Acts 10:1-23a

A Bible Study Led by

Dr. Larry Reynolds

May 14, 209 

ACTS STUDY – Session 15

(Acts 10:1-23a)


We began looking in our last session at a rather large section of the book of Acts which deals with some of the travels of Peter.  This section of Acts focuses on the ministry of Peter in four places:

  • Lydda – Acts 9:32-35
  • Joppa – Acts 9:36-10:23a
  • Caesarea – Acts 10:23b-48
  • Jerusalem – Acts 11:1-18

Toward the end of Acts 9, Peter is summoned to Joppa from Lydda because a much loved follower of Christ in Joppa name Tabitha (Aramaic) or Dorcas (Greek) had died.  Following the example of Jesus in Mark 5, Peter prayed and God raised Dorcas from the dead.  Following that miracle, many came to faith in Christ in Joppa and Peter, staying in the home of Simon the tanner, remained in Joppa to minister to them.


Acts 10 introduces to us Cornelius, a Roman centurion who lived in Caesarea.  The story of the interaction between Peter and Cornelius consumes all of Acts 10 and one-half of Acts 11.  This is one of the most important events in the book of Acts because it represents another breakthrough for the gospel.  The conversion of Cornelius and those gathered in his household is the first occurrence of Gentiles coming into the church without first converting to Judaism.  In this event we see people coming to faith in Christ with total disregard for the Old Testament law.  The importance of this event can be seen in:

  • The amount of space Luke devotes to the story … all of chapter 10 and about one-half of chapter 11.
  • The repetition Luke uses in telling the story.  The vision of Cornelius is described four times and the vision of Peter is described twice.
  • The geographical area the story encompasses.  It begins in Caesarea (Acts 10:1-8), moves to Joppa (Acts 10:9-23a), returns to Caesarea (Acts 10:23b-48), and concludes in Jerusalem (Acts 11:1-18)


The Vision of Cornelius – Acts 10:1-8

Verses 1-2 introduce Cornelius.  These verses speak of his home, his position, and his religious character.

  • His home was Caesarea which is a seaport city about thirty miles north of Joppa.  In New Testament times Caesarea was the Roman civil capital of the area.  The Roman procurator or governor lived in Caesarea (Pilate, Felix, Festus).  Caesarea was also the headquarters of the Roman army occupying that part of the world.
  • By occupation Cornelius was a Roman centurion.  The Roman army was divided into legions.  Each legion was made of 6,000 soldiers.  The legions were organized into cohorts.  Each legion consisted of 10 cohorts of 600 solders.  The cohorts were organized into 6 centuries or groups of 100 men.  The centuries were commanded by centurions.  In modern day military terms, the legion was like a division or perhaps infantry regiment, the cohort like a battalion, the centuries like a company.  The men who commanded the centuries have been described as the backbone of the Roman army.  They were the equivalent of modern day captains.  Centurions are mentioned more than twenty times in Scripture, and they are always mentioned in a positive light.  The person who became a centurion had to have the ability to relate well to and to lead others.
  • His religious character is spelled out in verses 2.
    • He was “…a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household…” – God-fearer was the phrase Jews used to describe Gentiles who believed in the God of Israel and worshiped in the synagogue but who did not submit to the rite of circumcision.  Because they were uncircumcised, they were look upon as being spiritual incomplete or unclean.  The word translated “feared” is phobia.  We have come across this word several times in the book of Acts.  It carries the idea of awe and respect, and it was one of the distinguishing characteristics of how the early church related to the Lord.
    • He “…gave much alms…”  That is, Cornelius had a generous spirit.  The implication is that he gave to help the Jewish people.  This is remarkable considering the Roman army was in the area to crush any Jewish uprising.
    • He “…prayed to God continually…”  Cornelius was constantly seeking direction from God.


Verses 3-6 describe the vision of Cornelius.

“ninth hour” – This is three in the afternoon, one of the prescribed times of prayer (see Acts 3:1).

“an angel (messenger) of God” – This is the third time in the book of Acts we have seen such a messenger from God.  See Acts 5:19 and Acts 8:26.

“staying with a certain tanner” – These words probably gave Cornelius some comfort because they indicate the man for whom he would be sending was not overly rigid.  A strict Jew would not have been staying in such a place.


Verses 7-8 describe the response of Cornelius to the vision.  Even though it was already late in the day, he immediately did as he was told.  One writer has pointed out that it is remarkable that God had to speak to Cornelius only once to get His point across, but a little later in this chapter He has to give Peter three chances to obey and he still hesitated!


The example of Cornelius provides us a model for putting ourselves in a position to hear God speaking to us.

  1. Recognize our need for God (verse 2).
  2. Approach God with a sense of reverence and awe (verse 2).
  3. Have a compassionate heart toward people (verse 2)
  4. Be persistent in prayer (verse 2)
  5. Be obedient to what God says (verses 7-8).




The Vision of Peter – Acts 10:9-23a)

Verses 9-16 describe the vision.

“…the next day … approaching the city…” – It would have taken nine to ten hours for the men sent by Cornelius to make the 30 mile trip from Caesarea to Joppa on foot.

“up on the housetop” – Even to this day houses in that area have flat roofs that are used much like we would use a patio.  Sometimes a canopy was built over the flat roof to provide protection from the sun.

“sixth hour to pray” – The time was 12:00 noon.  There were three special hours of prayer observed at the temple each day -- the third hour (9:00 a.m.), the sixth hour (12:00 noon), and the ninth hours (3:00 p.m.).  Jews who were away from Jerusalem still observed these hours of prayer. 

“he became hungry” – The word for “hungry” suggests a very intense hunger.  He was extremely hungry.

“fell into a trance” – The word translated “trance” is ekstasis from which our word ecstasy comes.  The word suggests a state of disorientation and bewilderment.  Literally it means to be out of one’s senses.

“a certain object like a great sheet coming down” – One writer describes this object like the sail of a large ship.

“four footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air” – Leviticus 11 gives a detailed breakdown of animals the Jews were allowed to eat and not eat.  In short:

·        Land animals that have split hoofs and chew their cud were considered clean.  Animals with paws or that did not have split hoofs and chewed their cud were considered unclean.  (Cattle, goats, and sheep were clean.  Camels, pigs, badgers, weasels, rats, and lizards were unclean.)

·        Fish that had fins and scales were considered clean.  Catfish, eels, and shellfish were unclean.

·        Predator type birds such as eagles, vultures, hawks, ravens, and owls were considered unclean.

·        Insects that have jointed legs such as crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts were considered clean.  Other insect were considered unclean.

“Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” – That was a shocking command to Peter.  All of his life he had been taught that it was wrong to eat the kind of animals in that sheet, but now he was being told it was okay to eat such animals.  That was such a shocking revelation that God had to give it to him three times, and apparently each time Peter objected.


Verses 17-23a described the arrival of the messengers from Cornelius.

“greatly perplexed” – Peter was aware that the Lord gave him that vision to teach him some lesson, but he was not sure of what the lesson was.  Was the Lord saying to him just that it is now okay to eat animals which were once pronounced unclean, or was there a broader principle to be learned from the vision?  As Peter was struggling with that question, the answer showed up at the gate of the house!

“the Spirit said to him” – The Holy Spirit assured Peter that the men who were looking from him were sent by Him.

“he invited them in and gave them lodging” – This is an incredible statement.  It had been engrained into Peter that Gentiles were unclean.  Jews would not enter the home of a Gentile and they certainly would not invite Gentiles into their homes.  But in this case, Peter did not hesitate to invite these Gentiles to eat and share lodging with him.  That is evidence that Peter was already beginning to grasp the central concept of the vision given to him—that in Christ all the old barriers of race, position, gender, upbringing etc. have been done away with.  As the Scripture so eloquently puts it in Galatians 3:28:  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”


Practical application from Acts 10:1-23a:


  1. As we do our part, God does His part.  Cornelius did what he knew to do—reverenced God, helped others, and prayed—and God honored that by giving Cornelius more insight and direction.  The old adage, God helps those who help themselves, is true.   Trusting God does not mean that we do nothing; it means that we do what we know God wants us to do. 
  2. Times of difficulty and need in our lives can be some of the best teachable moments.  God used Peter’s intense physical hunger to impart to him a spiritual lesson.
  3. We are much more likely to hear from God if we put ourselves in a position to listen.  Peter separated himself from the crowd below, went to the rooftop, and opened himself to God.  This is a reminder of the importance of having a regular time and place in our lives for prayer and meditation.
  4. We still have much to learn.  Peter did not have the attitude that God could not teach him new truth.  We do not know it all and we do not understand all spiritual truth.  As the Scripture says in I Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly…”  We need to be open to the Spirit as He leads us into more truth.  Of course, to avoid being led into error, we must always verify our understanding of truth with God’s Word.