Acts (Part 16) - Cornelius

02/25/2011 08:00

Acts chapter 10 tells the story of Peter bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. The narration changes a little from how Luke had been progressing. We find more detail in this story than usual. It is not surprising considering the pivotal importance of this event, but some of those details provide clues as to how we should be reading Luke and the Bible in general. In this story, Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman centurion, receives a vision at the ninth hour, and the angel tells him to send for Peter. Cornelius immediately sends a couple of servants and a soldier from Caesarea down to Joppa (about 42 miles south). The messengers arrive the following day at the house where he is staying as Peter is praying and receiving his own vision. Luke tells us this occurs at the sixth hour of that day. Peter invites the envoy in to spend the night. They travel the next day and arrive the day after that. Cornelius mentions that they get there about the ninth hour.


The summary above seems fine—one that we can tuck away in the corners of our minds and go on. But this detail about timing deserves a second look. According to Roman timing (much like ours), the day began at midnight. So the ninth hour of the day is about 9 AM. If Cornelius sends his messengers out within the hour and they travel the 42 miles (about a 14 hour trip), they would arrive at Peter’s place about midnight that night—hardly a time Peter would be going up to pray, getting hungry, and having the household prepare something. Besides, we are told it was the 6th hour (6 AM). Early morning prayer and getting hungry fit that scenario. And the messengers could have spent a few hours in sleep along the way to delay their arrival from midnight to 6 AM.


But the difficulty comes in with the next events along the timetable. Peter invites them in and has them stay the night.  He invites them in at 6 AM to stay the night? Did they not just march 14 hours from Caesarea with little sleep to get there? And then Peter has them stay the entire day, the night, and (considering it takes them two days to get to Caesarea) takes his time the following day as they set out? There would seem to be a significant disconnect between the urgency of Cornelius and his messengers and the laxity of Peter. Perhaps we are wrong to think Luke is giving us the Roman timing. Perhaps the clock in this story runs on Hebrew time.


The day starts at approximately 6 AM for the Jews. The ninth hour, then, is 3 PM. Cornelius sends the messengers out late in the day. They pause a few hours for sleep and then continue. They arrive at Peter’s place at the 6th hour, which according to the Hebrew timing is noon. This also fits with Peter’s prayer time and the preparation of lunch. But we still have somewhat of a problem. From noon on that day until their arrival in Caesarea at the ninth hour (3 PM) is 51 hours. They make the 14 hour trip in 51 hours? Again, why is there an incredible draggy response on Peter’s part? Certainly after resting up the afternoon and night, they could have made the 14 hour trip the next day. But they don’t. They don’t arrive in Caesarea until 3 PM of the day after—time for almost two full days of travel.


The resolution to this is simply that Luke uses Roman time when speaking of Cornelius and Hebrew time when speaking of Peter. So Cornelius does get his vision at 9AM. He sends his messengers who arrive in Joppa at noon (Hebrew time). They rest the afternoon and head out in the morning. That day is a travel day, and then, after spending the night on the road, they arrive in Caesarea at 9 AM (Roman time).  


The point of this exercise is that sometimes you have to dig a little deeper to come up with the correct interpretation. The Bible is not given to us as a first grade reader, and we shouldn’t expect everything to be plain and simple. God calls us to study over and over throughout the New Testament. Acts 10 is just a simple but good example of how a text must be considered—sometimes with outside help (e.g., knowing Roman and Hebrew time specifics). Luke has shown this swap back and forth between Greek and Hebrew culture in other instances, especially in the use of names. In chapter 9 we learned of Dorcas (Greek) who was also called Tabitha (Aramaic). In a span of only two verses Luke switches from calling her Dorcas to Peter’s address of Tabitha. The switch is made based on Peter’s shared Hebrew heritage with her. In another example, Luke introduces Paul as Saul. Saul is a Hebrew name. While Luke’s focus is on the church in Jerusalem, he refers to him as Saul. But as Saul turns to the Gentiles in chapter 13, Luke begins referring to him as Paul.


As we begin chapter 10, we find that Cornelius is a devout man, believing in the Hebrew God. This appears to be no mere nod to the god of the people in whose town he served. Luke tells us that Cornelius prayed to God and offered alms in heartfelt service and offering. An angel appears to Cornelius, and he shrinks in terror. He calls out, “What is it, Lord?” This reminds us of Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus. Saul sees the brilliance of the light and recognizes the one before him is a heavenly being. Jesus says, “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul, in confusion, but recognizing and acknowledging the superiority of the one before him answers, “Who are you, Lord?” Both Saul and Cornelius recognize the beings as heavenly and superior, calling them, “Lord.”


The angel tells Cornelius that God has seen and accepted his prayers and alms-giving. This is no payback from God for something Cornelius purchased. God had given Cornelius a certain enlightenment so that Cornelius responded in faith to God. And as Cornelius responds in faith, God now is providing additional revelation/enlightenment. That is the way God works with all of us. He moves first. When we respond in faith, he provides further revelation. If we respond in rebellion, he withdraws (Romans 1). That pattern is seen over and over throughout his Word. And we should recognize it. Doing so will give us a better soteriological understanding than either Arminianism or Calvinism do on their own. (See Faith Electionism (Part 1) in the Article Archive section of the TruthWhys website.)


Peter doesn’t receive his vision until the following day—after Cornelius has received his and sent his messengers on their way. In fact, Peter’s vision comes just as the messengers are completing their journey from Caesarea. This ought to impress on our minds and hearts once again that the book of Acts is not primarily about the activity of Peter and Paul, but rather it is about the working of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit orchestrates all things—knowledge, movement, events—to accomplish his objectives. We see that clearly in this passage as Peter receives his vision just as the messengers arrive.


Peter’s whole preparation for this moment has been the work of the Spirit. First, Peter was brought to this area through Paul, Aeneas, and Tabitha. He stayed in Joppa at the home of Simon the Tanner. A tanner is someone who works constantly with dead animals. Thus, Peter must have been at least daily reminded of the Hebrew identification of the unclean. It was also here that Peter most probably heard of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. Remember, Philip had traveled north on the coastal highway after the conversion, spreading the news of Christ to those in Lydda and Joppa on his way to Caesarea. He did not return to Jerusalem. So Peter’s hearing of Philip’s work was probably through the people at Lydda and Joppa. Thus the Holy Spirit has shown him an instance of a Gentile believing in Christ.


The Holy Spirit continues his preparation with the vision in 10:10-16. That vision occurs three times (an emphasis of divine completion rather than merely that Peter constantly needs things happening in threes—e.g., denial of Christ before the crowing and the questions of Christ: “Do you love me?”). He also hears that Cornelius (the Gentile) also has had a message from God.


In his vision, Peter sees a great sheet filled with unclean animals, let down from heaven by its four corners. We know that the unclean animals represent the Gentiles. But the image is more complete than just that. The great sheet is the same Greek word for sail—as on a ship. An emphasis is given that the sail is let down by its four corners. Only a little settling of our minds on this image should bring us to the idea that sailing to the four corners of the earth to proclaim Christ is the Great Commission instruction displayed here. And that is the image impressed on Peter as he is invited to go to the home of Cornelius.


As Peter enters the house, Cornelius bows at his feet and worships. Peter immediately tells him to stand for he too is just a man. Cornelius did not confuse Peter with a god (as Paul and Barnabas would be later). Remember, only a few days earlier Cornelius actually saw a heavenly being. I’m sure the travel-wearied Peter did not appear half so brilliantly. But Cornelius was certainly well acquainted with the Jews covenant relationship with God. He was known and spoken kindly of by all the Jews with whom he interacted in Caesarea, but none of them entered his home. To do so would have made them unclean. Yet here is Peter deigning to come in to Cornelius with a message from God. No doubt Cornelius looked at Peter as some kind of intercessor between him and God, considering the covenant position of Peter and the heavenly vision ordering him to send for Peter. But Peter tells him to stand, assuring him that before God they are on equal footing. Peter, too, is just a man. In fact, Peter emphasizes that in the first words he speaks to the group in the home in verses 28-29.


Peter asks Cornelius to repeat his vision. He probably does this not only because he wants to hear it straight from Cornelius, but also because of the six Christian Jews that have accompanied him from Joppa. Remember, they had seen no vision. They had entered the Gentile house, becoming ceremonially unclean, all on Peter’s say so. Peter wants them to be assured as well that what they are doing is from God.


Peter begins his talk saying that God shows no partiality but “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:35). By this phrase, Peter begins his introduction to Christ. The Gentiles listening would certainly understand that, although they feared God, they did not always do what is right. So how could they be acceptable to God? Peter goes on by telling them that Jesus Christ went about doing good and healing those oppressed by the devil. The emphasis is on the good and help of Christ, not on his exclusive ministry to Jews.


Additionally, Peter calls Jesus the Lord of all. As a Roman centurion, Cornelius surely knew of the trouble brewing between then emperor Caligula and the Jews. Caligula was frustrated by the Jews’ monotheism, which prevented them from accepting Caligula as a god as did all the other polytheistic Mediterranean nations. But the peace Peter mentions in verse 36 he explains is not for Jews alone or for political rest. It is from Jesus who is Lord of all.


Peter’s sermon outlines the death of Christ on the cross, his resurrection by God, the apostles’ witness to that resurrection (that it was no mere spirit, for he ate and drank with them), and that Jesus was appointed to be judge of the living and the dead. To build on Cornelius’ knowledge of the Jewish heritage from Scripture, Peter tells him that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophets’ messianic prophecies. And then Peter provides the means to salvation: “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).


At that moment, the Holy Spirit falls on these Gentiles. They begin speaking in tongues. Peter is probably as taken aback as his six companions when they see this marvelous, miraculous display. But gaining his composure, Peter turns to speak specifically to his six companion Jews, telling them, “Can anyone [meaning, any of you] withhold water for baptizing these people, who have receive the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (10:47). And of course they cannot. Now as convinced as Peter, these Jews baptized the Gentiles, welcoming them into the kingdom.