Sermon on Acts 10
by Maylan Schurch
Bellevue Seventh-day Adventist Church 2/8/2020
©2020 by Maylan Schurch
To watch the YouTube broadcast of this worship service, click the link just below. The sermon begins at the 48:35 mark.
Please open your Bibles to Acts, chapter 10.
Today is another sermon in a series I’ve been preaching since the middle of last year. We’ve been looking at Jesus’s presence all through the Bible, and now we’re watching how He stayed close to the early church after He ascended to heaven.
Acts 10 is where we hear the story of Cornelius. Now, a lot of the stories in Acts are amazing, but I think that the story of Cornelius is not only amazing but heartwarming. And to me, it’s incredibly encouraging too.
Cornelius’s story, as you’ll see, has a lot of moving parts to it, but Jesus—whose voice is heard in this story—is able to bring these parts together at the right time. After I studied through this story again this week, I found that my confidence in God and His Son and His Spirit has grown even more.
Let me show you what I mean.
In fact, I’m going to lay down this sermon’s only sermon point, right here. A couple of weeks ago, our audio-visual people suggested that they could project the sermon points up on the wall there as I give them. But this week there’s only one point—and I would like them to put it up there right now. Here it is—and I think you’ll see how crucial and how powerful it is.
God works through people whose habit is prayer.
So, how important is prayer? Several years ago someone asked me, very honestly, “Is prayer really all that important? Doesn’t God already know what He’s going to do?”
Well, two people in today’s story had a different idea. And I have a feeling that the person who asked me that has by now discovered that yes, prayer is important. Prayer is vital. Prayer keeps you connected to God. Prayer changes things—and it changes people. And stirring things happen when people make a habit of prayer.
So let’s get acquainted with our first prayer person.
Acts 10:1 – 2 [NKJV]: There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.
A centurion was a Roman military officer who had charge of anywhere between 80 and 100 soldiers. And Cornelius was with the Italian Regiment, which was staffed with volunteer soldiers who were recruited in Italy and then were sent all over the empire, in this case to Palestine. So here’s a soldier – an officer – and he’s in charge of a group of guys who are a long way from home.
And you can imagine that Cornelius himself probably feels like a stranger. We don’t know where he was born, or where he was stationed before being assigned to Palestine, but Cornelius is not your average soldier. We just read that he has three qualities which sets him apart.
First, he was a “devout” man. He was a spiritual person. And his spirituality was focused in a particular direction – he “feared God.” In other words, he paid deep respect to God, just the way his soldiers probably paid deep respect to him. A good soldier knows how to respect authority. Another centurion once told Jesus this, when he wanted the Savior to heal a servant of his. He said, “Look. I know what it is to have authority. I command one soldier to do this, and he does it, and another to do that, and he does it.”
Something else that’s interesting about Cornelius. It says that he “feared God with all his household.” Evidently he was someone who was a loving and consistent example of a believer in God. His influence was so powerful that his entire household had come to believe in God as well.
It also says that he “gave alms generously to the people.” Back in those days they didn’t have social programs like food stamps and housing assistance and food banks, and Cornelius generously helped the poor with monetary assistance.
So here’s a believer who is acting out his beliefs. He is what the old gospel chorus calls “a sermon in shoes.” But that’s not all he does. The last part of verse two says that he “prayed to God always.” He was one of Paul’s “pray without ceasing” people. He kept himself instantly ready to pray about anything and everything.
Watch what happens.
Verse 3: About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!”
We need to pause for a quick second and fill in the blanks a little bit here. Cornelius wasn’t just sitting in his living room reading the newspaper. Since it’s the ninth hour of the day, which would be 3 o’clock in the afternoon our time, this must be some downtime in the Regiment’s military activities.
No, Cornelius wasn’t just sitting there thinking of nothing in particular when the angel showed up. Let’s glance down to verse 30, where he tells Peter what happened that afternoon.
Verse 30: So Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing,
So Cornelius was praying just before the angel showed up. This soldier was a man of prayer. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to be a soldier and also be a believer. Soldiers faced temptations of many kinds, but Cornelius had managed to remain a devout man who prayed.
And it was while he was praying that the angel arrived. Because, while Cornelius may not realize this, he is about to take part in a major pivot-point in the book of Acts. And this event happens because a man was praying.
This would be a good time to pause and think about our own prayer life. I don’t know how often you pray, but I have often realized that I need to be more focused and regular in my praying.
Several years ago I discovered the writing of a woman who writes books on creativity, and does her best to help writers and artists and other creative people position themselves so that they can get good ideas and do good work.
I don’t think this woman is a Christian, though she does talk about a capital-G God in her writings. If she is a Christian, I have a feeling she is being deliberately vague about who this Higher Power is, so that her non-Christian readers won’t be turned off too quickly.
Anyway, she does talk about God (however she defines Him), and one of the things she suggests for a writer or artist to do is something called the “morning pages.” She suggests that you take a notebook, and every morning write three pages worth of something. You’re not writing for publication, you’re just basically talking to yourself. She says that during this time you shouldn’t be planning anything, just talking to yourself, musing on what’s going on in your head. She says that it tends to free up any writers block and other such hindrances.
So I thought, “Maybe this would be a good idea.” There is such a thing as “free writing,” where in order to come up with ideas you simply just start putting a pen on the paper and begin writing. It’s nothing spooky, it’s just getting your brain in gear. It’s like athletic warmups.
So, for a couple of mornings, I tried it – just started writing, and didn’t stop until I had finished three pages. But I never did it for more than a couple of days. I just couldn’t get into it. It felt a bit foolish for me to do this. Other people it might work for – and evidently it does, because this woman gives congratulatory quotes from these people in her books – but it didn’t work for me. I didn’t need it, and I felt restless while doing it.
But within the last couple months, I suddenly thought to myself, “Why don’t I do these morning pages as a prayer, sort of a letter to God?” I’ve done prayer journaling before, and it’s very satisfying. But sometimes I would stop after a couple of paragraphs and sign off. However, knowing I’m going to be doing three pages pushes me to a new level. And that’s what I’ve been doing, pretty much every day, since Thursday, January 9. The notebook isn’t large, and I use pens whose ink flows easily, and I fill up my three pages and sign off.
I’ve discovered a couple of very important things about this prayer practice. For one thing, it feels comforting to write God a letter. It reminds me how real He really is. For another thing, it allows me the chance to just pour out my heart as I would to a friend.
And what’s so interesting – and heartwarming – is that He is listening and working things out for me. He’s not answering all of my requests right now, but He is listening, and I am putting in the time. It takes me about 15 or 20 minutes to fill three of the pages, and there is such a feeling of satisfaction. I’m connecting in a tangible way to my Creator.
And gradually, things are starting to happen. Prayers are being answered. It’s not just me writing on a piece of paper – it’s God, looking kindly down, appreciating that I’m taking the time to focus and pray.
And then I come across the story of Cornelius, and that’s exactly what he was doing. We don’t know what he was praying about. But down in verse 31, the angel tells him that his prayer has been heard, and immediately follows it with instructions about how to get in touch with Peter. So maybe Cornelius was asking the Lord for more information about the popular Rabbi who went around Palestine teaching and healing. The bottom line was that Cornelius was praying. God works through people whose habit is prayer.
But now, back to verse four. Cornelius sees the angel, and responds to him.
Verses 4 – 8: And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.” And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.
If you have a Bible with maps in the back, you’ll discover that the distance from Caesarea to Joppa was about 35 miles. Even if these three men had horses – and we are not sure whether they had them – it would take them parts of two days to make the trip.
If you look at a map of South Dakota, especially the easternc crop-growing half where I grew up, you will see the names of many little towns, on average about 10 miles apart. Most of those little towns are now pretty much ghost towns. But back in the days when farmers hauled their horse-drawn grain wagons to the grain elevators, you could get your wagon to the elevator and back to the farm again if the distance wasn’t any greater than 10 miles.
Anyway, the soldier and the two servants start heading south toward Joppa. Here’s where it gets really interesting.
Verse 9: The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour.
I don’t know how I’ve missed it, but I don’t ever remember reading that Peter had gone up onto the roof specifically to pray. (It shows how when you know a Bible story, you might have missed something, so we have to go back to these stories again and again.) The sixth hour is 12 noon, probably about time for lunch, and rather than hanging around the kitchen snacking, Peter goes up on the roof to pray.
So here’s another prayer person. Here’s another person who has learned that God works through people whose habit is prayer. If we could only catch that habit as earnestly as these two men had caught it. The Gentile Cornelius “prayed always.” The Jewish Peter prays while lunch is being prepared. Jesus occasionally spent entire nights in prayer. Jesus told His disciples that certain powerful satanic forces could only be dealt with by prayer and fasting. On that night in Gethsemane, He begged Peter and two other disciples, “Can’t you pray for just one hour?”
Verse 10: Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance
I was wondering this week if Jesus put those sharp hunger pangs within Peter, right at that point. Peter gets really hungry, and maybe he calls downstairs and asks, “When’s lunch?” But then he goes into this trance.
Verses 10 – 13: Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
I wonder if there was a wide grin on the face of Jesus at this point. Because this was most likely the voice of Jesus. In response, Peter calls Him “Lord.” And as Jesus gives this command to Peter, Jesus knows exactly what Peter is going to say in response. I don’t know about you, but if a voice from heaven told me to do something, I might be tempted to say, “Okay, if You say so, I’m going to ignore that list of unclean animals in Leviticus 11, and obey You.”
But not Peter. Peter knows his Bible very well. Peter knows the health message, and knows that it is based solidly on Bible print. He knows that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” And God said that man shall not eat the unclean animals in Leviticus 11.
Verses 14 – 16: And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
A surprising number of Christians over the years have thought that this was where Jesus did away with the distinction between clean and unclean meat. But Peter didn’t think that. Peter would learn in just a few minutes what that vision actually meant. If Peter thought that this meant that now he could eat anything he wanted to, he would’ve gone to the stairway and called down and asked if they had any camelburger to fry up.
Instead, Peter senses that is not as simple as that.
Verses 17 – 20: Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate. And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.”
God works through people whose habit is prayer. Peter has the praying habit, and Cornelius has the praying habit. And now, the two of them are about to meet, and Christianity will never be the same afterward.
Notice how perfectly Jesus has timed this. He sent an angel to appear to Cornelius at a certain time, Cornelius sends a soldier and two servants on their way, and maybe a half-hour before those soldiers turn up at Simon the Tanner’s front door, Jesus sends this challenging vision to Peter. That vision rocks Peter back on his heels, and before he has time to forget that sheet bulging and squirming with animals, he hears a knock at the front door. Jesus has perfectly set him up to brace for a convulsive and uncomfortable leap outside his Jewish comfort zone.
Verses 21 – 23: Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, “Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?” And they said, “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.” Then he invited them in and lodged them. On the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him.
So these two very different men with exactly the same prayer habit are about to meet.
Verses 24 – 27: And the following day they entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I myself am also a man.” And as he talked with him, he went in and found many who had come together.
And can you imagine the instinctive cultural alarm-bells that are going off in Peter’s Jewish mind? These are Gentiles. They are unclean. This is a Gentile house. It is unclean. I should turn tail and run to the nearest rabbi, where he will instruct me in the cleansing ritual which I must go through after having miserably defiled myself this way.
But Peter has finally figured out what that vision meant. It had nothing to do with literal meat – just as Jesus’ Good Shepherd parable had nothing to do with literal sheep, or the vine-and-the-branches parable had nothing to do with literal grapes.
Verse 28: Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
Do you see what a prayer habit can do? It can guide a Roman centurion toward Jesus. And it can guide follower of Jesus toward a breathtakingly wide and generous view of who can be saved.
Cornelius quickly tells his story, and then tells Peter that they are ready to listen to him. And then Peter shares the gospel.
Verses 33 – 43: So I sent to you immediately, [Cornelius says] and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.” Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all—that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”
How about you? Do you believe this gospel message too? And do you believe that every person of every tongue, language, ethnicity, or of any other differentness from you, is welcome into the arms of Jesus?
That’s what Cornelius learned, to his great joy. That’s what Peter learned, to his great surprise. And then, Peter and the others who had come with him from Joppa saw the Holy Spirit descended on Cornelius’ household, just like Pentecost, proving that the Gentiles were fully accepted too.
And that’s one of the things you and I need to continually bring to the Lord in prayer. Because as the story of Peter and Cornelius shows, God can soften hearts in both directions.
Will you begin or enhance some regular prayer plan as 2020 passes beneath us? Will you raise your hand if that’s your desire?