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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

God’s Vision for the Whole World


"All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Acts 10:43

Last time in this series on Acts, we looked at chapter 9. We followed one of the early New Testament church’s leaders, called Peter, as he ‘travelled about the country’ (Acts 9:32). We left him in a place called Joppa. Acts 9 opens up a view through the church window at Joppa. We observed a lady called either Tabitha, or Dorcas. Why does Gods’ word display the deeds of Dorcas? Because he wants us to follow her example, as she followed ‘the example of Christ’ (as 1 Corinthians 11:1). In the last verse we have the description of where ‘Peter (then) stayed in Joppa’. At first glance, it may appear to be a minor detail – but it isn’t. It seems to be there to highlight how Peter’s mindset had already been changed by his understanding of the good news of Jesus.

Peter had been a fisherman before Jesus called him to be one of his twelve disciples. Peter was an impulsive character. Often, a good rule for life is to think before we speak – to think before we act. But it needs balance. One of my many character faults is that I can think for far too long. It results in too little action. At our house, we have recently had a door put through into our garage. I haven’t yet replaced the strip of wallpaper, or repainted the small damaged area above the new lintel - I’m still thinking about it. What’s the problem with that? Well, the problem is that by, ‘recently’, I actually mean ten years ago. Peter was the opposite. He liked to speak – he liked to act – thinking came later. He got things wrong so many times, in the record of the gospels – he seems to be rebuked by Jesus more times than all the other eleven disciples put together. But from this, it is easy for us to build up a picture of Peter that isn’t quite accurate. We can imagine, because he often acted before carefully considering his options, that he never gave careful consideration – that he wasn’t given to seriousness. It’s so much easier to think of Peter as ‘that rash Israelite fisherman’, than to accept him a serious religious Jew. But he was that. Acts 10 shows us this.

In Acts 10:14, Peter speaks of his adherence to the Jewish food regulations – ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean’. And in verse 28 there is the strong implication that Peter previously steered well clear of non-Jews, in a way that went over and above what the Old Testament Law required. Peter was really serious about what he believed.

So, what is so important about Acts 9:43, where he lodges with ‘a tanner named Simon’? Well, a ‘tanner’ is a person who takes animal skins, or hides, and transforms them into leather. It is a very physical job. All the hair and flesh has to be removed from the skin. This requires particular chemicals to make the job easier. Fortunately, even in those days, there was a chemical that was readily available and readily used. Unfortunately, it was urine! In the Roman world, a tanner’s workshop would often have a large bucket available for desperate passers-by to use as a public convenience. The deposited liquid could then be put to good use!

It was a nasty job for anyone, but particularly if you were a Jew. This is because the Old Testament Law, given to Israel, meant that anyone who touched an animal’s carcass was considered ‘unclean’ for the rest of that day (see Leviticus 11:39-40). This meant that a Tanner was almost perpetually ‘unclean’ in the eyes of Jewish society. Consequently, they were despised. And they smelt of wee! For a Jew like Peter to lodge with a man like Simon is not insignificant. God’s new revelation in Christ Jesus had changed Peter’s thinking. I wonder whether Peter ever thought about this. Perhaps he marvelled at how his thinking had changed over the last few years. As Christians, particularly once we have a few years under our belt, we can be like this. Peter should be a lesson for us. His thinking had changed – but not nearly enough for his Lord. Peter’s thinking was still restricted, and it was restricting his usefulness in Christ’s kingdom. Peter, and the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem, needed to change, so that the commission that Jesus gave them, to be his ‘witnesses… to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8), could actually be performed. Acts 10 and 11 are the story of that change. Actually, ‘change’ isn’t strong enough. This was a revolution.

So often, when we read a good book, we are presented with ostensibly disconnected events at the beginning. Later, events and people that seemed totally separate are joined together – they become part of the same story. ‘The Good Book’ is no different! In Acts 10 we have two men residing in two separate towns. Peter is staying in Joppa. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is living in Caesarea, roughly thirty miles away. One thing, and one thing only, will bring them together – the one true and living God.

This is not a story of random coincidence. Our NIV bible translation has 727 969 words. Not one of those nearly three quarters of a million words is the word ‘coincidence’. There’s no ‘coincidence’ – and that’s no coincidence. Because this isn’t a book that tells the story of chance encounters. It is a book that is filled with God’s providence.

Actually, in Acts 10, there is a behavioural connection right at the start – both men are doing the same thing. It is more obvious with Peter in verse 9 - ‘Peter went up on the roof to pray’. In verse 2 we are told that Cornelius, ‘prayed to God regularly’. But, later on, when they meet and Cornelius gives a little more detail, in verse 30, he tells Peter that the angelic vision happened when, ‘I was in my house praying’.

This throws up a question. Were either of these two men asking God explicitly to answer prayer in the awesome way that he then did? I seriously doubt it. Their minds were finite. What God did seems almost infinite. How could they envisage this awesome, boundless change that was about to take place in Christ’s kingdom? They couldn’t. I know they couldn’t because I couldn’t, and they were just like me. James tells us this, in James 5:17 (NLT). He mentions Elijah the prophet, but he could have been talking about any of those humans that achieved so much for the Lord in the Bible record. He says, ‘Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly…’ And James goes on to show the abundant way in which Elijah’s prayer was answered.

When the Lord Jesus was on earth, Peter heard him give clear instructions about a simple format for prayer, recorded in Matthew 6. Peter knew that he should be requesting, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. Perhaps, even that day, Peter was earnestly praying for this. If he was then, once again, how overflowing was the answer?

And, what of Cornelius? What do we know about the content of his prayer? Very little. But this record says enough for us to know that this man was sincere. ‘He… was devout and God-fearing’ (v.2). His life was a bit like Dorcas’ in Acts 9. It was an example of good things. Though he was a man of considerable authority – power had not corrupted him. He wasn’t ‘on the take’. Quite the opposite. ‘He gave generously to those in need’. What does this mean? Is this talking about his own people? It’s relatively easy to help those who are like us – less easy to help those who look, or act, or speak, or live, a bit differently to us. But again, the chapter gives us more detail later on, when the men sent to Peter arrive. They say, in verse 22, ‘he… is respected by all the Jewish people’.

I’m blown away by Cornelius. Here was a Roman, a member of an elite regiment, brought up in a place where almost everyone believed in a plethora of gods. He had come to Israel and had heard something radically different. He no longer believed that there was a sliding scale of divinity - some gods better than others – some gods in loose control over one particular aspect of life, while others had different areas of responsibility. No. He feared a single God – the God of Israel’s children. And this belief was so deeply rooted that it was evident in his household, and it led him to care deeply, and with love in action, for needy Israelites, such that he was ‘respected by (them) all’. He was a genuine seeker, he ‘prayed to God regularly’. Cornelius was evidently praying for answers.

We are told this in verse 36 onwards, by Peter. Cornelius was aware of the coming of a prophet to Israel by the name of Jesus, and ‘how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him’ (v.38). Cornelius had heard significant news and he needed help to understand it. He really needed help. Despite his life and his character, which were exemplary, Cornelius was not safe. Just in case we are unsure, Acts 11 confirms it.

In Acts 11, Peter is recounting the events of Acts 10 to the church in Jerusalem who don’t understand why Peter has done what he has done. Again, there are a few additional details in that account. What we find in Acts 11:13-14 is really significant, Peter says that Cornelius, ‘told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, “Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.”’ At that point in time Cornelius was not ‘saved’. He was not safe. He was in danger. But, by God’s grace, he was also a seeker after truth. And that truth would set him free (as John 8:32).

In that same sermon where Peter, and others, were instructed by Jesus in the matter of prayer, Jesus also promised this - ‘seek and you will find’ (Matthew 7:7). What a wonderful example Cornelius is to us of this. He must have prayed earnestly – seeking God for the answer. What was the answer?

Cornelius was a Roman. You made have heard of the expression, ‘All roads lead to Rome’. It is the idea that whichever path you were on in that vast empire, if you followed it in the correct direction you would eventually end up in that central city of cities. When people use this expression they usually mean that all the various methods of doing a particular thing will ultimately achieve the same end result. When Peter preaches to that gathering in Cornelius’ house, that is what he says, in effect. In Acts 10:43, he says that ‘all’ those Old Testament prophets, recorded in our Bibles, were actually pointing out the same thing. They were all talking about one particular person. All their writings lead to ‘him’. Through that vision that God had given Peter, and the subsequent leading by God’s Spirit of him to Caesarea, Peter had only just grasped ‘how wide and long and high and deep’ (Ephesians 3:18) those prophecies actually were. Previously, his limited understanding had confined those promises only to those of Israelite heritage or, at the very least, full converts to Israel’s rigorous, religious system. Now, as he says, he understands that they are for ‘everyone’.

After Peter covers, in verses 36-38, the things that Cornelius was already aware of, he then moves on to tell the rest of the greatest story ever heard - the story of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (v.38). Peter had been an eyewitness of what had happened. This Jesus, who the prophets had testified to, had been murdered on a cross. When someone dies, that appears to be the end of the story. But the Bible tells us otherwise. It certainly wasn’t the end of this story. Peter continues with resurrection truth, which is at the heart of the good news message – He lives! Verse 40 says, ‘but God raised him from the dead…’ He ‘is Lord of all’ (v.36). This Jesus had to die – not because of his own sin, because he had none, but because of ours. He had to be raised again. Peter is telling his audience the truth about Jesus, which Paul would later summarise in Romans 4:25 (NLT) ‘he (Jesus) was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God’.

How can we be made right with God. Not by our good behaviour. Cornelius was a good man but he needed to be saved. We don’t need good behaviour. We just need good belief – belief in this good news. Peter says (v.43), ‘everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name’. What does that mean – ‘everyone’? As Peter says, at the start of his speech, in verses 34-35, ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right’.

‘From every nation’. These man-made shackles upon this good news message are about to be thrown off. Your background is irrelevant. Your past counts for nothing. What you or your family have previously believed doesn’t need a mention. The colour of your skin, your creed and culture, the experiences that you have passed through mean zero in God’s accounting. Where you were born is of no consequence. The only thing that matters is that you have been ‘born again’ of God’s Spirit to believe in Jesus as your Saviour. Then, like Cornelius and his family and friends gathered that day, you will be safe – for ever safe.

That is what happens from verse 44. Perhaps my greatest fear, as I stand here and speak, is that someone will rudely interrupt. But my greatest desire is that there will be an interruption like Peter experienced that day. ‘While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message’. Faith was in the air! Salvation had come to Caesarea. Alleluia!

And Peter, for once, is dead right to act immediately. ‘Nothing could stand in the way’ a moment longer. These new believers were quickly ‘baptised in the name of Jesus Christ’.

There is a question that these several chapters in Acts throw up, though. We have previously considered the wonderful evangelist called Philip. In Acts 8, he travels a similar route to Peter here, and ends up in Caesarea. Later, in Acts 21:8, we find that Philip had stopped there. He lives there – he has his own house. So, why didn’t the Lord just arrange for Cornelius to bump into Philip? - Simples! But to think that, is to miss the point of Acts 10 and 11. In it, we have the wonderful conversion, to faith in Christ, of this man, Cornelius. But that isn’t the main point of these chapters. They are about a far more wide reaching conversion. So often we focus on the smaller details. We miss the bigger picture. We can do this in our bible reading. We regularly do it in our lives, particularly in times of trouble and heartbreak. God sees the bigger picture - he always sees the bigger picture. This should be of great significance to our living.

These verses are not so much about the conversion of Cornelius and his crew. They are more about the conversion of Peter and his crew - those other church leaders based in Jerusalem - to a radical new way of thinking. They are about the transforming of a mindset. Now the gospel will travel to the ends of the earth. Now, ‘all’ people – ‘everyone’ - on that long road, can hear this news and trust its awesome truth.

The bible tells us of another man who went to Joppa. He was an Old Testament prophet called Jonah. God had given him a message to take to lost people. Instead, Jonah went to Joppa and caught a ship – he ran away. In that moment, his heart was more for himself, than it was for lost people. But God intervened in a wonderful way, and Jonah eventually did as instructed. When Peter was in Joppa, he would not have taken the good news message of Jesus to Cornelius. He would not. He could not. His prejudice stood in his way. But, like with Jonah, God intervened in a wonderful way. These two men are an example for us. I know that there are a number of barriers to me being able to effectively convey the message of Christ to lost people. And I know that the biggest barrier is me – what I am. But, if Jonah had to get over himself to be useful to the Lord, and Peter had to get over himself to be useful to the Lord, then so will I and, probably, so will you. Let’s pray earnestly that the Lord will intervene in our lives to make us what he needs us to be, for him and for his cause and for his kingdom. We owe it to him. We owe him everything.

Jonah was one of those Old Testament prophets who pointed out the Lord’s willingness to save. He said, ‘I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”’ (Jonah 2:9).

‘Salvation comes from the Lord’. If this is, by God’s grace, the language of our new hearts, then by his ongoing power and intervening, may this be the language of our lips, and the language of our lives.


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