Loving in a Divided Culture


Lesson Focus:  God doesn’t show favoritism and neither should we.

Challenge Your Assumptions:  Acts 10:9-15.

[9]  The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. [10]  And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance [11]  and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. [12]  In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. [13]  And there came a voice to him: "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." [14]  But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." [15]  And the voice came to him again a second time, "What God has made clean, do not call common."

The tenth chapter of Acts has been described as providing one of the clearest examples of how the message of the young church spread through the preaching of the Word. But in order to understand the chapter, we must first appreciate just how significant the detailed laws relating to food were to the Jews. Along with circumcision and Sabbath laws, Israel’s dietary regulations set the Jews apart in a visible way. They functioned in the most practical way imaginable, as markers that distinguished Israel from the Gentiles. These distinctions were what differentiated them as Jews no matter where they went in the world. Peter’s strong protests to God in this chapter were indicative of just how important the Jewish dietary laws were. In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14:3-12, we see that the food restrictions were not due to any hygiene or health reasons, but their purpose was moral and spiritual, designed to create a difference between Israel and Canaan. In Acts 10:9-16, the food that Peter was asked to eat was not in itself intrinsically evil, thus morally defiling those who ate it. Instead, it was God’s prohibition, deeming certain foods off-limits to the Israelites, that made the act of eating the food immoral. This is why, in answer to Peter’s protestations, God said, What God has made clean, do not call common. Since there was no inherent poison making the food unclean to eat, we are left with the question: Why did God originally forbid Israel certain foods? The answer lies in understanding how God taught Israel to regard themselves as different from the rest of the world. They were God’s people, set apart from the surrounding nations, and their lifestyle was to reflect this. As a result of compliance with these food laws, fraternization with Gentiles became difficult, if not impossible. Jews and Gentiles did not mix socially. They did not eat in each other’s company and were not invited to each other’s homes. The separation of Jew and Gentile had an immediate social implication. In the early stages of Israel’s existence, when the need to separate from the social and religious behavior of the Canaanites was paramount, these food laws had a way of ensuring a barrier between the two peoples. These barriers, in turn, created other issues. The Jewish understanding of holiness was marked by three problems. First, Israel began to think the barrier implied that they were intrinsically better than Gentiles, whom they called “dogs.” They forgot that their separation had been due not to intrinsic holiness on their part, but to the grace of and love of God [see Deut. 7:7-8]. Second, the Israelites began to confuse moral and spiritual holiness. They began to think that merely eating proper food ensured moral separation. This is why Jesus reinforced that it is not what goes into a person that defiles [Mark 7:14-23]. Thus, much of Jesus’ ministry focused on the difference between external and internal holiness. True holiness touches the heart. It cleanses the conscience. Washing the outside of a cup does not ensure that the inside is clean. Third, the Israelites began to think their relationship to God was a proprietary one. No matter how bad they were, there were still the people of God. And no matter how “good” the Gentiles might be, they were still outcasts. When Peter in his rooftop vision was told that one of the principal markers distinguishing Jew and Gentile was now abolished, his entire worldview was under threat. It leveled the playing field: the Jew could never legitimately claim, in himself, to be special or different from a Gentile. And Peter protested loudly and repeatedly. It has been suggested that Acts 10 is as much about the conversion of Peter (from racial prejudice) as it is about the conversion of Cornelius. Four ‘hammer blows of revelation’ force Peter’s compliance. The first is one of divine vision in which Peter was shown a sheet let down from heaven containing clean and unclean animals, reptiles, and birds. God’s voice was heard, saying, Rise, Peter, kill and eat. The second was a divine command to accompany the men who had come from Cornelius to fetch Peter, even though they were Gentiles. The third was the divine preparation; an angel had told Cornelius to fetch Peter. Luke tells the story of two events taking place at the same time: in Cornelius’ home [10:1-8] and Simon the tanner’s home, where Peter was lodging [10:9-23]. The fourth and final ‘hammer blow’ is the divine action that accompanies Peter’s words in Cornelius’ home with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit [10:44-48]. These four hammer blows of revelation were all aimed deftly at Peter’s racial prejudice. Together they demonstrated conclusively that God had welcomed Gentile believers into His family on equal terms with believing Jews. The right deduction was immediately made: since God had given the same gift of the Spirit to Gentiles and Jews, the church must give them an equal welcome. If God had given them Spirit baptism, the church must not deny them water baptism.


[9-15]  As Cornelius’ servants and soldier were nearing Joppa and asking the whereabouts of Simon’s residence, Peter sought solitude for prayer on the house’s flat roof. His hunger apparently disturbed his prayer and set servants to work preparing a noon meal, but God would use that hunger to teach Peter a world-shaking lesson. Peter fell into a trance, a deep sleep like that of Adam when God created Eve [Gen. 2:21] and of Abraham when God’s fiery glory passed between animal carcasses, securing God’s covenant promises [Gen. 15:12]. The mode of revelation differed from the way that Cornelius, wide-awake, saw God’s angel clearly, but the divine origin and authority were the same. Peter saw heaven opened, as often occurred when God disclosed unseen realities to His spokesmen, and something like a vast sheet or tablecloth being lowered by its four corners. More important than the container were its contents: all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds of the air – every variety of livestock and wildlife that God had created and preserved in the ark built by Noah. In Noah’s ark, however, a distinction was made between clean and unclean animals [Gen. 7:2-3], foreshadowing the Levitical dietary laws [Lev. 11]. God had set Noah and his family apart from their ungodly neighbors, just as He would set Israel apart from theirs. The distinction in diet between clean or holy and unclean or common symbolized that sovereign discrimination by which the Lord consecrated Israel to Himself [Lev. 20:24-26]. Against this background God’s command to Peter was shocking: kill and eat any of the creatures he saw in the vision, even those on the forbidden list of Leviticus 11. Peter’s sharp retort, By no means, Lord is more emotional than logical. How dare he address the Speaker as Lord and refuse Him in the same breath? In fact, his reaction reproduced that of the ancient priest and prophet Ezekiel, when God commanded him to eat food prepared in a non-kosher way [Ez. 4:9-14]. Both resisted God’s command to violate the Law’s purity regulations, protesting that they had never eaten ceremonially unclean meat. God had different lessons to teach His two servants: Ezekiel must eat in order to symbolize Israel’s defilement, like the Gentiles. Peter must partake in order to picture the Gentiles’ cleansing to become God’s people, like Israel. Jesus had taught that what defiles people is not the food that enters their mouths but the words that leave their mouths, which reveal the corrupt motives of sin-stained hearts. Thus Jesus declared all foods clean [Mark 7:19]. Peter, however, had not yet seen Jesus’ point and needed correction by the heavenly voice: What God has made clean, do not call common. Amazingly, Peter dared to refuse God’s command (and receive God’s rebuke) not once but three times [16]. Although he had not come to Joppa to hop on a ship as Jonah had done, Peter was no more willing to mingle with Gentiles than the prophet had been. On the other hand, the Lord used Peter’s stubbornness to drive home His own message repeatedly: when God performs the cleansing, no mere human can contradict His verdict. The threefold repetition of the vision showed that the thing is fixed by God and God will shortly bring it about. God was about to cleanse for Himself what had been considered incorrigibly defiled. His focus of concern was not the menu, but men and women [10:28].

Change Your Behavior:  Acts 10:22-23, 28-29.

[22]  And they said, "Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say." [23]  So he invited them in to be his guests. The next day he rose and went away with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him. [28]  And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. [29]  So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me."  [ESV]

[22-23]  Cornelius’ delegation informed Peter of their master’s reputation for righteousness and of the angelic vision he had received, adding now the detail that Cornelius was awaiting what Peter would have to say upon entering the centurion’s home. In the message carried by Peter lay salvation for Cornelius and his household [11:14]. Through successive retellings of Cornelius’ vision, the spotlight is focused ever more pointedly on the saving power of God’s Word in the mouth of God’s messenger. Though himself a guest of Simon the tanner, Peter extended hospitality to the Gentile representatives of a Gentile military officer, bringing them under the roof on which he had puzzled over God’s cleansing of the unclean, and seating them at table with himself and his host. Fissures were weakening the wall between Jew and Gentile, between insider and alien. Through those cracks Peter glimpsed what he would soon see clearly: the blazing glory of Christ’s grace, purifying all sorts of human hearts by faith [15:9-11].

[28-29]  A two-day journey brought Cornelius’ three messengers, Peter, and six of the brothers from the church in Antioch [10:23; 11:12] to Cornelius’ home in Caesarea in the late afternoon, around the time that the angel had appeared to Cornelius four days earlier [30]. Cornelius was not only eagerly expecting their arrival, but he had also gathered a large group of his relatives and close friends to hear the message from God that Peter brought. Upon entering Cornelius’ home and finding a crowd assembled, Peter reminded the group that association with Gentiles, especially in a Gentile’s house, was forbidden for Jews. It was one thing for Peter to welcome Cornelius’ delegation into Simon’s home to eat kosher Jewish food at the tanner’s table, and quite another for Peter and his fellow Jews to enter a Gentile home, where Levitical scruples were not observed in preparing food. Yet Peter had grasped the implications of his rooftop vision. God Himself had taught him not to call any man impure or unclean, ceremonially defiled and defiling others. At a later point in Antioch, under peer pressure, Peter would retreat in practice from this gospel-informed breakthrough [Gal. 2:11-16], but in Caesarea and in Jerusalem he stood true to the new insight that God had given him despite the criticism he received [11:2]. He was ready not only to associate with Cornelius and company, but also to serve them, when the centurion clarified the purpose for which he had summoned Peter.


Clarify That Jesus is Lord of All:  Acts 10:34-36.

[34]  So Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, [35]  but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. [36]  As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all),  [ESV]

[34-36]  Peter begins the fourth of his messages in Acts [2:14-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12] with another remarkable confession: Truly I understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. The vision given to Peter [10:10-16], together with the realization that God had been communicating directly with Cornelius [10:30-33], has led him to this conclusion. Peter now sees this biblical teaching more sharply and more clearly, for it is being demonstrated in a new way. A key text on this theme is Deuteronomy 10:17-19. Although God gave a special status and role to Israel, He declared His intention to bless the nations through His chosen people. We see that happening in various ways, as some were brought into the sphere of Israelite life, and others were blessed by God without joining that community. Cornelius was acceptable to God because of a God-given faith which found practical expression in godly living. This was his response to the revelation of God conveyed to him by believing Israelites, not simply the result of his reflections on God from the created order. Nevertheless, as a believer in the God of special revelation, he still needed to hear the gospel and trust in Jesus as the Messiah to experience the blessings of the New Covenant. He was not converted from idolatry or a dissolute life, but when he came to understand the significance of Jesus and His ministry it changed his life dramatically. Peter’s further assertion that God accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right is not a claim that all religions lead to God, but another way of affirming God’s impartiality in judgment and salvation. What counts with God is not outward appearance, race, nationality, or class, since in every nation whoever fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him. Peter was not claiming that God’s welcome is based on their works, for he would go on to promise forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus’ name [43]. Rather, doing right – such as Cornelius’ prayers and alms – displays a heart that fears the Lord, casting itself on divine mercy in humble trust. This does not mean that Cornelius was already saved before he met Peter, but that non-Jews are acceptable or welcome to come to Christ on the same basis as Jews. Anyone like Cornelius, who genuinely fears God and expresses that fear by doing what is right in God’s eyes, must still come to Christ for salvation. There is no ground here for arguing that God will save people apart from an articulate faith in Christ. Indeed, Peter underscores the universal scope of God’s favor in 10:43 by insisting that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name [10:43]. Forgiveness is available for everyone who believes in Him, but forgiveness through His name implies calling upon the name of Christ for that blessing. Peter reminds his Gentile audience that God sent the message of the gospel to the people of Israel, preaching the good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all. Peace in Luke-Acts is a synonym for salvation as it is in Isaiah 52:7, involving release from the judgment of God through the forgiveness of sins and freedom to serve God in holiness and righteousness. However, since Jesus is Lord of all, His message of peace is for all who fear Him. Jews and Gentiles who are reconciled to God through Christ can therefore experience a new peace with one another in Christ. The overall perspective of Luke-Acts is that the messianic lordship of Jesus, which brings peace to the Jewish people in fulfillment of scriptural promises, applies to all peoples, for they are invited to share with Israel in this messianic peace.


Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why did God originally forbid Israel certain foods? Why did the coming of Christ remove these dietary laws?

2.         What three problems did the Jewish understanding of holiness cause?

3.         What are the “four hammer blows of revelation” that caused Peter to change his racial prejudice?

4.         Is there a class or category of people that you have avoided or mentally dismissed as beyond the reach of Christ’s cleansing grace? Is there anyone with whom you would not eat?


Acts, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker.

The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Pillar, Eerdmans.

Let’s Study Acts, Dennis Johnson, Banner of Truth.

Acts, Derek Thomas, P&R Publishing.

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