By Charles H. Welch
The vision that Peter had of the great sheet, and his subsequent visit to Cornelius, form part of the movement that we see taking place in Acts 8 to 11, which prepares the way for the work of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. It will be found that there is nothing in Acts 10 to warrant the idea that Peter had a ministry among the Gentiles, for the vision of the sheet and the visit to Cornelius were exceptional. They accomplished their purpose, and Peter was left free to pursue his ministry among the circumcision.
The subject before us falls into four parts:
Cornelius is described as:
Paul’s converts are described variously as:
Yet it is abundantly clear from Acts 10 that had he not had the vision of the sheet Peter would have called the devout, prayerful Cornelius ‘common and unclean’. How is this attitude possible if it is true that the Church began at Pentecost? The dispersion of the Jew throughout the Roman world had of necessity influenced Gentile thought, and there were accordingly some who, though uncircumcised and outside the Hebrew pale, were nevertheless worshippers of the true God. Lydia, a woman of Thyatira, is said to be one who ‘worshipped God’ and is found at the place of prayer (Acts 16:14). At Thessalonica there was ‘a great multitude of devout Greeks’ (Acts 17:4), at Athens Paul disputed with devout persons (Acts 17:17); and at Corinth Paul found a refuge in the house of one named Justus who ‘worshipped God’ (Acts 18:7). It was to this class that Cornelius belonged, for if he had been a proselyte he would not have been looked upon by the Jew as ‘common and unclean’. This conclusion is further strengthened by Peter’s confession:
We must now turn our attention to the vision given to Peter, which produced so great a revolution.
Joppa! Did Peter ever think of Jonah? Was not Peter’s name ‘Simon bar Jonah’? Did not Jonah remonstrate with God because of His mercy to Gentiles? Were the problems of the expanding gospel forcing themselves upon Peter? We are not told, but we believe that he would have been neither human nor an apostle, if such were not the burden of his thought.
Falling into a trance upon the housetop he saw a vessel descending from heaven, and containing four-footed beasts, reptiles of the earth, and fowls of the air, and a voice said to him: ‘Rise, Peter, slay and eat’. It is hardly possible for any Gentile to enter into the thoughts that would fill the mind of a Jew, whether Christian or otherwise, who received such a command. We can, however acquaint ourselves with the law that governed this matter of clean and unclean animals and see what is written:
Then follows the long list of prohibited animals, with the recurring sentiment:
Not only so, but
All this prohibition is because Israel were a separated people:
This instruction to ‘make a difference’ is reiterated in the corresponding section of Leviticus, namely, chapter 20.
It was in this atmosphere that the Jew was born, lived, moved and had his being. Practically from cradle to grave, from morning till night, waking or sleeping, marrying or giving in marriage, buying or selling, he was continually reminded that all the Gentiles were unclean, and that his own nation alone was holy unto the Lord. This separation to the Lord was seriously enforced upon his conscience by the scrupulous observances of the Levitical law. The bearing of all this upon the words and attitude of Peter in Acts 10 is most evident by the following references:
Here are the words of Peter himself. If we accept the chronology of the A.V., this incident occurred eight years after Pentecost, and Peter is still by his own confession, ‘A man that is a Jew’. He, at least, did not believe that ‘the Church began at Pentecost’. Not only was he still a Jew, though a believer, but he was still under the Law. ‘It is an unlawful thing’, said he. How then can we tolerate the tradition that the Church began at Pentecost? He told Cornelius to his face that he would have treated him as ‘common and unclean’, for all his piety and prayers, had he not received the extraordinary vision of the great sheet. Yet at Pentecost.
When taken with Acts 10 this is absolute proof that no Gentile could have been there. Yet the tradition that the Church began at Pentecost persists!
Peter moreover makes manifest his state of mind by adding: ‘Therefore came I unto you without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for’ (Acts 10:29). Can we imagine the apostle Paul speaking like this even to the most abject of pagans? No, the two ministries of these two apostles are poles apart. Further, Peter continued: ‘I ask therefore for what intent ye have sent for me?’ (Acts 10:29). Can we believe our eyes? Do we read aright? Is this the man who opened the Church to the Gentile on equal footing with the Jewish believer? He asks in all simplicity, ‘What is your object in sending for me?’ Again, we are conscious that such words from the lips of Paul would be not only impossible but ridiculous. He was ‘debtor’ to wise and unwise, to Jew and Gentile, to Barbarian and to Greek. Not so Peter. He was the apostle of the Circumcision (Gal. 2:8), and therefore the call of Cornelius seemed to him inexplicable.
‘For what intent have ye sent for me?’- Can we imagine a missionary in China, India or anywhere else on the broad earth, asking such a question, or asking this question in similar circumstances? Any Mission Board would request such a missionary to resign his post, and rightly so. No! every item in this tenth chapter is eloquent of the fact that Peter had no commission to the Gentiles.
At last Peter ‘began to speak’ (Acts 11:15). Let us listen to the message he gives to this Gentile audience:
One cannot but be struck with the attitude of Peter. He does not preach directly to the Gentile audience, he rehearses in their hearing the word which God sent to Israel, saying nothing of a purely gospel character until the very end.
But for the further intervention of God we cannot tell how long Peter would have continued in this way. It is doubtful whether he would have got so far as inviting Cornelius and his fellows to be baptized, as his own words indicate:
Peter’s ministry in the Acts concluded with the words ‘Forbidding’ and ‘Withstand’ both translations of the Greek word koluo. Paul’s ministry concludes with the words ‘No man forbidding’ (Acts 28:31) where the Greek word is akolutos. Peter maintained this attitude up to the tenth chapter of the Acts, he would have ‘forbidden’ both Cornelius and God, for the word ‘withstand’ in Acts 11:17, is koluo.
The upshot of this work at Caesarea was that even Peter was called upon to give an account of himself.
We find no remonstrance from Peter to the effect that seeing that the Church began at Pentecost, the conversion of Cornelius should have been anticipated and be a matter for rejoicing. No, Peter patiently, and humbly, and apologizingly, rehearsed the matter, even to the pathetic conclusion: ‘What was I, that I could withstand God?’ (Acts 11:17). Why should Peter ever think of withstanding God, if he knew that the Church began at Pentecost? It is abundantly evident that neither Peter, the other apostles, nor the brethren at Jerusalem had the remotest idea of any such thing.
We have devoted this much space to the story of Cornelius, because we believe that when once the attitude of Peter here is realized, it will be utterly impossible to still retain the traditional view that ‘The Church’ began at Pentecost.