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  • Writer's picturePastor Brett

Opening Doors and Hearts (Part 1 of 2)

Acts 10:9-33

            Our home is located in a neighborhood with a somewhat unique feature: no matter which direction you go to leave the neighborhood, you have to cross a railroad track.  This guarantees that we have greater interest in railroads than most folks in Sioux Falls.  Even so, I was not aware that the U.S. standard railroad gauge (the distance between rails) is four feet, eight-and-one-half inches.

            “Why such an odd number? Because that's the way they built them in England, and American railroads were built by British expatriates.

            “Why did the English adopt that particular gauge? Because the people who built the pre-railroad tramways used that gauge.

            Those people were, “in turn locked into that gauge because the people who built tramways used the same standards and tools they had used for building wagons, which were set on a gauge of four feet, eight-and-one-half inches.

            "Why were wagons built to that scale? Because with any other size, the wheels did not match the old wheel ruts on the roads.

            "So who built these old rutted roads?

The first long-distance highways in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been in use ever since. The ruts were first made by Roman war chariots. Four feet, eight-and-one-half inches was the width a chariot needed to be to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses.

            Maybe "that's the way it's always been" isn't the great excuse some people believe it to be. It seems to be a poor excuse for being so resistant to change. (Clark Cothern Tecumseh, sermonillustrations.com)

Sometimes momentous changes begin with God’s momentous actions.

1. Peter had a perplexing vision. (9-17)

            Verses one through eight give an account of Cornelius’ vision from his own perspective.  Since we’ll get that in verses 22, 30-33, I have elected to skip it as repetitive.

            A moral of Peter’s vision: if you don’t want food to be the subject, never go into a trance on an empty stomach. (9-10)  Peter followed the example set by Jesus when he got alone with God to pray.  That is the context for all that follows.  A normal house of that time would have an outside staircase leading up to the flat roof, which would be used as an extra room.  There may have been an awning to provide relief from the sun. 

            During this prayer time, Peter fell into a TRANCE a word that could also be translated as “ecstasy.”  This language and imagery is similar to that typically found in apocalyptic literature.  Entranced, Peter had a vision.

            In the vision, a sheet came from the sky, revealing a buffet of clean and unclean animals.  A voice urged Peter to break the Law of Moses by eating both kinds. (11-13)

- Peter saw THE SKY OPEN; this is a message from heaven.

- SOMETHING LIKE A LARGE SHEET WAS LET DOWN = the word SHEET referred to fine linen, so we’re to picture something like a tablecloth, which was a visual cue to Peter that the animals atop it were to be eaten.  However, note that Luke wasn’t giving a strictly literal description.  It was SOMETHING LIKE a sheet. 

- Being lowered by its four corners makes me think the contents were not visible until it landed on the ground.  The sheet contained all kinds of creatures, even sea creatures, both clean and unclean: ALL SORTS OF ANIMALS, REPTILES, AND BIRDS.  A VOICE (God or an angel?) commanded Peter to “GET UP, KILL AND EAT.”

            Peter objected emphatically but respectfully. (14)  Among all the animals on the sheet, Peter noticed that there were some animals that the Law of Moses condemned as “IMPURE and UNCLEAN.”  If Peter were to eat their flesh, he would become unclean as well, not allowed to enter the temple or worship with other pious Jews.  Some of the animals were not “kosher;” foods that faithful Jews were allowed to eat.  Peter’s objection is remarkable in that he must’ve known the VOICE he heard was God’s voice or at least an angel speaking for God.

            The vision overcame Peter’s objections in two ways. (15-16) The voice explained why it said something that stood at odds with God’s Law and generations of Jewish practice.  “DO NOT CALL SOMETHING UNCLEAN IF GOD MADE IT CLEAN.”  By verse 28 Peter understood it was referring to people, not food.

            Also, the vision was repeated THREE TIMES.  If you want somebody to really get something, showing it to them four times ought to help.  And then it was SUDDENLY over.

            Peter was perplexed, uncertain what all of this was supposed to mean. (17)  How could something so contrary to revelation and tradition be the truth?  What did it signify for Peter and other righteous Jews, especially for those who followed Jesus?  JUST THEN, there was the sound of voices coming from the street in front of Simon’s house, though he may not have heard them right away.

2. The answer came right to his door. (17-23)

            As Peter considered the vision’s significance, Cornelius’ men arrived, asking after Peter. (17-18)  The words JUST THEN indicate the pace of the narrative.  One thing quickly leads to another.  The timing is providential.  As soon as the vision had been seen, the men sent by Cornelius arrived.  Given the scope of the change predicted in the vision and the limited amount of time Peter had to think about it, you might understand if he had been a little slow to accept all this.  To his eternal credit, Peter figured it out and acted in obedience.

            The Holy Spirit revealed the visitors’ purpose to Peter, so he went down to meet them. (19-21)  The Spirit assured Peter that this development was a “God thing,” that he is not to worry about what they will say to him.  Peter may have been curious about why they’d come.

            The three men confirmed what the Spirit had revealed to Peter by filling in the details. (22)  This is verse is their summary of vs. 1-8.  Here are some of the details they supplied.

- Though a ROMAN OFFICER, their boss Cornelius was a DEVOUT and GOD-FEARING MAN.

- The Jews who lived in Caesarea respected him, approving of his faith.

- Cornelius had been visited by a HOLY ANGEL had visited Cornelius, instructing him to send men to Joppa to summon Peter and escort him to Cornelius.

- The purpose of all this was to bring Peter to Cornelius so he could receive God’s MESSAGE.

            Though they were Gentiles and being under the same roof with them violated common practice, Peter showed the men hospitality. (23)  Remember the rules Peter has broken already:

- He came to a Gentile city: Joppa

- He lived with a TANNER, a despised, unclean occupation.

            Now he’s inviting these Gentile messengers to stay overnight and agreeing to go with them to another Gentile city, Caesarea.  That city was VERY Gentile.

- It was named after the Roman ruler (Caesar) to flatter him.

- It was built for the Romans, a place that was supposed to resemble Rome.

- The population was predominantly Gentile: the most pious Jews refused to go there.

3. Peter stepped through Cornelius’ door. (23-29)

            Peter and some of the brothers went with the Gentile men to a Gentile city to meet Cornelius, a Gentile leader. (23-24)  Wisely, Peter did not go alone, but had CALLED TOGETHER HIS RELATIVES AND CLOSE FRIENDS to go with him.  In 11:12 we learn that SIX BROTHERS accompanied Peter and they would serve as witnesses to corroborate Peter’s testimony about the astounding things that happened there.

            Cornelius received Peter as some kind of divine messenger. (25-27)  As soon as Peter walked through his door, Cornelius treated him like a supernatural being: he FELL at Peter’s feet and WORSHIPED HIM.

            Peter accepted Cornelius as a fellow human being, as indicated in his response.  Peter hauled the ROMAN OFFICER to his feet, denying that he deserved worship.  Peter physically and symbolically put himself and Cornelius on the same level.

            We learned in verse 24 that Peter brought a group with him.  In verse 27 we’re told that Cornelius had assembled a crowd at his home.  Acts 8:40 tells us that Philip had spent some time evangelizing in Caesarea, so Peter’s message might not be entirely new to them.  The Jewish and Gentile groups came together in one place to hear Peter proclaim the truth about Jesus Christ.

            Peter explained his role in all of this. (28-29)  He began by telling them that Jewish law and custom did not allow the kind of gathering they were presently in.  The word may not carry the seriousness of law, but of being “taboo” or “frowned upon.”

            “BUT,” he added, God had taught him a lesson through the vision seen in Joppa.  That lesson was that he should never again regard anyone as IMPURE OR UNCLEAN because of their religion or ethnicity.  This means he understood the significance of the vision.

- The animals represented people.

- The clean animals represented the Jews who lived in accordance with God’s law.

- The unclean animals represented the Gentiles who were not keeping God’s law.

- God made the Gentiles clean through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.  Both Gentiles and Jews were now to be included among the people of God.

Interestingly, the Jews had a belief that when the Messiah came, all animals would be declared clean.  That is another effect of Jesus’ Resurrection

            Peter offered this explanation of why he agreed to accept Cornelius’ invitation to come to Caesarea.  In blunt and punctual Peter fashion, he then got to the point, saying to Cornelius, “NOW TELL ME WHY YOU SENT FOR ME.”

4. Comparing visions: Cornelius told his story. (30-33)

             In verses 30-32, Cornelius related to the group the vision that started all this, the original report in vs. 1-8.  Let’s observe some pertinent details:

- Praying at 3:00 was a Jewish custom.  This verse makes it plain that it was Cornelius’ habit to pray in the Jewish manner.

- Like Peter, Cornelius received his vision when he prayed.

- Cornelius’ vision was delivered by an ANGEL.  Peter reported hearing a VOICE, which is usually a reference to an angel.

- Cornelius’ angel assured him God was paying attention to him: “YOUR PRAYER HAS BEEN HEARD,” and “YOUR GIFTS TO THE POOR HAVE BEEN NOTICED.”

- Cornelius’ faithfulness was the reason God chose him for the important role of joining Peter and forming a bridge between Jews and Gentiles.  The angel gave Cornelius specific instructions about where Peter could be found and commanded he be brought to Caesarea.

            Cornelius explained his role in all of this in verse 32.  He obeyed God’s command immediately and sent men to fetch Peter.  In deference to what Peter said in v. 28, Cornelius acknowledged that it was good of Peter to come.

            Like Peter, Cornelius was anxious to get to the point: “NOW WE ARE ALL HERE, WAITING BEFORE GOD TO HEAR THE MESSAGE THE LORD HAS GIVEN YOU.”  Next week we’ll read Peter’s message and the reaction to it.

Sometimes momentous changes begin with God’s momentous actions.

            Acts 10-15 chronicle the first major change in the newly founded Church.  Most of the followers of Jesus had been Jews all their lives.  Many of them either innocently assumed or desperately wanted their new faith to be an offshoot of Judaism.  After all, they were faithful Jews when Jesus found them and they wanted to continue in the way of life they had known. 

            Such a feeling was understandable, but that didn’t make it right.  The first place where they were challenged to change was on this matter of including Gentiles in the faith.  The Apostle Peter was at the center of this struggle and our passage today shows how God guided him to change his views on non-Jews.  It will be a process for Peter, and as the New Testament reveals, neither he nor others understood nor approved of the change that was coming.

            I see Acts 10 as a parable of sorts, an example of how God directed one man to change some views that had been correct one, but had become outmoded by Jesus, the man Peter had spent three years learning from.  It’s hard to change and the process must start by our opening doors to one another.  Peter opened Simon’s door to receive Cornelius’ men and later Cornelius opened his door to welcome Peter to his home.

            Then, thanks to the visions both men had received, they were able to open their hearts and minds to hear each other’s words.  We’ll see next week what that openness achieved.

            I believe better relations can be achieved by sitting at the kitchen table than bargaining or conference table.  We need to create a safe place and time to encourage each other to be more like Jesus.  We all need to start by opening a door somewhere then opening our heart within us.

RESOURCES:

            Clark Cothern Tecumseh, as found on www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/c/change.htm, retrieved on 18 May 24.

            Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles, A Socio-rhetorical Commentary, 1998, pp. 349-354.

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