Acts 10:23b - 11:18

A Bibles Study Led by Dr. Larry Reynolds

May 21, 2009 

ACTS STUDY – Session 16

(Acts 10:23b-11:18)


In this session we are going to continue looking at the story of the meeting between Peter, the Jewish apostle, and Cornelius, the Gentile centurion in the Roman army.  In our last session we saw that the importance of this meeting is highlighted by: 

  • 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 reason this meeting is given so much attention in Acts is that it represents a major breakthrough for the gospel.  This is the first time that Gentiles came to faith in Jesus without first becoming Jewish converts.  And, as the events in Acts 10 & 11 unfold, it becomes clear that this was a very controversial event.


Two visions from God, one given to Cornelius while in the seaside city of Caesarea and the other given to Peter in the seaside town of Joppa, set the stage for the meeting between these two men.  We looked in detail at those visions in Acts 10:1-23a in the previous session.  An angel appeared to Cornelius telling him to send messengers to Joppa to get Peter to come to Caesarea.  While those messengers were on their way to Joppa, Peter had a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven filled with animals Jews considered unclean to eat.  A voice told him to kill the animals and eat them but Peter refused because he considered them to be unholy or unclean.  The voice told him not to consider as unholy what God had cleansed.  While Peter was trying to figure out the meaning of that vision, the messengers from Cornelius arrived in Joppa.  Peter invited them into the house and gave them lodging.  We are going to pick up the story in this session in the middle part of Acts 10:23.  In this session we will look at:

  • The meeting of Cornelius and Peter (Acts 10:23b-33)
  • The message of  Peter to those assembled in the home of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43)
  • The conversion of Cornelius and those gathered in his home (Acts 10:44-48)
  • The controversy in Jerusalem over the salvation of Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18)



The Meeting of Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10:23b-33)

Verse 23b

“…some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him…” – Acts 11:12 tells us that six (6) men went with Peter from Joppa to Caesarea.  That he would take an entourage like that seems to indicate that Peter expected something significant to happen in Caesarea and he wanted witnesses to the event.  Given the controversy this event caused in the church, it was a wise move on Peter’s part to have corroborating witnesses to what actually happened.


Verse 24

“…Cornelius was waiting for them…” – Apparently Cornelius had never even heard of Peter before he was instructed by an angel in a vision to send for him.  But he was so certain of what he had experienced, had no doubt that there was such a man and that he would come to his home.

“…had called together his relatives and close friends…” – It was one thing for Cornelius to wait alone expectantly for Peter to arrive.  If he failed to show up, at least no-one would know except for the messengers he had sent to Joppa.  But Cornelius was so full of faith, that he invited his relatives and friends to join him in waiting for Peter to come.


Verse 25

“…fell at his feet and worshiped him…” – Literally, Cornelius bowed before Peter.  It is not that Cornelius thought Peter was a god.  Remember, he was worshiping as the Jews did and they were rigidly monotheistic.  But he viewed Peter as a special messenger from God, perhaps some sort of angelic being.  This is an amazing scene—a Roman centurion giving deference to a Jewish Galilean fisherman!


Verse 26

“…Stand up; I too am must a man…” – Throughout the book of Acts we see the early disciples being very careful not to take credit for what God was doing through them.  They correctly saw themselves as instruments of God and constantly pointed beyond themselves to Him.


Verses 28-29

“…how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him…” – Peter had already broken this law several times as he invited the messenger from Cornelius to lodge with him at Joppa and then as he traveled with them to Caesarea.

“...God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean…” – Sometime during the night before Peter had figured out the meaning of the vision he had seen on the rooftop.  He explained that is why he readily accompanied the men sent by Cornelius back to Caesarea.


Verses 30-33 – At the request of Peter, Cornelius recounted the events which led him to send for Peter.


The Message of Peter (Acts 10:34-43)

The beginning of verse 34, “And opening his mouth, Peter said…” is designed to underscore the importance of what Peter was about to say.  Luke uses this same formula in Acts 8:35 when Philip begins to explain the Scripture to the Ethiopian on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza.  Matthew uses this formula in Matthew 5:2 where he begins his account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with these words:  “And opening His mouth He began to teach them, saying…”   The sermon Peter preached on this occasion is very similar to the sermon he preached on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.  Also, it has been pointed out that this sermon follows the pattern of the Gospel of Mark which many scholars believe is the Gospel of Peter as told to John Mark.


In the interest of time and space, I am just going to list the main points of Peter’s sermon:

  • God does not show partiality.  God does not turn His back on anyone.  Instead, He welcomes into His presence people of all nationalities.
  • However, there is a condition to being welcomed into God’s presence.  The condition is reverencing God and doing what is right.  As the sermon develops Peter explains that doing what is right means believing in Jesus (see verse 43).
  • The message of peace and salvation in Jesus was sent by God first to Israel (see Romans 1:16).
  • A recounting of the life and works of Jesus (verses 37-38).
  • A recounting of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (verses 39-40).
  • The testimony of the apostles as witnesses to the resurrection and proclaimers of the coming judgment (verse 41-42).
  • A call to repentance and faith (verse 43).


The Conversion of Cornelius and Those Gathered in His Home (Acts 10:44-48)

This event has been described as the Pentecost of the Gentile world.  This is the third time in the book of Acts we have seen such an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Each occurrence represents a breakthrough of the gospel to another people group—Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit came upon Jews at Pentecost, Acts 8 when the Holy Spirit came upon Samaritans, and Acts 10 when the Holy Spirit came upon Gentiles.  Each outpouring of the Spirit is accompanied by extraordinary signs. 


“While Peter was still speaking…” – These people were so ready to receive the good news and so receptive to God’s Spirit, they did not even wait for Peter to finish his sermon before responding!


“…all the circumcised believers … were amazed…” – They could not believe what they were seeing.  They needed some visible, outward manifestation from God to accept such a radical change in their theological understanding.  F.F. Bruce writes:

The descent of the Spirit on those Gentiles was outwardly manifested in much the same way as it had been when the original disciples received the Spirit at Pentecost:  they spoke with tongues and proclaimed the mighty works of God (see Acts 2:4, 11).  Apart from such external manifestations, none of the Jewish believers present … would have been so ready to accept the reality of the Spirit’s coming on them.  As in Peter’s vision the voice of God overruled food restrictions … so now the act of God in sending the Spirit overruled the sacred tradition which forbade association with Gentiles.  [Quoted in The Book of Acts:  The Smart Guide to Bible Studies, Robert C. Girard]  


Notice the way Peter phrased his question to the Jewish believers who had accompanied him to Caesarea.  Based on what they had seen and heard, there was no way that anyone could object to these new Gentile believers being baptized and accepted into the fellowship of faith.


The Controversy in Jerusalem over the Salvation of the Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18)

Verses 1-3 describe the charges made against Peter.  It is interesting that someone with the credentials of Peter was not immune from being criticized by narrow thinking people within the early church.

“…those who were circumcised…” – This does not refer to all Jewish believers.  Obviously those who accompanied Peter to Caesarea were not in this group.  The phrase can be translated “…those of the circumcision…” referring to a group of Jewish believers who were especially zealous for the law.  They became known as Judaizers.  Their basic stance was that a Gentile could become a Christian only after becoming a full-fledged Jewish proselyte.  This group caused much trouble in the early church, and they were especially critical of Paul who became the Apostle to the Gentiles.  In the letter to the Galatians Paul addresses this group directly and very firmly (see Galatians 1).


“…took issue…” – This is a strong phrase which can men contend with, withdraw from, judge, or oppose.  They questioned Peter’s ability to lead.  The verb is present tense indicating continuous action.  They were continually opposing Peter.  They would not let it go.


Notice the nature of the charge against Peter.  They did sort of a backdoor approach.  Instead of criticizing him for sharing the gospel with Gentiles, which was really their main concern, they attacked him for fellowshipping with Gentiles.  They complained that Peter “…went to uncircumcised men and ate with them…”  This criticism apparently stung Peter, because at a later time he tried to avoid putting himself in a position to be criticized in such a way again (see Galatians 2:11-21) 


Verses 4-17 contain Peter’s defense against the charges.  Essentially, he just tells the story of what happened and how the Lord worked to bring him and Cornelius together.


Verse 18 gives the decision of the church.  This decision certainly did not please everyone, and the issue continued to plague the church for years to come.


Practical lessons from Acts 10:23b-11:18:

  1. God is often at work in ways we cannot fully comprehend.  We only see part of the picture.  Neither Cornelius nor Peter fully understood God’s plan when they received their vision from God.
  2. Once God reveals His will to us, our only options are to cooperate with Him (as Cornelius, Peter, and the people gathered in Cornelius’ home did) or resist Him (as some of the people in the Jerusalem church did).
  3. Cooperating with God will often lead to being misunderstood and criticized by others.  The only way to avoid criticism is to do nothing, and even then some will criticize!
  4. Negativism is destructive.  It limits one’s vision and destroys initiative.
  5. The gospel is for all people.  No-one is outside the scope of the saving grace of Jesus.  That is the basic lesson God taught Peter and the larger church through this event.