By Charlie Clauss
The story of Peter and Cornelius is a favorite of Christians who want to claim that “God is doing a new thing.” And the breakthrough that Peter experiences feels like a refreshing wind of change. Peter, the observant, realizes that God wants him to see his world in a different light. The description of Peter’s dream is startling for any who know the potential mania of following the dietary laws of Torah. “Rise, kill, and eat,” says the voice, and Peter responds, “No way!” Like Samuel in the Temple with Eli in 1 Samuel, it takes Peter three times to finally get it. What is it with Peter and threes? Three denials, three professions of love for Jesus, three commands to eat.
But the line of the story beginning with Acts 7 shows that it is only Peter receiving something new. Or rather, Peter remembers something he should have known all along. In bringing together Peter the Jew and Cornelius the Gentile, we find a thing that has been central from the beginning: God has had in mind the restoration of all creation and all the people in it.
Look at Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7. It is sprinkled with mentions of the broader world, and in it, Stephen reminds his Jewish hearers that God created their nation by calling someone from far away: “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran” (7:2). From Mesopotamia to Egypt to Midian the story hops, for this is a story of the whole earth. Stephen, ending his speech with an oblique reference to Jesus, and reminding the Sanhedrin numerous times of Israel’s disobedience, gets himself killed.
The narrative gallops on from there, with the Christians scattered, and wherever they go, they preach the gospel. They end up in Samaria (not a place well loved), and the power of the gospel converts Simon the Sorcerer. Peter and John’s arrival on the scene quickens the pace. The Holy Spirit comes, and initially Simon does not understand the gift being given, but his plea for forgiveness seems to be heard. Peter and John begin their return trip and it is an opportunity to “preach the gospel in many Samaritan villages.”
We can be forgiven for thinking that God is in a hurry to bring the gospel to the nations. It would take a disciple many days to travel to Ethiopia (the Southern Nile region), so God has “arranged” for an Ethiopian and the deacon Philip to meet (Acts 8:26-40). The Ethiopian eunuch has come up to Jerusalem to worship. Has he read Isaiah 60:2: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”? It is only a little further from where he is reading in chapter 53 when Philip comes upon him. This man is clearly ready to hear what Philip has to say. “Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.” And after Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, Philip is off to more of the world to preach about Jesus. The gospel spreads across the world.
Into this arc comes the conversion of Saul (soon to be Paul) in Acts 7:54-8:3 and 9:1-31. Rather than a detour, this is just one more drawing of the line to remind us that God’s purpose has been pointed toward the whole world, for Paul will become the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” It is no accident that Paul was bound for Damascus, and no accident that a disciple who lives more among the Gentile world was sent to Paul to help him in this transition. In a sign of things to come, he debates with Jews who have adopted Hellenistic ways. After the apostles in Jerusalem are convinced he is the real deal, they send him off to Tarsus.
After all of this buildup, with the gospel going to Samaritans and Ethiopians and with the conversion of Paul, it is not really a surprise that we find Peter in Joppa, ready to be sent to see the Gentile Cornelius. Even the rationale for Peter’s arrival in Joppa foreshadows what is to come, for he goes there from Lydda to minister to a woman with Greek and Hebrew names. Then, the fact that he stays in Joppa with a tanner gives us a glimmer of what is going to happen. The association of tanners with potentially unclean animals made lodging with one problematic for the observant Jew, yet there we find Peter.
We don’t know how or why Peter thought he had chosen to stay there, but in the economy of God, Peter was being called — not into “God’s new thing” but into what God has been up to since he called Abraham out of Mesopotamia, out of Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen. 12).