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15. Is Cleanliness Next to Godliness? (Acts 9:32-10:23)

32 Now it came about that as Peter was traveling through all those parts, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda.155 33 And there he found a certain man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden eight years, for he was paralyzed. 34 And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; arise, and make your bed.” And immediately he arose. 35 And all who lived at Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.

36 Now in Joppa156 there was a certain disciple named Tabitha (which translated in Greek is called Dorcas);157 this woman was abounding with deeds of kindness and charity, which she continually did. 37 And it came about at that time that she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her body, they laid it in an upper room. 38 And since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, having heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him, entreating him, “Do not delay to come to us.” 39 And Peter arose and went with them. And when he had come, they brought him into the upper room; and all the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them. 40 But Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up; and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known all over Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 And it came about that he stayed many days in Joppa with a certain tanner, Simon.

Now there was a certain man at Caesarea158 named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort,159 2 a devout160 man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in to him, and said to him, “Cornelius!” 4 And fixing his gaze upon him and being much alarmed, he said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 “And now dispatch some men to Joppa, and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; 6 he is staying with a certain tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.” 7 And when the angel who was speaking to him had departed, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were in constant attendance upon him, 8 and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. 9 And on the next day, as they were on their way, and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry, and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; 11 and he beheld the sky opened up, and a certain object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, 12 and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” 15 And again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, {is not unholy to you}161.” 16 And this happened three times; and immediately the object was taken up into the sky. 17 Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate; 18 and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there. 19 And while Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 “But arise, go downstairs, and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.” 21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you.” 23 And so he invited them in and gave them lodging.

And on the next day he arose and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And on the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 And when it came about that Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshipped him. 26 But Peter raised him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am just a man.” 27 And as he talked with him, he entered, and found many people assembled. 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. 29 “That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. And so I ask for what reason you have sent for me. 30 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments, and he said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 ‘Send therefore to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.’ 33 “And so I sent to you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” 34 And opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him.”


Some years ago, I had the most unusual conversation with a person who professed to be a Christian. The individual had divorced some years before, and was hoping to re-marry another person. I asked what biblical grounds there were for the divorce. The woman responded, “Well, you know the Bible teaches that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’, and my husband was a very dirty man.” I’ve heard some pretty far out perceptions of what the Bible taught, but this statement caught me off guard.

But before we dismiss this woman’s statement too quickly, let’s think about it. Is cleanliness considered to be next to godliness? It certainly was in the minds of many Jews, not only in Peter’s day, but through much of Israel’s history. The difference between that which was “clean” and that which was “unclean” was vital to the devout Jew. It was obviously vitally important to Peter. In our text, when God Himself commanded Peter to “kill and eat,” Peter quickly responded (in his vision), “No way!” (Acts 10:14).

I would like to suggest to you that the distinctions between “clean” and “unclean,” as the Jews of Peter’s day practiced them, were unbiblical. I do not think, as many seem to feel, that a change in the rules is being made here by God, a “dispensational difference” from the way God had formerly required that things be done. Instead, I believe that Peter, along with his Jewish Christian brethren, had falsely equated “cleanliness” and “godliness,” and that this error was one of the greatest barriers to the expansion of the gospel. A barrier which had to be removed. A barrier which was, indeed, removed here.162

The incidents which Luke has chosen to record in the Book of Acts are not necessarily chronological.163 They tend to be geographical, following the scheme laid out in Acts 1:8. The events which Luke includes in this second volume of his two-volume series are those which serve as critical turning-points. The salvation of the Samaritans, and then of Saul, are two major milestones in the expansion of the church. The conversion of Cornelius is another milestone. Its importance can be seen by the fact that the details of Peter’s divine guidance to this Gentile’s house, along with the divine witness to the conversion of those who were present, are repeated in chapter 11, after already having been told in some detail in chapter 10. This is a very significant event, not only for Peter, but for the Jewish Christians, and for the church of Jesus Christ. We shall see how and why as our study unfolds.

Our Approach

In this lesson, we shall limit ourselves to the portion of the account which is found in 9:32–10:35. We will stop at the point where Peter has arrived at the home of Cornelius, at which time he explains what lessons he has learned in the process of getting this far. We will not look at the “gospel message” he preached in 10:36ff., nor of the response of the people, or of the Holy Spirit—until our next lesson. We shall seek to learn how God arranged for Peter to get to the home of Cornelius, and the lessons which had to be learned in order for Peter to be willing to go. We shall also seek to see of these lessons have any relevance to Christians today. (I will tell you now that they do.)

Jewish Prejudice, Its Precedent,
and its Problem for the Church

The Problem

The attitude of the Jews toward the Gentiles was far from a merely condescending mentality. There was a deep rift between Jews and Gentiles. It was one that the gospel would bridge, but not until after the lessons of our text were learned and applied. In the Book of Acts, and in the epistles of the New Testament as well, one of the most persistent and dangerous errors perpetrated against the church, and one of the most insidious errors which continued to find its way into the church was that of the Judaizers, that belief that Christianity must be subordinate to Judaism, that those who became Christians must also become Jews, by the rite of circumcision and by the keeping of the law. This false doctrine first appears in Acts in chapter 15:

And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them, should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue (Acts 15:1-2).

The outcome was a “council” held in Jerusalem, which came to be known as the “Jerusalem Council.” In this council, as we shall see in chapter 15, the Judaizers’ doctrine was publicly renounced, but the problem nevertheless persisted, because of those who could not divorce the errors of their Judaism from the truths of the Bible (as Paul did, as seen in Philippians 3).

Peter’s experience, as described in Acts 10, and as repeated in chapter 11, and the lessons which he learned, are the first comments reported by Luke at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:6-8). The remarks of Paul and Barnabas, and then of James, simply confirmed what Peter said (Acts 15:12-21). These two chapters, then, are foundational to the doctrinal stance taken by the church in the Jerusalem Council. Surely this incident is a “watershed,” a milestone in the expansion of the church.

The Roots of the Problem

The roots of this problem of Jewish separatism164 go very deep into the Old Testament. They begin in the distinctions which God drew between the “clean” and “unclean” animals which were to be put on the ark, so as to survive the flood (Genesis 6:19-20; 7:2-3). Then, in Genesis chapter 12 we are told that God chose Abram, and especially his “seed”165 to become a source of blessing to “all the nations of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3). Being God’s chosen was a place of privilege, but also one of great responsibility. To be God’s instrument required one to be separate and distinct from the rest, so as to represent God and to reflect His holiness, His “separateness” from men. But it also required contact with men. Thus, God’s chosen must have contact with those to whom God will bring blessing, and yet must be free from their sins and defilements. In New Testament terms, God’s chosen must be “in the world,” but not “of the world” (cf. John 17:13-17).

Abraham’s separation was to include his removal from his own family, and from his native land (Genesis 12:1). This “separateness” was continually threatened and challenged. Lot was one who endangered himself and his family by his association with the people and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram’s sin also served as a threat to the purposes of God (from a merely human point of view), for in order to save his own skin, Abram passed off his wife as his sister. If the “seed” of Abram was to be the source of blessing for the world, how lightly he took the need to protect his wife from sexual union with the heathen, such as Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20) and Abimelech (Genesis 20). In addition to risking his wife’s impregnation by another man than himself, Abram sought to produce “seed” through Hagar, a woman other than his wife (Genesis 16). In spite of the weakness of Abram and Sarah, God protected them and preserved the purity of his “seed,” so that Isaac was born to the two to fulfill God’s promise to them and to bring about His purposes and promises, given in the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3).

The need to separateness was also evident in Jacob and his sons, who were to become, through their offspring, the 12 tribes of Israel (Jacob). Joseph is the model for biblical separation.166 While he lived in a pagan country, far from his family, he refused to have sexual relations with his master’s wife (Genesis 39). His older brother, Judah, however, was willing to have sexual relations with a woman he thought to be a heathen cult prostitute (Genesis 38). It was the 400 years of bondage in Egypt which God used to keep the nation Israel pure, in spite of itself, so that God’s promises to the patriarchs would be fulfilled.

When God led Israel out of Egypt, and was about to take them into the promised land of Canaan, He took steps to insure their separateness, their distinctness, as His people, and as that race through whom Messiah would come. He gave them the Mosaic Covenant, and as a part of this covenant He made distinctions between “clean” and “unclean” things which the Israelites were to carefully observe:

22 ‘You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out. 23 ‘Moreover, you shall not follow the customs of the nation which I shall drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them. 24 ‘Hence I have said to you, “You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey.” I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. 25 ‘You are therefore to make a distinction between the clean animal and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; and you shall not make yourselves detestable by animal or by bird or by anything that creeps on the ground, which I have separated for you as unclean. 26 ‘Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine’” (Leviticus 20:22-26).

This is a very important text because it not only emphasizes the necessity for distinguishing between the “clean” and the “unclean,” but it explains the reason for the rule. God had chosen Israel and had set them apart from the other nations of the earth, not because they were so great, or so holy, but simply because He chose them, and because of His promise to the patriarchs (cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-11). Israel’s purpose was to be God’s instrument, through which He would bring His promised blessings to the Gentiles, as well as to the Jews. In order to do this, they were to manifest God to men. They were to reflect God, and to “Be holy, even as God is Holy” (Leviticus 11:44, etc.). The laws of the “clean” and the “unclean” were intended to provide one basis for being distinct from the nations, but were also intended to teach the Israelites how to make such distinctions between that which is holy and that which is not—by basing these on the clear statements of God Himself, in His Word.167

The sins of the Israelites quickly became evident by taking that “good” which God had given in His law and using it for evil (cf. Romans 7). They began to equate their “separateness” with superiority, in spite of God’s warnings against this (cf. Deuteronomy 7:6-7). And they also came to equate ceremonial “cleanness” with self-effort, with their own works. Rather than manifesting humility and dependence upon God’s grace, which the Law was intended to produce, Israel began to swell with the pride of self-righteousness, based upon external compliance with the letter of God’s law. In time, they added to the law of God, so that they observed the “traditions of Moses”—their own embellishments of the law of Moses—rather than the law itself. Much of the Lord’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was meant to challenge and correct such perversions of the law as God gave it and intended it to be interpreted and applied.

The Old Testament prophets consistently rebuked the people of God for this, stressing that cleanliness and purity were a matter of the heart, and of one’s conduct, not of meticulously keeping ceremonial rituals:

The Mighty One, God, the LORD, has spoken, And summoned the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. 2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth. 3 May our God come and not keep silence; Fire devours before Him, 4 He summons the heavens above, And the earth, to judge His people: 5 “Gather My godly ones to Me, Those who have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.” 6 And the heavens declare His righteousness, For God Himself is judge. 7 “Hear, O My people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you; I am God, your God. 8 “I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, And your burnt offerings are continually before Me. 9 “I shall take no young bull out of your house, Nor male goats out of your folds. 10 “For every beast of the forest is mine, The cattle on a thousand hills. 11 “I know every bird of the mountains, And everything that moves in the field is Mine. 2 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all it contains (Psalm 50:1-12).

Then the Lord said, “Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote, Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous; And the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, And the discernment of their discerning men shall be concealed” (Isaiah 29:13-14; cf. also Micah 6:6-8).168

11 There is a kind of man who curses his father, And does not bless his mother. 12 There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, Yet is not washed from his filthiness (Proverbs 30:11-12).

When David sinned against God, he turned to Him for cleansing, for only He could wash away his sins:

Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Mark me to hear joy and gladness, Let the bones which Thou hast broken rejoice. Hide Thy face from my sins, And blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me (Psalm 51:7-10).

Through the prophets, God sought to point out to the Jews that they could not attain purity and cleanness. Indeed, God’s standards for cleanness only showed Israel, like all others, to be defiled. And because of this God spoke of Himself as being the One who would cleanse His people from their defilement. The annual day of atonement was an early prototype and picture of the “cleansing” which was to come:

29 “And this shall be a permanent statue for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; 30 for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you shall be clean from all your sins before the LORD. 31 “it is to be a Sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. 32 “So the priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement: he shall thus put on the linen garments, the holy garments, 33 and make atonement for the holy sanctuary; and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 “Now you shall have this as a permanent statute, to make atonement for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year.” And just as the LORD had commanded Moses, so he did (Leviticus 16:29-34).

The prophets took up this promise of a cleansing to come, accomplished by God for His people, a cleansing which Messiah would make, a cleansing which would ultimately be by the shedding of His blood:

2 In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth will be the pride and the adornment of the survivors of Israel. 3 And it will come about that he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy—everyone who is recorded for life in Jerusalem. 4 When the LORD has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning, 5 then the LORD will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, even smoke, and the brightness of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory will be a canopy. 6 And there will be a shelter to give shade from the heat by day, and refuge and protection from the storm and the rain (Isaiah 4:2-6).

7 “And I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and I will rebuild them as they were at first. 8 And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against Me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned against Me, and by which they have transgressed against Me. 9 And it shall be to me a name of joy, praise, and glory before all the nations of the earth, which shall hear of all the good that I do for them, and they shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the peace that I make for it” (Jeremiah 33:7-9).

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes. 24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. 30 I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. 32 I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, O house of Israel! 33 “‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: On the day I cleanse you from all your sins, I will resettle your towns, and the ruins will be rebuilt. 34 The desolate land will be cultivated instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass through it. 35 They will say, “This land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden; the cities that were lying in ruins, desolate and destroyed, are now fortified and inhabited.” 36 Then the nations around you that remain will know that I the Lord have rebuilt what was destroyed and have replanted what was desolate. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’ 37 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Once again I will yield to the plea of the house of Israel and do this for them: I will make their people as numerous as sheep, 38 as numerous as the flocks for offerings at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts. So will the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 36:22-38, NIV).

23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. 24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever’” (Ezekiel 37:23-28, NIV).

1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?” 3 Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4 The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.” 5 Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by. 6 The angel of the Lord gave this charge to Joshua: 7 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here. 8 “‘Listen, O high priest Joshua and your associates seated before you, who are men symbolic of things to come: I am going to bring my servant, the Branch. 9 See, the stone I have set in front of Joshua! There are seven eyes on that one stone, and I will engrave an inscription on it,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day. 10 “‘In that day each of you will invite his neighbor to sit under his vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 3:1-10, NIV).

What a joy the promise of a Savior and of cleansing was to those who recognized their sin, and who looked to God for salvation. But for many Israelites, they thought they were “clean” and needed no cleansing. They prided themselves in abstaining from anything “unclean” and disdained the Gentiles as “unclean,” as “sinners.” This led to the false conclusion that the Gentiles themselves were unclean. This provided them with the opportunity not only to look down on the Gentiles, but to avoid contact with them—all in the name of holiness.

If the Jews of Jesus’ day felt that holiness was measured in terms of the distance one kept from “sinners” (which they did), then you can imagine the impact that Jesus’ words and teaching had on such separatists (which is virtually synonymous with the word Pharisee). These Jews looked for a Messiah who would bless Israel and who would overthrow the Gentiles. Yet Jesus taught that He had come to bring blessings on the Gentiles, too. Indeed, Jesus reminded those in the synagogue of Nazareth that God sometimes blessed Gentiles instead of Jews, something which caused this enthusiastic and supportive crowd to a hostile mob, who tried to kill Him (Luke 4:16-30).

And if this were not enough, Jesus, far from keeping His distance from “sinners” actually sought them out and fellowshipped with them at the meal table, which infuriated the scribes and Pharisees, and brought about their jealous reaction of interrogation (Luke 5:29-39). The hostility continued to build, and when some of Jesus’ disciples ate without ceremonially washing first, it brought about this exchange:

And the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered together around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2 and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4 and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) 5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” 6 And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. 7 ‘BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’

8 “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” 9 He was also saying to them, “You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. 10 “For Moses said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER’; and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER, LET HIM BE PUT TO DEATH.’ 11 but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ 12 you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13 thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.” 14 And summoning the multitude again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside the man which going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” 16 17 And when leaving the multitude, He had entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18 And He said to them, “Are you too so uncomprehending? Do you not see that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts and fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:1-13).

Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands ceremonially, as did the Pharisees. And thus, in the minds of these legalists, the disciples were sinning, breaking the customs of Moses. They were not breaking the Law of God, of course, but only the rules of the religious of that day. Our Lord’s response to these charges of the Pharisees is most informative. His words indicate that there was, on the part of His disciples, no real transgression of the Law of Moses, but only of their petty rules. Further, He indicated that this was a biblical issue in the sense that they were doing that which the prophets foretold: concentrating on the ceremonies and missing the heart of God’s commands. The Law was addressed to the “heart,” and not to outward ritual and ceremony. This is why our Lord’s interpretation of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount differed so greatly from that of the Pharisees and scribes (but which was utterly consistent with the intent of the Law, when God gave it, and as the prophets interpreted and applied it).

Defilement, Jesus taught, was not a ceremonial thing, but a matter of the heart. Sin begins in the heart and works outward. It does not penetrate man from without. Thus, Jesus made it clear that foods cannot defile a person. What one eats does not make one sinful or holy. In teaching this, Jesus declared all foods “clean,” Mark informs his reader.

Now the report of this incident in Mark chapter 7, along with Jesus’ response, was very possibly conveyed to Mark by Peter. One thing is for certain: Peter was there when these words were spoken by the Lord. At some point in time in the Lord’s process of changing Peter’s thinking about “clean” and “unclean” Peter must have remembered this incident and Jesus’ teaching. Jesus had already indicated that the “food laws” of the Old Testament, and the distinctions which they created between “clean” and “unclean” were set aside. In another incident, Jesus Himself “violated the rules” of His legalistic opponents. Here, Jesus made the point that it was what was “inside” a man that mattered, not what was on the outside. He accused the Pharisees of concentrating on the outside:

37 When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised. 39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you (Luke 11:37-41, NIV).

The Lord indicated to His disciples what true cleanness was and how it was to be accomplished by Him. During His last meal with the disciples He the Lord said and did these things:

3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” 9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” 10 Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean (John 13:3-11, NIV).

“You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3, NIV, cf. also John 17:15-17).

The Old Testament food laws, the laws of “clean” and “unclean” foods were set aside, Mark says. So they were. But the evils conjured up in the minds of the legalists and practiced by them were never taught by God in the first place. God wanted His people to be distinct from the world, but not distant and removed from it. They were to be lights to the world, and salt, Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. All of this requires the presence of the saint and his or her permeation of the world. Light that is hidden and salt that is tasteless has no value. God wants His people to be distinct, so that their presence in the world will be seen, and so that His holiness and salvation may be proclaimed. The Jewish concept of holiness and separation, which Peter held and practiced, was a barrier to the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles and to the growth of the church. Thus, God had to bring this apostle to a dramatic change of mind and heart. The conversion of Cornelius is the instrument God used to do this, and by so doing, to impact the whole church as well.169

Peter’s Progressive Change of Mind:
Luke Sets the Scene

In spite of Peter’s love for the Lord Jesus, his growth in the faith, and the power which God manifested in his life and ministry, he held the same views of his unbelieving Jewish brethren. And so did the rest of the apostles. God set out to change Peter’s thinking, in a way that was nearly as dramatic as the conversion of Saul, as described in the first part of chapter 9.

Peter’s change of mind was progressive, just as Paul’s conversion involved a process. Geographically, the progress is most evident. Peter started in Jerusalem, then went down to Samaria, and to some of the Samaritan towns (8:14, 25). Some time later, Peter was found in Lydda (9:32) and then at Joppa (9:39, 43), and then at Caesarea (10:24). After this, he would return to Jerusalem (11:2).

I believe that these changes in Peter’s place of residence played a very crucial role in preparing him for the invitation to come to the house of Cornelius. I am inclined to doubt that Peter would have gone to Caesarea and to the house of Cornelius if he would have received the invitation to do so while he was staying in Jerusalem. It was here that his devoutly Jewish fellow-apostles and brethren lived. And it was precisely these folks who “called Peter on the carpet” for preaching the gospel in the home of this Gentile, Cornelius. But God took Peter and John to Samaria, where they welcomed many Samaritan saints into the faith and into the church. Then, at some point in time, God led Peter to Lydda, then to Joppa, and finally to Caesarea.

Peter’s arrival in Lydda was the occasion for his encounter with Aeneas, who was healed of his 8 year paralysis, in the name of Jesus Christ (9:32-34). This healing led to the conversion of many, and the broadcasting of Peter’s reputation and presence to the nearby town of Joppa (cf. 9:38). When Dorcas died, some of the disciples in Joppa sent for Peter. We are not told why they sent for him, or what they asked him to do. Was Dorcas still alive when they first sent for Peter? Had she died before these men were sent? Did they dare to think that God might raise her to life through Peter, a miracle such as Peter had not performed before (so far as the account tells us, at least)?

Peter’s method of dealing with this request was not that which we would expect from watching the television “healers.” Peter went to Joppa. There, he sent everyone from the room where the woman’s body was laid. Peter then prayed. We are not told for what he prayed. I know what I would have prayed: “Lord, what am I supposed to do?” Did Peter think of his own experience with the Lord, along with James and John, when He raised the daughter of Jairus (cf. Mark 5)? Somehow, Peter became convinced that he should pray that God would raise this woman from death. Only after she was alive did Peter call in the others, and present her to them, alive.170 This miracle of life was used of God to bring many to faith, and it also resulted in Peter’s change of location, from Lydda to Joppa, where Peter had an extended stay (9:43).

This sequence of events removed Peter from Jerusalem, and from the legalistic separatism of his Jewish brethren. It put him in contact, no doubt, with a larger number of Gentiles. It resulted in his contact with a woman who had died, as was thus not only ceremonially unclean, but also defiling to Peter. It also put Peter in constant daily contact with a tanner, a man who daily dealt with dead animals. It would seem that some of Peter’s scruples with “unclean” things would have had to have been set aside.

If the change of setting was preparatory in the life of Peter, making him more open to the invitation to go to the house of a Gentile, the miracles which Peter is reported to have performed (by divine enablement) are also significant. The miracle of the healing of the paralytic was not so spectacular, for similar healings had taken place by Peter’s hand previously (cf. Acts 3). But what was spectacular was the raising of a dead woman, something which is not said to have happened previously through Peter.

Would someone attempt to explain Peter’s actions (of going to the house of a Gentile, to preach the gospel to Gentiles) by insisting that he was “not himself,” that he had, perhaps, become carnal or was in a “backslidden state”? The answer would have to be that this man, this “carnal man” had never before (or after) seen the hand of God work so mightily in his life and ministry.

The important changes which took place in Peter were those pertaining to his theology and understanding of the relationship between the “clean” and the “unclean” and the Jews and the Gentile. Notice, with me, the sequence of events which God brought about in Peter’s life, and the progressive realization on his part as to what all this meant.

The Vision of Cornelius

There was a certain171 man in Caesarea, named Cornelius. He was a Gentile, a centurion, and a man who was, for all intents and purposes, an Old Testament believer. He was not, it would seem, a circumcised, “certified” proselyte, but one who had found the God of the Jews to be the one true God. He served God as much as could be expected of any Old Testament believer. No one could have asked any more of this man than that which Luke tells us about him. The only thing about this man which would have raised the objections of a Jew, even a Jewish Christian, was that he was not Jewish, but “merely” a Gentile. The righteous deeds of Cornelius are not reported so that we would draw the conclusion that he was somehow good enough for God to save, but only to show that no Jew should have any objections to Peter going to his house to proclaim the good news of the gospel. It is clear in the text as a whole that this man, though a pious Old Testament saint, though a Gentile God-seeker, was not a New Testament believer. By his own words, Cornelius was told by the angel of God that Peter was to come to his house to “speak words by which he and those gathered would be saved” (Acts 11:14).

The heart of Cornelius had already been opened, so that this Gentile was not longer fleeing from God, but was now seeking to know of Him and of His salvation. In contrast to the Jews, whose ceremonial acts of worship were an offense to God, the deeds of Cornelius went up to God as “a memorial.” God took note of these acts of worship because they were precisely that—acts of worship. To be more precise, they were acts of Old Testament worship. What he still needed was the good news of the coming of the Christ, and of His sacrificial death and resurrection, for the remission of men’s sins. He was thus commanded to send men to a specific place, to a specific home, and to ask for a specific person—Peter, who was to come to his house in Caesarea to bring him and his household a word from God which would bring salvation.

It is interesting to note that the guidance God gave Cornelius is much more specific (at least initially) than that given to Peter. I think I understand why God told Cornelius to send for Peter, to come to his house. Cornelius was apparently a humble man (a soldier, placing himself under the religious system of a subject people would be humbling), and with his close association with Judaism, would have known that the association which his invitation called for was prohibited by Judaism. Peter put it this way:

“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him…” (Acts 10:28).

This being the case, I believe that apart from the specific instructions which God gave to Cornelius, he would have said something very similar to that which another centurion, and a Gentile, said to Jesus, a Jew, who was on his way to the man’s house:

“Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not fit for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Luke 7:6-7).

Jesus commended this centurion’s faith, but we can also see in his words, his attentiveness to the sensitivity in Jew/Gentile relationships. I believe that if God had not commanded Cornelius to send for Peter, he would have gone to Peter, to avoid any problems. But you see, God wanted there to be a problem, so that He could correct Peter’s attitudes and actions, along with those of the other Jewish Christians, especially those from Jerusalem.

Peter’s Vision and Insight

God’s timing, as always, was perfect. Just before the three men were to arrive at the home of Simon the tanner, Peter had a corresponding vision172 to that of Cornelius, in order to prepare him for the arrival of these three,173 and for the invitation of Cornelius, which they were to extend to him. Peter’s vision, like that of Cornelius, came at a time when he was in prayer.174 Unlike the vision of Cornelius, Peter did not immediately understand what the vision meant, in principle or in practice. That was to be revealed to him by the Spirit, at the time when the application of this truth was required.175

Peter’s vision is one about food, but it is not a vision of a meal, per se. A sheet is lowered from heaven, and later taken back up into heaven. On this sheet, there is not a table set, with all kinds of delicious dishes upon it. There are various kinds of animals. They are all alive, and they must first be killed, and then Peter can fix his own meal. There are various animals, some of which must have been unclean, and some of which must have been clean. Why, then, would Peter have been horrified at the thought of killing one of the animals, in order to eat. He would not have to have killed a pig, and had pork chops for dinner. He could have killed a lamb, and had lamb chops instead. Why would this thought horrify him? Because, I think, the association of the “clean” animals with the “unclean” must have rendered all “unclean” in Peter’s mind. Thus, he could not kill or eat any of them.

This would be consistent with his view of Jewish separation from “unclean” Gentiles. He, like the Pharisees, would avoid contact with the Gentiles because they felt that mere association with them was defiling. This explains the elaborate rituals of cleansing through which a devout Jew went, after being in the market place, and coming into contact with Gentiles. But to God, it was not being near pagans which made one unholy, but in being like pagans which defiled one. Thus, Jesus could come to the earth in human flesh and associate with sinners but remain sinless, because He did not think and act as sinners did. The self-righteous Jews, on the other hand, may have kept themselves separate from the Gentiles and other “sinners” but in their thinking and actions they sinned, for sin comes from within a man, and not from without.

The scene which was played in Peter’s mind was repeated three times, so that it importance and its certainly was underscored. In spite of the certainty of the message, Peter was not so clear on its meaning. He was perplexed and was contemplating what he had experienced when the three men arrived—and right on time. He could hear them, down below, asking for him by name. It was only now that the Holy Spirit told Peter what to do, allowing him to come to the realization that this was the meaning of the message he had just received in his vision. He was to go with these Gentiles, to the home of a Gentile, without agonizing over the “defilement” which such an act had formerly implied to Peter. Both the men and the Spirit testified to the fact that this invitation was ultimately divinely directed. Significantly, Peter invited the men into the house, where they must have shared in the meal and spent the night. Barriers were already being broken down.

The next day, the group went to Caesarea, accompanied by a curious (it would seem) group of Jewish (circumcised, Acts 10:45) disciples from Joppa, who were divinely purposed to serve as witnesses to God’s handiwork in the house of Cornelius, the Gentile. Cornelius was waiting, along with a large group who were assembled in his house. He fell at Peter’s feet, either thinking him to be an angel, or giving him undue reverence—something which Peter corrected quickly. In effect, Peter forbade this act of worship on the basis that these two men were merely men, and thus equals. The full force of his own words was yet to hit Peter.

Peter then explained to his audience the reason for his reticence in coming, and the meaning of his vision in relation to his hesitance (10:27-29). In his explanation, Peter referred to his possible association with Gentiles (as a Jew) was unlawful. There is no Old Testament law prohibiting such association. Peter is therefore referring to something which was viewed as unlawful by Jewish custom and practice. It was this same custom and practice which Jesus and His disciples set aside, much to the displeasure of the scribes and Pharisees. When Peter said that God showed him he should not consider any man unholy or unclean (10:28), it is now clear to Peter that the issue of clean and unclean was not primarily a matter of animals, but of men. Peter, like his Jewish counterparts, had wrongly extended the “clean” and “unclean” distinctions of the Old Testament to men, rather than applying them to that which God had specifically defined as clean or unclean. He now new better. But he still does not fully grasp the lesson God intended him to learn.

After Peter’s words, explaining his reluctance in coming, Cornelius explained to Peter and the others what had prompted him to send for Peter (10:30-33). He was at prayer when he received his vision. In the vision, a man in shining garments (an angel of God, 10:3) appeared to him, informing him of the pleasure God took in his worship, and instructing him to send for Peter, who was dwelling in Joppa, at the house of Simon the tanner. Peter was the right man, the man God had intended to come. And now, Cornelius added, they were all ready to hear what God had to say to them, through Peter (10:33). These words were to be a word from God concerning the way of salvation for him and his household (11:13-14).

Once again, Peter spoke. And once again, Peter said that he now understood what God meant for him to understand:

And opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:34-35).

Here was the fundamental problem of the Jews—prejudice. Here, too, was the fundamental theological barrier to the proclamation of the gospel. The Jews felt that they had a “corner” on Christianity. They believed that salvation was not just “of the Jews,” brought to pass by God in accordance with His promises to the Jews, and through a Jew—the Lord Jesus, but that salvation was primarily “for the Jews.” If there were those among the Gentiles who wished to cash in on the benefits of salvation through Messiah, they could do so by becoming a Jew and trusting in Jesus as their Messiah. But the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles as Gentiles was a completely foreign thought, based on the assumption that the Jews were somehow “clean” and that the Gentiles were “unclean,” and that in taking the gospel to the Gentiles would be defiling to them and to the gospel.

I understand Peter’s words as the expression of a general principle, which he has just begun to grasp. It is not only a New Testament principle, introduced with the coming of Christ, but a principle of God’s dealing with men down through the ages, from Old Testament times onward. It was a principle of which the Jews were deliberately ignorant. Most of the Jews thought of themselves as somehow superior to the Gentiles, and thus they thought of themselves as those whom God would bless because of their superiority. They were separate, by God’s calling and choice, but they were not, in and of themselves, superior. But they thought so.

Peter now understands that Jews and Gentiles are equal. They are equally sinful, and worthy of God’s wrath. They are equally lost. They are equally undeserving. The gospel is the good news that cleansing has come, through the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, to all who would believe in His death, burial, and resurrection on their behalf. And when they have trusted in Him, whether Jew or Gentile, they are equal for their cleansing and worth are based upon the work of Christ, not on their own good works. When one’s righteousness is based upon God’s work, through Christ, there is no basis for self-righteousness, and thus no basis for superiority or pride. Peter now claims to understand this essential equality, which forbids him from withholding the gospel from those Gentiles who would hear it and receive it.

Peter still has a good way to go, in my opinion. He is now willing to go to the house of a God-fearing Gentile, to preach the gospel to him, and to receive him as a brother and equal in Christ. But the gospel requires more than this. As illustrated in the salvation of Saul (in chapter 9), the gospel requires that the good news of salvation be proclaimed to all men, even to the heathen who do not fear God. This is a step which is yet to be taken by the church, but Luke is bringing us to this point as he continues in the Book of Acts.


What does Peter’s experience with Cornelius have to do with the argument of the Book of Acts? It is a quantum leap for the gospel, for it sets the precedent that the gospel is for all men, and not just the Jews. It is to become a turning point in the doctrine, if not yet the practice (cf. 11:18-19), of the church. The precedent set by Peter will eventually be followed by the church. And the principle has been established by which the heresy of the Judaisers (Acts 15:1ff.) will be corrected. This is indeed a watershed event, which will shape the history of the church. The door is now swinging open for the gospel to be preached to the Gentiles. We are beginning to leave Jerusalem and Judea, and even Samaria, and turning toward Rome.

And what does the experience of Cornelius have to do with us? It has a great deal to say to us, I believe. First, it indicates that even the righteous works of a man like Cornelius are not sufficient to save a man. If he were to be saved by his good works, it would not have been necessary for Peter to have gone to his house and to preach the gospel. The “cleansing” which the Jews need is the same cleansing required by any who would be saved from God’s wrath and into His kingdom. That cleansing is the cleansing of the blood of Christ. The cleansing which took place annually on the day of atonement, was but a temporary setting aside of sin. The full and final cleansing, to which the day of atonement looked forward, was the cleansing which Jesus made by the shedding of His blood, on the cross of Calvary, once for all.

11 When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! 15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 9:11-15, NIV).

Have you experienced the cleansing which God promised the Old Testament saint, and which He has provided in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ? All you need do is to acknowledge that you are “unclean,” that your sins have defiled you, that your uncleanness comes from within, not from without. And then you need only look to the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ as God’s provision of cleansing for you. He died in your place. He bore the penalty for your sins on the cross. And He was raised again, to newness of eternal life. In Him, your sins are paid for and your “cleanness” is provided. I pray that you will, this day, experience the washing of regeneration, the cleansing which comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

The primary lesson in our text for Peter, however. He was not only saved, he was an apostle, a leader in the church. If his lesson was that the gospel must be preached to all men, Jews and Gentiles, what is the lesson in this for us? Surely it is, to begin with, that we must proclaim the gospel to all men.

The fact is, however, that we are just as selective in those to whom we proclaim the gospel as Peter and his Jewish Christian brethren were. Oh, we, like Peter and others, would tell others about salvation in Jesus if they came to us and asked to hear, or if they were willing to become one of us. But the sad truth is that many of those whom we feel are “pagans” are those to whom we will not preach the good news—not consciously, perhaps, but unconsciously. And, the more I think about it, I fear that we refuse to preach to the heathen out of a perverted sense of purity and separation from sin.

My contention is that our doctrine and practice of holiness and separation is the biggest barrier to evangelism today, just as it was for Peter and the Jewish saints in that day. I believe that we, like they, think of separation and holiness in terms of avoiding contact with sinners, rather than in avoiding sin in our own lives. We have a greater fear of contaminating from being around “sinners” than from practicing that sin which comes from within ourselves.

Let me give you a biblical illustration of what I am talking about. It comes from the 5th chapter of the book of 1 Corinthians. Notice who the saints in Corinth avoided, and who they received:

1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? 3 Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. 4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. 9 I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:1-13, NIV).

The Corinthians had turned things inside-out. They tolerated—even welcomed—a man in their midst that was living in open sin, the kind of sin which shocked the pagans. Not only did the Corinthians tolerate this man, they were proud of themselves for doing so. No doubt they called this “Christian love.” On the other hand, these saints were great advocates of “separation,” the only problem was that they separated themselves from sinners, rather than from a wayward saint. Paul made it clear to them in these verses that they were to excommunicate the professing Christian, who was living in sin, but to freely associate with pagans, who needed to hear of Christ.

How it is to turn things around, and to do precisely the opposite of what God has commanded us! Holiness is living a life which reflects God and which is pleasing to Him. It is a life which avoids sin, but which seeks the salvation of sinners, and which therefore associates with them, just as Jesus did. To put the matter bluntly, folks, were shunning the wrong people. We need to avoid professing Christians who are living like pagans, and we need to seek pagans, so as to win them to Christ.

In our twisted and perverted doctrine and practice of holiness and separation, we are guilty of the same kind of legalism and externalism which Jesus condemned in the scribes and Pharisees. We judge holiness more by what a man or woman does not do, than by what they do. Can you imagine describing the holiness of God in terms like these:

  • God doesn’t smoke cigarettes.
  • God doesn’t drink wine (but Jesus did).
  • God doesn’t associate with known sinners (but Jesus did).
  • God doesn’t wear makeup (or whatever).

The holiness of God was demonstrated in Jesus Christ, who came to the earth to associate with sinners, so as to save some. How can we do otherwise?

The problem of falsely judging and practicing separation by the avoidance of certain “unclean” things was not only one that characterized the scribes and Pharisees, and Jewish saints like Peter, it was a problem that persisted in the New Testament. Note these references to an external avoidance kind of holiness, one advocated by false teachers, and not the apostles:

Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited. 10 We have an altar, from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. 12 Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. 13 Hence, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. 14 For there we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come (Hebrews 13:9-14).

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23).

Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble (Romans 14:20, NIV).

May God produce true holiness in us, and may we, like Jesus, practice holiness by associating with sinners, to proclaim the good news of God’s cleansing and salvation, while we live pure and blameless lives before them.

155 “Lydda (Old Testament Lod) lay on the route from Jerusalem to the coast, about 25 miles . . . distant.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 178.

156 “Joppa (modern Jaffa) lay some 12 miles . . . from Lydda on the coast.” Marshall, p. 179.

157 Tabitha is Aramaic. “Luke tells us that this name had the same meaning as Greek Dorcas, and RSV indicates that both names mean gazelle.” Marshall, p. 179.

158 “. . . a ‘new town’ built by Herod the Great which had become the centre of government for the Roman administration of Judea.” Marshall, p. 183.

159 “A legion had ten cohorts or ‘bands’ and sixty centuries. . . In the provinces were stationed cohorts of Italic citizens (volunteers) as an inscription at Carnuntum on the Danube (Ramsay) has shown (epitaph of an officer in the second Italic cohort). . . The soldiers could, of course, be Roman citizens who lived in Caesarea. But the Italian cohorts were sent to any part of the empire as needed. The procurator at Caesarea would need a cohort whose loyalty he could trust, for the Jews were restless.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 133.

160 Of this term “devout” A. T. Robertson comments,

“It might refer to a worshipful pagan (Acts 17:23, sebasmata, object of worship), but connected with ‘one that feared God’ . . . Luke describes ‘a God-fearing proselyte’ as in 10:22, 35. This is his usual term for the Gentile seekers after God (13:16, 26; 17:4, 17, etc.), who had come into the worship of the synagogue without circumcision, and were not strictly proselytes, though some call such men ‘proselytes of the gate’ (cf. Acts 13:43); but clearly Cornelius and his family were still regarded as outside the pale of Judaism (10:28, 34; 11:1, 8; 15:7). They had seats in the synagogue, but were not Jews.” A. T. Robertson, III, pp. 133-134.

161 The text is from the NASB, with the exception of the bracketed expression, “is not unholy to you.” This is probably the most literal rendering of the original text. The rendering of the NASB, “no longer consider unholy,” is really unacceptable. It suggests a dispensational change, which, in my opinion, is not being taught here. I like the sense of the rendering of the New Jerusalem Bible’s translation here, “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane.” One could (rightly) understand the supplied expression, “no longer,” to mean that Peter’s wrong thinking, up to this point, must change. It is interesting that in Acts 11:9, the exact expression in the original text is rendered the same as it is in 10:15, except that the word “longer” is not italicized, though it should have been.

162 We must remember, though, that while the truth Peter learned here was one that he defended in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, it was also one that he deserted in the incident reported by Paul in Galatians chapter 2. Those lessons which we learn can quickly be forgotten.

163 For example, in chapter 8 Luke wrote of the “Samaritan revival” as the result of the proclamation of the gospel by those who were scattered from Jerusalem, due to the persecution which arose on account of the stoning of Stephen (8:1-4ff.), and then tells of the cessation of this persecution and of a time of peace (9:31). Then, in chapter 11, he goes back to those who were scattered from Jerusalem by the same persecution, but who went beyond Judea and Samaria, and beyond the Samaritans, so as to preach the gospel to Gentiles, even as far away as Antioch (11:19-22).

164 One may initially react to this term “separatism,” but it is, I think, a valid use of the term. The Judaizers were truly separatists, for they insisted that the only way a Gentile could have fellowship with them was to become one of them, to become a Jew. If the Gentiles were not circumcised, and did not put themselves under the customs of Moses, then the Judaizers would not fellowship with them, as we see happening, for example, in Galatians 2:11-13.

165 It becomes apparent much later that the “seed” is not the nation Israel collectively, but the “Seed” (singular), the Messiah. Paul makes a special point of this in Galatians 3:15-16. What Israel would not do, and could not do, because of sin, Messiah would do.

166 Another Old Testament model for separation is Daniel. Daniel refused to eat the king’s food, which was probably associated with heathen worship and sacrifices, but he did not refuse to be educated in Babylonian schools or to become an active and integral part of the government. In so doing, Daniel’s testimony and his faith in the God of Israel was greatly expanded and influential.

167 There are those who would say that the distinctions God made between the “clean” and the “unclean” were based upon pragmatic factors. They hold that there was a good reason behind every distinction. I think that there was a good reason behind every prohibition: God said so. God does not have to have a good reason (from our point of view) for what He commands. The obedience of faith lives in accordance with God’s commands, whether we understand the reasons of not. And the more that His commands seem unreasonable, the more we must act by faith and not by sight. I do not think that Abraham found God’s command to sacrifice his son reasonable. But God did command it, and so he, by faith, obeyed.

168 This is the text cited by our Lord against the ceremonialism of the Pharisees in Mark 7:6-7, in the context of “cleanness.”

169 Remember that Peter would not have had to go to Caesarea to preach the good news to Cornelius, because Philip was going there himself (Acts 8:40). But it was Peter who had to be sent to the house of Cornelius because he was an apostle, and would thus serve to set the precedent if preaching the gospel to the Gentiles in a more dramatic and influential way.

170 Why did God raise this woman, who might even have been a widow, when He did not raise a man life Stephen? The answer must be that God is sovereign, and that He has the right to do as He chooses. Later on, in chapter 12, we will learn that while God did not prevent Herod from putting James to death, He did supernaturally deliver Peter. In both cases, with James and with Peter, God’s will was done and God was glorified. God’s ways are higher than our own, and may only be understood from the vantage point of eternity and the infinite wisdom of His purposes.

171 The word “certain” is found here in Acts 10:1, referring to Cornelius, and again in 10:6, referring to Simon the tanner. It is also found above in chapter 9 with reference to Aeneas (9:33) and Dorcas (9:36). God’s leading is very specific. There are certain people whom God is “putting in place” at just the right time. Once again the sovereignty of God and the specific details of His plan are underscored by Luke.

172 Peter’s vision is an interesting inter-twining of the divine and the human. The vision is from God, and it relates to a very earthy problem--of prejudice. And while the message is a deeply spiritual one, it is done through a vision pertaining to food. And all of this happening to Peter at a time when he was hungry, and when his meal was being prepared. At the same time his stomach growled or at least his mouth watered, God gave Peter a vision about food, one that almost nauseated him. God is a Master at blending the human and the divine, because He is able to cause “all things to work together for good, in accordance with His purposes.” A sovereign God can use any and every means to get His message to men.

173 Luke troubled himself to tell us that the soldier who was sent with the two servants was “devout” (10:7). We are also informed that Cornelius “explained everything to them” before sending them to Joppa (10:8). It would seem that they may have shared the same faith with Cornelius. The least we can say is that Cornelius was careful to share the details of his faith and walk with God with those who served him. No wonder when Peter arrived there was a house full of those waiting to hear what Peter had to say.

174 Compare Acts 10:3, 9, 30. I highly recommend a study of prayer in the Book of Acts. The following passages are suggested for this study: Luke 1:10, 13; 2:37; 3:21; 5:16, 33; 6:12,28; 9:18, 28-29; 11:1-2; 18:1, 10-11; 19:46; 20:47; 21:36; 22:32, 40-41, 44-46; Acts 1:14, 24; 2:42; 3:1; 4:24, 31; 6:4,6; 5:59; 8:15,22,24; 9:11,40; 10:2,4,9,30-31; 11:5; 12:5,12; 13:3; 14:23; 16:13,16,25; 20:36; 21:5; 22:17; 26:29; 27:29; 28:8.

175 I wonder if there is not a principle, or some kind of pattern evident here. Today, people want the Bible taught in such a way that they know exactly what it means in principle, and what it means in terms of application--now! God progressively revealed this lesson to Peter, even though the truth of it was clearly revealed in the Old Testament and by Jesus. And after Peter is taught the principle (“What God has cleansed, you must not look upon as unclean.”), the application of this principle is revealed to him only at the time when it is required. Is there not a need to teach the truth and to leave, to some degree, the application of that truth to the Holy Spirit? I do not think it wrong to suggest ways in which the truth may apply, but let us beware of leaving the impression that we know how people may need to apply the truth in their circumstances. And let us beware of going another step beyond this, in giving them a precise formula for “how” they are to achieve the conduct which we have determined is the application. I am not so sure that we need as much instruction in methods as we do in a biblical mindset and in a biblical motivation.

Related Topics: Sanctification

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