An exposition on Acts 10 & 11*
Cornelius’ faith changed everything for the early church. Here’s a Roman military commander and generous man of God who is visited by an angel in a vision. Kind of your every day experience, right!? He learns that God is pleased with his gifts to the poor and he obeys the directive to send for a man named “Peter” in Joppa. He doesn’t know why he’s sending for this guy Peter, for no further explanation is given, and yet he obeys.
Meanwhile, “Peter”, the unruly character who boisterously followed Jesus (known to have chopped off a guy’s ear, walked on water, and asked the Son of God to give him a bath, among other outrageous things) is hungry and falls into a trance while praying. He has a reoccurring vision of a sheet coming down from heaven with all kinds of animals forbidden for Jews to eat and he repeatedly hears the words, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” And when he refuses, heaven resounds with the admonition, “Do not call anything pure that God has made clean.” While contemplating this curious experience, Peter hears the Spirit of God urge him to follow the three men who have just arrived at the house. Just an average day in the life of an apostle. 🙂
So he agrees to go to Cornelius in Cesarea and on the way, learns that he has called a family reunion and Peter is to be the special guest. Still he obeys the heavenly unction to follow the men, but probably grows more and more uncomfortable as they near the home of this “Gentile” (non-Jew). Jews and Gentiles don’t eat together. It’s the law. Yet, as Peter arrives he is given a warm reception. (Actually, Cornelius falls on his face in front of him, honoring him as a man of God. This is a striking reversal of power as Cornelius, being Roman, represents the political power structure suppressing the Jews.) Peter shares the message of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus and while he’s still speaking, the whole Roman family is filled with the Spirit and speaks in tongues! For the first time, Gentiles are coming under the power of the Holy Spirit (a sign of salvation) and Peter and his Jewish comrades conclude that God must be accepting them and so they must be baptized by water.
It is a wonderful thing that God accepts even the Gentiles (10:45)! That category includes me, my family, and 98% of my friends. Certainly God had designs from the beginning for all nations to be a part of his family (see Gen 22:18, Is 49:6). The Jews often forgot this destiny to bring God to all nations and instead kept God to themselves or got distracted with worshiping the false gods of other nations. But now, because of the faith of Cornelius, the Spirit is flowing out to all nations!
What I love about this story is how evident it is that both the Jews and Gentiles are being blessed–what I call “mutual conversion”. The Jews have the message about Jesus that the world needs. The Gentiles are God-fearing and ready to let God take over. As Jews let go of laws and customs, they experience a God that flows outside of the boundaries of culture and reaches out the Gentiles. Things will never be the same. God has just re-defined for the Jews what it means to be “clean” or righteous or holy–not having stomachs filled with kosher food, but souls filled with the Spirit. There is something higher than culture and as it breaks down the dividing walls both groups undergo a conversion.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. – Ephesians 2:14-16
As Cornelius and all the Gentiles come into this new family of God (salvation), the Jews also have a revelation of a God whose family is without boarders or national distinction (sanctification). Both are being renewed, both are transformed or converted. This will forever alter the trajectory of the church. Yet first, there will be scandal and conflict in the Jewish camp–it’s hard for them to let go of laws and rituals which are a sense of pride and cultural distinction. Those who still hold onto the laws become “Judaizers” and put a heavy burden on new Gentile believers, while simultaneously emptying the power of Christ’s sacrifice for salvation (see the book of Galatians). Yet other Jews will be transformed and make it easy for Gentiles to come into God’s family. The hold that Gentiles don’t have to become Jews to be acceptable to God–they can worship God in their own cultural forms, for God loves all cultures!
There’s a lesson in this story for me and you. The gospel is always presented in the wrapping of one culture or another–even Jesus was a Jew! But how might we unduly pressure others to accept the gospel in our cultural wrapping instead of allowing them to give the gospel it’s unique expression in their culture? What fears lead us to be spiritually ethnocentric? When, like Peter, have you encountered more of God through another culture and experienced this “mutual conversion”?
As I intersect with the Hawaiian culture around me and the East Asian cultures my international student friends represent, I am continuously experiencing conversion as I let God show me more of Himself through their cultures. Yet, I also find that I can easily harden my heart and determine that another cultural expression of faith does not reflect the God I worship. Let us keep our hearts open to His continued transformation and have they joy of experiencing mutual conversion.
*This post is based on a talk I gave to Hawaii InterVarsity’s Hi-Light group on April 30, 2015