The reader will pardon me if I ask you to think a little bit
ahead. In the next lesson we shall see the first example of a devout Jew
(Peter) evangelizing Gentiles. It is not clear to the church today just how big
a step this is. But to the Jew of the time, as we shall see, it was practically
unthinkable. God is therefore needed to prepare Peter (and Cornelius) for this
major change. This lesson is about how God prepared Peter; it may also give us
some indication as to how he prepares us for major changes in our lives, too.
Preparation of Peter
Acts 9:32-43 NASB
Now as Peter was traveling through all those
regions, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. (33) There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been
bedridden eight years, for he was paralyzed. (34)
Peter said to him, "Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your
bed." Immediately he got up. (35) And
all who lived at Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord. (36) Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha
(which translated in Greek is called
Dorcas); this woman was abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she
continually did. (37) And it happened at that
time that she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her body, they laid
it in an upper room. (38) Since Lydda was
near Joppa, the disciples, having heard that Peter was there, sent two men to
him, imploring him, "Do not delay in coming to us." (39) So Peter arose and went with them. When he
arrived, they brought him into the upper room; and all the widows stood beside
him, weeping and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make
while she was with them. (40) But Peter sent
them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said,
"Tabitha, arise." And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter,
she sat up. (41) And he gave her his hand and
raised her up; and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. (42) It became known all over Joppa, and many
believed in the Lord. (43) And Peter stayed
many days in Joppa with a tanner named
What Was Peter Doing?
It is somewhat surprising that the trip Peter was taking was
not an evangelistic one. It was also not a trip intended to go anywhere near
the Gentiles. In fact, Peter's mission is to minister to and strengthen the
church in these areas on the other side of the mountain range which contains
Jerusalem. There is some implication that Peter's presence is to provide some
of the miracles which will strengthen the faith of the newborn church members.
This is a bit dubious as inference because:
First, it is not at all clear that only the apostles could work
miracles. Certainly church history is full of counter examples.
Second, it is fairly well demonstrated that miracles often do not
strengthen the faith of the believer. A good example is the ancient Israelite
community under Moses.
This is not some sort of royal progress, however. It is
interesting to note that Peter stayed in Joppa at the house of a tanner named
Simon. A tanner's profession requires him to be ceremonially unclean most of
the time. In a sense, this is a halfway house between Judaism and the Gentiles.
It is also an excellent example of the material poverty and humility which so
becomes a leader of the church. Peter is following his Lord's instruction to
stay at the first available house.
He stayed for some length of time, which probably implies that the disciples
there were in need of much instruction. It is only in recent times that the
church has come to the idea that a few weeks with a stack of DVDs will suffice
for training of the Christian.
Going Where Called
We might think that God would prepare Peter for what was
coming by some sort of angelic message. Consider Peter's character: he likes to
argue. So God does not give him the chance to do so. Instead, he goes on to
Joppa because the church has called him there as part of an emergency. He is
responding to the needs of the church. I suspect that doing this might have
given him the feeling of being the yo-yo at the end of the string; but as he
was confident in the one who held the other end of the string, this might not
be as much of a problem as you might think.
The key lesson for us is this: Peter was doing the good
which was at hand. He was responding to the needs of the moment in the way
Christ would expect him to do so. This is the habit of obedience, which enables
God to do great things through ordinary people.
One of the difficulties the study of the Scripture is that
we are given examples, not theological textbooks. Aeneas is an example of this.
We have no indication that Peter asked him whether or not his faith was strong
enough to believe that he could be healed. Like the lame man at the Temple, all
we know about Aeneas is that he needed the help. But there is one thing here
that we may note. Peter tells him (in this translation) to get up make his bed.
There are two reasons for this. The first is, as your mother told you, you
should always make your bed as soon as you get out of it. It is a sign to one all
that Aeneas will no longer be spending all his time in bed. The second reason
is the practical one; the other Christians need to see that Aeneas has been
healed and now has the strength to make his own bed.
The story of Dorcas is quite touching. It is worth noting
that she was a woman who devoted her energies to the care of those would be
considered the least among her society — widows. The widow of this time was
notorious for complete poverty. We need to be careful about this. The reason
God permits Peter to raise this woman from the dead is not really so much that
she is kind and charitable. It's not a question of her deserving it. But we can
conclude that those who have asked Peter to come did so out of their regard for
her. This is a lesson for our prayer life. It is never proper to say that
so-and-so deserves a miraculous healing. But it is always proper to tell
the Lord that the reason I'm asking for such healing is that this person has
done good things for me or for those I love. No one deserves the healing; but a
Christian knows a lot of people deserve the asking.
Notice to that Peter emulates his master in sending everyone
else out of the room.
Even though he knows that he is about to work a miracle for this woman, he does
not make a public spectacle of it. P. T. Barnum he is not.
Acts 10:1-8 NASB
Now there was a man at Caesarea named
Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, (2) a devout man and one who feared God with all his
household, and gave many alms to the Jewish
people and prayed to God continually. (3)
About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who
had just come in and said to him,
"Cornelius!" (4) And fixing his
gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, "What is it, Lord?" And
he said to him, "Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before
God. (5) "Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; (6) he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea." (7) When the angel who was speaking to him had left,
he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his
personal attendants, (8) and after he had
explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
Cornelius is one of those people you find in every society —
as backbone. We may note this about him:
He is a devout man, what is called a "God-fearer." He
is not Jewish, but he fears and worships the Jewish God. Note please that this
includes his entire household. Evidently his example was very strong and
He is a man who gives alms. This is not the same thing as making
sacrifices at the Temple. Rather, it is the habit of giving to the poor. In his
time this is something that would've been done person to person, as the
mechanism for such things (the synagogue) would have been unavailable to him.
This is a guy who would give money to the fellow with the cardboard sign,
sitting by the side of the road.
He prayed to God continually. If there is a habit which should be
encouraged in all Christians, this is it.
There you have it: an ordinary man with godly habits. This
is the man that God will use to break the church out of its Jewish mold.
The complete ordinariness of Cornelius is exemplified in his
reaction to the angel, which is quite typical:
He stares at him. The arrival of the angel is approximately the
same level of surprise as the arrival of an alien from Mars.
He is "much alarmed." The usual opening line for an
angel is, "fear not." Being afraid of an angel is the normal
He calls him "Lord." Whoever or whatever the angel is,
Cornelius recognizes him as being his superior. Contrast that with our frequent
attitude today of thinking of Christ as our good buddy.
The angel tells him that his prayers and gifts have come up
to God as a memorial. The word used for memorial is an unusual Greek one. It is
also used in this story from the Gospels:
Matthew 26:6-13 NASB
Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, (7) a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of
very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. (8)
But the disciples were indignant when they saw this,
and said, "Why this waste? (9) "For
this perfume might have been sold for a
high price and the money given to the
poor." (10) But Jesus, aware of this,
said to them, "Why do you bother the woman? For
she has done a good deed to Me. (11) "For you always have the poor with you; but you do not
always have Me. (12) "For when she poured this perfume on My body, she did it
to prepare Me for burial. (13) "Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in
the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of
There is a point in here. What this woman has done is an act
of devotion — and you'll notice that it doesn't seem to make any sense to the
rest of the people around her. Why build a cathedral when any boxlike structure
will do? The same may be said of Cornelius and his habit of giving. What's the
use? He can't possibly cure all the poverty around him. So it might seem that
his giving is useless. Perhaps it is — except to God. His giving is a spotlight
by which we may look at his soul. For those who give in the same fashion, it is
a reassurance but God knows what you do and will bless you for it.
As is often the case, the angel does not get the chance to
wax eloquent. In fact, his instructions are short and to the point. We cannot
know, but perhaps angels are always in a hurry. It's a characteristic, however,
of God's instructions: economical and to the point.
A Man under Authority
A recent book review in Touchstone magazine included this
One of the defining features of modern
culture is the denial of an order in the structure of Creation. In The
Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis argues that until the advent of modernity, all
human cultures assumed that the principal aim of wise living was to grow in the
knowledge of “how to conform the soul to reality.” By contrast, the typically
modern preoccupation (propelled by technological prowess) is with “how to
subdue reality to the wishes of men.”
Our Centurion, Cornelius, understands this quite well. You
can see it in the way that he has managed his household. There is no sense that
he has set himself up as the supreme spiritual authority in their lives. He is
not a demigod to be obeyed without question; rather, he is a leader who trusts
Baron von Steuben, the drill master of George Washington's
Continental Army, once remarked in frustration that the American soldier —
unlike his continental counterpart — needed both an order and the explanation
of it. Cornelius had that same kind of loyalty and his household. He trusts
these people, and therefore he quite naturally explains the entire mission to
them. He does not simply send them with instructions on who to get. He shares
the vision — even though he himself does not completely understand it. A man
like that understands authority very well.
Acts 10:9-23 NASB
On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter
went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. (10)
But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making
preparations, he fell into a trance; (11) and
he *saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down,
lowered by four corners to the ground, (12)
and there were in it all kinds of
four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. (13) A voice came to him, "Get up, Peter, kill
and eat!" (14) But Peter said, "By
no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean." (15) Again a voice came
to him a second time, "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." (16) This happened three times, and immediately the
object was taken up into the sky. (17) Now
while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had
seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked
directions for Simon's house, appeared at the gate; (18)
and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was
staying there. (19) While Peter was
reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are
looking for you. (20) "But get up, go
downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them
Myself." (21) Peter went down to the men
and said, "Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason
for which you have come?" (22) They
said, "Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken
of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely
directed by a holy angel to send for you to come
to his house and hear a message from you." (23)
So he invited them in and gave them lodging. And on the next day he got up and
went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him.
What's the Problem?
It is difficult for the modern Christian to understand the
problem Peter faced. The idea that the Christian in America in the 21st century
could possibly have racial or religious prejudice is socially unacceptable. So
let's review why Peter would have a problem with talking to the Gentiles:
First, there is the Law of Moses. In this law the Jews are
commanded to keep themselves separate. They are to be a holy people, sacred to
God and kept apart. One of the aspects of this being kept apart is that they
had strict dietary laws.
Then, those laws had been greatly amplified by tradition. We must
remember the tradition, in these days, was greatly respected. The idea that,
"our church has only one tradition: we have no traditions" would find
a reaction of horror in this time. Tradition was viewed as the wisdom of those who
had gone before us.
Finally, Peter would've been well acquainted with the virtue of
obedience. It is quite the case that none of us is smart enough to figure out
every possible situation and know exactly what to do at the time. God
understands this; he will look for your obedience. If your obedience is the
wrong reaction, he will gently correct you.
How the Vision Is Presented
The first thing I would point out to you about the timing of
this vision is this: Peter is hungry. The folks downstairs are in the process
of preparing lunch; Peter is using the time to go up to the roof and pray. (It
was common in those times to have a rooftop deck, much as we might have a patio
deck today.) God's timing often relates to what your body is doing.
You will notice that the vision is presented three times.
Whenever you see the numbers three in the Scriptures, you can be quite sure
that the commentators are going to have a lovely time discussing why there are
three of anything. Here are some of the suggestions:
Some will tell you that it is related to the Trinity.
Others will point out that Peter denied his Lord three times; was
restored three times; and evidently needs to be told anything three times.
It's also possibly related to the fact that Cornelius sent three
One thing is certain: this is a symbolic vision. When you
get a symbolic vision, you usually are going to need some time to work out what
the symbolism means. Please note that God does not give Peter the time to do
So how does Peter overcome all this law and tradition?
First, note where God has placed him — in the tanner's
house. He's in the right place. Second, God relies upon his habit of obedience
by giving him a direct command — and no time to think about it. Finally, God
relies upon Peter's good habit of doing the thing at hand which needs doing.
So we may ask ourselves:
First and foremost — do we have the habit of obedience?
Are we fussy about our location, or do we go where he sends us?
Even if that's not the most comfortable place on the block?
Are we in the habit of doing the good things at hand? Or are we
in the habit of waiting until all things are perfect and then moving?
Finally — are we listening in prayer?