In chapter 6 we saw how the first Greek speaking Christian congregation was formed. But these were all Jews. The men were circumcised, and they kept the kosher food laws and the Old Testament rituals. Now Luke is interested in the next step of the Messiah's plan for building his church (Matthew 16:18). Peter had to be persuaded to baptize an enemy Roman Centurion (Army Captain) and his family to form a congregation of foreigners who were not Jews, and had no idea of what kosher food might be.
This would be unthinkable for Peter who said "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean" (10:14). Three times the vision to "kill and eat" had to be repeated" (10:13-16). And finally it dawned on Peter that "God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him" (10:34-35).
By the end of the chapter the principle was established that Gentiles could be formed into a congregation of the Holy Spirit without submitting to the Jewish rite of circumcision and other rules from the law of Moses. This was essential if Paul was to go out and plant churches all over the Mediterranean. And without this momentous change a world-wide Christian church among all nations would have been impossible. There would still be the problem of how Jewish Christians could have table fellowship in one church with Greeks who lived by such a totally different set of rules. But this would be settled in the Council of Jerusalem which Luke will describe in chapter 15.
10:1-23 Peter's Threefold Unthinkable Vision
It is hard for us to picture, even less sense, the huge divide between Jewish and Greek culture. The Jews were serious-minded, concerned to obey the law of Moses, and totally committed to eating only the kosher foods (as detailed in Leviticus 11). Romans were committed to the glory of the Roman Empire, and Greeks were easy going, loved lewd performances in their theaters, exercised naked in their gymnasiums and in the Olympics, and loved snails, slugs, eels, octopus, pork, and dozens of other delicacies that were totally forbidden to Jews. How could Peter ever be persuaded to let such people into the Messiah's worldwide church? He was charged with being the gatekeeper who had been given "the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 16:19). He had let in Samaritans who were circumcised and more or less Jews (8:14-17). But until he opened the door, all other nations would remain excluded.
Peter should have remembered a Roman Centurion in Capernaum who asked Jesus to heal his personal servant. Jesus said of him, "Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 8:5, 10-11). That was about to begin happening right then.
10:1-2 Caesarea was one of the coastal cities where Philip had preached (8:40), and Peter had perhaps helped to form a church of the Holy Spirit in that city (9:32, as he had done in Samaria, 8:16-17). The church would have consisted of Greek speaking Jews. It is possible that this Army Captain from Italy had been one of the many "God-fearers" and "devout persons" who were interested in what was read and taught in the Jewish synagogues (as in 13:16, 26). Some of these became converts to Judaism (as in 13:43, 17:4, 17, 18:17). Others read the Old Testament in the Greek Septuagint version (LXX), attended the synagogues, and prayed at home but without being converted to Judaism by submitting to circumcision. Cornelius' faith in God is suggested by the fact that he "prayed constantly" and gave of his income generously to those in need (10:2).
10:3-4 The Messiah wanted to have Cornelius and Peter ready for the momentous change that would be demanded of them. Both were praying (10:2, 9). Roman soldiers liked clear-cut orders, and Cornelius received his orders from a messenger (angel) of God (10:30, "a man in dazzling clothes"). Jews paid attention to visions, and Peter was given a threefold vision and a word from their Messiah (10:10-16). And both of these men addressed the one who spoke to them as Lord (10:4, 14).
10:5-8 Normally we do not receive guidance in the minor details of our life. But for this huge change the centurion had precise instructions for finding Simon called Peter (as in 10:32) in the town of Joppa (see 9:43), and he sent two slaves and "a devout soldier" (see note above). They left immediately and must have traveled most of the night with only a brief rest on the way as the distance to Joppa was 35 miles.
10:9-10 Meanwhile Peter was on the roof of his lodging (9:43) praying. When he became hungry he asked for food to be prepared. But before the food arrived he fell into a trance (ekstasis, standing outside normal consciousness, as in 22:17).
10:11-14 What he saw was a large sheet full of the land and sea animals and birds which were forbidden for Jews to eat (Leviticus 11). Then he was told to get up, and satisfy his hunger by killing and eating these obnoxious animals. It is hard to imagine how horrendous this would have seemed to a devout Jew like Peter. He refused to do this. His "By no means, Lord" echoes his words to Jesus about the way of the cross (Matthew 16:22), and having his feet washed (John 13:8). And he pointed out that never in his life had he ever eaten anything that was forbidden by the Jewish law.
10:15 The vision was repeated but this time with an explanation. "What God has made clean, you must not call profane" The Lord picked up Peter's use of the word "profane" (koinos is here used in the sense of ceremonially impure) and reminded him of what he had said about the idea of impure food. "Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile (koinoo), since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer" (Mark 7:18-19). It is interesting that Mark added the comment to this verse, "Thus he declared all foods clean" perhaps at Peter's dictation a few years after the experience of this vision.
10:16-18 The vision was repeated again, but Peter was still unable to grasp what it might mean. Right then the soldier and two slaves who had left Caesarea the day before (see 10:5-8) arrived at the door. And the Holy Spirit guided him to go down and meet them without hesitation (for guidance by the Spirit see comment on 8:29, as in 11:12, 11:28, 13:2 16:6-7).
10:21-23 When Peter introduced himself to the three men, and they gave the purpose of their visit, Peter invited them into the house and gave them food and a bed for the night. It would not be normal practice among Jews to welcome a Gentile (10:28, John 4:9) to their home, and by taking this step Peter was already sure that the Lord was moving him in this new direction (as he explained in 10:28). The next morning a delegation from the church in Joppa came with Peter to witness this historic occasion.
10:24-43 A Strict Jew talks with a Roman Army Captain
10:24 We can imagine how Peter had to rethink some of the foundations of his Jewish faith during the long overnight walk up the coast to Caesarea (see 10:5-8). What would he say to this heathen army officer who was ruthlessly occupying his country? When he arrived Cornelius had already gathered "his relatives and close friends."
10:25-27 The army Captain tried to fall at Peter's feet to offer him humble worship (worthship). But Peter had to explain (as Paul did in 14:15 that he was not God, only a servant of God's good news). Inside the house "many had assembled" which sounds like more than a few family members and friends (10:24).
10:28-29 Peter began by explaining that, though Jewish traditions did not allow him to associate with a person from another religious background, it was God who had showed him the day before that no one was to be called koinos (impure, as in 10:15) or unclean. That is why he had taken the bold step of accepting Cornelius' invitation.
10:30-33 Cornelius responded by describing the visit of the angel (10:3), the assurance that God had heard his prayers (10:4), and the clear instructions about calling Simon Peter (10:5) who had kindly accepted his invitation. He and the large group (10:27) were gathered "in the presence of God" to hear Peter's instructions (prostasso means to command, as in military orders).
10:34-35 The threefold vision, and the astonishing timing of events had convinced Peter that God makes no distinction among nations (prosopolymptys means one who shows partiality). There were already hints of this in the law of Moses (Genesis 12:3, which speaks of all nations beng blessed through Abraham). "The LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribes, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves strangers (foreign people), providing them food and clothing" (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).
10:36-39 Peter assumes that Cornelius and his family and friends already know something of the good news that was preached by Jesus, the Messiah. He pointed out that what he did was by the Holy Spirit who empowered him to free people from satanic possession (see note on 8:7). And he tells them he was a personal witness of all that Jesus did, and how he was crucified.
10:39-41 As in his previous preaching (2:32, 3:15, 5:30-31), Peter stressed the resurrection appearances, and the fact that in his resurrection body he ate and drank with his disciples (Luke 24:41-43, John 21:9-13).
10:42-43 The prophets had spoken of the Lord as King and Sovereign ruling over the affairs of the nations. He had the power to deliver the dead from sheol (John 5:28-29). And all who turn to him are immediately assured of total forgiveness (as in 2:38).
10:44-48 The First Congregation of Believers who are not Jews is formed in Caesarea
We have noted that on the Day of Pentecost a church was founded which consisted of Hebrew speaking Jewish believers. Luke then explained how a first congregation of Greek speaking believers was formed in Jerusalem (6:1-6). After that a church of the Spirit was founded among the half-Jews of Samaria (8:14-16). We have noted there was probably already a church in Caesarea through the work of Philip (8:40), and it was then organized by Peter (see note on 9:32). But now a congregation of the Spirit suddenly began to function among Greek speaking Roman believers in that city. And it was the momentous step of baptizing them that would enable Paul to establish churches of the Spirit in cities all the way to present-day Croatia (Romans 15:19).
10:44-46 In Samaria Philip first announced the good news, and baptized those who wanted to learn (8:12). Then the apostles came down from Jerusalem to form them into a church of the Spirit (8:14-15). But here among these uncircumcised non-Jewish believers God formed them into a congregation of the Spirit first, and that astonished the Greek speaking Jewish believers from the church in Joppa. There were all the evidences of the gifts of the Spirit being poured out among them (1 Corinthians 12:7-10). How could God do among heathen people what he had only done so far among Jews?
10:47-48 Peter saw that the Spirit was poured out among them (as in 2:17, 33, 8:15-17), and he then took the decisive step of opening the doors of the Kingdom (by the keys given in Matthew 16:19) by baptizing this group of non-Jewish men and women. Some have suggested that baptism should only be "in the name of Jesus the Messiah" but the Great Commission specifies a Trinitarian baptism (Matthew 28:19). What Luke is indicating is the contrast between the baptism of John and Jesus baptism (see John 1:33, 4:1, Acts 19:2-6). From the fact that Peter agreed to stay with them several days, we can imagine that after their baptism Peter was delighted to be able to "open their minds to understand the Scriptures" (as in Luke 24:45).