The events of chapter 10 take place in roughly AD 40, seven to ten years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Luke introduces a Gentile named Cornelius. Cornelius lives in Caesarea and is a Roman military officer in command of roughly 100 soldiers. Caesarea is located about 60 miles northwest of Jerusalem (see map below). John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, explains the significance of the city:
The place of his residence is of some importance, since Caesarea was from a.d. 6 the provincial capital and place of residence of the Roman governor. Unlike Lydda and Joppa, which were mainly inhabited by Jews, Caesarea was a Hellenistic-style city with a dominant population of Gentiles. Originally a small town named Strato’s Tower, it was rebuilt on a grand style by Herod the Great, complete with a man-made harbor, a theater, an amphitheater, a hippodrome, and a temple dedicated to Caesar. There was a substantial Jewish minority there and considerable friction between the Jews and the larger Gentile community.
Cornelius is described as a God-fearer, which usually indicates that he worships Yahweh, but he has not been circumcised or formally accepted into Judaism by the Jews of his community. Even so, he expresses his devotion through generous giving to the poor and prayer.
During his daily 3 pm prayer time, he sees a vision of an angel. The angel tells him that his almsgiving and prayers have brought joy to God. The angel then instructs Cornelius to send men to Joppa (see map above) and find a man called Peter. Peter is staying in a house owned by Simon the tanner, and it is located near the sea. They are to bring Peter back to Caesarea. Upon hearing this message, Cornelius gathers two of his servants and one his most devout soldiers and sends them to Joppa to find Peter.
The scene then shifts to Peter. As the three men are traveling to Joppa the next day, Peter is on the roof of Simon’s home praying at noon. While he is praying and waiting for food to be prepared, he falls into a trance and sees the heavens open up. Falling from the heavens is a giant sheet held up by its four corners. On the sheet are all sorts of “animals and reptiles and birds of the air.”
Peter then hears a voice which tells him to kill and eat the animals on the sheet. Peter refuses because to eat unclean animals is a violation of the Law. We can assume that either all the animals in the vision are unclean, or at least some of them are. Leviticus 11 clearly prescribes which animals are clean, and may be eaten, and which animals are unclean, and may not be eaten by Jews. The heavenly voice speaks out again and commands Peter not to call impure (common) what God has made clean. The same conversation occurs two more times to prove to Peter that this vision is truly from God.
To the modern Western mind, the distinction between clean and unclean foods may seem unimportant, but that was not the case for first-century Jews. John Polhill explains that the “Jewish food laws presented a real problem for Jewish Christians in the outreach to the Gentiles. One simply could not dine in a Gentile’s home without inevitably transgressing those laws either by the consumption of unclean flesh or of flesh that had not been prepared in a kosher, i.e., ritually proper, fashion (cf. Acts 15:20).”
Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, expands on the connection between food and fellowship:
The two concepts of food and of table fellowship as signs of accepting Gentiles are related, for associating with Gentiles and eating what they may have prepared as hosts would in normal Jewish thinking entail the probable risk of uncleanness. In addition, the two ideas are closely tied together in the law (Lev. 20:24b–26). Indeed, Polhill (1992: 255) argues that ‘purity distinctions and human discrimination are of a single piece.’ The food laws underscore Israel’s separation from the nations. By making unclean food clean, God is showing how table fellowship and acceptance of Gentiles are more easily accomplished in the new era. The vision symbolizes that what separated Jews from Gentiles is now removed, as Peter will explain in Acts 10:28. It ‘frees Peter from any scruples about going to a Gentile home and eating whatever might be set before him’ (so Marshall 1980: 186; also Bruce 1990: 256; a similar idea is expressed by Paul in 1 Cor. 10:27). God uses the picture of unclean food now made clean to portray unclean Gentiles now made clean. That such previous lawbreaking visions point to the act being carried out also shows that food and people are in view here.
After experiencing the vision, Peter is perplexed as to the meaning. As he is pondering, the three men sent by Cornelius arrive at the gate of Simon’s courtyard. Lest Peter not respond as God wills, the Holy Spirit says to Peter, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”
Peter walks down the stairs from the roof and greets the three men. He asks why they have come. The men respond, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” At this point, Peter is undoubtedly connecting the dots between his vision and what God wants him to do.
The first thing Peter must do is invite the men into Simon’s home so that they can rest for the evening. Darrell Bock notes that even Peter inviting these Gentiles into his home is questionable for devout Jews. “This would not be viewed as containing as much risk of uncleanness as a Jew going to a Gentile home, but it is still a significant step. It probably would be regarded as risking potential exposure to uncleanness by the more scrupulous observers of law.” This is the first step in breaking down the divisions between Jew and Gentile.
As a final note, the reader should pay close attention to the fact that every step of this process has carefully steered by God. John Polhill writes, “With Cornelius it had been an angel; with Peter’s vision, a voice from heaven. Now [with Peter again] it was the Holy Spirit. All three represent the same reality—the direction of God. Nothing was left to chance. All was coordinated by the divine leading.”