by Greg Williamson © revised 2022
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB © The Lockman Foundation*

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Cornelius Calls for Peter; Peter's Vision (Acts 10:1–8; 9–23a) | Peter at Cornelius' House; Peter Explains His Actions (Acts 10:23b-48; 11:1-18)

Cornelius Calls for Peter (Acts 10:1–8)

Religious sinner (Acts 10:1-8)

(1) Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, (2) a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually. (3) About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, "Cornelius!" (4) And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, "What is it, Lord?" And he said to him, "Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. (5) Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; (6) he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea." (7) When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants, (8) and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

  A. His veneration for God (Acts 10:1–2): Though unsaved, Cornelius does good works and seeks after God.
  B. His visitation from God (Acts 10:3–8)
    1. The messenger (Acts 10:3–4): God sends an angel to him.
    2. The message (Acts 10:5–8): Cornelius is told to send men to Joppa and fetch Simon Peter. [ref]

The Range Of The Apostolic Message
■ F. F. Bruce: "The range of the apostolic message has been steadily broadened. Already it has begun to cross the barrier which separated Jews from Gentiles; now the time has come for that barrier to be crossed authoritatively by an apostle. The apostle who crossed it was Peter, the leader of the Twelve; the place where he crossed it was the largely Gentile city of Caesarea. The Gentiles who first heard the gospel from his lips were the family and friends of Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army, belonging to one of the auxiliary cohorts stationed in Judaea." [ref]
■ John Stott: "[W]e who now read Acts 10 remember that Jesus had given Peter 'the keys of the kingdom', although it is Matthew who tells us this, not Luke (Mt. 16:19). And we have already watched him use these keys effectively, opening the kingdom to Jews on the Day of Pentecost and then to Samaritans soon afterwards. Now he is to use them again to open the kingdom to Gentiles; by evangelizing and baptizing Cornelius, the first Gentile convert (cf. Acts 15:7)." [ref]
  • (Act 10:1-8) In Caesarea, "a Hellenistic-style city with a dominant population of Gentiles" [ref], an angel of God visits a devout Gentile God-fearer, a Roman centurion named Cornelius, and instructs him to send for the apostle Peter who at this time is still residing in Joppa with a tanner named Simon.
    ■ Witherington: "It may be said that Luke goes out of his way to make clear that neither Jesus nor his followers were antagonistic toward the Roman presence in the East or elsewhere, and that in fact even Roman soldiers found this new movement appealing and worth joining. This is part of the apologetic Luke is mounting so that Christianity will be more appreciated and accepted by the powers that be, and in general those of power and influence in the Empire." [ref]
    ■ Toussaint: "Cornelius was a centurion, a Roman officer in charge of 100 soldiers, in the Italian Regiment, consisting of 600 soldiers. In the New Testament centurions are consistently viewed in a favorable light (cf. Matt. 8:5–10; 27:54; Mark 15:44–45; Acts 22:25–26; 23:17–18; 27:6, 43). Centurion Cornelius became one of the first Gentiles after Pentecost to hear the good news of Jesus Christ’s forgiveness." [ref]
An Impassable Gulf
John Stott:
It is difficult for us to grasp the impassable gulf which yawned in those days between the Jews on the one hand and the Gentiles (including even the 'God-fearers') on the other. Not that the Old Testament itself countenanced such a divide. On the contrary, alongside its oracles against the hostile nations, it affirmed that God had a purpose for them. By choosing and blessing one family, he intended to bless all the families of the earth (Gn. 12:1-4). So psalmists and prophets foretold the day when God's Messiah would inherit the nations, the Lord's servant would be their light, all nations would 'flow' to the Lord's house, and God would pour out his Spirit on all humankind (Ps. 2:7-8; 22:27-28; Is. 2:1ff.; Is. 42:6; 49:6; Joel 2:28ff). The tragedy was that Israel twisted the doctrine of election into one of favouritism, became filled with racial pride and hatred, despised Gentiles as 'dogs', and developed traditions which kept them apart. No orthodox Jew would ever enter the home of a Gentile, even a God-fearer, or invite such into his home (see Acts 10:28). On the contrary, 'all familiar intercourse with Gentiles was forbidden' and 'no pious Jew would of course have sat down at the table of a Gentile' (Edersheim).

This, then was the entrenched prejudice which had to be overcome before Gentiles could be admitted into the Christian community on equal terms with Jews, and before the church could become a truly multi-racial, multi-cultural society. We saw in Acts 8 the special steps God took to prevent the perpetuation of the Jewish-Samaritan schism in the church; how would he prevent a Jewish-Gentile schism? Luke regards this episode as being so important that he narrates it twice, first in his own words (Acts 10), and then in Peter's when the latter explained to the Jerusalem church what had happened (Acts 11:1-18). [ref]
  • (Acts 10:2) Luke notes Cornelius's reputation for being devout (a devout man and one who feared God with all his household), generous (gave many alms to the Jewish people), and pious (prayed to God continually).
    ■ Polhill: "[Cornelius] was described as performing two of the three main acts of Jewish piety -- prayer and almsgiving. (Only fasting is not mentioned.) In short, his devotion to God put him well on the way, preparing him for receiving the gospel and for the full inclusion in God's people that he could not have found in the synagogue." [ref]
    ■ Toussaint: "From the description of Cornelius ... it can be inferred he was not a full-fledged proselyte to Judaism (he had not been circumcised, Acts 11:3), but he did worship Yahweh. Evidently he attended the synagogue and to the best of his knowledge and ability followed the Old Testament Scriptures. Nevertheless, he had not entered into New Testament salvation (cf. Acts 11:14)." [ref]
  • (Acts 10:3-4) The angel of God tells Cornelius that his prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. (One source "suggests that his prayers and alms were accepted by God 'in lieu of the sacrifices which he was not allowed to enter the Temple to offer himself.'" [ref]) Polhill:
    Cornelius was keeping one of the three traditional Jewish times of prayer, the afternoon hour of 3 p.m., which coincided with the Tamid sacrifice in the temple. God's agent was an angel who appeared to him in a vision. Frequently in Luke-Acts God used prayer time as the opportunity for leading to new avenues of ministry (Luke 3:21f.; 6:12–16; 9:18–22, 28–31; 22:39–46; Acts 1:14; 13:1–3). Prayer is a time for opening oneself up to God, thus enabling his leading. Visions occur frequently in Acts as a vehicle of divine leading, which illustrates that the major advances in the Christian witness are all under divine direction (cf. Acts 9:10, 12; 10:3, 17, 19; 11:5; 16:9–10; 18:9; 27:23, 25). [ref]
The More Light Principle
William Larkin:
What we see emerging to this point is the basic outline of the "more light" principle of God's redemptive mercy (compare Lk 8:18; 19:26). Cornelius has responded in faith and obedience to the "light" he has received, as evidenced by his piety. He fears the one true God, prays to him regularly and acts in love to the needy among God's people. Such obedience is not a "works righteousness" that earns salvation. This we can see by God's response. He does not declare Cornelius saved. Rather, he grants him "more light" by which he and his household may be saved (Acts 11:14). God's response is embodied in a command to send for the messenger who carries the gospel, the essential "more light" (Acts 4:12). What have we done with the light we have received?

The angel tells Cornelius to send to Joppa, thirty miles south, and fetch Simon who is called Peter from the house of Simon the tanner, located by the sea (a good water supply was needed for the tanning trade). God deals with Cornelius this way to demonstrate that salvation comes to all people in the same divinely commanded and enabled way: through human messengers who proclaim the gospel (Lk 24:47).

We need to constantly remind ourselves of this, whether we are considering the claims of the gospel and are tempted to wait for some extraordinary experience, or whether having received it and become a witness to it we are tempted to become lax in evangelism, thinking that there may be other ways God will save people. [ref]
  • (Acts 10:5-8) The angel instructs Cornelius to send for the apostle Peter, and Cornelius responds to the command by sending "his most trustworthy attendants" (two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants) "to go to Joppa and seek Peter." [ref] Peterson: "These were clearly men to whom he could give an account of the revelation he had received and whom he could trust to carry out the angelic command." [ref]


Peter's Vision (Acts 10:9–23a)

Reluctant soulwinner (Acts 10:9-23a)

(9) On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. (10) But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; (11) and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, (12) and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. (13) A voice came to him, "Get up, Peter, kill and eat!" (14) But Peter said, "By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean." (15) Again a voice came to him a second time, "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." (16) This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.

(17) Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon's house, appeared at the gate; (18) and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there. (19) While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are looking for you. (20) But get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself." (21) Peter went down to the men and said, "Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?" (22) They said, "Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you." (23) So he invited them in and gave them lodging.

  A. The three visions upstairs (Acts 10:9–17a): Peter receives a vision that is repeated three times.
    1. The contents (Acts 10:9–12): He sees a great canvas sheet descending from heaven, filled with all kinds of unclean animals.
    2. The command (Acts 10:13–16)
      a. God’s order (Acts 10:13): “Kill and eat them.”
      b. Peter’s objection (Acts 10:14): “Never, Lord, I have never in all my life eaten anything forbidden by our Jewish laws.”
      c. God’s overrule (Acts 10:15–16): “If God says something is acceptable, don’t say it isn’t.”
    3. The confusion (Acts 10:17a): Peter wonders what all this means.
  B. The three visitors downstairs (Acts 10:17b–23): Just then the men from Cornelius arrive and request that Peter accompany them to Caesarea. [ref]
  • (Acts 10:9-17a) As the men sent by Cornelius make their way to Simon the tanner's house in Joppa, at about noon (the sixth hour) the apostle Peter climbs the outside steps leading up to the roof, which "provides solitude, possibly an awning for shade, and the refreshment of breezes off the Mediterranean." [ref] There he has a vision (he fell into a trance) in which something like a large sheet or tablecloth [ref] containing "quadrupeds, reptiles, and birds, both fit and unfit for food according to Jewish law and custom" [ref] is lowered down from heaven, accompanied by a voice commanding Peter to kill and eat the creatures. Peter adamantly refuses. This happens a total of three times and leaves Peter thoroughly perplexed as to exactly what the vision means. Larkin: "Is [Peter] confused by an evident divine contradiction, a heavenly voice commanding him to disregard food laws that God had given Moses for Israel? Or is he wondering what significance this boundary abolition will have for his identity and behavior as a Jewish Christian?" [ref]
The Place Of Prayer
Ajith Fernando:
Prayer gets us in tune with God and therefore receptive to his leading. At such times, God can speak to us. He may speak through a strong impression that comes into the mind while we are at prayer. He may speak through a message given in a prophecy-type utterance. He may guide a leader of a group after a prayer time to say something that opens the door to something unusual. For example, Samuel Mills (1783-1818) led his four fellow students at Williams College, Massachusetts, during the now famous haystack prayer meeting and propelled North American Protestants into foreign missions. In other words, prayer is a key to Christian planning methodology.

We should be warned that when we are seeking to discern God's will on an issue, we must never substitute dependence on direct communications from God for serious study of Scripture and of existing situations. Often God does not communicate his will to us directly because he wants us to grapple with the situation and with what the Scriptures say about it. This grappling can be an enriching experience that contributes to our growth to maturity. It helps give us a Christian worldview and develops what Harry Blamires calls "a Christian mind." On such occasions there is a greater likelihood that the lessons learned will go deep into our minds, as they did here in Peter's mind.

It is significant that Peter went to pray at noon (Acts 10:9). Though there are instances of devout people praying at this time (Ps. 55:17), it was not one of the prescribed times of prayer for the Jews. Peter was obviously a person of prayer, who looked for suitable times and places (like the rooftop) to pray. In our day when research and expert advice seem to be the keys to strategic planning, we must not forget that more primary is the key of leaders who know what it is to be silent before God. I have traveled with leaders who are so out of touch with the discipline of lingering in the presence of God that, even when they have the time in their travels, they find it difficult to stop and pray. Their workaholism has made them lose their thirst for prayer. Such people must not be permitted to be leaders of God's people. [ref]

Creeping Things
H. A. Ironside: "What a remarkable picture! It shows how God can now receive in grace all kinds of men and women. I have heard my mother tell that when my own dear father was dying, this passage was running through his mind and he kept repeating, 'A great sheet and wild beasts, and— and— and... ' He could not seem to get the next word but went back and started over, and once more came to that same place. A friend bent over and whispered, 'John, it says, "creeping things."' 'Oh, yes,' he said, 'that is how I got in. Just a poor good-for-nothing creeping thing, but I got in— saved by grace.' No matter how low, vile or utterly useless and corrupt or unclean, the soul that trusts Jesus is in the sheet let down from heaven and will have a place in glory by and by." [ref]
  • (Acts 10:9-10) Bruce: "Peter had to be prepared for the encounter as well as Cornelius, and there were scruples to be overcome on Peter's side as there were not on Cornelius's. A God-fearing Gentile like Cornelius had no objection to the society of Jews, but even a moderately orthodox Jew would not willingly enter the dwelling of a Gentile, God-fearer though he might be. No doubt some of Peter's inherited scruples were weighing less heavily with him by this time, but to make him accept an invitation to visit a Gentile a special revelation was necessary." [ref]
  • (Acts 10:11-13) Keener: "Even Palestinian Jews most lenient in other regards kept kosher. By conservative standards, any animals that were clean by themselves would have been contaminated by contact with the unclean animals. Thus this vision would present a horrifying situation for any first century Palestinian Jew (and the vast majority of foreign Jews as well): God commands Peter to eat all these animals, some of which are unclean, forbidden creatures. Hungry he may be (Acts 10:10), but he is not that hungry!" [ref]
  • (Acts 10:14-16)
    ■ Bruce: "The divine cleansing of food in the vision is a parable of the divine cleansing of human beings in the incident to which the vision leads up. It did not take Peter long to understand this: 'God has taught me,' he says later in the present narrative, 'to call no human being profane or unclean'" (Acts 10:30). [ref]
    ■ Lenski: "All the old Mosaic regulations were to make Israel a separate people and prevent their intermingling with the pagans who surrounded them. They all served to preserve Israel and its treasured promises lest these latter be dissipated and lost. This was done, of course, in the interest of Israel but equally in the interest of the Gentile world, for the preservation was made for the sake of the human race. After the fulfillment had been wrought through Christ, its blessings were to go out to all nations." [ref]
Lord Of All Or Not Lord At All
H. A. Ironside: "Notice the contradiction implied in that first expression. 'Not so, Lord.' The Lord had commanded [Peter] to do a thing— and in the one breath he acknowledged Him as 'Lord' and in the next he refused to do as he was commanded. I wonder if some of us are like this. We know what His will is for our lives, we confess Him with our lips as 'Lord'; but we draw back from full obedience and say, 'Not so, Lord.' What a strange, incongruous thing this is! If He is not Lord of all, He is not Lord at all! And if He is Lord, it is not for us to say, 'Not so,' but to give Him whole-hearted obedience." [ref]

What God Has Cleansed
R. C. Sproul:
Peter's vision was not about food or animals; it was about people. Through the remainder of Acts 10 Luke will show why God repealed the dietary laws. It was to show that the unclean were being gathered together and made clean by Christ. We all start this life unclean, and in some respects we are still unclean, but if we have confessed Christ and put our hope and trust in Him alone for salvation, then He is in us and we are in Him. If that relationship exists in your life right now, do not let anybody call you unclean, because God has declared you clean. That is what justification is all about.

God has removed your impurities from His sight and given you access into His presence. He knows the sin that remains in you, but if you have put yourself at the feet of Christ, He has embraced you and adopted you into His family. Others may call you unclean, but remember that God said to Peter, "What God has cleansed you must not call common." That is the mystery Luke is speaking of, that we, who by nature are unclean, have been declared clean by God. When God declares us clean, we are clean in His sight. [ref]
  • (Acts 10:17b-23a) Cornelius's men arrive and inform Peter of Cornelius's vision. Witherington: "[Acts 10:22] reiterates what the hearer of the story already knows, except for three new additions: (1) Cornelius is said to be upright, (2) he is said to be well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, (3) Peter is being summoned so Cornelius can hear what he has to say." [ref] Peter invites the men to spend the night before setting out the following day. Bruce: "For Peter to entertain these Gentiles in his lodgings was a step in the right direction, although it did not expose him to such a risk of defilement as would a Jew's acceptance of hospitality in a Gentile's house." [ref]
Grappling With The Uncomfortable
Ajith Fernando:
In [Acts 10:17, 19] Peter was grappling intensly regarding the meaning of the vision when the Holy Spirit spoke to him. At first Peter vehemently refused to be open to change, as is expressed by his cry, "Surely not, Lord!" (Acts 10:14). He had strong convictions. But when he sensed that God was indeed teaching him something new, he seriously considered the implications of the vision. Thus, both divine guidance and Peter's willingness to grasp what God was showing him combined to produce a change in his thinking, even though it was something he was uncomfortable with. A passion for obedience makes God's servants open to changes with which they may at first be uncomfortable.

God found in Peter a person who was open to living with the uncomfortable. That helped him to be open to God's surprises. This openness is seen earlier in that he stayed in the home of a tanner. Peter had already left his "comfort zone" because of his commitment to ministry, and this made him open to more of God's revelations. [ref]
  • (Acts 10:19-20) As Peter is reflecting on the vision, the Spirit tells him that there are three men looking for him and that he is to accompany them without misgivings because (for) the Spirit himself has sent them to Peter.
    ■ Stott: "The key expression meden diakrinomenos in [Acts 10:20] and meden diakrinanta in [Acts 11:12] is usually translated 'without hesitation' (RSV) or 'without misgiving' (JBP, NEB), but it could mean 'making no distinction' (Acts 11:12, RSV), that is, 'making no gratuitous, invidious distinction between Jew and Gentile' (Alexander). Thus, although the vision challenged the basic distinction between clean and unclean foods, which Peter had been brought up to make, the Spirit related this to the distinction between clean and unclean people, and told him to stop making it. That Peter grasped this is clear from his later statement: 'God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean' (Acts 10:28)." [ref]
    ■ Larkin: "[T]oday if we would understand God's Word, especially where it challenges our prejudices, we too must wrestle with its meaning and its implications. We may expect to understand it more and more fully as we obey it more and more readily." [ref]
Breaking Down Barriers
William Barclay:

A missionary tells how once he officiated at a communion service in Africa. Beside him as an elder sat an old chief of the Ngoni called Manly-heart. The old chief could remember the days when the young warriors of the Ngoni had left behind them a trail of burned and devastated towns and come home with their spears red with blood and with the women of their enemies as booty. And what were the tribes which in those days they had ravaged? They were the Senga and the Tumbuka. And who were sitting at that communion service now? Ngoni, Senga and Tumbuka were sitting side by side, their enmities forgotten in the love of Jesus Christ. In the first days it was characteristic of Christianity that it broke the barriers down; and it can still do that when given the chance. [ref]

Potential Heirs Of Grace
R. Kent Hughes: "Do we see those around us as potential heirs of grace? Do we view those who are different from us and who do things we do not approve of as candidates for the kingdom? Our attitude makes all the difference. If we are anti-Semitic, we will never lead a Jew to Christ. If we have written off a relative, he or she may be written off for eternity. If we are elitists, most of the rest of the world will never experience grace through us. I like C. S. Lewis's statement: 'Next to the blessed sacrament, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.'" [ref]


*Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, © Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.