…and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household (Acts 11.14).
While in Joppa (the same port city Jonah put on the map), Peter raised Tabitha-Dorcas from the dead like he’d seen Jesus do for Talitha (Acts 9.36-43; cf. 5.40-41). Expectedly, Joppa became fertile ground for the gospel so Peter bunked at Simon the Tanner’s house while the iron was hot. Unexpectedly, God was busy arranging Peter’s next stop up the Mediterranean coast.
The Holy Spirit is master of the redirect. Luke just reported that “many believed in the Lord” in Joppa; therefore, “Peter stayed many days there” (Acts 9.42-43). We would expect then to read about even more stories of gospel’s success in this prolonged Joppa revival. But Luke followed up with “Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius” (Acts 10.1). Caesarea? That’s thirty miles north up the coast. Cornelius? He’s a Gentile Italian. What does the revival among Joppa Jews have to do with Cornelius in Caesarea?
Well, everything. In Acts 10-11, we hear this story told and then retold twice. It must be important.
Cornelius was a good man by Southern standards. He feared. He gave. He prayed. He was a friend of Israel (10.22). But he wasn’t a Christian and that made all the difference in the world.
As any good Southerner does, Cornelius was sipping his sweet tea one afternoon when a Lord-like angel showed up in some sort of vision. God had taken notice of Cornelius’ humility and generosity. God would now make his Gentile move through this Italian soldier.
The angel told Cornelius to send some interns to Joppa. They were to bring back this man called Peter. He will have a message for Cornelius and his household. So, Cornelius dispatched his interns to Joppa.
As any good Jew does, Peter went on the roof for his lunchtime prayers. Little did he know this was only a day after the angel appeared to Cornelius. As Peter’s stomach grumbled, God played out a scenario before Peter. Because of Jesus, he could now eat anything he wanted. Peter was appalled. Hungry as he was, he’d never eaten anything unclean and wasn’t about to start. God replayed the scene two more times before leaving Peter to contemplate the vision.
We find out this wasn’t really about food at all.
As a perplexed Peter tried to make sense of the vision he heard a knock at the door. It was Gentile Cornelius’s interns (i.e. unclean). The Spirit commanded Peter to go with them without hesitation or discrimination (10.20). Not only would Peter eat “unclean” food, he was to extend and receive the hospitality of “unclean” people (10.28). Without hesitation. Like Jesus.
What happens next is the Gentile Pentecost (10.34-48). What the Holy Spirit did for Jews in Acts 2 he was now doing for the Gentiles. One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph 4.4-6).
Word quickly got back to Jerusalem that Gentiles “also had received the word of God” (Acts 11.1). This did not sit well with “those who were circumcised” (i.e. the Fundamentalists) (11.2). Gentiles? Peter actually and knowingly ate with unclean people? Had he lost his mind? Or worse, his faith?
Peter explained the whole situation (11.4-17). Once they heard the story there was nothing to do but quiet down and glorify God (v18). God was saving Gentiles, too, just like Jesus said.
As he retold the stories about angels and visions, Peter inserted an interesting detail. The angel had told Cornelius to send for Peter in Joppa so “he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (11.14).
This begs the question. Why didn’t the angel himself simply tell Cornelius those words? Why not save Cornelius then and there before the sweet tea warmed? If Cornelius was that important then why risk so much? What if the interns were killed on the way? What if Peter had already decided to go back home to Jerusalem? So much was riding on every detail. Why not use the angel to speak the saving words to Cornelius and his household?
Simple. Because God “has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that he may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Cor 1.27-29). God sovereignly saves those he loves. He sees to it the right people get to the right places with the right message.
It didn’t matter how many angels Cornelius saw or believed. Or how many Jews he helped or prayers he prayed. He had to hear and believe the saving words if he was to be a Christian. And God would see to that.
Jesus demonstrates his power and populates his kingdom, not by mobilizing angels, but by the most unlikely of means. Rather than preach through angels, Jesus preaches through fallible, former deserters. His gospel spreads by hands, feet and mouths, not wings (Is 52.7).
Sure, God could’ve bum rushed Cornelius with angels. And it would’ve been impressive in all the ways the world defines impressive. But our God is different. He would cause Peter to love those he would’ve never been caught dead around. God creates his people through and unites them around The Loving Truth, not visions and personal angelic experiences.
We need not pray for or wait for angels to show up in dreams and visions. Jesus hasn’t sent them to speak the saving words. He awakens us to love and sends us to our enemies. We open our door and then open our mouths in love. Without hesitation.
In the meantime, pour yourself a glass of sweet tea and keep an ear out for the interns.