The coming of the Holy Spirit begins to quickly reshape the world for Jesus’ followers. Before Acts 2, their reality centers on Jesus, resurrected and physically present with them. What Roman guard or Jewish leader dares approach Jesus’ band of disciples with the evidence of resurrection sitting in their midst? They seem to steer clear of any association lest the rumors we hear about in Matthew prove disputable. But now a new rumor begins to circulate: Jesus is gone; he’s no longer with them. Without Jesus, persecution and a change in geography quickly reshape the lives of the disciples. It’s now Peter’s turn, along with the other disciples and followers and in the power of the Holy Spirit, to bear the image of God.
The Unlikely Place Where The Holy Spirit Moved
But, there’s a challenge. It might be the same one that we sometimes face when we ask, “Do I really have to take the Gospel there? To those people? To that man? Certainly that’s not what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.'” If there hasn’t been a moment in your ministry–or, more than likely, a season–when you felt this resistance to God’s outward call, then it’s coming. (For me, it seems to be a daily occurrence, a wrestling match with God.) The disciples, for the most part, understand Jesus’ message to be exclusive for the Jewish people in spite of Jesus’ clear directive to make disciples of all nations.
When we get to Acts 10, all that changes for Peter. Perhaps Philip already wakes to the far reach of the message when an angel of the Lord directs him to find an Ethiopian eunuch who needs clarification about Isaiah in Acts 8. In Acts 9, Luke introduces the story of Saul’s conversion on the Damascus road with the words of Jesus, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles…” (9:15). Peter now gets awakened as God moves in and orchestrates the encounter with Cornelius.
Cornelius is a Roman centurion, someone who helps keep Rome’s power stable in the region. He is stationed in Caesarea Maritima, as we refer to it today, a military town on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s about 40 miles north of Joppa, where Peter is on a roof, praying. An angel of the Lord comes to Cornelius because he’s not your ordinary Roman. He’s kind, benevolent, and prayerful, so much so that the angel says his gifts to the poor have come up to God as a memorial offering. The angel tells him where to find Peter and to go bring him to Caesarea. It’s all in response to a prayer of Cornelius which we aren’t given. We can assume it’s a prayer for God to reveal himself to him–his will, his ways, his truth.
What a remarkable story of God’s working in the life of Cornelius! We all know people in our church that others dismiss as lost causes. Maybe we dismiss them too. Peter had no idea that God was stirring in a centurion’s heart (of all people), and that Peter himself would come into the military city of Caesarea Maritima to baptize this man and his family, counting them among Jesus’ followers.
The feast that falls down from Heaven in Peter’s vision is a platter of unclean animals. A voice tells him to kill and eat the animals. “Surely not, Lord,” Peter replies, rightly labeling the animals as unclean, according to Levitical teaching. The response is a shock. “Do not call anything impure that God has made.”
The interaction occurs three times, like Peter’s denial and his restoration at the end of John’s Gospel. Peter doesn’t know what to do. He sits and thinks about what it means. Now the Spirit prompts him. “Simon, three men are looking for you… Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” Between the vision and the Holy Spirit, God gets Peter’s attention. Are we as clear and sober-minded to listen and react? Sometimes I feel I’m so busy that if a message did come to me, I’d have a thousand excuses as to its reason and what my response should be. Peter sits and thinks. He waits on the Lord, and the Lord answers him–not completely, but enough to take the next step.
When he meets the men and follows them to Cornelius’s house, he finds a large crowd of Cornelius’s relatives and close friends. Peter says to them, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (10:28).
After Cornelius tells the story of his angelic message, Peter remarkably responds, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (10:34-35). Is this the same Peter? He goes on to tell those who are gathered about his relationship with Jesus and the truth of his death and resurrection. Then, the Holy Spirit comes down and, “The circumcised believers were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45).
Peter’s vision isn’t about unclean animals; it’s about unclean people that God came to redeem–the uncircumcised, the non-Jewish, the outcast, the sinner. It’s about the opening of the Gospel to people like you and me. For a long time, I didn’t connect these dots of the feast from Heaven and the path to Caesarea, but the text obviously moves in this direction.
Peter is distracted by who gets to come to Jesus, but God corrects him in the most unlikely of places: a pagan military outpost. It’s here where the Gospel begins to move out of the expected bounds, as Peter baptizes these Gentiles in the name of Jesus Christ. And it’s a testimony that is heard throughout Judea. In Acts 11, Peter has to explain his actions. His statement at the end might unsettle us. “I remembered what the Lord had said,” Peter tells them, “‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?” (11:16-17). The next verse is a testimony to the humility the Holy Spirit brings: “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life'” (11:18).
How do we hear from God in our ministry? Do we give enough space in our week to sit and wait on him? Are we confident enough in the Holy Spirit’s work to move out in our ministry – off into a place where we might know the next step, but not the one after it? Are we urging our parishioners to actively seek God by slowing down and waiting on him. The story of Peter and Cornelius points to the Holy Spirit working in advance of their actions. The praise song by Don Moen says, “God will make a way, where there seems to be no way. He works in ways we cannot see; he will make a way for me. By a roadway in the wilderness, He’ll lead me. And rivers in the desert will I see. Heaven and Earth will fade, but His Word will still remain. And He will do something new today.” Let us trust him anew today and call our congregations to do the same.
Zach Kincaid is a part of the Sharefaith Editorial Team. He manages workoutyourfaith.com and has written on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and general Christian thought for more than 15 years. He is a husband, father, and collaborator on a variety of Christian outreach projects including films and educational resources.