1 There was a man in Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment. 2 He was a devout man and feared God along with his whole household. He did many charitable deeds for the Jewish people and always prayed to God. 3 About three in the afternoon he distinctly saw in a vision an angel of God who came in and said to him, “Cornelius!” 4 Looking intently at him, he became afraid and said, “What is it, lord?” The angel told him, “Your prayers and your acts of charity have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa and call for Simon, who is also named Peter. 6 He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, he called two of his household slaves and a devout soldier, who was one of those who attended him. 8 After explaining everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
9 The next day, as they were traveling and nearing the city, Peter went up to pray on the housetop about noon. 10 Then he became hungry and wanted to eat, but while they were preparing something, he went into a visionary state. 11 He saw heaven opened and an object that resembled a large sheet coming down, being lowered by its four corners to the earth. 12 In it were all the four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth, and the birds of the sky. 13 Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” 14 “No, Lord!” Peter said. “For I have never eaten anything common and ritually unclean!” 15 Again, a second time, a voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and then the object was taken up into heaven.
17 While Peter was deeply perplexed about what the vision he had seen might mean, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions to Simon’s house, stood at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon, who was also named Peter, was lodging there. 19 While Peter was thinking about the vision, the Spirit told him, “Three men are here looking for you. 20 Get up, go downstairs, and accompany them with no doubts at all, because I have sent them.” 21 Then Peter went down to the men and said, “Here I am, the one you’re looking for. What is the reason you’re here?” 22 They said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who has a good reputation with the whole Jewish nation, was divinely directed by a holy angel to call you to his house and to hear a message from you.” 23 Peter then invited them in and gave them lodging. The next day he got up and set out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went with him.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.
Again, a second time, a voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call common.”
When you think of the word “clean,” what comes to your mind?
I hear that word, and automatically I think of soapsuds, fresh scents, and shiny surfaces. I think of filtered water, vacuumed floors, and tidy personal appearance.
My parents instilled in me a certain definition of clean, as they taught me the basics of domestic chores as I grew up. And they also explained to me about the cleanliness God desires to see inside a person’s heart, called holiness.
Throughout the years, I’ve learned more about that definition as it’s expressed throughout the Bible. There are hundreds of laws in the Old Testament that speak specifically about the topic of cleanliness—outward and inward.
It was a really important topic to God, and He had a lot to say on the matter. The Bible’s attention to it continues all the way into the New Testament, when Jesus comes to earth to save His people.
And that’s where our devotional text picks up today.
This man named Cornelius was a Roman centurion and a Gentile. (In those days, a Gentile was anyone who was not a Jew.) Scripture says that he was a God-fearing man, that he was good and sought to do right, and that God chose to honor him for that (verse 4).
The only problem was that Cornelius was a Gentile.
Throughout the Bible, it’s made clear that the Jews are God’s chosen people. He promised them an eternal inheritance, and He beckoned them into an eternal romance. They had been waiting for a Messiah to come to earth for thousands of years.
In the meantime, God had given them plenty of things to do and laws to keep in order to maintain their inward and outward cleanliness as His chosen people. This impacted how they dressed and spoke, when they worked, what they ate, when they cooked, whom they married. You get the picture.
They were a people group who sought to honor God by their diligence and discipline in countless ways. And they had very little to do with anyone who didn’t.
One of the ways they remained clean was by keeping kosher laws. They didn’t eat animals that were called unclean, as determined by many biblical laws and texts. This made it easy to distinguish a Jew from a Gentile. Sometimes all it took was looking at what was on the menu.
The fact that Cornelius was a Gentile was pretty unfortunate, simply because it meant he wasn’t a Jew. And if he wasn’t a Jew, then God hadn’t chosen him.
The Jews respected him (verse 2) but couldn’t endorse him or include him as a fellow believer in their God. No matter that he was a good person and feared God, the good news of Christ wasn’t extended to him. It never could be. He wasn’t a candidate for God’s grace and forgiveness.
Or so he thought.
We read in the text that while the messenger of God visited Cornelius, Simon Peter was having his own simultaneous spiritual encounter with God in a different location. Verses 9-17 tell us about the vision Peter was given. He was told to eat “unclean” foods for the first time in his life, and he questioned what he’d been shown.
Then the voice told him a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call common” (verse 15).
God just changed the definition of clean. Did you catch that? It was huge. Peter knew it was a big deal those words were spoken to him. He knew the voice of God wasn’t merely referring to kosher foods anymore, but it was actually referring to the gospel of Christ.
Specifically, the vision meant Jews and Gentiles were now equally eligible for salvation, cleansing, and an eternal inheritance in Christ. Up until this time, the Gentiles were considered unclean because of all the things they did and didn’t do, all the laws they didn’t keep. But it all changed when God changed the definition of clean.
No longer did clean mean only eating certain foods, abstaining from certain deeds, or honoring certain days of the week as a Sabbath. It suddenly had to do with a state of a heart, which only God can see—the inside of a person, not just the outside.
This changed everything.
No longer was there a dynamic of “us” versus “them” between the Jews and the Gentiles. God, in His sovereignty, chose to offer His salvation to all, based on each individual’s response to the salvation of Christ as extended through His death on the cross.
God had to change Peter’s definition of clean so he could relay to Cornelius the good news of the salvation he was eligible to receive. Cornelius had no idea what was coming. I love that.
When God reaches down to us in grace, so rarely do we expect it, so rarely do we deserve it. Yet it’s offered to us, to them, to everyone the same. It all changed when God re-defined the word clean.
- What meaning do you associate with the word “clean”? What does it mean to be clean on the inside?
- Peter was told to extend the message of Christ to Cornelius, a person of a different faith, heritage, and way of living. There were several prejudices and perceptions that God asked Peter to lay aside in that moment. How do you relate to this in your own life, when you have shared the gospel? When you have shared God’s love with someone “different” than you?
- Think about some of the day-to-day rules you follow and laws you keep. How many of these have to do with keeping the outside of your life clean? How many of these have to do with keeping the inside of your heart clean?