A Divided City –
I grew up in Dubuque, Iowa. Dubuque was founded by a French-Canadian fur trader, Julian Dubuque, in 1785. In the 1800s, an influx of immigrants moved to Dubuque from Europe and crowded cities on the east coast. In particular, the Irish Catholics began to make their way to Dubuque, settling on the city’s south side. The influx of Irish Catholics was so great that the south side of Dubuque became known as Little Dublin. Shortly after, Germans immigrated to Dubuque en masse. They settled on the north and east sides of the city. After the Irish and Germans established themselves as the two majority ethnic groups, tensions began to rise. The Irish did not like the Germans, and the Germans did not like the Irish. As a result, the Irish never went to the German side of town, and the Germans never went to the Irish side. Even if a German was Catholic like most of the Irish, nationality informed the negative view of the adversary.
Same Story, Different Decade
Lest you think this kind of prejudice only existed “way back in the day,” let me tell you about Dubuque, circa the 1990s. In the 1990s, an unusual amount of national attention was placed on Dubuque. Like a spotlight, the entire country was trying to figure out what was going on and why.
Crosses and the KKK
In Dubuque, where most people are white, a cross was burned next to the garage of an African-American family. In the ruins of the charred cross, the phrase “KKK Lives” was inscribed. In the following weeks – and I remember this vividly – there were more cross burnings. It was not long before the KKK came to Dubuque to hold a rally. There were fights in the schools, and the city was divided about what to do.
I retell part of my childhood to ask this question: how does the gospel of Jesus Christ apply to these situations? At present, there is a myriad of ideas about the root and solution to racism. But how does God address cross burnings and the KKK? Let’s explore a way forward from Acts 10.
R.C. Sproul said the following about Acts 10.
Acts 10 is one of the most important chapters in the entire book of Acts, if not the most important chapter. Actually, it is one of the most important chapters in the entire New Testament because it brings to our attention an extremely important moment in redemptive history, a time of transition from the old way of doing things to a whole new epoch of God’s redemptive activity.– R.C. Sproul
Acts 10 does not explore the great doctrines of Christianity, per se. However, it shows us the power of doctrinal truth when it is applied to the Christian life.
A lot is going on in Acts 10. Here is a breif restatement. In this chapter, we see God planned a divine meeting between Peter and Cornelius. It’s a sacred meeting pushing forward the advancement of God’s kingdom.
It says Cornelius is a centurion of the Italian Cohort, a military man of rank. He likely oversaw 100 soldiers in Caesarea. The more significant details are that Cornelius was a man who feared God. He gave to the poor. It also says in Acts 10 he prayed often. It’s speculated Cornelius is a Gentile who converted to Judaism. Aside from circumcision, Cornelius probably participated in regular Jewish worship. He would have been thought of as an outsider by ethnic Jews. Nonetheless, at some point, he probably converted. It seems the details of his charity and devotion are meant to indicate his religious convictions. Then we read that Cornelius had a vision. An angel told him to send two men to Joppa to fetch Peter. Cornelius was not told why Peter was to be fetched, but Cornelius obeyed. Instead of giving orders, Cornelius is now following orders.
Meanwhile, in Joppa, Peter fell into a trance (v. 10). He had a bizarre vision, but it was not without purpose. Here is what he saw.
[Peter] saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”– Acts 10:11–13
Peter, while acknowledging the divinity behind his vision, is effectively saying I can’t do it! I can’t eat what is forbidden by Jewish law because it is all unclean! (v. 14) All of this happened three times. Three times God told Peter to take the animals, kill them, and then eat them. After his vision, the two men sent from Cornelius arrive where Peter was staying. The Spirit speaks to Peter and says to go with these men without hesitation. The word hesitation means Peter needs to go with these men without distinguishing who they are. In other words, regardless of their religion, race, or ethnic background, Peter is to go. When Peter arrives in Caesarea, he meets Cornelius. It is in their meeting where Peter learns about the meaning of his vision. Cornelius discovers why he sent two people to fetch Peter from Joppa.
A Lesson Learned: One in Christ (v. 15; 28-29)
Peter learned a valuable lesson. God was teaching him to overcome Jewish-Gentile stereotypes, prejudices, and dynamics. What were Jewish-Gentile relations like in the 1st-century? A sub-culture was created within Judaism to keep Jews apart from Gentiles. Remember what I just said. Cornelius was a Gentile who converted to Judaism. Well, despite converting, he would still have been treated as an outsider. Acts 10 reverses the precedent. God was telling Peter to eat the food he had always been told not to eat!
Not once, not twice, but three times the Lord had to tell Peter what to do. Peter is not concerned with compromising his keto/paleo/vegan or vegetarian diet. What the Lord was telling Peter to do was revolutionary. His sensibilities toward nonJews and his theology were changing as he began to see the massive implications of the gospel. After his trance, it says in verse 17, Peter was perplexed. He had a hard time putting the pieces together. Was the Lord really telling him that he could eat pork? Or was there more going on? What Peter needed to figure out was what the Lord said in verse 15. After the second time, a sheet (literally, a giant sail) with food descended from the heavens, and the Lord says to Peter,
“What God has made clean, do not call common.”– Acts 10:15
It did not take long for Peter to receive his answer. When Peter appears before Cornelius, he realizes the vision was not about food but people. It says in verses 25-26 when Cornelius met Peter, Cornelius fell down and worshiped him. It’s likely Peter’s reputation had caused some to treat Peter as some deity. But Peter quickly corrects Cornelius. To help create a sense of equality between the two, Peter tells him,
Stand up; I too am a man.– Acts 10:26
Now here is the lesson learned by Peter from Acts 10. Let’s allow Scripture to speak for itself.
“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”– Acts 10:28–29
Peter realizes that his dietary restrictions have become a barrier to sharing the gospel with others. It had become a barrier to unity with others.
Now, it needs to be said that Peter was acting like a good Jew. He strove to follow the Law that God had given. But on the other hand, a cultural dynamic was at work. In the Old Testament, God did call Israel to be a holy priesthood. They were to show the world what it means to follow God. However, Israel began to think that ethnic separation is what it looks like to be saved. Many religious Jews had leveraged obedience to the Law at the exclusion of others. What had been forgotten by Israel in the 1st century is that God first called them to be a witness to the world. They were not supposed to be a light unto themselves. God had called them to be a light unto the nations.
But with the coming of Christ, the wall of separation between Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, and God-fears began to crumble. Jesus crushes the walls we put up and then removes the rubble for good. Perhaps there is no better passage in Scripture explaining what is going on in Acts 10 than Galatians 3:25-29. I am going to quote it at length.
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.– Galatians 3:25–29
Galatians 3 is the message God wants Peter to communicate. They are both reconciled to a holy God through the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. And what of the ceremonial Laws of purification? They are no longer a barrier for a Gentile. Why? Because Christ fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:27). And the cultural barriers put up? They are broken down. The barrier between a Gentile and God has been reconciled through Christ, then the barrier between Jew and Gentile has been reconciled through Christ.
We Continue to Learn Just Like Peter
There is a point of application for us from the life of Peter in Acts 10. It might not initially hit you. It was only a few days prior when Peter was in Joppa, being used by God, to see Tabitha restored to life. And now we read how Peter is learning more about his faith. As he continues to learn, he also understands how the gospel is applied to his everyday life. In other words, it’s not like Peter figured out Christianity right away. So, it does not matter if you have been a Christian for 30 years, 30 days, or three days. There is always more to learn. The depth of the gospel has no end. There is always more. I mean, Peter walked with Jesus. Jesus taught him. And after the ascension of the Lord, Peter is still learning because he has a teachable heart.
We can also learn something from Cornelius. While his understanding of the Christian faith was much less than Peter’s, he still obeyed God. He could have ignored what the Lord told him. But he didn’t. Even though he didn’t know why he had to send two men to Joppa, he obeyed.
There will be times when God asks you to do something, and it doesn’t make sense. God will ask you to do something, and the greater context is hidden from you. It’s like there are a hundred puzzle pieces, and God only gives you one. Yet, you know what you are supposed to do. You are to obey.
Barriers Broken Down
Peter, an ethnic Jew, can freely teach and pastor Cornelius, a Gentile because the gospel destroyed the barriers between them. The socially constructed wall between the two has been torn down. They are brothers in Christ. All of this was possible because they obeyed God.
The blood of Christ connects you to other Christians more than your biological DNA. It might be startling to think about, but it’s true. There should never be divisions between Christians because of Christ. The blood of Christ has torn down the barriers. Which means you are free to love others well.
The church must make sure barriers are not put up because someone looks different, is from another country, has another skin color, or is another age. Instead, let us stand united in the One who brings together people of all shapes and sizes. The One who died and now lives to ensure His gospel message goes to the nations.