Acts is one of my absolute favorite books in the Bible. It is a reminder to me that we have the same Spirit within us that Jesus had. When acting according to His will and speaking by His name, we have the same authority over evil, sickness, pain, death. It is a reminder of Jesus’ command at the very end of Matthew 28 to go and make disciples of all the nations (anyone have a tally of how often I’ve quoted that? Missionary things, I guess). It is also a reminder of things that we should watch out for in ourselves and in the church that could hinder us from doing the best work we can for the Kingdom. One of these things is prejudice.
Today we are going to be looking at Acts 10. I recently led a discussion about this chapter with the youth group I used to be involved in at my church. I felt like it was something that more people may benefit from, so here we are. I encourage you to go read this chapter of the Bible before the rest of this post. However, I am also going to give a rundown of what happens. I still encourage you to go and study this chapter more on your own time!
Acts 10 begins with the Gentile Cornelius, a devout man from Caesarea, praying to God. During this time, an angel appears before him. The angel tells him that God is well pleased with him and to send for Simon Peter, who is in Joppa to learn what he must do. Cornelius sends some of his servants to Joppa to retrieve Peter after telling them about the angel who appeared to him.
At this time, Peter is staying with Simon, a tanner. It’s relevant to note that tanners were looked down upon by most Jews as they were considered much lower in status. Peter is hungry and decides to go upstairs to pray while food is being prepared. During this time of prayer, he is taken by a trance where he sees a variety of animals that would be considered “unclean” or “common” by Jewish law being lowered on a sheet. Peter hears God offer them to him to eat. He denies the food due to what he’s been taught about the animals. God says that what He’s made clean must not be called unclean or common. This vision happens 3 times before Peter comes out of it and is told by God that there are men (Cornelius’ servants) looking for him downstairs.
Peter goes to the men sent for him and introduces himself as the one they’re looking for. The men tell him how they were sent from a devout man named Cornelius to bring him back to Caesarea with them. They recount the angel that came to their master and how Peter was specified to him. It’s almost as if they are trying to convince Peter that despite them being Gentiles (and Romans at that), this is the real deal. Peter invites them to stay with them for the night (something Jews would generally not do with Gentiles. Simon’s status likely made him less concerned with it). The next morning, they set out for Caesarea – Cornelius’ men, Peter, and some Jews who had been staying with Peter in Joppa.
Upon arriving at Cornelius’ home, Peter finds many of the man’s family and friends there as well. Cornelius comes over and falls at his feet before Peter pulls him up and assures him that he is also just a man. Peter reminds all who are gathered about how it is unlawful for Jews to keep company with Gentiles, but goes on to tell them he’s been shown he mustn’t call any man unclean and came as soon as he was sent for. He asks why he was sent for, to which Cornelius tells him of the angel who came to him and how after sending for Peter the people all gathered to hear what God would command him to say.
Peter tells the entire group about how God does not show partiality, how He judges righteously, how He is Lord of all. He tells them about Jesus, that He died for all people, and the command to preach to Good News to the world. The Good News that whoever believes in Him would be granted freedom from sin. During this, the Holy Spirit came over all the people who heard this word. The Jews who came with Peter were shocked at this. Peter welcomes any challenge of whether water should be withheld for them to be baptized just as the Jews have been. With no (recorded) objection, Peter commands they be baptized. He is asked to stay a few days (remember that that would be unlawful). It is not recorded whether he accepts, but it is suggested that he did in Acts 11:3 when “those of circumcision” in Jerusalem complained of it.
I’m going to point out some significant things about this passage that I noticed as I studied it prior to the discussion I led. These are the things that stood out to me the most when considering this chapter with a focus on prejudice. A few notes:
1. Peter’s noted hunger before he goes into the trance (v. 10). Peter was not already content. He was hungry and still chose to deny food even when it was offered by God. Here’s the connection I see with this vision: Peter was hungry (desired to share the Gospel), God offered him food (Gentiles who needed to hear), but Peter denies the food because of what he’s been taught (won’t share with the Gentiles because of what he’s been taught). Ultimately God declares they’ve been made clean. That’s the most important note there.
2. God’s timing with Peter staying with Simon (a tanner) when Cornelius’ men are sent (v. 6). Generally speaking, Jews were not supposed to keep company with those of other nations. Imagine what people would think if they stayed in the same house. Even just a night. God knows these things and knew that whoever Peter was staying with when he met these people would have to have fewer reservations about housing Gentiles. Simon being a tanner would be ideal. He would have already been considered a lower class and in a sense unclean himself. Thus housing Gentiles wouldn’t really phase him.
3. Peter’s recognition of the equality between him and Cornelius (v. 26). We’ve seen how the Jews view Gentiles at this point in the New Testament. This is common knowledge among people at this time. I imagine Cornelius dropping to Peter’s feet is perhaps him trying to communicate to Peter gratitude for him coming despite what it could do to his image (that is mere speculation). This is when Peter pulls him up and tells him that he himself is also just a man. This is the second moment (the first being inviting in Cornelius’ men) that Peter presents a sense of equality between him and a Gentile.
4. Cornelius’ acknowledgement that it is God through Peter, not Peter himself (v. 33). Right from the beginning of this chapter, we can see that Cornelius’ loves God. This verse was important to me because he also understood God’s power within these sorts of things. That God was in control rather than Peter. I point this out because as outsiders it is easy for us to see that this Roman Gentile genuinely loved and sought God. The Jews on the other hand could not accept that people of other nations could also follow their Lord so devoutly. They were taught this sort of prejudice from childhood. It kept many from glorifying God’s name as it should have been. It would seem many of those in leadership were more concerned with keeping their status as the chosen people/nation than to bring God all the praise He deserves.
5. Peter’s companions’ shock at the Gentiles salvation and receiving of the Holy Spirit (v. 45-46). This verse is a reminder that while Peter had been shown the truth, there would be unlearning and learning necessary among the Jews. Just because it was revealed to Peter did not mean every Jew suddenly desired the salvation of the Gentiles. In Acts 11 we see this change begin as Peter shares what he’s learned with the church in Jerusalem. Additionally, in Acts 11 the same sort of thing was happening in Antioch and the church in Jerusalem ended up sending people to encourage them in the work. So, it was not only in Peter, but in many disciples that this truth was being revealed.
6. Peter staying with the Gentiles (v. 48, 11:3). Right at the end of the chapter Peter is invited to stay with the Gentiles he just ministered to. It does not explicitly say that Peter accepts the invitation, but at the beginning of Acts 11 it is suggested when he is scolded for it by the Jews in Jerusalem. I see this as a sort of completion in Peter’s growth, the capstone of him learning that Jesus’ death was for more than just the Jews and that his God is also their God.
Do you see how each of these notes has a focus on prejudice? This is one of four specific chapters I recall that show the shift of the church’s goal from “share the Gospel with all the Jews” to “share the Gospel with all the world” (Acts 8, 10, 11, 15). Do you believe the whole world needs to hear the Gospel? Do you have prejudice against some people (consider murderers, racists, rapists, thieves) that would keep you from saying “yes”?
Be honest with yourself, friend. If you do, I’d like to remind you that our role is not to decide who is worthy or desperate enough or ready to hear the Gospel. Our role is to tell the whole world about the goodness of God. The only reason why we ourselves are worthy is because we had the opportunity to hear God’s word and accept the love and salvation He had for us (John 3:16-17, Eph. 2:1-10). No matter their situation, without God, everyone is desperate for the truth. Just like we were before knowing Him.
I want to give you some things to think about as a challenge to the prejudice we so often face. Here are a few questions to consider: 1) How often do you find yourself surprised, skeptical, or even a bit upset about someone’s salvation? Think of the church’s reaction to Saul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-30). 2) Where does this sort of hate come from that we do not rejoice over someone no longer being subject to damnation? 3) Does it not bother you that they would’ve gone to hell or that there are people you know who would go to hell if they died today? These are tough questions, but they are ones worth asking when we find ourselves sitting in our prejudice, misconceptions, and judgment.
These are things I struggle with guys. It’s difficult to write stuff like this because it reveals those dark, dirty, too often covered-up places in my heart. But it’s worth it because the more light shined on them, the easier it is to clean them out. I know from speaking with other believers that I’m not the only one, and I’d be willing to bet that you have faced these things yourself at one point or another. It brings up some guilt to think about them, doesn’t it? That’s why I’m ending with this bit of encouragement for you: Guilt is a good thing when we recognize the conviction and take action to make things right (and are sure not to dwell on it) (2 Cor. 7:9-10). God made a way for Peter and the early church to break through each of their lifetime of prejudice toward Gentiles. He made a way for Saul to go from persecuting Christians to becoming one himself. He can transform us in the same way.
It takes obedience and active participation on our part (both given examples reveal that). It probably won’t be easy for you (it definitely hasn’t been for me). Prejudice stokes the ego of our flesh, and that’s something it will not want to give up. Continue to put your faith in God and fight for the freedom of your heart from prejudice. It is worth it.
Thank you for reading! Once again, this sort of stuff is difficult for me to write because I know I’ve been guilty of this sort of prejudice and I’m sure I will face similar situations in the future that I will have to own up to and sort out. These sorts of challenges are not fun. They are not glamorous. They are the painful act of uprooting old ways of thinking and cultivating new, fruitful ways of thinking. It’s worth the pain and discomfort. I hope we all find ourselves dwelling on love rather than judgment this week, and glorifying God more than ourselves. Abide in Him. May He bless you and keep you. Have a wonderful week!