In verses 9-16, we are told of the preparation of Peter for his task. Did Cornelius need preparation? Yes, and God prepared him. Did Peter need preparation? Yes, Peter needed preparation, too.
The problem was that, although Peter had become a Christian, he still thought as a Jew and, according to the Jewish way of thinking, God did not save Gentiles as Gentiles. They had to become Jews first. God had already been preparing Peter to think differently, of course. It had begun in Samaria. The Gospel had spread there earlier, and Peter had been sent to Samaria to investigate. Samaria was not entirely Gentile; the people were part Jewish and part Gentile. But it was this very mixture that was so important in moving Peter away from his strictly Jewish prejudices. It was a preparatory experience for him. Peter checked Samaria out and, because he had the germ of the truth in him in spite of his prejudices, he concluded, “God really is at work here.” He was quite rightly pleased.
Then we are told, at the very end of chapter 9, that when Peter went to Joppa he stayed in the home of a tanner named Simon. Tanners work with leather. In order to work with leather they have to handle dead animals. Dead bodies were unclean, according to Jewish thinking. Anyone who touched them became unclean. So a normal Jew would have nothing to do with such persons. Yet Peter stayed with Simon. Simon was a Christian brother, and this was the right thing to do. God was beginning to break down Peter’s defenses.
Still, Simon was a Jew. And Peter was now going to be told to go to the household of the Gentile Cornelius. Let me emphasize again that the problem was not that God did not save Gentiles. He did. The Old Testament has a number of examples. But when these Gentiles were saved, they were saved not as Gentiles but through their becoming Jews.
There was Rahab, for example. She was a harlot in Jericho. She was not a member of God’s people, but she had heard rumors of what the God of the Jews had done and she had come to believe in this God. When the Jewish spies came into Jericho she protected them, recognizing them as God’s servants. She saved the spies and so was saved herself when Jericho was taken. But what happened after that? As we read the sequel, we find that she was then incorporated into Israel. She married into the tribe of Judah and became an ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Matt. 1:5).
There is also the example of the Moabitess Ruth. She got to know the true God through her mother-in-law Naomi. Later, when Naomi’s sons died and Naomi decided to return to her own land, Ruth determined to return to Israel with her. She said to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). The order of that last sentence is particularly important. Ruth wanted the God of Naomi to be her God; she would be a worshiper of Jehovah. But before she could say “your God will be my God” she had to say “your people will be my people.” Ruth became a member of Naomi’s tribe. She married Boaz. Their son was Obed, the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David (Ruth 4:21-22; cf. Matt. 1:5).
This was what Cornelius’ case was all about. Could Peter preach salvation, offering it freely on the basis of the finished work of Christ, to one who had not come to God by way of Israel, in this case by the rite of circumcision? We know how God answered on that occasion. The vision of the sheet was intended to show that God was not calling the Gentiles unclean, and that Gentiles could come to Christ as Gentiles without first having passed through the very narrow door of Judaism.
The story tells us that Peter was on the roof of the house of Simon the tanner waiting for his noon meal. The houses had flat roofs, and there was usually a staircase to the roof from the outside. So the roof was a nice place to go to escape the bustle within. Probably there was a bit of an awning there, and, stretching out under it, Peter fell asleep. (This awning may have been supported by four posts, and maybe this is how the vision of the great sheet supported at the four corners came about.) As Peter was dozing, he had a vision. A great sheet was let down from heaven, and in the sheet were all kinds of animals, some that the Jews would call clean and others that the Jews would call unclean.1 While Peter was wondering what this vision meant, a voice from heaven told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat” (v. 13).
Peter responded instinctively: “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (v. 14).
Some have pointed out that this seems to have been a very incongruous statement on Peter’s part. The Lord was giving Peter a command. And Peter, while acknowledging Jesus as his Lord, nevertheless contradicted him, saying, “Surely not!” That would be an incongruous reply, of course, if Peter’s words are to be understood that way. But I do not think that Peter’s words were a flat contradiction. I think he understood this to be something of a test and therefore approached it biblically on the basis of his knowledge of the law, as he was right to do. When the voice from heaven said, “Kill and eat,” Peter would not have taken the words as a command but as a test to see whether he, a Jew, would disobey God’s written law. He answered rightly on the basis of the understanding he had: “Lord, I can’t do that, as you well know. You know what you wrote in Leviticus. I can’t have anything to do with food that is unclean.”
At this point the voice said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (v. 15).
“What in the world was that about?” Peter must have been thinking. “Is God contradicting Himself?” While he was thinking about it the same thing happened again, then a third time. I suppose, although we are not told this explicitly, that Peter’s response would have been the same each time: “No, Lord, I can’t do that.” By the time the drama had been acted out the third time, Peter must have begun to get the idea that God was trying to tell him something, even though he did not know exactly what it was.
1The details of this division are in Leviticus 11, forty-seven verses that distinguish “between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten” (v. 47).