Acts 9:32-43 Peter at Joppa and Caesarea
Study in Connection with Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:45-47
Now we leave Paul for a time and learn about Peter. The story tells of two miracles which were done by him, not in Jerusalem, but in Lydda, a town in the flat meadow country toward the sea, and in Joppa, the landing place on the seashore. Read of the first miracle inverses 32-35. The name Saron is the same as Sharon. This northern part of the Philistine country was called the "plain of Sharon." At Lydda he healed by the Lord's power Eneas who had been long sick with the palsy, and many people in Lydda heard, and in the country around. This healing of the man sick of the palsy and Peter's words to him, "Arise and make thy bed," remind us of the Lord's healing a man sick of the palsy in Capernaum. (Matthew 9:2-8)
The group of Christians in Joppa heard that Peter was in Lydda and sent asking him to come to them. Joppa was by the sea. A good woman named Dorcas had died, and they hoped that Peter could help them. It is a beautiful story. We will read it. (Acts 9:36-43)
The names Tabitha and Dorcas have the same meaning, a "gazelle." This miracle also reminds us of one of the Lord's miracles, the raising of the little daughter of Jairus, as we read how Peter put out those who were weeping and said, "Tabitha, arise." He too must have remembered what the Lord did and said at the house of Jairus, for he was one of those who were with Him there; and he knew that it was the Lord's power now which brought Tabitha to life.
If we should make a journey to the Holy Land we should very likely land at Joppa, or Jaffa, as it is now called, and should then ride across the green meadows and up into the hills to Jerusalem. There is no harbor where large ships can go in, but a reef of black rocks makes a shelter for boats. The boatmen in large boats with long oars row out to the ship and pull us in to the landing.
If you look on your map of Palestine and follow up the seacoast from Joppa, you will find Caesarea, the city where the Roman governor of the country lived. There were Roman soldiers there, and among them an officer, a centurion, named Cornelius. He was a good man; he prayed to God, and his family and the soldiers about him did the same; and he asked that God would show them what they ought to do. He gave much help to the Jews, though he was not a Jew. One day when Cornelius was at prayer an angel of the Lord came to him and told him to send men to Joppa to call for one Simon, whose surname was Peter, who lodged with one Simon, a tanner, whose house was by the sea. "He shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do." So he sent three trusted servants, one of them a soldier, telling them what the angel had said.
At the same time the Lord, also by a vision, made Peter ready to receive the messengers and to go with them. He was on the housetop for prayer, the flat earthen roof which was often reached by outside stairs, a quiet place used for sleeping and often as a place of prayer. Peter was hungry, and in a vision he saw what seemed like a great sheet let down by cords at the four corners. In it were animals and creeping things and birds of all kinds. A voice said, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." But Peter said, "Not so, Lord." For the rules of the Jews were very strict about what was clean to eat and what was not. There were only certain kinds of animals and birds that were used for food. But the voice said again, "What God hath cleansed that call not thou common." This was done three times, and the sheet with the animals was drawn up again to heaven. What could this vision mean? Peter was wondering what it could mean when three men stood at the gate asking for him. Who do you suppose they were? Once more the voice spoke to Peter, telling him to go with the men, for the Lord had sent them. So he went down from the housetop and brought them in and kept them over night, and the next day started with them and six friends from Joppa to go to Caesarea. He saw then that the vision had been sent to teach him that all people are the Lord's, Gentiles as well as Christians, and that he should go with these men.
It was quite a long journey from Joppa to Caesarea, farther than they could go in one day. It was the next day when they reached the home of Cornelius. He was ready and waiting for them, and had called together a company of his family and friends to hear what the man would say whom the Lord had sent to them to teach them. At first Cornelius worshiped Peter, but he told him to stand up, and went with him into the house. Peter then told how the Lord had told him to come. Cornelius told how the angel had told him to send for Peter. And Peter began to tell them about the Lord Jesus of Nazareth. They were very glad to hear, and as they listened the Holy Spirit came upon them. Then they were baptized, and Peter stayed with them some days. Cornelius and his family were the first Gentiles to be received as Christian disciples. When the other disciples in Jerusalem heard of it they were troubled and thought Peter had done wrong in going to the Gentiles, but Peter showed them how the Lord had told him to go. So they began to learn that all people are the Lord's children, and they went out to teach not the Jews alone, but everybody, about the Lord. As we read on in the story we shall learn of long journeys which they took to teach people in countries far away.
It is a beautiful story. You will want to read the whole of Acts 9 and 10. See what I have told the younger children, and study our map and little picture. Saron, or Sharon (Acts 9:3 5) was the name given to the Philistine meadows from Joppa northward to Mount Carmel. Joppa was the nearest landing place to Jerusalem. The cedar logs for Solomon's temple floated down from Mount Lebanon were landed here. There is no real harbor, but reefs which give shelter to small boats. The raising of Dorcas to life reminds us in several ways of the Lord's raising the daughter of Jairus. (Mark 5:35-43) Tabitha is the Hebrew name for a gazelle, and Dorcas is the name in Greek. Have you heard a society of women who sew for poor people called a Dorcas Society? You know now where it gets its name.
You remember the Lord's saying to the disciples in Acts 1: 8, that they should be witnesses unto Him "both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth." How much of this promise has been fulfilled in the story so far as we have gone? We have learned of their teaching in Jerusalem, and Judea, and Samaria, and as far away as Damascus. Now it was time for them to go out more widely, to countries far away, and to Gentile people - to people who were not Jews and who were despised by the Jews because they did not have their religion. You know how the Jews thought that they were defiled if they touched a Gentile or went into a Gentile's house. It was why the priests who took the Lord to Pilate would not go into his palace, and Pilate came to them outside the gate. So far all the Christians were persons who had been Jews; all the preaching of the disciples had been to Jews; and we can hardly understand how hard it was for them to forget the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, and to go alike to all people, and to receive them alike into the Christian Church. The Lord had told them that "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem." (Luke 24:47) He had charged them, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations." (Matthew 28:19) But they were slow to remember and to grasp the meaning of many things that the Lord said. Our story today tells how the beginning was made of preaching to the Gentiles, and how the first converts from the Gentiles were received.
Caesarea was another town on the seashore, the home of the Roman governors of the country. We shall be in Caesarea again with Paul. But now we come to make acquaintance of the Roman centurion Cornelius. As we read what is said of him, we are reminded of the centurion whose servant the Lord healed, in Capernaum. (Matthew 8:5-10) There were among the Gentiles kindly devout people who were ready to learn of the Lord Jesus and to become His disciples.
What is said of Cornelius, that he was a devout man, giving much alms to the Jews, also reminds us of the centurion in Capernaum, of whom the Jews said that he was worthy, "for he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue." (Luke 7:5) The centurion in the Gospel also had his obedient servants and soldiers whom he could send on his errands; he, too, was modest in receiving the Lord into his house; and the Lord said of him, "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel." We find the same devout spirit and ready faith in the house of Cornelius.
Read now of the vision shown to Peter on the housetop in Joppa. (Acts 9:9-23) Do you see at once the meaning of the vision and why it was sent now to Peter?
The Lord in His own ministry had set aside some of the laws and traditions of the Jews, as those about keeping the Sabbath and about washing. He had ministered to the Gentiles, as to the centurion at Capernaum, to the Syrophoenician woman, and probably to many in the country beyond Jordan. He had told the disciples that the gospel must be preached in all the world to every creature. Now He gave this vision to Peter to help him to begin this wider mission. The narrow and selfish spirit could have no place among Christians, who have the Lord's example of tenderness to all, and His command to preach to all nations.
It is hard to realize the hold which laws of defilement and rules of their own making had upon the Jews and upon the Lord's disciples, although the Lord said that nothing from without defiles, but what is from within. (Mark 7:2-5, 14-23) The Jews also had been taught to keep apart from other nations, and this was exaggerated to forbid entering a Gentile's house. (John 18:28) How much they had to learn before they could believe that the religion of Jesus Christ was for all nations and peoples of the earth! They were just beginning to learn this lesson, and we may remember Cornelius as the first Gentile to be received into the Christian company. You will want to read Peter's words to Cornelius and his family and friends gathered to hear him. Notice in Acts 10:38, Peter's brief description of the Lord, "who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil, for God was with Him." We know how true this was, from the story of the Gospels. Can you think what occasion or occasions are referred to in verse 41, by the words, "who did eat and drink with Him, after He rose from the dead"? Compare Acts 10:26 with Revelation 19:10.
The Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his company, and they were baptized in the name of the Lord.
1. Who were the first Gentiles to be received as Christians?
2. How was Peter taught that it was right to receive them?
3. Tell me about Peter's visit to Cornelius.
The realization that Gentiles also could receive the Holy Spirit and become Christians came slowly. We see the beginning in the experience of Peter at Joppa and Caesarea, and we shall trace the development in following chapters of the Acts until it became the conviction of the Church. The Lord had foretold it in His final charge (Matthew 28:18-20), and in His words at the ascension. (Acts 1:8) But the great truth was slowly learned.
Our lesson brings to notice two respects in which the custom and even the law of the Jewish Church differed from the law for Christians. One was the Jewish law about animals that were clean or unclean for food. A distinction between clean and unclean beasts is made in the story of Noah (Genesis 7: 2), where it was commanded to take into the ark clean beasts by sevens and those not clean by twos. The law with regard to animals that were clean or unclean for food is given with great fullness of detail in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. No animal was clean for food which creeps upon the ground. They must also both divide the hoof and chew the cud. Of sea creatures only those might be eaten which have fins and scales. Like all requirements of the Jewish worship, these laws were given because they are representative of essential truths of spiritual life. All animals represent human affections. The general distinction of clean and unclean beasts means that there are both good and evil affections, some which are strengthening to the spiritual life and some which are not. (A.713-721)
Animals for food were especially distinguished by their chewing the cud and having divided hoofs. The chewing of the cud represents a careful examination of what is received into the mind. The first hasty swallowing is like an intellectual acceptance, but the second chewing is a careful search for goodness in all that is received. The hoof, like the hand, represents expression of the life in its contact with the world. The single hard hoof represents a contact which is satisfied to be true, but the divided hoof represents a contact in which there is also care for what is good and kind. Only affections for good in what is received and expressed are real food for the soul. This spiritual law can be kept without the literal observance, and perhaps was more truly kept by many Gentiles than by the Jews.
Another custom which also was in part a matter of law in the Jewish Church is changed with Christians, that which related to keeping separate and apart from other nations. The Jewish people were called the Lord's peculiar treasure (Exodus 19:5; Psalm 135:4, etc.) not because they were better than other peoples, but because they had the Scriptures, and represented a spiritual and heavenly life. (A. 8768) This life must be kept free from commingling with the natural and evil life represented by other nations. The principle of separation went even further. In A. 471 it is explained that in the most ancient times people were separated into houses, families, and tribes, each dwelling apart from the rest, not only to represent the order of heaven, where they live in societies, but also to keep distinct and to develop the kind of spiritual life which was characteristic of each family and tribe. "For this cause also it pleased the Lord that the Jewish Church should be distinguished into houses, families, and tribes, and that they should contract marriages within their families." External distinctions and separations which were merely representative have passed away with other representative things, but the spiritual order in our own lives and in the relations of our lives with others which these represented have eternal force and value. Peter and the Jewish Christians needed to lift their thought from the natural brotherhood of the Jews to the larger brotherhood which it represented, the spiritual brotherhood among all who are willing to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. (Matthew 12:46-50)
The Jews took pride in being children of Abraham, in belonging to a tribe of Israel. What is really of value is to be children of the Lord, living in His ways. When we rise above material distinctions of race or nationality or caste or wealth, to the qualities of spiritual life, we may recognize children of the Lord and brethren in all races and religions, as the disciples in Jerusalem, on hearing Peter's story, "glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life." (Acts 11:18) Read also Paul's words in Romans 10:12, 13. Read H. 318-328 on "Gentiles in Heaven."