In Acts 10:34-43, we read about Peter, who was a reluctant witness. To understand him, you need to be reminded of what lead up to this point in the scriptures. Peter was staying in the city of Joppa. We’re told that he went up on the roof of the house to pray, and while in prayer, he has this vision of all sorts of animals being let down from heaven on a sheet. He hears a voice that tells him to get up and kill and eat.
The animals were to Jewish Peter, unclean. These were animals that, according to the Old Testament Mosaic Law that was forbidden to the Jews to eat. Peter responds that he can’t eat them because they are unclean.
The voice tells him not to call anything unclean that God has made clean.
This sheet coming down from heaven with all these animals on it happens three times. Peter is left wondering what the vision means. The Greek word that is used says that Peter was perplexed by the sight.
All the time that this is going on, there are three men on their way to the home that Peter is staying. They are coming from the city of Caesarea. A man named Cornelius, who is a Roman Centurion, has sent these men to invite Peter to come to his house. A Centurion was a leader in the Roman army, and he had command of 100 soldiers. Cornelius sent for Peter based on a vision that he had.
The Bible tells us that Cornelius and all of his family were devout and God-fearing and were generous to those in need and also prayed regularly. An important point to note about him is that he wasn’t Jewish; he was a gentile. At this point in early church history, the Church was just reaching out to other Jews. There hadn’t been up until this point any type of outreach to the gentiles.
When Peter arrives at Cornelius’ home, he reminds him that it is against Jewish law for him to visit or associate with a Gentile. But then he adds that God has shown him based on that vision he had that he’s not permitted to call anyone impure or unclean.
From the scripture, it would seem that Cornelius had invited a house full of people, and he invites Peter to speak to them. Peter starts there in verse 34 by stating that he now sees that God doesn’t show favoritism when it comes to spreading the Gospel message.
Our family was awakened to the fact that while God may not show favoritism, the church can while we were stationed in Mississippi. The one Church that we attended gave very generously to World Missions, always giving over the budgeted amount. They prayed for the missionaries that worked in the foreign fields. When we had a deputation service, they gave generously to the missionary so that they could continue their work. Based on that, you would think that they were very mission-minded when it came to their little corner of the world.
We discovered rather quickly that they were not open to anyone who didn’t look like them. By that I mean if they weren’t white then they weren’t welcome. We had a black family visit one Sunday, and one of the board members welcomed them in for the service but told them that they might be more comfortable at a church up the road. The Church up the street happened to be a black church. If I hadn’t heard it with my own ears, I would never have believed it.
That was the same type of mindset that Peter was working with when it came to the Gentiles. It’s a mindset that can hamper the Church today in reaching new people. It can be scary when new people start coming and getting involved. We have to be careful to put aside those fears and welcome what God is doing and not hamper the work of the Holy Spirit.
Peter makes that same point when he says:
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
It is a reminder for us of what Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “For God so loved the world that He gave.” The Gospel message isn’t just for a select few, but it’s for the entire world. We need to keep that in the forefront of our minds as we seek to reach our community.
Beginning in verse 36, Peter reminds the group that was gathered there in Cornelius’ home about the message that God had already sent. He’s pointing them back to some of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. Even though this group was not Jewish, they still knew the Jewish scriptures and were familiar with the prophecies.
I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon. (Isaiah 42:6-7)
Jesus himself stated in John 12:46, “I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me won’t live in darkness.”
Cornelius and his family and friends were familiar with Jesus. Jesus had been in the region during his earthly ministry. They had heard the stories about the miraculous healings. Peter makes mention of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry at his baptism by John, which was read to us earlier.
Jesus’ baptism must have made an impression on the people that were there that day. Can you imagine just for a second standing in line waiting to be baptized and this guy Jesus who is ahead of you gets baptized? As he’s coming up out of the river, a dove flies down and sits on him, and then you hear a voice coming out of heaven, saying, “this is my son in whom I’m well pleased”? I know it would undoubtedly stick with me.
Cornelius and all those gathered knew all of that. As the scripture says they were God-fearers, they had read the Old Testament, they had heard about Jesus. So Peter goes from reminding them of things that they had read and heard to make it more personal to himself.
Peter says, “We are witnesses of everything he did, both in Judea and in Jerusalem.”
No longer is just some abstract facts recorded in a book or stories that have been passed on. Peter says, “We are witnesses.” In essence, he’s saying “everything I’m about to tell you I saw, I witnessed, I observed, I heard him say.”
Notice what Peter doesn’t talk about that he witnessed. He doesn’t talk about the miracles such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead or the feeding of the five thousand. He doesn’t talk about the many people that were healed, such as blind Bartimaeus. He doesn’t even talk about how he walked on water. There were so many things that Peter witnessed in the three-plus years that he walked alongside Jesus that he could have spoken about, but he doesn’t bring any of them up. In a comprehensive statement, he said that they were witnesses of everything he did.
To me, there is almost an unspoken urgency in Peter’s sermon to this group of folks gathered. Peter goes directly to the heart of the gospel. He said:
They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him up on the third day and allowed him to be seen, not by everyone but by us.
That’s the heart of the message that Jesus died on the Cross, and God raised him from the dead.
Peter goes on and says that he wasn’t seen by everyone but by witnesses who ate and drank with him after the resurrection. He was driving that point home that he is a witness. He not only states that he’s a witness but that Jesus has given him and the other disciples a mission. That mission is to preach to the people and testify about Jesus. He even gives some specifics. He says that God appointed Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead and that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.
That idea of judgment is not something that we hear a lot about today. I don’t think we like even to contemplate it. To realize that one day we will stand before God and give an account of our life seems to be an almost antiquated idea to our modern thinking.
Notice in verse 44, the result of Peter’s short sermon. The Bible says, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on everyone who heard the word.” He didn’t say anything witty or profound to that group. He simply spoke about what he had witnessed. God, the Holy Spirit, had already been at work in the lives of Cornelius and his friends and family. Peter was just an obedient messenger that day.
As we think about the idea of being a witness, as Peter stated, he was. Too often, we are reluctant to witness to what God has and is doing in our lives. Recall Peter’s initial response when he had the vision of the animals in the sheet – he said no three times. Didn’t he have a couple of other situations in his life that came three times?
- How many times did he deny that he knew Jesus?
- How many times did Jesus, after the resurrection, ask Peter if he loved him?
- How many times did Peter hear God tell him to kill and eat unclean animals?
Are you a reluctant witness today? Have you felt that prompting by the Holy Spirit to talk to someone about Jesus but have resisted because you thought someone else could do a better job? Do you live your life as if you are an undercover Christian? By that, I mean that no one knows that you are a Christian because your life doesn’t demonstrate it.
The Church today needs to grasp hold of that urgency to witness to what Jesus has done once again. Time is short. There is a judgment coming. We have people affiliated with our Church today that have their names on the membership roll or have been baptized, and yet we never see them in Church. They need to hear that God loves them and wants to have a personal relationship with them.
Some people sit in churches week in and week out that aren’t making a difference in the world for Christ. I am a student of history, and as I’ve studied the historical record of the Church, it seems that the sense of urgency has diminished. We’ve become comfortable with our situation while all the while, people out in our community, friends, and even family members are lost without Christ.
We must recapture that sense of urgency. We need to recover that sense of joy and excitement of what God has done for us and is doing in us. We have to move from being reluctant witnesses to joyful witnesses.
Peter went from being reluctant to be a faithful outgoing witness for Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit who can enable you. You don’t need lots of fancy words or a great story about what a terrible life you lived before you came to Jesus. Just tell about Jesus, who died on the Cross for sin, and God resurrected him and that there is forgiveness and freedom through him.
All scripture is from Common English Bible (CEB), Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible, unless otherwise noted.