Prejudice is everywhere in the world—in every nation, state, city, and neighborhood. Prejudice (discrimination) even exists within families between parent and child, brother and sister, family and relatives. Feelings toward and against people are a tragic reality.
There are at least two basic reasons for prejudice.
- People differ. They differ in nationality, color, beliefs, religion, speech, looks, behavior, ability, energy, position, status, social standing, possessions, wealth, birth, heritage. Prejudice arises when people feel they and their differences make them better than others.
- Mistreatment causes prejudice, both mistreating others and being mistreated. When a person mistreats others or is mistreated by others his nature is immediately aroused to become prejudicial and judgmental. The mistreatment that gives rise to prejudice covers a wide range of behavior: ignoring, neglecting, joking, gossiping, opposing, cursing, abusing, fighting against, persecuting, passing over, segregating, enslaving.
The present passage strikes a fatal blow against prejudice. It shows forever that Jesus Christ has erased all prejudices and barriers between people. Jew and Gentile are now one in Christ Jesus. This is the subject of the present passage. However, before launching into the passage, some background will be helpful in understanding just what is happening and the significance of it.
The Jews, like all other people of the earth, had developed their own laws and customs; and every Jewish child was born and reared in the environment of those laws and customs. They, like all other people, were steeped in their own nationality and looked upon other people with suspicion. However, there were two factors which made the Jewish prejudice run deeper than most.
- The Jewish people had always been mistreated, enslaved, and persecuted much more than the other people of the world. Through the centuries the Jewish people had been conquered by army after army, and by the millions they had been deported and scattered over the world. Even in the day of Jesus they were enslaved by Rome. Their religion was the binding force that kept Jews together, in particular their belief that God had called them to be a distinctive people (who worshipped the only true and living God) and their rules governing…
|• the Sabbath
• the temple
|• worship and cleansing
• diet, what foods they could and could not eat
Their belief and their rules kept them from alien beliefs and from being swallowed up by other people through intermarriage. Their religion was what maintained their distinctiveness as a people and as a nation.
Jewish leaders knew this. They knew that their religion was the binding force that held their nation together. Therefore, they opposed anyone or anything that threatened or attempted to break the laws of their religion and nation.
- The Jews misread and misinterpreted God’s Word and purpose for them. God had called Abraham and given birth to the Jewish nation for one primary purpose—that they might be His people, His witnesses, His missionaries to the rest of the world. God had given the Jews His Word and instructed them to take His Word to the world and tell them about God. They were to bear witness that God is—God does exist—and that men are to worship and serve Him and Him alone.
It was here that Israel failed. Instead of proclaiming God and His Word of righteousness and morality to the world, Israel separated itself from the world, hoarding and claiming that God and His law were theirs and theirs alone. They became separatists, extremely prejudiced, building barriers and partitions between themselves and the other people of the world (Gentiles). Prejudice became so deep-seated that attitudes such as these were adopted:
⇒ They called other people “dogs.”
⇒ They would have no contact with a Gentile unless absolutely necessary, and then after contact, they had to go through a religious ceremony to be cleansed.
⇒ They would not help a Gentile woman who was giving birth lest another Gentile be born into the world.
It was into such a world that the church was born, a world of prejudice, the prejudice…
- of Jew against Gentile.
- of Gentile against Jew.
- of Gentile against Gentile.
How was God going to overcome and break down the walls and barriers of prejudice that had been built up through the centuries of history? How was He going to get His church, His people to break away from their Jewish roots and reach out to the whole world?
That is the point of the present passage. The doors of God’s salvation are about to be gloriously swung open to the people of the world. Every man will soon have the wonderful privilege of hearing the marvelous message proclaimed: God is love and has sent His dear Son into the world that the world might be saved and not perish. The present passage shows how God broke through the prejudicial environment and customs of his dear servant, Peter, and led him to swing open the door to a Gentile soldier who was desperately crying out to God.
The story is one of the great stories of history, and it should be studied by all people everywhere. A study of this event shows that God has broken down the barrier of prejudice between men racially and religiously, and that He means and intends them to be erased forever—in the name of His dear Son who came to show that God loves all men and wishes all men to be saved.
The subject of the passage can be titled: “The Breakdown of Prejudice” or “The Opening of the Door to the Gentiles.” The door could not be opened until the existing prejudices were dealt with; therefore, the story deals mainly with the breaking down of the prejudices between the Gentile Cornelius and the Jewish minister Simon Peter.
1. (10:1-8) Prejudice— Jew vs. Gentile— Seeking God: the breakdown of prejudice in the Gentile, Cornelius. Note: it is God who breaks down prejudice. Prejudice is so deep-seated in the heart of man, only God can erase it and reconcile man.
Cornelius was a soldier, a military officer, a Centurion in the Roman army. (The Italian band simply means that all the soldiers (100) under his command were from Italy. Cornelius was stationed in Caesarea. This is important to note, for Caesarea was a Gentile city, a place in which strict Jews would never set foot, not if preventable.
Cornelius had an unusual reverence for God. He was…
- a devout man: one who worshipped the true and living God.
- a God-fearing man: one who sensed the presence of God in the world and knew he was responsible to God to live righteously, justly, and morally toward all men.
- a benevolent and charitable man: one who gave to charity, and note he gave “much.”
- a praying man: the word means that he prayed always.
The point is this: Cornelius was totally unlike most of the Gentiles of his day. He was not worshipping false gods. The Scripture says he worshipped and “prayed to God.” In Greek this means the true God, the only living and true God. Cornelius had done two things.
- He had looked at nature and at the world around him and seen that there was bound to be one God who had created all things.
- He had looked at Jewish religion (Judaism) and seen that it was head and shoulders above all other religions in…
- its worship of one God.
- its teachings of righteousness and justice and morality.
- its religious practices such as praying three times daily. (Note his praying at the Jewish ninth hour, which today is 3 p.m.)
But note: Cornelius did not become a Jewish worshipper. He was not circumcised (cp. Acts 11:3). He would never consent to becoming a Jewish convert. He could learn from them and their religion, but he would never become one of them. The prejudice existing within his own heart, existing between Gentile and Jew was too great to overcome. (We must always remember, prejudice is too great to overcome in the flesh of natural man.)
Cornelius was given a vision from God. Note five points.
- Cornelius was in prayer when the vision came.
- The vision involved an angel bringing a message from God.
- Cornelius “looked on” that is, fastened his eyes, gazed, focused his attention; he was startled, frightened.
- Cornelius realized the angel of God was a messenger from God (Acts 9:30, “bright clothing”). He addressed him as “Lord.”
- The message to Cornelius was twofold.
1) His prayers and charity had come before God as a memorial
2) He was to send men to Joppa to see Peter and ask him what to do. Now note a critical point: despite Cornelius’ enormous reverence and faithful service for God…
- he was still not doing enough.
- something else was missing.
- one thing was still lacking.
Note another fact as well: Cornelius was aware he still lacked something, very aware of the fact. He had asked God what he still needed. Despite all his reverence and good works, he still felt a lack, an emptiness; and he was begging God to fill that emptiness, to show him what he still had to do.
Cornelius was obedient to the heavenly vision and instructions. He sent two trusted household servants and his most trusted military orderly to find Simon Peter. Cornelius would seek the answer to his heart’s need from a Jew.
2. (10:9-22) Prejudice— Jew vs. Gentile: the breakdown of prejudice in the Jew, Simon Peter. The servants from Cornelius had almost reached the city of Joppa where Peter was. They would be approaching Peter soon with the request to visit and help Cornelius. However, Peter was not ready…
- to welcome these men.
- to return with them to visit Cornelius.
- to stay and share in the home of Cornelius.
Why? Cornelius was a Gentile and Peter was a Jew. There was deep-seated racial discrimination between the two. Welcoming and visiting and sharing in the homes of each other was out of the question. And on top of that, there was a religious difference, a difference that was even more deeply seated in Peter’s mind than the racial difference. Peter was just not ready for these Gentile men to approach him with the request to visit Cornelius the Gentile, not yet.
But God was ready. And it is God who makes the difference. God can break down prejudice. God can reconcile the Jew to the Gentile and the Gentile to the Jew. God can reconcile man to man; He can bring peace to men and between men. Note these facts.
Peter prayed often every day. This is seen in the fact that he was praying about the sixth hour (12 noon Jewish time). This was one of the three prayer hours practiced by Jews. Peter got alone and prayed at least three times daily.
Peter was such a man of prayer that God could intervene in his life and direct him, give him specific instructions. It was while he was praying that God spoke to Peter.
Peter was a mere man, very human. Despite his being the leader of Jesus’ apostles—the great apostle to the Jews, a man of great spiritual maturity and depth, a great servant of the Lord, a minister highly esteemed—Peter was still just a man, a man who hungered and thirsted, ached and hurt, was weak and frail, prejudiced and too often wrong just like the rest of us.
The point is this: being saved and spiritually mature and called to serve God did not make Peter perfect. It did not free him from need and lack, nor from sin. Peter as a mere man was subject to hunger just as all men, and subject to the prejudices of his environment just as all men—subject to the prejudices until God changed him. And praise God, He was about to change Peter’s prejudice against us, the Gentiles! If God had not changed him and his prejudices, we would still be lost and without Christ in this world.
Peter experienced a trance. The Greek says that “a trance [an ecstasy] came upon him”; that is, he was transported out of himself. His mind was so concentrated, so focused that Peter lost all sense of the world around him. He was swallowed up in the thoughts of God, transported mentally out of this world. It is something like a daydream, but a daydream so concentrated and focused that all contact with one’s surroundings is completely lost. It is a time of ecstacy in the presence of the Lord, receiving His Word, whatever He has to say to one’s heart.
The trance (ecstacy) was of heaven. Peter saw heaven open. Peter’s prejudice was encrusted and hardened. He had never known anything but prejudice within his environment except what Christ had demonstrated. Peter did not think or know that he was prejudiced. He thought he was only standing against the unrighteousness and injustices of men, that he was to ignore and have nothing to do with ungodly and unjust men. If Peter was to change and begin to reach out to the heathen, the ungodly and unjust, he had to know that the instructions were from heaven, from God Himself.
The vessel or platter (plate) upon which a meal was served was huge.
⇒ It was a large receptacle, so large it looked like a large sheet (othonen), which in the Greek means linen cloth. This probably means it was white.
⇒ The huge vessel or platter had four corners that were knit, that is, that were held by four ropes and let down from heaven, descending to earth and being sat before Peter.
⇒ The vessel or platter contained all manner of animals.
- The instruction to Peter was, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.”
- Peter refused, for the animals were common and unclean according to the laws of Jewish religion. Note the enormous spiritual struggle Peter was going through.
- Peter was clearly corrected: “What God has cleansed, that call not unclean.”
- Peter experienced the event three times and then the trance ended with the platter being received up into heaven.
- Peter was perplexed. While Peter was thinking about the trance and wondering what it meant, the men arrived downstairs and asked for him.
- Peter’s sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s leadership is clearly seen from this point on. Note: it was the Holy Spirit who…
- told him the men were downstairs.
- told him to go “with them” (Peter did not yet know they were Gentiles).
- told him to “doubt nothing”: do not waver, wonder, hesitate, question the thing to be done.
- told him that He, the Holy Spirit, had sent the men after him.
Note: Peter did not yet know the men were Gentiles. But the Holy Spirit had just told Peter exactly what to do. Peter could not question this fact. Peter was now ready to have his prejudice against Gentiles erased. Note also: Peter did not yet know the meaning of the trance. This would be made clear later.
Peter received the Gentile servants. He obeyed the Holy Spirit, did exactly what the Spirit said. Peter even lodged them, an unheard of thing. (As a point of humor, imagine the kosher food they had that evening.)
3. (10:23-33) Lessons Learned by the Jew and the Gentile, the prejudiced of the world.
- The preparation by Peter. He took six Jewish believers, orthodox Jews, with him (Acts 10:45; Acts 11:12). Peter knew he was treading troubled waters by associating with Gentiles; he sensed he would need witnesses to what he was doing. Therefore, he was preparing himself against attack (cp. Acts 11:1f).
- The preparation by Cornelius. Note…
- He was expectant, excited, eagerly waiting for their arrival.
- He had “called together his kinsmen and close friends.” There were many present.
Note also the faith of Cornelius. He knew Peter would be coming, that God would fulfill His Word (Acts 10:6) and do what He had promised.
Cornelius was already witnessing by bringing people to hear the messenger from God.
The confrontation of the Jew and the Gentile, two men humbled by God.
- Cornelius had been humbled by the vision from God. He had been mulling over the experience for four days now, being humbled and prepared more and more to receive the Jewish messenger. When he confronted Peter, he was so humbled he prostrated himself before Peter in an act of deep reverence.
- Peter demonstrated humility as well. It was the custom to bow before men of high honor, showing reverence and respect for them. But God had humbled Peter too. Peter forbade the act, disallowed it. No man is to be idolized or reverenced in the sense of being held in awe. Peter rebuked Cornelius: “I myself also am a man.”
- Peter now knew that no man was common or unclean. He now knew…
- that Christ had abolished the distinction between Jew and Gentile.
- that Christ had abolished the wall of partition between Jew and Gentile
- that Christ had abolished all distinctions between men, whether racial, social, or some caste system.
No man was to treat any other man with anything but love and care, mercy and forgiveness, concern and compassion. Peter’s prejudice was wiped out, erased, and overcome. It had been overcome by God. The door of salvation was about to be thrown open to the Gentiles forever.
Note Peter’s reference to how it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile (Acts 10:28). This law was not in the Scripture. It came from the Scribal law
The lesson learned by Cornelius was threefold.
- The man who truly seeks God moves God. Cornelius declared that God answered his prayer.
- The man who seeks God must listen to God and obey God. Cornelius declared that he listened and did exactly what God said, and that he did it immediately (Acts 10:33)
- The man who seeks God must be receptive to the Word of God.
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Source: The Preacher’s Outline & Sermon Bible – Acts, (Chattanooga: Leadership Ministries Worldwide, 1991), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “C. A World-Wide Ministry–In Caesarea (Part I): Breaking Down Prejudice, 10:1-33”.