Summary: I preach expository messages, and this is the eighteenth in my series on the Book of Acts.
September 9, 2007
Word association: “opening doors”. Did “Maxwell Smart” come to any of your minds? He does mine; the familiar opening of “Get Smart” featured, of course, Agent 86 doing something that we do now without thinking twice about it. I mean, when the doors opened automatically for Maxwell Smart, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, but now, when I go to Publix, they open automatically for me! This chapter is all about opening doors. This was terminology that we’ll see Paul using in a few chapters, how God had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. This door begins to crack open in today’s text.
• Background: Resistance of Jews to the idea of Gentiles coming to faith “just as I am”; ingrained in them was the idea that Gentiles, if they were to find their way to God, had to come first through the “door of Judaism”.
• It was God Himself, though, Who opened that door.
• It was Peter, leader of the Jerusalem apostles, and not Paul, who was the human instrument in the opening of this door. In fact, Christ had given to Peter the “keys to the Kingdom” (Matthew 16:19), and he’d used them to open the doors of the Kingdom to Jews on the Day of Pentecost and to Samaritans soon afterwards; now, he opens those doors to Gentiles in this episode.
• Ultimately, the Jerusalem church had to accept these Gentiles, since they had received the Holy Spirit as they were. The church invented multiculturalism, as people from every tribe, tongue, and nation have eventually been gathered into her fold.
• Caesarea had been a bit of a backwater town, located 65 miles northwest of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean, that is until Herod the Great came to power; he changed all that, transforming the harbor of Caesarea into a first-class affair, dredging the harbor, building a breakwater, importing fresh water via stately Roman aqueducts, and so on. The village he transformed into the provincial capital, with amphitheater and a magnificent Roman temple in honor of Rome and Augustus.
• Something else about Caesarea: it was hated by Jews, being more Gentile than Jewish in population and outlook; though it was part of the province of Judea, it was spoken of as though it weren’t even part of Judea at all, much like I speak of Massachusetts. Several decades after today’s narrative, riots broke out in Caesarea between Jews and Gentiles, and the historian Josephus claims that the Gentiles massacred Caesarea’s entire Jewish population in A.D. 66.
Notice the first open door:
I. The Door to Cornelius’ Heart: Open
Cornelius was a common name, likely a descendant of a slave freed by Cornelius Sulla; all the freedmen took the name of Cornelius in honor of their benefactor. This Cornelius was a man who worked his way up through the ranks to achieve the rank roughly equivalent to our “captain”, a man responsible for up to 600 Roman soldiers.
Cornelius was a devout, God-fearing man of prayer and good deeds (:2). He recognized, in other words, that there was a Godward dimension to faith, and a person-ward side as well. This wasn’t unusual; there were many such so-called “God-fearers”, Gentiles who familiarized themselves with the worship of YHWH, some of whom attended the synagogue, prayed, kept the Sabbath, and even observed some Jewish dietary regulations. Further, these words are applied to Cornelius’ whole household, suggesting that this was a man who influenced and led his family to fear God. One sentence-worth here: this illustrates the critical role of the father/husband in the home to set the godly example for the entire family. He rejected the empty pagan worship that was common in Rome, and set out to sincerely worship the real God, and to honor Him by living morally and giving to the poor.