I'm going to try a literary exercise. I've been reading through Acts, and recently read chapter 10 and was struck by how powerful the implications are. Especially for those living in the Western world.
The gospel is a powerful thing. It can instantly captivate and and slowly shock one who is simply not ready for it.
Peter simply wasn't ready for it. I'm certain Cornelius wasn't anticipating such wondrous things either.
Cornelius is described as devout and God-fearing. The Greek word for 'devout' in this context has connotations of being 'pious.' The Greek verb 'phobeo' can mean fear or terror. The fear or terror of God, and a pious nature. According to Ben Witherington, he was "a man of some status and rank...he is depicted as performing most of the typical duties of a Jew (prayer, fasting, almsgiving). It may be said that Luke goes out of his way to make clear that neither Jesus nor his followers were antagonistic towards the Roman presence in the East or elsewhere, and that in fact even Roman soldiers found this new movement appealing and worth joining." (1)
And this pious and God-fearing man is granted a vision from the one he fears. It is almost as if God accepted this worship and right action, in spite of the fact that he was a gentile. Peter is then called.
Peter is afraid. As many are today, he worries about compromise. He is a Jew. He abides by such rules. However, Peter does often get overshadowed by Paul (especially the idea of neither Jew nor Gentile in Galatians 3), but here we get to see the set-up to Peter's eventual transformation. Peter is praying, roughly around noon, which suggests his attention to regular devotion. He is then granted a vision that results in various animals being offered to him.
Luke's mentioning of "something like" in verse 11 suggests that the intent isn't a literal detail. Which makes me wonder how amazing such a thing could look when "something like" is the best Luke can do. Peter is then told to "kill and eat." His response "by no means" also echoes Paul, who personally favors such strong refutation (see Romans 6:1-2).
Peter's adherence to the law doesn't allow him to feast, and the voice speaks "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happens three times.
Think about that.
The images of baptism, of cleansing, or the many laws of Leviticus come to mind.
And yet the voice almost chastises Peter, hinting at the future idea of redemption, of gospel-infused revelation. Peter is intent upon keeping his heritage, of keeping his commission and this means no compromise. The sheet is taken away, and Peter is greeted by Cornelius's entourage, sent to bring him.
Cornelius falling to Peter's feet is akin to a slave bowing before an uncertain slave master. The language is rife with reverence. I imagine Peter, though cautious and on edge, almost nudging the man with his foot, telling him to rise. Another interesting note. Cornelius may have thought Peter as an angel or having some form of divinity. This may be why Peter stresses his own mortality. (2) The set-up is primed.
Almost in spite of Peter's caution, he seems to take the voice to heart, echoing the "unclean" rhetoric he was given earlier. In the midst of a large gathering of people (v27), Cornelius explains what the figure told him, stating that God told him to bring Peter here. Then he says that they are waiting for Peter's words.
And it clicks.
Everything falls into Peter's lap, and his next words set off a movement that has exploded in the expansion of the Gospel to all ends of the earth.
"I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him."
Peter preached the gospel to a gentile, and the gentile responded. Peter's fear of losing his Jewish identity was lost to his shock and amazement that God was and is at work in all nations, drawing all people to Himself.
The Gospel is living without fear.
The Gospel is healing all.
Gospel is inclusion into the fold of God, and we are to bring such
inclusion to those that are excluded, that are bastardized and marginalized and under the power of evil, and to bring
the way of the One who has given such amazing things to us.
1. Witherington, "The Acts of the Apostles" pg347.
2. Ibid. pg352.