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THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART SEVENTEEN

SERMON DELIVERED ON 09-08-18

       Last week in my continuing series on the Book of Acts, we discussed how Saul became Paul and we took a comprehensive look at what it meant for Paul to travel to Arabia after his conversion.  We concluded with Peter in Joppa raising Tabitha from the dead.  With that we concluded Acts, chapter 9 and today will begin with Acts, chapter 10.

       The entirety of chapter 10 is an account of the conversion of the centurion Cornelius and his family and how this event convinced Peter and his associates that salvation through the Christ event was not only for Israel but also for non-Israelites who were generally referred to as Gentiles.  It is generally taught that Cornelius was the first Gentile convert to Christianity.  So the first question we must address is this: Was Cornelius and his family the first Gentile converts to Christianity?

       What about the Ethiopian eunuch that became a Christian following the intervention of Phillip?  Was he a Gentile? We covered that event in some detail previously and speculated that the Ethiopian eunuch could have been an Ethiopian Jew as there were Jews living throughout the region including Ethiopia. He could have been a descendant of one of the tribes of Israel who became a high ranking official in the government of Candice, queen of the Ethiopians.

       On the other hand, he could have been a Gentile proselyte.  Religiously speaking, a proselyte is a person who converts from having no religious affiliation to having one or from changing from one religious affiliation to a different religious affiliation.  A Gentile could convert to being a Jew by becoming circumcised and committing to following Mosaic regulations.  There are a number of such conversions seen throughout Biblical history.  The Mosaic system actually had regulations pertaining to such conversions.

       If indeed the eunuch was a Gentile turned Jewish proselyte, his conversion to Christianity would have been more like a Jewish conversion to Christianity than Gentile conversion which we see with Cornelius.   

       What about the conversion of Samaritans at the preaching of Phillip?  The Samaritan’s were Israelites who had intermarried with Babylonian Gentiles during and after the Babylonian captivity. Therefore they were a mixed breed of people and not strictly Gentiles.

       Last time we discussed how Paul is seen after his conversion to have travelled to Arabia and then back to Damascus before travelling to Jerusalem to meet with some of the Apostles.  As discussed last time, some scholars have theorized that Paul began to preach to Gentiles in parts of Arabia in immediate response to him being directed by Christ to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. This would imply there were Gentile converts before the Cornelius event.

       However, Paul gaining Gentile converts prior to the Cornelius event is speculative and cannot be scripturally or historically documented. All Scriptural indications are that Paul initially preached the Gospel to the Jews and after much resistance from them dedicated himself to preaching to the Gentiles. It must be remembered that Paul was told by Jesus that he would be taking the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles.  We see this in Paul’s recitation of his conversion experience before King Agrippa.

       Acts 26:15-18: "Then I asked, `Who are you, Lord?'   "`I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied. Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'

       We see Paul immediately after his conversion preaching to the Jews in Damascus. It’s recorded in Acts 9:22 that Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.  After Paul escaped Damascus and traveled to Jerusalem it is recorded he was debating with the Grecian Jews and they tried to kill him.

       We see in Acts 13 that Paul and Barnabas were preaching the Gospel message primarily to the Jews but when the Jews by and large rejected the message, Paul and Barnabas focused their attention on the Gentiles.

       Acts 13: 45-47: When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: "We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: "`I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.' "

       So while Paul is commonly seen as the Apostle to the Gentiles, he was also an Apostle to the Jews and as we will see as we move through Acts, Paul continued to minister to the Jews when opportunity presented itself.

       With this background as to Paul’s ministry being initially to the Jews, it can be safely concluded that the Cornelius event is what opened the door to Paul and other of the Apostles taking the Gospel to the Gentiles.     

       Acts 10:1-2:  At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.

       Acts 10 begins with telling us there was at Caesarea a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment.  It is reported that he and all his family were devout and God-fearing and that he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.  Let’s unpack this passage a little bit.

       As previously discussed, Caesarea was a Roman city on the Mediterranean about 40 miles west of Jerusalem. Cornelius was a centurion stationed in Caesarea. A centurion was a ranked soldier, a captain over 100 foot soldiers in a legion of 6000. Centurions were considered the backbone of the Roman army.  They were identified by wearing a special helmet, and more ornate garments than ordinary soldiers.

       Cornelius is shown to be of the Italian Regiment which appears to mean he and the soldiers he commanded were recruited out of Italy as opposed to some other area of the Roman Empire.

       It is recorded that he and all his family were devout and God-fearing.  What does that mean relative to this Gentile centurion named Cornelius?  Within Judaism, to be devout and fear God was to live according to the requirements of the Mosaic Covenant. It meant you were circumcised. It meant you worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  It meant you were monotheistic. Cornelius was an uncircumcised Gentile as clearly shown in Acts 11.

       Acts 11:1-3: The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them."

       It should be clear that Cornelius, being an uncircumcised Gentile, was not a follower of the Mosaic Covenant. He was not a Jewish proselyte. Furthermore, being the military man he was, he would have been on duty 24/7.  He would not have been keeping the Sabbath, Holy Days or dietary laws.  So in what respect was he “devout and God-fearing?”  He was living in a polytheist society. The Roman’s, like the Greek’s, worshipped many gods.

       Well, as a history of the first century shows, not all Romans or Greeks were polytheist.  There were those who recognized there was only one God and worshiped accordingly.  Cornelius was one of those people who understood there to be only one God. He may not have viewed that one God through the eyes of the Mosaic regulations but he apparently understood the moral obligations associated with the one God and ordered his life and the life of his family accordingly. This is confirmed by what Peter tells Cornelius and those with him.

       Acts 10:34-35: "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. 

        Fearing God and doing what is right for Israel was defined by the Mosaic Covenant.  This covenant was made between God and Israel and not God and Gentiles. Doing what was right for Cornelius and his family was keeping the moral law that has existed from the time of the Garden of Eden.  Such behaviors as murder, adultery, theft, lying and other such actions are seen as prohibited in Scripture way before there was an Old Covenant and were behavioral regulations established for all humanity.

       It is apparent that Cornelius was a man that recognized who the one true God was and that this God was to be honored by living a moral life which included regularly praying to this God and giving to the needy. 

       Acts 10: 3-4…: One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, "Cornelius!"  Cornelius stared at him in fear. "What is it, Lord?" he asked.  

       Acts 10:4-5: …."Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.      

       Beginning in verse three of Acts ten, we have the account of Cornelius having a vision were an angel of God appears to him and tells him that his prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.  The angel instructs Cornelius to send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.   

       The Greek word rendered “memorial” means to remember.  Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines it as “that by which the memory of any person or thing is preserved.”  This word appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark where Jesus instructs that the women who poured expensive oil on Him as an anointing for his burial would always be remembered for her deed.

       In the case of this centurion, his prayers and giving to the poor are seen as being a remembered offering to God.  Prayer and doing good deeds such as looking after the poor is one way we worship and glorify God and in the case of Cornelius, it led to God to selecting him to become the first Gentile convert to Christianity.       

       Cornelius is instructed to send for a man named Simon who is called Peter. Last week we discussed how Saul became Paul and determined that Saul was always Paul and Paul was always Saul.  I explained how this man had these two names from the time he was a youth. There is no Scriptural reason to believe Jesus changed Saul’s name to Paul as some believe.

       In the case of Simon being called Peter, the situation is quite different.  Here we find it clearly documented in Scripture that it is Jesus who gave the disciple Simon the name Peter.  The Gospel of John records this occurring at the time Peter was called to be a disciple.  Here we see Andrew, the brother of Simon, bringing Simon to Jesus and Jesus immediately giving Simon a second name. The Gospel of Mark clearly shows this as well.

       John 1:42: And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas" (which, when translated, is Peter {Greek petros}). 

        Mark 3:16: These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter {petros});

       “Cephas” is an Aramaic word which means a small stone.  John transliterates “Cephas” into the Greek word petros which also means a small stone and English translations render the Greek petros as Peter. So Jesus nicked named Simon a stone. The name stuck and became the primary name by which this disciple became known.  He is called Peter 162 times in the NT.

       It is instructive that while Jesus gave Simon the nick name stone as seen in John 1:42, the Gospels show Jesus addressing him as stone only two other times while at all others times addressing him as Simon. Here are the two additional times Jesus addresses Simon as stone.  When Jesus asked Simon who he thought Jesus was, Simon replied that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Here is how Jesus replied.

       Matthew 16:16-18: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (Greek petros {a small stone}), and on this rock (Greek petra {a large rock}) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

       When Peter told Jesus he was ready to go with Him to prison and even to die for him, Jesus addressed him once again as a small stone and said the following:

       Luke 22: 34: Jesus answered, "I tell you, Peter (Greek petros {a small stone}), before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me."

       Why did Jesus nick name Simon a stone?  What message was He conveying to Simon?  It would appear that Jesus was telling Simon that of himself, Simon was nothing.  He was equivalent to a small stone. The first time Jesus addresses Simon as a stone is when Peter acknowledges Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  Jesus tells Simon he was able to do this not because of some special insights that, he, Simon had, but because God the Father revealed this to him. When Simon says he is willing to die for Jesus, Jesus addresses him as a stone once again in telling him he will deny Jesus three times, thus showing Simon’s human weakness.

       This is all in contrast to Jesus identifying Himself as a petra, a large boulder-like rock upon which the church would be built. This is the only logical conclusion one can reach when noting the contrast between a petros and a petra. Peter could not have been named a small stone and in the same sentence be identified as the large rock upon which the church would be built.

       While Peter was used mightily by God to build the superstructure of the church, the church is clearly seen in Scriptures as having its foundation established in Christ.  Simon, the small stone, says so much himself in a letter he wrote to Christians scattered throughout the region.

       1 Peter 1: 6-8: For in Scripture it says: "See, I lay a stone (Greek lithos) in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame." Now to you who believe, this stone (lithos) is precious. But to those who do not believe, "The stone (lithos) the builders rejected has become the capstone," and, "A stone (lithos) that causes men to stumble and a rock (petra) that makes them fall." 

       The Greek word translated “stone” in this passage is lithos and can refer to either a small stone or a large stone. This Greek word is used to describe stones that made up the temple which were massive.  The stone that was rolled in front of the tomb where Jesus was laid is a lithos.  That lithos here in 1 Peter refers to a large stone is made clear by Peter’s use of petra to describe the stone he is talking about which of course is being used as a metaphor for Christ which takes us back to Matthew 16:16-18.

       Matthew 16:16-18: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (Greek petros {a small stone}), and on this rock (Greek petra {a large rock}) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

       It should be clear from Peter’s use of petra as a metaphor for Christ that it is Christ who is the petra upon which the church would be built and that the gates of Hades would not overcome it.  In this passage in Matthew it is apparent that Jesus is simply saying to Simon that he is a small stone who is nothing but for the grace of God while He, Christ, is a giant rock, metaphorically speaking, upon which the Church would be built.

       It is interesting that Simon was named Peter (a small stone) and became known by this name for the remainder of his life.  It is as though Jesus named him this to keep him humble. Peter is betrayed in Scriptures as being, at least in his early years, impetuous and strong headed.  Having the nick name “small stone” must have kept him cognizant of his dependence on God and God was able to use him in a mighty way.

       Getting back to Acts 10 we see Cornelius sending men to Joppa to bring back the man Simon who was know as Peter.  Peter, at the time was staying with a man named Simon who was a tanner and had a house on the Mediterranean Sea.  So Simon the Apostle was staying with Simon the tanner. Modern day Jaffa is the Joppa of 2000 years ago and is virtually a southern suburb of Tel Aviv.

       As covered last time, Peter had been asked to come to Joppa to attend to a disciple named Tabitha who died and whom Peter raised from the dead.  It is recorded in Acts 9 that Peter then stayed in Joppa for some time at the house of Simon the tanner.  A tanner is one who cures the hides of animals to make them ready to be made into clothing, blankets and other materials.  There is no evidence Peter participated in this occupation.  We know from other Scripture that Peter was a fisherman by trade. 

       While the men sent by Cornelius to get Peter were on their journey the next day, Peter, while staying at the house of Simon the tanner, went up to the roof top to pray around noon. As explained in a previous sermon in this series, the Jews prayed three times a day, around 9 AM, noon and again around 3 PM.  Going up to the roof top to pray was normal as roofs were generally flat and were used for a number of purposes. 

       While praying, Peter became hungry and apparently asked that a meal be prepared.  While the meal was being prepared, Peter fell into a trance. The Greek word rendered “trance” is ekstasis (ek'-stas-is) from where we get our word ecstasy. Ekstasis appears seven times in the NT and is variously translated as astonishment, amazement and trance.

       Whatever it was that Peter was experiencing, it was some kind of altered stated of consciousness whereby he saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Peter then hears a voice telling him get up, kill and eat.  Here is Peter’s response:

       Acts 10: 14-15 "Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."

       Now let’s unpack this a little bit.  Peter hears a voice from heaven telling him to kill and eat of the animals in the sheet. The voice is not identified.  We are only told a voice instructs Peter not to call anything impure that God has made clean.”  Peter responds to this voice by saying “Surely not Lord.”  The word Lord is the English rendering of the Greek word kuriosKurios is found 749 times in the NT.

       In Greek its basic meaning is to have power and authority and characterizes a person to whom another person or thing belongs.  The word implies someone having power over others.  It also denotes a respect and reverence with which servants greet their master.  In NT Scripture, kurios is applied to God the Father, to Christ Jesus and occasionally to others.  The great majority of the time it is applied to Christ. Here are some examples of kurios used in other ways in the NT.     

       Acts 10:3-4: One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, "Cornelius!" Cornelius stared at him in fear. "What is it, Lord?" (kurios) he asked.   The angel answered, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 

       Ephesians 6:5: Slaves, obey your earthly masters (kurios) with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

       1 Peter 3:6: Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master (kurios). 

       Matthew 27:63: "Sir," (kurios) they said, "we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, `After three days I will rise again.'

       As previously pointed out, when Saul was blinded on the road to Damascus, he heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

       Saul replied with a question.  "Who are you, Lord?" (kurios) Saul asked.  Jesus then identified Himself as the person Saul was persecuting. Saul immediately recognized that an authority was speaking to him.  Did he immediately recognize who that authority was? It would appear not. So that is why he questioned who it was speaking to him.

       We have a similar situation with Peter.  Peter hears a voice telling him to eat unclean animals. Was it the voice of God or the Son of God that Peter heard?  Peter answers the voice by saying "Surely not, Lord!" "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."  If Peter perceived it was God or the Son of God talking to him would he have been so bold as to refuse what he was told to do?

        Was it an angel who spoke to Peter?  There is some internal evidence that it may have been an angel.  As already covered, it was an angel that appeared to Cornelius instructing him to send for Peter.  It would make sense that this same angel would have appeared to Peter.  If it was an angel, Peter’s response could be seen as reasonable as even Paul told the Galatians that even if an angel from heaven should preach a Gospel different from what Paul was preaching, he should be ignored.

       Regardless of whose voice it was that Peter heard, the instruction was to kill and eat unclean animals which Peter basically refused to do. This sheet of animals appeared three times and thee times Peter was told to kill and eat. Then the sheet disappeared and it is apparent Peter retuned to normal consciousness.

       Next time we will see what happened next.

PART EIGHTEEN