Summary: How Peter’s vision changed the outreach of the church.

A Study of the Book of Acts

Sermon # 20

“A Vision that Changed the World”

Acts 10:1-33

God had called the people of Israel to a special relationship with Him so that they might be His people, his witnesses, His missionaries to the rest of the world. God had entrusted them with His Word so that they could tell the rest of the world about Him. They were to be witness that God is, that God exists and that men are to worship and serve Him and Him alone. But somewhere along the way the Jews had forgotten their purpose, instead of proclaiming God they had created barriers between themselves and the rest of the world.

The Jews had come to believe that salvation was not just “of the Jews” and had been brought to pass through a Jew – the Lord Jesus Christ, but also believed that salvation was primarily “for the Jews.”

It was into such a world that church was born. The Apostle Peter, as a good Jew, had been taught, not to have anything to do with a Gentile. If he touched one even accidentally on the street he would have to go home and wash. It is easy to see what this attitude, if carried over into the church, would have done to the spread of the gospel. Large areas of the world would have written off as being beyond the grace of God. All of us as Gentile believers would be without Christ.

But you will recall that Peter has been drawn by the Holy Spirit’s guidance from one human need to another until he ended up in the city of Joppa at the house of Simon the tanner. God had begun to progressively lead Peter away from his man-made legalist attitude. The very fact that Peter was willing to stay in the home of Simon the tanner was evidence of the softening of his legalist spirit. While God was drawing Peter away from his prejudice, He was drawing another man toward Him and ultimately toward Peter.


vv. 1-8

“There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian 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. (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!” (4) And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” (5) So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. (5) Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. (6) He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.” (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. (8) So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.”

Cornelius was a military man, a member of a regiment that was made up of freedmen from Italy and who were rewarded with Roman citizenship in recognition of their valor as soldiers. A centurion was a non-commissioned officer, perhaps equivalent to today’s rank of captain, who commanded a group of about 100 soldiers.

Cornelius is portrayed as a godly man. We are told that he is “devout” that is that he knows there is a god and he is seeking him. We are also told that he “fears God” that is that he lives his life as if he is answerable to God. We are also told that he is a generous man, one who gives to those in need. And we are told that he is a praying man.

Here is a man that is religious, sincere, prayerful and yet he is not saved. There are still many people today who think that all you need to make it to heaven is to be religious, sincere, to live a good clean moral life. Cornelius’ position points out clearly that one can have all of that and still be lost.

The angel who appears to Cornelius tells him to send down to Joppa for a man named Peter who is staying in the house of Simon the tanner. I believe that had God not commanded Cornelius to send for Peter, he would have gone to him, to avoid any problems. But you see, God wanted to force this issue, so that he could correct Peter’s attitudes and long with him all of the other Jewish Christians.

Cornelius’ story, I believe answers the question that many ask, “What about the man who has never heard of Jesus Christ? What about the man who has lived up to the light that he has received, but has never heard of Jesus Christ? What happens to him?” Here is an illustration of what happens to a man like that. When he is obedient to the light he has, God will see that he receives more light. I believe that it is safe to say that any person anywhere in the world who sincerely wants to be right with God and who is sincerely searching for the truth, may be saved. God has ways, of which we know nothing, of getting his word to those who truly seek Him. Someone once asked Charles Spurgeon, the famous preacher of the 19th century, if the heathen could be saved if they did not hear the gospel. His wise reply was, “Can we be saved if we don’t deliver the gospel?”


“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. (10)Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance (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. (12) In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. (13) And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”(14) But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” (15) And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” (16) This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.”

The vision was of a sheet lowered from heaven in which are various kinds of animals, some clean and some of which are unclean. Have you ever wondered why if Peter was so horrified, at the thought of killing and eating an “unclean” animal that he did not just pick a “clean” animal from among those presented. Why then did this thought horrify him? Because, to Peter the mixing of the “clean” with the “unclean” animals would have rendered all the animals “unclean” in his mind. Therefore Peter refused to kill and eat any of them.

Peter’s response to God’s command to kill and eat was, “Not, so Lord; for I have never eaten anything that was common or unclean” (v. 14). It would appear to us as we read this that it is inconsistent to say, “Not so Lord.” If you say “Lord” then you must not say, “Not so.” And if you are saying, “Not so” then you need not call Him “Lord.”

Peter is proud of the fact that he had never done certain things and we today have our own similar form of legalism. We sometimes define ourselves by the things that we do not do. It is not wrong that there are things that we do not do. What is wrong is defining our spirituality based on the things that we refrain from doing. We joke and say, “I don’t drink, I don’t swear. I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls who do.” But the truth is that the world is not impressed by that. What non-Christians are looking for is Christian who are able to do, that is live life that is beyond the capabilities of the non-Christian. What impresses non-Christians is to find homes that are filled with loving acceptance of one another, a home that is characterized by warmth, joy and peace in the middle of a world where homes are falling apart on every side.

The Lord’s response to Peter in this vision is, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (v. 15). It soon becomes obvious to Peter that these words had a far greater implication than simply what he was and was not allowed to eat. Peter was not to regard certain people as unclean and those to be avoided. God is revealing to him that all forgiven sinners are to be accepted including Gentiles. The four corners of the sheet correspond to the four corners of the earth or to the four points of the compass – north, south, east and west. The sheets contents indicate all the millions of people who make up Peter’s world.

Perhaps Peter called to mind the words of the Lord recorded in Mark 7:17-23; “When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. (18) So He said to them, “Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, (19) because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?” (20) And He said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. (21) For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, (22) thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. (23) All these evil things come from within and defile a man.” (NKJV) To God being near pagans was not the problem, but being like pagans defiled them.

Later Peter tells Cornelius in verse 28 that it unlawful for him to associate with Gentiles. Actually there is no Old Testament law that prohibited such association. What Peter is referring to is that it was unlawful according to Jewish custom and practice. It was this custom and practice that Jesus and his disciples set aside.

Cornelius was ready. All God had to do now was prepare someone to share the gospel with him. It seems that it was harder to get someone prepared to witness than it was to get the man ready to listen. I wonder if that is not true in our own community? Are there more people ready to listen than there are people ready to give it?


vv. 17-22

The vision left Peter confused. While the vision left Peter wondering what in the world that God was trying to tell him, the three men from Cornelius came up to the gate and called out if Peter was there.

“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. (18) And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. (19) While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are seeking you. (20) Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.” (21) Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, “Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?” (22) And they said, “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.” (23) Then he invited them in and lodged them. On the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him.”

“We note how perfectly God dovetailed his working Cornelius and in Peter. For while he was praying and seeing his vision, the men from Cornelius were approaching the city (9-16); while Peter was still perplexed about the meaning of what he had seen, they arrived at his house (17-18); while Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit told him that the men were looking for him and that he must not hesitate to go with to go with them (19-20); and when Peter went down and introduced himself to them, they explained to him the purpose of their visit.” [John Stott. The Spirit, The Church and the World: The Message of Acts. (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1990) pp. 187-188.]

It is significant that Peter invited these men into the house, where they must have shared in the meal and spent the night. It is obvious that barriers are continuing to be torn down.

I believe that it is often the case that the Lord shows us some new truth and then gives us an opportunity to act on what we have learned. This new truth in our lives may have come in personal bible study, or a class or a sermon, but when God has challenged our hearts, he often provides situations or circumstances that call upon us to put those principles into practice.

The Lord who has made his wonderful truth real to us, will also provide perfectly timed opportunities. We should expect them. Welcome them as gifts. Look for them with expectancy. And when they happen we will know has prepared us for what will be given opportunities to minister.


vv. 24-33

“And the following day they entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. (25) As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. (26) But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I myself am also a man.” (27) And as he talked with him, he went in and found many who had come together. (28) Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (29) Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. I ask, then, for what reason have you sent for me?” (30) So Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, (31) and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. (32) Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.’ (33) So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.” (NKJV)

When he arrived Cornelius fell at his feet in worship. Peter’s response shows that he realized that it was inappropriate either to worship somebody as if they were God or to reject anyone as if they were unclean. Peter refused to be treated as a god or to treat Cornelius as if he were a dog.


First, it was prayer ( v5, 9) on the part of both Peter and Cornelius that made them receptive to God’s leading. Is your prayer life strong enough that God can use it to guide you and give you direction? “E Stanley Jones once said, ‘I find myself better or worse as I pray more or less. It works with almost mathematical precision.”

Second, the vision that changed the world began by changing one man. Peter’s attitude was changed, although he was a still a little rough around the edges. Sometimes he slipped up as he did in Antioch and regressed. But God changed him and he can change us. Alexander Whyte said, “ It would change your whole heart and life this very (day) if you would take Peter and Cornelius home with you and lay them both to heart. If you would take a four cornered napkin when you get home, and a…. 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 figures (men), and the private citizens, and the neighbors, and the fellow-worshippers – all the people you dislike, and despise and do not, 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, of these people. I cannot do it and I will not try. If your 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.” [As quoted in (R. Kent Hughes. Acts: The Church Afire. Wheaton, ILL: Crossway Books, 1996) pp. 147-148]

The problem is that we are just as selective about those with whom we are willing to share the gospel as Peter and his Jewish brethren were. Do we see those around us as potential believers or do we view them as unreachable? Are there co-workers and family that we have written off as impossible to reach for the kingdom of Christ.

Finally don’t forget that when God shows us some new truth and he often then gives us an opportunity to act on what we have learned. He often provides situations or circumstances that call upon us to put those principles into action, expect it and welcome the opportunity.