1. There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment,
Now we are introduced to a certain man who is going to play an important role in the next two chapters. The Holy Spirit in concise form gives us a list of facts about this man. He was lodging in Caesarea. His name was Cornelius. This is a Latin name meaning “Of a Horn.” His occupation was that he was a centurion in the Roman army. A centurion was the captain over a hundred men, but in an army of occupation like this, without a large number of other soldiers around, a centurion was often the highest ranking soldier in a large area, and so had almost unlimited power and authority over his jurisdiction. Therefore, this was a powerful man indeed. Moreover, he was a centurion belonging to what was called the Italian Regiment. Since Rome was in Italy, this regiment was a prestigious one, being made up of Romans. Thus, he was a centurion of no unimportant regiment.
2. a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.
Now we have listed facts about Cornelius’ character. We find out that he was a devout man. He feared God, and he did not fear Him only in private. This faith spread, so that all the members of his household feared God along with him. Thus he was not a man who kept silent about his faith, but shared it with others, and influenced others to fear God along with him. He was also a good and generous man, who gave alms to the people. As a Roman soldier, he was stationed in the land of Israel, and he had ample opportunity to see the dire straits that many of the Israelites were in. Their economy was very poor, and many of them were in abject poverty. This moved Cornelius’ heart, and he gave generously to these poor people. On top of all this, he prayed to God always. Common practice in his day would have been to pray to many different gods, hoping to hit upon the right one, or one that might give you what you wanted. Yet Cornelius did not pray like this. He prayed only to the one, true God, and he did not change his mind and pray to some other god if his requests did not get answered as he wanted them to. Thus he was a God-fearing man, not just in appearance, but in truth.
Some have tried to make out that Cornelius was actually a Jew, but one who had joined up with the Roman army. Yet this is ludicrous. Remember that at this time Israel was an occupied territory. The Roman army was an army of occupation, and the hatred of the average Israelite for the Romans was similar to that of the French for their German occupiers in World War II. The Jews hated and despised the tax collectors, who were usually Jews who were turncoats and collected taxes for the Roman Empire. How much more would they have hated a Jew who actually dared to enlist in the occupying force of the Roman army? Such a one was a traitor to his own people, not to mention his God. No such person would ever be called “a devout man,” or “one who feared God.” This is an utterly impossible idea.
Some have likewise suggested that Cornelius was a proselyte, yet this too makes little sense and is without evidence. It seems very unlikely that the Jews would consent to bring a member of the occupying army into their religion. They would hardly welcome him with open arms. Moreover, his commanders would look down on him identifying like this with the people he was supposed to be policing.
The fact is that Cornelius was one of many whom in the Bible we could name as God-fearers, who nevertheless were not part of Israel. Abimelech is one such man in Genesis 20. He claimed before God that his was a righteous nation, and God did not argue with him, but acknowledges his integrity. Abimelech was not a proselyte, for at that time there was no nation of Israel to become a proselyte to. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, the priest of Midian, is another such man, one who served the true God and gave his son-in-law Godly advice in Exodus 18. The man Naaman the Syrian became a God-fearer in II Kings 5. There are many others as well that we might name who feared God, yet were not members of the nation of Israel. Cornelius was one of this company. As Peter himself said in Acts 10:35, “in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.”
3. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!”
An amazing event happened to Cornelius on this day, at what we would call three o’clock in the afternoon. They called this “the ninth hour of the day,” since they counted daylight hours and nighttime hours in their time reckoning. The ninth hour was a time of prayer in the temple, and it seems perhaps that Cornelius had adopted the customs of the people among whom he was living, for he was praying at this time. We do not learn that here, but rather later on in Cornelius’ explanation of what happened in verse 30.
Now at this time Cornelius is given a vision. Since this was a vision he saw, we know that it was not a reality. The difference is as if I saw a vision of my car, as opposed to seeing my car. If I saw my car, I could get in and drive it, but in a vision of my car, I could not. So what he saw was a vision. Yet it was no less real for that, for this vision was in fact a message from God. Thus the truth that it was not a physical reality is not of major importance.
Now in this vision Cornelius sees an angel of God coming in to him. In Greek, the word angel or aggelos means “messenger.” This messenger begins by calling this man’s name, “Cornelius!”
4. And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?”
So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God.
From Cornelius’ reaction, we can be assured that this was no earthly messenger that God had sent to Cornelius. This was a heavenly messenger of God, coming to give Cornelius God’s message. When he saw the angel, Cornelius was afraid. This was often the reaction of those who saw angels! Yet he responds to the messenger, and asks him, “What is it, lord?” The word “lord” here is kurie in Greek, the same word that is often translated “Lord” with a capital “L.” Here, it is used as a term of respect, meaning “Master” or “Sir,” as we might say it.
The angel then gives him God’s message to him, which is immediately an encouraging one. He is told that his prayers and his alms, that is, his generous gifts to the people of Israel, have come up for a memorial before God. A memorial is a reminder, and God has been reminded of the kind of man Cornelius is by these things that have come up before him. Now, God has decided to act, and so He has sent this messenger to Cornelius to let him know what God has decided to do for his benefit. Cornelius was a God-fearing man before this. Now, he is to be given an opportunity for faith in the Lord Jesus. He was a man blessed by God indeed!
5. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter.
Now the angel of God gives Cornelius very explicit instructions as to what exactly he is to do. He is to send men to Joppa to find a man there. He is only to send them, not to go himself. They are to go to a Simon who is surnamed Peter. Cornelius is to send for this man, meaning he should request that Peter come to him.
The two words for “send” and “send for” here are both forms of the Greek word pempo, which means a simple sending, rather than apostello, which means to send with authority. The emphasis here is on him actually physically sending them there, rather than upon the authority to act in his name that he will give them.
6. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.”
Now he is told where in Joppa Peter will be found. He is lodging as a guest with another man also named Simon. Two Simons makes things a little confusing, but Cornelius had to be an intelligent man to be a leader, and he could keep these things straight. This second Simon is a tanner, whose house is by the sea. This would be so the sea breezes could carry the foul smells of animal carcasses away from the city. Nevertheless, everyone in town would know where the tanner lived, that is, if Cornelius’ men could not just find the house by following their noses to the smell!
The angel’s directions end here. He tells Cornelius that this Simon Peter will tell him what he must do. For further instructions, he must await Peter’s arrival.
7. And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually.
When the angel who spoke to Cornelius departed, he did not waste time carrying out his instructions. He did not call his entire household together to discuss the amazing vision he had just seen, and to discuss together what must be done. He was a man of action, being a soldier and an officer, and knew that such important orders could not be kept waiting. Thus, he called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. No doubt these were men he believed to be particularly trustworthy and suited to the task, as well as being wholehearted in their devotion to the true God as he was.
8. So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.
To these men Cornelius explains what has happened, for they will need to know the nature of the mission they are being sent on. Then, once they have their orders, he sends them to Joppa.
The word “send” here is a form of the word apostello, which means to send with authority or to commission. This is because the emphasis here is on the fact that he sent them with his authority to act in his behalf, and not just on the fact that he was sending them. These men, then, became Cornelius’ apostles.
9. The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour.
The next day, the men are on their journey and are drawing near to the city of Joppa. Now, our attention turns to Peter. He is as yet unaware of these men or their mission to see him. Now, the Lord is going to prepare him for his part in this meeting, a meeting which Peter himself did not know was coming. Thus the Lord prepares both ends to meet each other and to bring about His will. He is working and active in all of this. These are the kinds of things God does under His government, orchestrating events according to His will.
Peter, as yet unaware of the men who are traveling to meet him that very day, goes up on the housetop. The houses would become very hot with the sun beating down on them during the day, so he probably went up on the housetop to enjoy the breeze. There, he is planning to pray, for the sixth hour was one of prayer. As we have discussed earlier, the times of prayer were the third hour or nine o’clock in the morning, the sixth hour or noon, and the ninth hour or three o’clock in the afternoon. Though Peter did not now have access to the temple, being away from Jerusalem, he still utilizes the noon hour as a time of prayer.
10. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance
One thing about the noon hour is that it is very close to the time for the mid-day meal. Thus, while Peter is on the housetop, he becomes very hungry and wants to eat. This is the time for hunger, but it may be that God had a hand in this, and Peter became hungry faster and more keenly than he normally would have, in order to set up this vision. Thus it seems that Peter requests food, and those in the house below start to prepare it. While they are still making ready, however, Peter falls into a trance. The Lord is about to speak to him, and He grabs his full attention.
11. and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth.
In his trance, Peter sees heaven opened. The word is singular here, and probably means the sky. From the heaven, he sees an object or vessel descending to him and let down to the earth. This vessel is described as being like a great sheet. Yet we would get the wrong idea if we think of just a bed sheet. The idea is of a great sail, as they would have on a ship in the Mediterranean. These sails were generally square, and made of a single large piece of cloth. This is not just a sail of normal size, either, but a great sail. This was a very large vessel indeed. The sail is bound or tied up at the four corners. You can see that this would make a very good cloth container. Anyone who has a cloth handkerchief could demonstrate this by bringing the four corners together and tying them.
12. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air.
As the vessel descends Peter can peer into it and see what is inside. What appear to his eyes are all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and bird of the air. There are many varieties of creatures but, as we will learn later in the passage, what all these animals have in common is that they are creatures which are declared to be unclean in the law of Moses.
13. And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
Now in his vision Peter hears a voice coming to him. The voice calls him by name, and commands him to rise, kill and eat. In other words, he is encouraged to make a meal and to satisfy his hunger off this vessel full of animals.
14. But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”
Peter recognizes this voice as coming from the Lord. Yet even so he is appalled at its message. Peter well knew the law. He knew what was written there, in Leviticus 11.
1. Now the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them, 2. “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘These are the animals which you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth: 3. Among the animals, whatever divides the hoof, having cloven hooves and chewing the cud—that you may eat.
These were God’s laws regarding which animals could be eaten, and which could not be eaten. The rule was that animals that have cloven hooves and chew the cud are permissible to eat. However, there were exceptions to this, as the following verses reveal.
4. Nevertheless these you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves: the camel, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; 5. the rock hyrax, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; 6. the hare, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; 7. and the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you.
The exceptions are those animals that do one or the other, but not both. Thus, pigs, rabbits, and such like are unclean. What this means is spelled out clearly in the next verse.
8. Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch. They are unclean to you.
This reiterates what was said in verse 2, as well as specifying that they are not to touch the carcasses of these unclean animals. The passage goes on to define what are clean and unclean animals among fish and water-dwelling animals, among birds or flying animals, and among insects. However, we need not examine these for now. Suffices it to say that every Israelite knew these laws, and knew what animals they were able to eat, and what animals they were not allowed to eat.
Thus, we cannot blame Peter at all when he protests against the command he is given in this vision. When he protests that he has never eaten anything common or unclean, he is only declaring his strict adherence to the law of Moses which every Israelite was to honor and obey. Peter was a man born in Israel and born under the law. From his childhood he had been brought up to keep the dietary laws God gave the people of Israel, and he had never violated them. Never before has any unclean food touched his lips. How, then, can the Lord now be commanding him to kill and eat?
The word for “unclean” here is akathartos, and has previously in the New Testament only been used of unclean spirits. From this point on, it is only used of unclean things or people, until the book of Revelation, where it is again used of unclean spirits.
15. And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”
The voice from the Lord speaks again, admonishing Peter for his protest. What God has cleansed, Peter must not call common. God’s decision rules over all, even over laws that He Himself made in the past. He was the One Who instituted them, and He is the one Who can set them aside again.
Some people jump in and tell us that God was here declaring all foods to be clean. Yet these are not careful to examine the passage. We must not be guilty of ignoring the context, or promoting interpretations that do not take into account the whole story as it is given in this passage. To declare all foods clean is not the point of this vision. We will see what the true message of the vision is as we come to it later in the passage.
16. This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
The vision was not given only once. Instead, it was repeated three times. This gave the whole vision the most solemn emphasis, and showed that God had most emphatically made the decision that the vision was declaring to be true. Then, once the three repetitions are complete, the vessel with the animals in it is taken up into the sky once again. Thus the vision is complete. Yet what the interpretation of it is we have yet to determine.
17. Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate.
Now Peter knows that he has been given a message from God. Yet the exact meaning of the message is unclear to him. The words “wondered within himself” indicate that he was most perplexed as to the meaning of this vision. In Peter’s mind, it was not so straightforward as declaring all meats clean, as many try to make it out to mean. Instead, this vision had a far greater significance. So Peter knew that God had made a decision, one that went against what Peter had formerly thought about things clean and unclean, and one that called upon Peter to not call common what God had cleansed. Yet what had God cleansed? What was it He wanted Peter to do? This was as yet unclear to him.
Now is at this very time the men who had been sent from Cornelius arrive in the city and make careful inquiry as to the location of Simon’s house. They are following God’s instructions, and do not want to get the wrong house. Having been directed to Simon the tanner’s, they stand before the gate even as Peter ponders what his vision could mean. God has worked this all out according to His timing, and His plan and design.
18. And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there.
Now the men standing at the gate call to those within and ask whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, is lodging there. Remember, this is what their explicit instructions told them: that they would find this man at Simon the tanner’s house, but the man they were actually looking for was another Simon named Peter. Thus they ask whether they are indeed at the right place, and if Simon Peter is lodging there.
19. While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are seeking you.
While the men are asking this question at the gate of the house, Peter is still thinking about the vision on the roof. Now, the Spirit speaks to Peter again. Peter is not expected to come up with his own interpretation of the vision and to act upon it. No, he is told exactly what the vision means. There are still those today who try to come up with their own interpretation of Peter’s vision, as we said above, ignoring what the Spirit says here. This was the point of the vision, not something about foods.
20. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.”
The Spirit urges Peter to arise in view of these men seeking him. He is to go down to them, and to go with them. In spite of the fact that doubts are sure to arise in his mind when he sees that these men are Gentiles, those he would have considered unclean before he saw this vision, he is not to entertain those doubts. Instead, he is to go in the confident knowledge that the Spirit Himself had sent them. If God had sent them, then there was no room for doubt, for He always knows what He is doing.
The word for “sent” here is apestalka, a form of the word apostello. This tells us that these men were not just sent by God, but were sent with His authority to call for Peter and to bring him back with them. The Lord had given them this authority, and so Peter had no right to ignore it or to do anything but obey.
Bullinger believes that “the Spirit” here is actually the angel of verse three, and he thinks this is proven by the fact that He says “I have sent them” here. Yet the angel was sent by God as surely as the vision to Peter was. God could send men through an angel just as easily as He could send them through a message from a prophet, or directly through Christ. This is still God sending them. It is no less God’s work just because He does it through a mediator rather than directly. Thus there is no reason to believe that this is anything but the Spirit of God speaking here.