In Acts chapters 2-9 the church had taken the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. The only part of the church’s Acts 1:8 challenge left to be obeyed was “the ends of the earth.” That meant the people who lived far from Jerusalem, far from Judaism (Gentiles), and deep in the darkness of lostness. How could the light of Jesus shine to those people? You have to start somewhere, right? In Acts chapter 10, we read how God started the mission to the ends of the earth by answering the prayers of an Italian soldier in the seaside city of Caesarea.
Cornelius was a centurion in the Roman army, with command over 100 soldiers, and he was stationed in Israel. There were many centurions stationed all over the empire, but there was something unusual about Cornelius. The terms in verse 2, “devout, God-fearing,” refer to a Gentile (non-Jew) who had abandoned the worship of the false gods of the Roman pantheon and had converted to Judaism. He was involved in some way in the worship of the God of Israel.
We learn also that Cornelius gave a lot of money to the poor, most likely in support of those within the synagogues of Caesarea, perhaps the widows. On top of that it says that he prayed to God always — evidently he was seeking the truth. Later (v.30) we learn that he was fasting, an indication that he was not a casual seeker, but that he was desperate for God to answer him. Cornelius had learned a great deal about God, but he wanted to really know God – and so he had been spending a lot of time in prayer.
Being a good person, a sincere person, a religious person was not enough. Adopting a new religion had not saved Cornelius. Joining a synagogue had not saved him. Giving a lot of money had not earned salvation for him. Living a good, moral life had not saved his soul. The only way Cornelius could be saved was by the grace of God, and this chapter is about the grace reaching down to that centurion. Cornelius was seeking God, but God was also seeking Cornelius! Think about the situation God arranged to get the gospel to him:
At about 3:00 in the afternoon, an angel appeared and told him, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayers and He is going to send someone to tell you what you have been seeking.” But before God’s chosen witness could go, he needed a serious attitude adjustment.
Meanwhile, the apostle Peter was on the roof of his friend Simon’s beach house, drowsily waiting for his lunch. As he dozed off, God gave him a dream of a large tablecloth filled with all kinds of things Peter was supposed to eat. The only problem was that these animals were unclean (not kosher). In the kosher laws in Leviticus chapter 11, several unclean animals are mentioned that could have been on the tablecloth: camels, rabbits, badgers, and pigs; seagulls, ostriches, and owls; moles, mice, and lizards — but Peter didn’t see anything appetizing. He said, “No, Lord! I don’t eat things that are unclean!” God answered, “Peter, what I have declared to be clean, don’t call it unclean.” In other words, “What I have accepted, you must not reject.” What was happening here? God used this vision to prepare Peter to accept something he had never accepted before: the gospel is for the Gentiles, too.
Jews considered Gentiles like Cornelius to be vile, unclean people. They avoided touching them and even being in the same room with them. But Peter’s statement in verse 28 reveals that he understood the vision: it wasn’t about animals at all — it was about people. I think the best way to understand Peter’s vision is to see the four corners of the tablecloth (v.11) as representing the four points of Acts 1:8, Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. The variety of animals represents all the billions of people who populate the earth — different colors, races, languages, and people groups. And all these were let down from heaven, representing all those who will hear the gospel and be saved, all those people Jesus died for, all those people God loves and desires to save. God really had changed Peter’s heart about the Gentiles.
Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius and his family and friends (v.34-43). Verse 43 is the gospel in a nutshell: everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins. Peter was unable to finish his sermon because “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word” (v.44). As soon as Cornelius and his friends heard that forgiveness was available through faith in Jesus, they simply believed and were born again on the spot! (For the sake of Peter and the six Jewish believers with him, God also gave the same signs they had experienced at Pentecost, v.45-46.)
And so Peter, unable to deny that these Gentiles had been truly saved — and were in fact just as saved as he was — did exactly what was done when people were saved at Pentecost: he baptized them. What an amazing moment in the history of the faith! Gentiles were being saved! Aren’t you glad that the grace of God extends to everyone?