Simon Peter, Fisher of Men
11 - The Conversion of Cornelius Acts 10
From his vantage point on the rooftop he looked across the wide expanse of sunlit sea. His eyes followed the long waves as they formed far out and travelled at steady pace towards the shore, raising smooth brows as they approached, curling over with foam-covered crests, falling to break in a cascade of shining water flooding across the flat sands. The sky above him shimmered like a sheet of white-hot steel, and in the distance on his right he could see the long line of rocks running out to sea where legend had it the fair maiden Andromeda had once been chained as a sacrifice to appease the terrible sea-monster. The hero Perseus had appeared in time to slay the monster and deliver Andromeda. But Peter had no interest in Greek legend: he knew that this thriving seaport town of Joppa preserved the story as a distorted recollection of a prophet of his own people. Jonah of Gath-hepher had left this place in a merchant ship to run away from his Divine commission and had been brought back not many days later by a great sea beast. He knew that the old half-ruined Temple of Dagon on the hillside behind him had once contained the skeleton of a great sea beast. He recalled what the citizens of Joppa told him, that less than a century earlier it had been taken to Rome and placed in a Natural History exhibition. His mind went back to Jonah and his eventual successful mission to the alien Assyrians, men who were outside the commonwealth of Israel, Gentiles, beyond the pale and yet God had blessed them because of their faith! He wondered why he had been guided to Joppa, a cosmopolitan seafaring city having more to do with the Gentile world than the Jewish. What interest could his risen Lord have in such a place, he mused. In Jonah's day it had been the scene of a wondrous manifestation of Divine power and heralded a great missionary work among certain Gentiles and a great deliverance. But he himself was not like Jonah, a missionary to Gentiles. He was sent, as Jesus had been sent, to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and in these last few days he had been empowered by the Holy Spirit to do great things. At Lydda, not many miles away, he had cured the Christian disciple Aeneas of his paralysis. Here at Joppa he had performed the most marvellous miracle of all. He had raised the devout woman Tabitha from the dead, and the resultant sensation in the town had brought many to the Lord and laid the foundations of a Christian community. It was to endure for many years and play its part in some momentous events in the history of the Church.
But Peter's thoughts were still with Jonah. He had elected to accept the hospitality of this brother in the Lord, Simon the tanner, in his humble home on the seashore. It was humble, because all orthodox Jews abhorred the tanner's trade and the calling was looked down upon and those who followed it were despised. Simon was a poor man but he was a believer and with him Peter felt at home. Somehow or other he sensed some new phase of his commission was going to open before him but he could not be sure what it was going to be. For some time now the infant Church had been experiencing a period of rest. The opposition of the priests had subsided; the advice of Gamaliel had been followed. Peter had taken the opportunity to leave Jerusalem and travel through Samaria and then the lowlands along the coast, preaching the word and making converts, and now he was here at Joppa and there was an element of uncertainty what he should do next.
He shifted his position on the parapet of the roof to avoid the noonday sun getting into his eyes. They would be calling him down soon for the midday meal and his burly fisherman's frame was already calling out for it. But more than his physical hunger was this desire for the revelation of God's will that he felt his soul needed. In the direction towards which he was now looking he could see a Tyrian merchant vessel setting out on its journey to some distant land. He watched the oars flashing in the sunlight as the rowers strove to assist the tremendous square sail, speeding the ship onward. Peter wondered where it was going. His eyes swept beyond it to the line of the far horizon, the boundary between sea and sky. Beyond that horizon, he knew lay Rome, the city that was master of the world, and the arrogant race that worshipped gods many and lords many and knew naught of Christ. Still farther on to the west, he had heard of Spain, gateway to the mighty western ocean that extended to the rim of the world and from which no man who crossed had ever returned. One day when he was declaring the Good News in the streets of Joppa, there had stopped to listen three unusual looking men, mariners, with blue eyes and fair hair. They had just come from placing their offerings on a modest shrine on the quayside to a strange god called Lud. In answer to his questions, they had told him they were Britons, from a land in the far north-west where the ships of Tyre went to trade for tin, a metal scarce in the East but plentiful in their land. The round trip to their country and back took the ships two years, they told him. Although the pay was good for taking service on the Tyrian ships they were always glad to leave the hot and arid country of Judea and get back to their own green and pleasant land. Peter asked them about Lud and they said he was a great god in their land and in their capital city there was a temple to him on a hill called the Hill of Lud approached through a gate in the city wall called Lud Gate. When he talked to them about Jesus and the resurrection they shook their heads uncomprehendingly and said they did not understand. As they went down the street towards their ship Peter was conscious again of that strange stab of feeling for these men who had never known the God of Israel, never heard of Jesus, and without believing in his Name could never be saved.
He thought of those three men now as he watched the ship ploughing its way through the waters, heading west. They were probably on that very ship now he mused. In due time they would be back in their own land where that strange god they had told him about was worshipped. Would they remember anything of what he had said to them about Jesus; perhaps tell of him to their fellows in that land? And if so, would it be any good? What hope was there for them? They were Gentiles, outside the sphere of God's favour, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, dogs, unclean, common….
There was a great stillness. The scene before him had taken on an unreal aspect. There was still sea and sky, but the town and the sands had disappeared; the parapet before him was not there now. He seemed to be suspended in space. There was no movement; the rolling waves had arrested their motion and were stationary. Drawn by an irresistible impulse, he looked up to the sky. The great square sail of the ship he had just been watching was there, high in the heavens, suspended by its ropes and tackling from some invisible support. It was descending, coming rapidly towards him, and as it came near he saw that it was crowded with moving figures, figures of animals, wild animals, reptiles, unclean beasts like swine and camels, scavenging birds like the vulture, and his soul shrank within him at the sight. All the things of the animate natural world that offended his Jewish mind and were proscribed by the Law of Moses were there obtruding upon his sight. Try as he might he could not escape them and as the great sail hung there, suspended by its four-corners, with its repugnant cargo, there came a rumbling of thunder from the clear skies above. It shaped itself into words, words uttered in the familiar voice of his Master, words from which he instinctively shrank in horror; "Rise, Peter, kill, and eat! ".
Swift and unhesitating came his response. "Not so, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." There was a pause, and then that heavenly voice again, measured, serene, compelling. "What God has cleansed, you must not call common". Peter was silent, his mind in turmoil. Never before had his Master commanded him to commit so flagrant a breach of the Law. What did it imply; why must he do this thing, so alien to all that he had been taught and believed? Had he in reality heard aright and was this in very truth the voice of the Lord and not some demoniac trick of the Evil One. The voice came again, louder and more stern this time, each word impinging on his consciousness with an impact as of a heavy blow. "What God has cleansed, you must not call common". There could be no doubt about it; this was indeed the voice he knew so well. This was indeed Jesus speaking to him from the other side. But how could he do such a thing? What would his fellow-apostles and the believers say? Where would be the distinction between his position as a son of Israel, one of the chosen people, and that of any of the Gentiles around him, the unclean, the outcasts? In tones of thunder now, a challenge that could not be gainsaid, a command he could not but obey, reverberating through his mind and continuing in successive echoes against which he could not close his ears; "What God has cleansed, you must not call common
He looked up. The voice had ceased; the stillness had returned. The great sail with its strange load was ascending again into the heavens. Even as he gazed it became a speck in the sky and was gone. Suddenly the silence was broken. The twittering of birds fell upon his ears, the noises of people moving in the street below. The scene before his eyes came to life, the sea-waves rolling in to the shore as they had been a few minutes ago. The houses of the town were there, and the parapet before him, and the flat roof beneath his feet. The scenery took on perspective and came alive; far away at sea he saw the Tyrian ship dipping in the rollers as it headed west. It seemed to be in the same place on the ocean as when he last saw it before this thing happened to him, almost as if time had stood still for a space.
Long did Peter sit there pondering the vision; for that it was a vision he now had no doubt. His earlier feeling that something momentous was about to happen was now fully justified. What lay behind his Lord's insistence that he no longer recognize the distinction between clean and unclean? And why the great ship's sail, suspended in the heavens as choice of vehicle for the unclean company that he was now to treat as clean? His eyes rested again on the ship, now little more than a speck on the horizon, and his mind suddenly realised the truth. There, straining against the tall mast of that merchant vessel, held by the ropes and tackling that spread it to receive the wind, was the same sail he had just seen in vision. It was taking that ship to the lands of the Gentiles. Its crew would fraternize with the Gentiles, trade with them for their goods, eat of their food, breathe the air of their countries and bring the products of their lands back to the land of Judea. That sail, driven and impelled forward by the wind of heaven, was a means of breaking down the physical barrier between Jew and Gentile, and no power on earth could prevent it. Had God shown him the sail, the agent of union—the unclean made clean-the message of the Gospel to go out from Israel to peoples far beyond the sea just as that ship was doing at this very moment? Would God then indeed grant to the Gentiles repentance unto life? So he sat, musing, until soon there came upon his questing but receptive mind an intuition with which he was becoming increasingly familiar in these wonderful days; the voice of the Spirit. Now it was saying to him "Behold, three men are looking for you". Slowly he got up from the parapet and went down the steps to the little group of strangers standing at the door of the house.
* * * * * * *
Cornelius the centurion was a native Roman. His men were Romans also. Many of the soldiers stationed in Judea were drawn from occupied countries of the Empire other than Rome. Indeed even Jews could be found in the Roman forces, but in order to impart some "stiffening" to these mixed companies certain legions were composed purely of highly trained men of Italy. Cornelius was a centurion of one such legion. He had probably been stationed at Caesarea, which was the headquarters of the Roman governor of Judea, for a long time, for he had come to know and to worship the God of Israel. He was evidently a man of sterling worth, for his family and household staff were believers also, and even some of his legionaries (soldiers). Unlike most of the occupying forces he was just and generous in his dealings with the subject people, even to adopting the Jewish practice of giving alms to the poor. A Gentile, he served the God of Israel, and God saw, and hearkened, and honoured his faith. And it came to pass that a messenger from heaven was sent to him, and he was told that his prayers and his alms had come up for a memorial before God. "Now" said the angel "send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter... he shall tell you what you ought to do."
So it came about that two of Cornelius' household servants and one of his legionaries set out to tramp the thirty miles which separated the two towns, and about noon on the second day entered Joppa and enquired for the house of Simon the tanner. Peter, coming down from the rooftop, found the three men, one in the uniform of a Roman soldier, all three obviously non-Jews, waiting for him. Quietly for once, he listened to their story, how that a Divine revelation to their master Cornelius had prompted him to send this request that Peter return with them to Caesarea and bring with him the words of life. Peter must have listened with mixed feelings; this man was a Gentile and he had not as yet had any contact with Gentiles in his missionary work; but the vision he had just seen must have been a powerful influence. Perhaps it was at this point he began, however reluctantly, to accept that God had something in store for others besides the Jewish people, that the covenant with Abraham, promising blessing to all the families of the earth, was intended to be taken literally. At all events, he consented to go, and having invited six of the Joppa brethren to accompany him, the little party set out for Caesarea.
There was time during that two days' journey, travelling on foot, for Peter to consider and reconsider all that the vision had shown him. That great ship's sail was still in his mind. The word rendered "sheet" in Acts 10.11 and 11.5 also denotes ship's sails, whilst that rendered "vessel" means, among other things, the ship's tackling and accessories used to hold the sail in place. What Peter saw therefore was this great square sail with its ropes and tackle fixed to its four corners so that it hung in the skies suspended from above containing the beasts and birds. Everything about that vision pointed to the Gentile world. Now he was in the company of Gentiles and going, for perhaps the first time in his life, into a Gentile household. It must have been a thoughtful Peter who eventually stepped across the threshold of Cornelius' house and greeted the centurion.
The room was full; Cornelius had gathered together all his kinsfolk and personal friends, and doubtless his household servants and those of his soldiery who shared his faith. Peter must have felt somewhat at a loss as he surveyed this motley assembly. All Gentiles, all strangers from the covenant of promise, all outside the circle of the chosen people, how was he to address them and what was he to tell them? But first of all he wanted to make his own position clear. He could, and did, offer Jesus to the Jews as the logical climax to the Mosaic Law and the fulfilment of the prophets' fore views of Messiah. He was not yet at all sure in what terms he could present Christ to these Gentiles or what place he could allot to them in the Divine Plan. "You yourselves know" he commenced "How unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation; but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me?"
This was putting the onus back on his host. Peter was evidently still feeling his way, still uncertain about the whole position, yet conscious that his Lord was leading him by stages to some new phase of understanding which he had formerly not even imagined could exist. He was no longer antagonistic, just conscious of inadequate knowledge, and he was waiting for the guidance and revelation that he knew would come.
Cornelius responded with his story. Four days earlier, two days before Peter's vision on the rooftop, he had this vision of an angel from God bidding him to send to Joppa for a man of whom he had never heard. He was told the precise house where he was to be found, and assured him that that man would speak to him the words of life which his soul desired. "Now therefore" he concluded "we are all here present before God, to hear all that are commanded by the Lord". Peter's expression was serious. He had listened intently to the narrative and his agile mind was piecing its elements together. This man before him had seen his vision at precisely the right moment to ensure the arrival of his messengers at Peter's house just when his own vision had ended. This thing was of God; there could be no other explanation. His Lord had intended and commissioned him to come to these Gentiles with the words of life. Everything was now perfectly clear. Christ was Lord of the Gentiles as well as of the Jews. God had a place for Gentiles just as He had a place for Jews. When Jesus had told his disciples, so long ago now, to preach his gospel to the ends of the earth it was not just the scattered Jewish community in the world, the Diaspora, to which He referred. He meant all men, without exception. A whole new range of ideas suddenly suffused the mind of the rugged Apostle, and when he spoke it was in an unusually subdued tone and with intense earnestness.
"Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him, and does what is right, is acceptable to him".
Then, suddenly, his mood changed. As the full implication of the glorious truth he had just enunciated burst upon his mind he became the old Peter, enthusiastic, zealous, confident. With that same passion and fervour which had characterized his first appeal to the Jews at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost he plunged anew into his exposition of Jesus Christ and him crucified. "You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ. He no longer saw Gentiles in front of him. He saw only men and women, for whom Christ had died, for whom Christ had risen, to whom Christ would come again in the days of His Second Advent for their salvation. So he told the story of that dying and that resurrection and that coming, as forcefully and convincingly as ever he had done in his speaking to the sons of Israel. While he was yet speaking, the Holy Spirit came upon that assembly, just as it had done upon the disciples in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost itself. When the six Jewish Christians from Joppa who had accompanied Peter witnessed that sight, they bowed their heads in awe. Here was the Divine endorsement, God's acceptance of these strangers into His family and His purposes even though they could lay no claim to being of the seed of Abraham. Upon these people also, outsiders once, but now accepted as the elect of God, came the visible and audible gifts of the Spirit and no man could gainsay them.
Quick witted as ever, Peter grasped the situation and he knew what it implied. "These have received the Holy Spirit as we have! Can any man therefore forbid them baptism into Christ?". And no man could. So they were baptized. Thus did the Gospel go to the Gentiles.
Many years later St. Paul referred to this momentous happening when, writing to the Ephesians, he said (Eph. 2.14) that "he.. has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility ... so then you are no longer strangers and sojourners (aliens), but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God". From that time onward there was no more Jew nor Greek, but all were one in Christ Jesus.
The other apostles, and the church with them at Jerusalem, were not so sure. When Peter got back eventually to the capital some of them made an issue of the matter. They were not prepared to accept Gentiles as their brethren in Christ. "Why did you go to uncircumcised men" they accusingly asked him "and eat with them". But they did listen patiently to Peter's explanation, and at the end, perhaps wondering, but certainly believing, declared "then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life". It was almost unbelievable; it cut across all their preconceived ideas of God's attitude to the outsiders, it was going to raise all sorts of questions as to the validity of the Mosaic Law in the Christian community, but "God has granted the opportunity of repentance to the Gentiles". Perhaps some of them thought of Jonah and remembered that God is a merciful God, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. There were to be arguments and rifts and misunderstandings in the future before the Jewish section of the Church finally accepted that the Lord Jesus Christ was Lord of all and not only to the Jew. The standards of the universal Church were well and truly defined on that day when the Jewish Apostle Peter went to visit the Roman centurion Cornelius.
(To be continued)