselves.
Also Cornelius and Peter would never have gotten together if an angel hadn’t visited Cornelius and Peter hadn’t had a vision from God. Do we feel left out if we haven’t had visions or visits by angels? Perhaps God works in other ways to lead us where He wants us to go. Sometimes He puts ideas in our minds and perhaps we have seen angels unawares.
Scripture says that God sent an angel to Cornelius because he “prayed and gave to the poor.” (Acts 10:4b) Do we care about the poor? Are we open to hear God’s will in our lives? Are we trying to listen? If we hear God’s voice or read His Word are we willing to obey?
The angel came to arrange for Cornelius to hear about Jesus. Even with his good deeds and open heart, Cornelius needed something more. He wasn’t good enough without Jesus. And neither are we.