Acts chapter 10          Next chapter            Back to Bible Studies   

The events in this chapter are often referred to by commentators as 'the conversion of Cornelius' and rightly so for that clearly does take place. However, the chapter is primarily about the 'conversion' or 'transformation' of the Apostle Peter! To fully understand the significance of the events in this chapter, we have to do some background study about the way Gentiles were viewed by Jews at that time. Here are a few guidelines from the Jewish Talmud (The collection of laws handed down from Moses that the Scribes and Pharisees used at the time):

The court of a Gentile is as the habitation of a beast... If a Gentile hits a Jew, the Gentile must be killed... If an ox of an Israelite gores an ox of a Gentile there is no liability; but if an ox of a Gentile gores an ox of an Israelite, the payment is to be in full... A Jewish man is obligated to say the following prayer every day: "Thank you God for not making me a Gentile, a woman or a slave..." If we see a Gentile being swept away or drowning in the river, we should not help him. If we see that his life is in danger, we should not save him... Gentile souls are of a completely different and inferior order. They are totally evil, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever...

The Jews had a low estimate of the Gentile's character. The most vile and unnatural crimes were imputed to Gentiles. It was considered not safe to leave cattle in their charge, to allow their women to nurse infants, or their physicians to attend the sick, nor to walk in their company, without taking precautions against sudden attacks. From Leviticus 11 (The entire chapter) it is also clear that certain animals and food eaten by Gentiles were considered unclean to Jews. The following scriptures give us further insight into the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in Jesus' time: Matthew 8: 38 - 48, Matthew 15: 21 - 28 and John 4: 3 - 42.

There is a clue for us in the last verse of Acts chapter 10 that God was already doing an extraordinary work in the heart of Peter, as he went to stay at the house of Simon the Tanner. To be a Tanner was considered unclean by the Jews (according to Jewish tradition, if a woman married a man and found out that he was a Tanner, she was allowed to divorce him!). This was just the first event in Peter's remarkable transformation. The second event comes in the form of the vision of the sheet being lowered down from heaven with all types of animals in it and God commanding Peter "Get up and eat" - a vision that leaves him confused and thinking deeply. The third event is the arrival of the messengers (Gentiles) sent by Cornelius and Peter actually inviting them to spend the evening as his guests! The fourth event is Peter leaving with the messengers to go to the house of Cornelius. The fifth event is him being received into the house of Cornelius (an uncircumcised Gentile) and his friends and family. Peter must indeed have felt as if the very fibre of his brain was parting - all these things were in contravention of the Jewish Law and Tradition. In fact, as he starts speaking to Cornelius and those gathered in his house, he points out that as a Jew he is not even supposed to be there! However, his obedience to God wins out and he himself declares in v 34: "I now realise how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right." The sixth event takes place while Peter is speaking to them - the Holy Spirit comes upon them and scripture duly notes that all the (circumcised) believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. Peter then orders that they be Baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Throughout the chapter it is clear that God is in control and carefully orchestrating events for His purposes - not only for the sake of Cornelius to whom He wanted to reveal Himself in Jesus Christ unto salvation, but also for Peter who needed to undergo a vital transformation and shed his Jewish prejudice toward the Gentiles. It is very interesting to note that when God speaks to Cornelius in v 4 - 8, he immediately obeys, but when God speaks to Peter in v 11 - 15, he immediately resists and places the Jewish Law and Tradition above the voice of God! There is a great lesson in this for us regarding the power of law and tradition (religion) - Peter knew our Lord, had been a disciple, witnessed the crucifiction and resurrection, been baptized with the Holy Spirit and yet, in this instance he still places the Jewish Law and Tradition - albeit only for a little while - above a direct instruction from God. May He have preeminence in our lives so that nothing prevents us from obeying His voice...

A further revelation from our study of this passage is that God clearly wants and has always wanted all people everywhere to be saved. But we are sometimes tempted to think that God decided that only here at this point in Acts 10, with the Gospel being taken to the Gentiles for the first time. This idea is not in line with the rest of Scripture. First of all, we looked at Deuteronomy 9:4 - 12 which explains why the prejudice of the Jews toward the Gentiles and the idea that they are superior is completely unfounded. We then looked at Amos 9:7, Isaiah 19:18 - 25 and Jonah 3:1 - 10, showing us that God desires all nations to come to Him and that He has worked in many nations throughout history. We also realised that Israel was to be a means to an end - to be a light to the nations. However, we see that the nation Israel became an end in itself, wanting to keep the Gospel to themselves as a privileged nation only and not for gentiles. Thank God for His great love and mercy, for we are those Gentiles! We praise God too for His work in Peter's heart causing him to obey God rather than his Jewish religious tradition!         

© 2011 Werner Schreiber

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