New Territory – Acts 10:1-23

by Roger McCay
13 October 2019
Sermon Passage: Acts 10:1-23
Link to Audio Version

The 19th century Scottish pastor, Alexander Whyte, in his 6-volume book called Bible Characters, gives a wonderful biographical sketch on Cornelius. Kent Hughes (a pastor/author I like), put me onto this gentleman—and I got all 6-volumes for my Kindle for only $2.99 in about a minute. The things we can do these days … Anyway, in the book, Whyte speaks to the Peter’s vision on the rooftop:

And the vision was this. Cornelius and all his soldiers, devout and indevout, and all his domestic servants, and all the Roman people, good and bad, and all other nations of men on the face of the earth; all mankind, indeed, except Peter and a few of his friends, were bound up together in one abominable bundle. And Peter was standing above them, scouting at and spitting on them all.[1]

Peter, as a devout Jew, had presuppositions concerning Jews and Gentiles that had to be addressed, considered, and redirected. Such was necessary for him to understand and follow the Lord’s commands concerning the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. Peter had to radically move beyond his partiality against Gentiles, a hallmark of his race. As a Jew, his partialities had been ingrained in him from the time he was born. But we mustn’t waste time beating him up for this.

History has shown that mankind has been this way all along. There is a tendency for people to be partial towards their own kind to the exclusion of others. We all have this tendency to some extent. Like Peter, we may truly love the Lord, and be saved by grace. Yet, as sinners living in a sinful world, certain worldly tendencies still nag at us. And partiality, showing favoritism to a person or people due to external appearances, is right at the top of that list. This is why we are admonished in James 2:1: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” Why? Verse 9: “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin.” Indeed, partiality is foreign to the Lord’s nature. Romans 2:11: “For God shows no partiality.”

The Spirit of the Lord is constantly working on us, sanctifying us. In various ways, he brings sinful attitudes we may not have even realized we possessed to the light. He reveals his will to us concerning them. And he helps us consider what the implications are. The Lord forgives us when we repent such sins, and he provides opportunities for obedience along these new lines of understanding.

This process of sanctification, this preparation for obedience, can take a bit of time—even a long time. Hence, Cornelius and Peter, who were prepared over time to one day come together as brothers in Christ.

Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, an Army officer, stationed in Caesarea, a Judean city 70 miles from Jerusalem along the coast. His background was utterly pagan. Yet, along his lifelong journey, the Lord brought him into contact with the Jewish religion, turning his heart towards the living and true God. Cornelius had become a “God-fearer.” James Boice explains:

God-fearers were Gentiles who expressed interest in Judaism and attended worship in the synagogue but who, because they had not yet fully converted to Judaism by circumcision, had to sit in the back as observers rather than as full participants in the community.[2]

While the Jews respected Cornelius, as he was on the right track, they would not have associated with him socially. He remained an uncircumcised Gentile, so, in their mind, he was unclean.

Yet, the Spirit of God was already working in Cornelius’ life, having brought him to worship the true God. Expressions of Cornelius’ faith were his giving of alms and prayer. These were, as the angel states in v. 4, “a memorial before God.” Such language hearkens all the way back to the language of the Torah concerning sacrifices to the Lord. Cornelius’ works were accepted as an offering to God that pleased God. So, he is affirmed here as a true believer and a true worshipper of the true God. Yet, Cornelius needed to take the next step. He needed the gospel of Jesus Christ—the fulfillment of his belief. Hence, Cornelius needed Peter, the Lord’s apostle, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus to him. As a Gentile, he needed Peter to use those keys to the Kingdom much like he used them in Samaria with the Samaritan Pentecost in Acts 8, when the Spirit of God came upon the believers there. Which is why, what follows in Acts 10 is often called the Gentile Pentecost.

Peter also needed Cornelius. Not only had the Lord had been working in Cornelius’ life, bringing him to this point, the Lord had also been working in Peter’s. The concepts the Lord reveals in this passage were not new to Peter. They just needed to come to the surface of his thoughts with an understanding of the implications.

The Lord’s Word was always in the back, even the forefront of his mind—Jesus’ command to take the gospel to the whole world; the teaching in Genesis that the Abrahamic covenant was to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. In his own sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter quoted from the prophet Joel (v. 17) “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh …” Then in v. 21, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’” The Samaritan Pentecost was another step along this journey.

Most recently for Peter, his pastoral journeys in Joppa and Lydda were in largely Gentile territory. Perhaps, Peter, with some promptings by the Spirit, had come to think about the Gentiles now that he was out of Jerusalem. Yet, he needed a nudge to come to grasp the implications of what God tells him on Simon’s roof, “What God has made clean, do not call common (or unclean).” Peter seems to have grasped the point to some extent already, as he was staying with Simon the tanner. A tanner was considered unclean by the Jews due to his coming into constant contact with dead animals. So, a good Jew would never have stayed with a tanner. Yet, Peter, who was a good Jew, his enjoying Simon’s hospitality shows that Peter did not consider Simon unclean. Simon was a believer, washed clean by the blood of Christ. “And what God has made clean, do not call unclean.” Peter understood this principle to a point. However, Simon was also a circumcised Jew. Peter needed a nudge to go the next step to accept the uncircumcised Gentile.

So, while Peter was on the roof praying, at mid-day, hungry and waiting for lunch, the Lord came to him in a vision—Acts 10:11-16:

11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Peter’s own disciple, Mark, made it clear in the Gospel of Mark that the Lord had declared all foods clean in Mark 7:19. So, we have a sure bet that Peter came to understand it this way. Along those lines, the fundamental premise behind Peter’s vision on the rooftop is that God has the right to declare food clean, and God has, indeed, done so. Yet, this was a very difficult concept for the Jewish mind. Which is why Peter, knowing he was talking to the Lord, said, “By no means, Lord.” So, the Lord repeats the vision two more times for emphasis.

The larger implications, considering v. 15 and what follows with Cornelius, were/are that God has declared more than just food clean. Jesus, who fulfilled the law in every part, makes a person clean—holy and acceptable before God. And Jesus is the only way a person can be made clean. With Christ, there was simply no more need for such food purity laws. Likewise, the ceremonial or civil laws of the OT no longer bind believers (which are concepts deserving a separate study). The point is, if God claims an uncircumcised Gentile as his, declaring him clean, who was Peter to argue?

Along those lines, who are we to declare anyone as unclean because they are different than us? Alexander Whyte expounds upon this in relation to Peter’s vision:

All so like ourselves. For, how we also bundle up whole nations of men and throw them into that same unclean sheet. Whole churches that we know nothing about but their bad names that we have given them, are in our sheet of excommunication also. All the other denominations of Christians in our land are common and unclean to us. Every party outside of our own party in the political state also. We have no language contemptuous enough wherewith to describe their wicked ways and their self-seeking schemes. They are four-footed beasts and creeping things. Indeed, there are very few men alive, and especially those who live near us, who are not sometimes in the sheet of our scorn; unless it is one here and one there of our own family, or school, or party.[3]

My friends, the Lord has expressed his will plainly to us in his Scriptures concerning these things. We are not to be partial—whether it be to race, income, political party, education, looks, whatever. God shows no partiality, neither must we. It is a hard thing, because we fight against the thrust of society when we do. This is one of the reasons why my sermon on Acts 4:13-22 is now labeled “The Sermon” by the session, and it has become my most listened to sermon ever. It, in part, addressed this issue of partiality, and some people got upset. But praise God for that! I’d rather people be upset than indifferent. Upset indicates there is life.

As it is, we need to grapple with this sin in our lives. Please know. I am not calling any one of you a racist. That’s a hot-button word, meant to label and offend. People use it as a weapon of hatred and, ironically, to establish and enforce partiality. What I am saying that we all have a tendency towards partiality. It comes with being a sinner in a sinful world. So, we need to identify it, when it crops up, and root it out. Consider Peter, who had just raised a woman from the dead in the power of Christ consider his grappling with this problem: Verses 17-20:

17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”

Three things happened here. Peter grappled with the truth, a truth that made him uncomfortable. And, he grappled with its implications for his own situation. Yet, he did so with a repentant heart. Peter heard God, believed him, recognized his sin, now in repentance was pondering not only what that meant, but what do I do now?

God didn’t leave him hanging. God had made known his will to Peter through his Word, providential circumstances, prayer, and direct revelation. Now, God had led these men, who had travelled thirty miles following Cornelius command, to arrive while Peter was still on the roof pondering the vision. God providentially timed it just so. Peter was at the tipping point, and God nudged him with his toe.

As a result, Peter tipped all the way over in obedience to God. He rose and went down, greeted the Roman soldier and Cornelius’ two servants, asked what then wanted, and then offered them a place to stay for the night (v. 23). The last part shows Peter had figured it out. Such hospitality for a Gentile was something that most Jews would never do.

Cornelius and Peter had been prepared by the Lord to reach the point of obedience that would not only change their lives, but would impact the whole world. With Cornelius’ conversion, which we will, Lord willing, examine next week, the doors to the Kingdom were blown open for everyone who believes in Jesus.

It is a general truth that the Lord prepares his disciples, us, for obedience through providential events, biblical preaching and teaching, personal studies in his word, and providing us with an attitude of repentance, as we grapple with the uncomfortable implications of his will. He guides us with his Word. He providentially arranges for his guidance to be followed. And he provides opportunities for us to obey. We see all that here in this passage.

We further see, in the hospitality shown to these Romans, by Peter, in v. 23 (“So he invited them in to be his guests”) … we see in this hospitality a picture of what the rejection of partialities looks like. And, hospitality is an important theme through Acts. Don’t overlook it here. We have already looked at two aspects of hospitality in Acts—both in relation to other Christians. Ajith Fernando points out these first two as, “having believers over for fellowship and meals and having traveling Christians staying in our homes” (2:46 and 9:43).”[4] We’ll also see a fourth type of hospitality in Acts 18:26, which is having Christians over who have a special need. Here, though, in Acts 10, is a third type of hospitality, which is having non-Christians in our homes, and, as we’ll see next week, staying in the homes of non-Christians.

How might you show such hospitality? Do you interact with non-Christians, or people that are different than you, in a social way? Do you invite them into your home? Do you go over to their home and enjoy their hospitality? Do you put yourselves in situations so that such invitations to hospitality might occur? Are you interacting socially with all sorts of folks in the community and not just folks from the church?

Hospitality is a way we obey the Lord, and is a way we break down the barriers that are not barriers. Seeking out opportunities and expressing hospitality goes a long way towards breaking down that barrier of partiality. It opens doors to you being a light to others for Christ, where they might observe things about you they might never see in any other situation. False concepts will be corrected, and doors to verbal witness will be opened. Don’t you want this?

Whyte states:

It would change your whole heart and life this very night if you would take Peter and Cornelius home with you and lay them both to heart. It would be for a memorial about you before God if you would but do this. If you would take a four-cornered napkin when you go home, and a Sabbath-night pen and ink, and write the names of the nations, and the churches, and the denominations, and the congregations, and the ministers, and the public men, and the private citizens, and the neighbours, and the fellow-worshippers,-all the people you dislike, and despise, and do not, and cannot, and will not, love. Heap all their names into your unclean napkin, and then look up and say, ‘Not so, Lord. I neither can speak well, nor think well, nor hope well, of these people. I cannot do it, and I will not try.’ If you acted out and spake out all the evil things that are in your heart in some such way as that, you would thus get such a sight of yourselves that you would never forget it. And, for your reward, and there is no better reward, like Peter, you would one day come to be able to say, ‘Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons. But in every nation, and church, and denomination, and party of men, and among those I used to think of as four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, God has them that fear Him, and that work righteousness, and that are accepted of Him.’ And then it would go up for a memorial before God, the complete change and the noble alteration that had come to your mind and to your heart. For you would be completely taken captive before God by that charity which vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, thinketh no evil, believeth all things, hopeth all things.[5]

My friends, let us repent our partiality towards others. Let us take steps towards obedience. That is the direction the Lord leads us.

Think about it. Someone took those steps, following the Lord, so that you might get the gospel. Most, if not all, of us here are Gentiles. Let us tear down the barriers to those who are different than us, for Christ, as we follow the Lord. In various ways, the Lord has been preparing us for this all our lives. These sermons in Acts here at MPC are also a part of that.

The Lord has made his will clear. Ponder it, but don’t ponder too long. The lost are knocking at your door. Brothers and sisters in Christ who are different than you are knocking at your door.

Will you rise and go to greet them? Because the Lord calls all sorts of people to follow him, we must overcome partialities for the sake of the gospel.


[1] Alexander Whyte, Bible Characters from the Old and New Testaments: A 6 Volume Set in One Volume (Harrington, DE: Delmarva Publications, 2013), Kindle Edition.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 174.

[3] Whyte, Kindle.

[4] Ajith Fernando, Acts, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 324, fn. 35.

[5] Whyte, Kindle.