Summary: Peter discovers that God has more in mind than just the people of Israel as he’s taken outside his comfort zone to share the gospel with Cornelius
It’s a weird story isn’t it? Peter’s up on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house in the middle of the day praying and he starts to feel hungry. So he asks the cook to prepare some lunch and while he’s waiting he falls into a trance. Perhaps the heat of the day has got to him. Perhaps he starts to think about what the cook might be preparing for him. But as he’s in this trance he has a vision. A vision of a sheet, or perhaps it’s a sailcloth, being lowered to the ground by its corners. And in it are all sorts of animals, reptiles and birds. Then the strangest part of the vision happens. Someone speaks. A voice says "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." Peter would have been used to killing fish, cutting them open to clean them, so it isn’t the idea of killing these animals that surprises him. Rather it’s the kinds of animals they are. These are animals that have been declared unclean by the Old Testament Scriptures. And now he’s being told to eat them? Naturally he objects. He’s a good Jew. He wouldn’t eat anything unclean. That’d make him ritually impure, not to mention disobedient to God.
But then he gets an even bigger surprise. He’s told that God has made these things clean. How can he call them profane if God has declared them clean? Then the whole process repeats, 2 more times. Peter obviously needs time to process what all this means.
I’m reminded of the call of Samuel, when God had to call him 3 times before Eli realised what was happening and told him that it was the Lord speaking to him. Just as in that instance, something significant is about to happen here but Peter takes a while to work it out.
Well we don’t know what was going through Peter’s mind. He was certainly confused by this repeating vision. But his confusion was cleared up when there was a knock at Simon’s gate. Some men were there. Sent by a godly centurion, named Cornelius, to ask Peter to come and tell him the message he has for him. Cornelius was a Roman, but nevertheless a God-fearer.
He’s a step further back than the Ethiopian Eunuch we met in ch9. He was a Jewish Proselyte. Cornelius had accepted that the God of the Jews was the only true God, but he hadn’t taken the further step of becoming a Jewish proselyte. Still, we’re told he prayed constantly to God. What did he pray? Well, possibly that he be included in the salvation that God had promised to his people, - which was just what God was about to bring him.
He too had seen a vision. In his case it was of an angel telling him to send men to Joppa, to find someone named Peter.
This is amazing isn’t it? Here’s Cornelius sending for Peter, but he doesn’t know what Peter is going to say or do. Peter has this strange vision. Then Cornelius’ servants arrive with the message that they’ve been sent as a result of an angel appearing to Cornelius.
And suddenly it all becomes clear to Peter. He isn’t as slow on the uptake as you might have thought, given that he had to be shown the vision three times. That’s what the vision was all about! The Holy Spirit makes it clear to him, telling him that he should go with these men. Now he realises that this vision of the animals and birds was all about the prohibition on Jews mixing with Gentiles. When he gets to Cornelius’ house he explains it to Cornelius and his family: "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."
I don’t think we can really grasp just how radical this behaviour of Peter’s is. We have little appreciation, I think, for the huge gulf that was fixed between Jews and Gentiles in the minds of the Jews of Peter’s day, though we get a bit if a feel for it in what he says here. A Jew couldn’t associate with Gentiles, or even visit them, let alone eat with them or stay with them as he ends up doing.
Now we need to say at that point that this idea of the Jews being the special people of God had been taken out of all proportion. Yes, God had called Abraham to form a nation for himself. But he’d done it for one single reason. And do you remember what that was? It was to bring a blessing - on whom? On all the nations. The people of Israel were to be a light to lighten the Gentiles. They were to be a beacon in a dark world, attracting the other nations to God’s rule. Their salvation was never meant to be an exclusive thing. On the contrary, they were meant to invite the other nations to join them under God’s lordship.