Release from Persecution
Saul's conversion ended the persecution that scattered believers throughout the region. Suddenly the pressure upon them to hide was removed, and they could freely do the work of the church. The result is that many grew stronger in their Christian faith and practice.
Now they walked only in the fear of God instead of walking also in the fear of man. Now also they especially enjoyed the encouragement and counsel of the indwelling Holy Spirit. These powerful motivators working in combination—fear of God serving as a negative incentive, the Spirit's encouragement as a positive incentive—roused believers to pursue the Great Commission with new zeal, and they won many to Christ. The churches multiplied throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.
The leading apostles understood that it was their responsibility to help all the churches. Just before His ascension, the Lord told Peter to feed His sheep. He wanted Peter to make sure that the whole church of God received adequate spiritual nourishment. Thus, after Philip's mission to Samaria, Peter and John went there not only to give them the Holy Spirit, but also to disciple them in sound doctrine. Some time later, Peter took a tour of all the churches, coming at last to Lydda along the Mediterranean coast.
At Lydda, Peter found Aeneas, a man with a severe affliction. For eight years he had been bed-ridden with a paralysis of the legs. Whether he was already a believer, we do not know. But Peter took compassion on him and declared that the Lord would make him whole.
To perform a miracle always requires faith. On this occasion, Peter asked the man to show faith by making the effort to rise. As soon as he started to move, the palsy vanished, and he rose without difficulty. God not only cured him, but also took away the weakness of his legs after years of disuse.
News of the miracle spread rapidly throughout Lydda and the neighboring region, and the people marveled. This was the first notable miracle done in their midst. They had not seen the many miracles that Christ and His apostles had done in Jerusalem and Galilee. Aeneas was not someone mentioned in accounts of God's healing work in other places, but someone they knew. From their own observation they had no doubt that his affliction was severe and incurable. The miracle therefore had an electrifying effect. The writer reports that all unbelievers in Lydda and Saron accepted the gospel. Conversions must have numbered in the thousands.
While Peter was staying in Lydda, a godly woman in the adjoining city of Joppa died. This woman was greatly beloved by the church because of her good deeds. Like many people in Palestine, she bore two names, one Aramaic and one Greek. Both the Aramaic (Tabitha) and the Greek (Dorcas) signify a doe. The writer calls our attention to her names because they must give us a true picture of the woman. She must have been gentle and graceful like a deer.
Two brethren in the church at Joppa hurried to Peter and pleaded with him to come quickly. It was the Jewish custom to bury a body on the very day of death, before corruption could set in. But if Dorcas was already dead, what did her friends expect Peter to do? They must have had faith enough to believe that Peter could bring Dorcas back to life. No doubt they had heard about all the great works that Christ performed. Besides healing the sick, He raised three from the dead. These were the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-16), the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:49-55), and Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha (John 11:1-44). Jesus told His apostles that they too would do wonderful works, even greater than He had done (John 14:12). Therefore, the believers in Joppa believed that Peter could raise Dorcas, and Peter hurried to her bedside, confident that He could perform the miracle.
When Peter arrived in Joppa, he found all the widows weeping over Dorcas. To prove her death was a great loss, they showed Peter the clothing she had made for them. He then put the widows out of the room and kneeled beside the body. After praying and satisfying himself that it was God's will to raise this woman to life, Peter turned and said, "Tabitha, arise." Immediately she opened her eyes and sat up.
Years earlier, when Jesus raised Jairus's daughter, He commanded that she be given food immediately. No doubt Dorcas's body also lacked food. So, perceiving her weakness, Peter gave her his hand and helped her rise all the way to her feet. He then called in the believers waiting outside and presented Dorcas alive. You can imagine their reaction. Their mourning must have instantly turned into rejoicing and praising God.
The believers did not keep her restoration a secret. They eagerly spread the news, and soon the whole city knew that a great miracle had been done. The result of this dramatic display of divine power was that many believed.
Not far from Joppa was another coastal city, Caesarea. There lived Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. A centurion was the commander of about one hundred soldiers.
Cornelius was a gentile (not a Jew), and yet Scripture describes him as a devout man, faithful in good works and in a life of prayer. How did it happen that a gentile with a background in the heathen religion of Rome came to worship the true God? Cornelius was not alone. In his day, the Jewish religion attracted many followers. In synagogues throughout the Roman world, the congregation was a mixture of Jews and gentiles, called God-fearers. Although most of these gentiles did not go through all the rituals necessary to be considered actual Jews, they separated themselves from paganism and kept the moral law of God. Later, whenever Paul went to a new city, he preached first to the Jews and God-fearers in the synagogue. From those who believed he formed the nucleus of a new church.
Cornelius was a God-fearer so outstanding in his piety that God chose him to be the first gentile convert to Christianity. An angel appeared to him one day while he was praying. His natural reaction was to be afraid. But the angel calmed his fears by assuring him that God was pleased with all his prayers and good deeds. The angel implied that God was now ready to bless him, but to obtain the blessing, he had to follow instructions. First, he had to send men to Joppa and fetch Simon Peter, who was staying with Simon the tanner. Then when Peter came, Cornelius had to obey whatever Peter told him.
Immediately, Cornelius called three trusted servants, two from his household and one from the army. The soldier was a devout gentile, and perhaps the others were as well. After they all reported to their master, he sent them off to find Peter.
While Cornelius's men were walking to Joppa, Peter was having a quiet day at Simon's house. Toward noon he went to the housetop to pray. In an ancient Jewish house, the roof was much like the porch in a modern house. It was a good place to get away from others and enjoy the breezes. After spending some time with the Lord, Peter became hungry and called for food. While he sat waiting for the servants to prepare it, he fell into a "trance"—that is, God took control of his mind while he was awake.
Peter saw a strange vision. A large sheet appeared in the sky and descended before his eyes. It looked as though the sheet was suspended from cords tied to its four corners. Riding on the sheet was a whole zoo of animals. Among them were birds, mammals, and "creeping things"—a reference to reptiles and insects. When this strange cargo stopped before Peter, he heard a voice, saying, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat."
Peter had no doubt that the animals were real, and such a command to a man waiting for his dinner was entirely reasonable. But Peter saw that all the animals were unclean. The law of Moses allowed the nation of Israel to eat meat, but only from certain animals. Many animals were labeled unfit for consumption. These included pigs, rabbits, camels, anything with paws like a cat or bear, birds of prey, snakes, insects (except locusts, beetles, and grasshoppers), and a host of others.
As a good Jew who had always kept the law, Peter refused to obey, even though he recognized the voice as the Lord's. He protested, "Not so, Lord: for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean." The Lord rebuked him, saying, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." Again the voice commanded him to eat, again he refused, and again the voice rebuked him. The same dialogue occurred yet a third time before the sheet rose up and disappeared into heaven.
As Peter pondered the vision, the messengers from Cornelius reached Simon's gate. There they inquired whether a man named Simon Peter was inside. Peter himself did not hear this talk, but the Spirit alerted him to the arrival of these men. He told Peter to go down and meet them and do whatever they wanted, and He assured Peter that God had sent them.
Going to Caesarea
When Peter came to the men at the gate, he asked their purpose. The messengers identified themselves as messengers from Cornelius, a Roman centurion, but they quickly made it clear that Cornelius was no ordinary gentile. He was a God-fearer highly respected by the Jews. To explain why they had come, they said that an angel had commanded their master to seek out Peter and hear his message. Peter raised no objection, but invited the men to stay with him overnight. Here was the first sign of Peter's change of heart toward gentiles. On the next day, Peter accompanied the messengers back to Caesarea. Several believers from Joppa came along to observe.
At Cornelius's house, Peter found that Cornelius had assembled a large company, including many of his relatives and close friends.
Cornelius himself met Peter at the door and threw himself at his feet, intending to worship him. Perhaps Cornelius thought that Peter might be another angel, or even a divine being. But Peter immediately corrected the error. Insisting that he was only a man, Peter helped Cornelius to his feet.
Peter went further into the house and found the large gathering of people. Imagine how awkward Peter felt when, for the first time in his life, he entered the home of a gentile. Feeling that his remarkable departure from Jewish custom required an explanation, he said that God sent him a vision showing that it was wrong to consider any man unclean. In essence, he was admitting that he had formerly harbored a wrong distaste for gentiles. It was appropriate that he should preface the gospel with confession of his own sin. He was setting an example of repentance, which the gospel would also require of them.
Peter asked why Cornelius had sent for him. Cornelius replied by reviewing the words of the angel. The answer to Peter's question was that the angel commanded Cornelius to summon Peter. Cornelius then asked Peter to share whatever message God had given him.
Peter began by marveling at God's perfect justice. The Jews held themselves to be superior to other peoples, but God does not accept a man just because he is a Jew. Nor does He reject a man just because he is a gentile. As Peter said, "God is no respecter of persons."
Peter then used surprising language to describe how a man gains acceptance with God. He said that the requirements are to fear God and work righteousness.
Yet although Cornelius and perhaps other gentiles listening to Peter had won a measure of acceptance with God, they were lacking a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. To be saved, they needed to put their faith in Jesus. Therefore, Peter started his sermon by demonstrating that Jesus deserved their faith.
The facts about Jesus' life and death were already well known to Peter's audience, as they were to everyone in Palestine. Peter said of Jesus' message, "That word, I say, ye know." Yet Peter stated some of these facts anyway. As he summarized the life and ministry of Jesus, he emphasized that Jesus was not just a famous man whose ministry was the talk of the whole country. He was the Christ promised by the prophets. More than that, He was the Lord of all.
Then Peter stressed the strange contrast between Jesus' life and death. His life was devoted to doing good. Through the power of God's Spirit, He cast out demons from those under the power of Satan. Yet what was the end of this good man? He was taken by the authorities and hung on a cross. Peter refers to the cross as a tree because to be hung from a tree was the most disgraceful death that the Jews could imagine. Paul, paraphrasing the law of Moses, said, "Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Gal. 3:13).
But the injustice in Jesus' death did not stand. God overturned it by raising up Jesus on the third day after His burial. Jesus then showed Himself to His disciples and appointed them to be witnesses everywhere of His resurrection. Peter himself had no doubt that he saw the risen Christ. What he saw was no ghost, for they ate and drank together.
Briefly, Peter spoke of God's direction for his own life. The risen Christ charged Peter and the other apostles to go about preaching. Their message—the message that Cornelius and his loved ones wanted to hear—was simple:
- God will not overlook sin. If a sinner fails to obtain God's forgiveness, he will someday stand in judgment and receive the just penalty. The Judge of all men will be Jesus.
- Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies of the Old Testament. Therefore, He must be the Savior from sin that God promised to send into the world.
- The one way of salvation is to believe in Jesus. Whoever believes in Him will receive remission (forgiveness) of sin and gain everlasting life.
Descent of the Spirit
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit descended upon his hearers. The proof of the Spirit's coming was that the gentiles began to speak in tongues. These tongues were again actual human languages, for the Jewish observers from the church in Joppa could pick out enough familiar words to understand that the speakers were praising God. The observers were amazed. They never expected God to give the Spirit to unclean gentiles as well as to Jews.
Peter's mind was no longer clouded with Jewish pride. He realized that if God baptized the gentiles with the Spirit, he could not refuse to baptize them with water. Without delay, they were baptized in the name of the Lord. Afterward, in response to their pleas for further teaching, Peter remained several more days.
Cornelius and his loved ones were the first gentile converts to Christianity. At the first moment of believing in Christ, the Holy Spirit came to indwell them. He did not delay His coming until they especially prayed for Him, or until they went through some ritual. Likewise today, the coming of the Spirit is simultaneous with salvation.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.