Cornelius’ messengers are already on the way when Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. It is lunch time and so Peter becomes hungry, but Peter’s hunger is about to be used by the Lord Jesus.
Joppa is one of Judea’s two port cities. Possibly on the roof of the house Peter looks out toward the Mediterranean Sea and sees the sails of boats passing by. In his hunger he is given a vision. Whereas Cornelius’ vison was clear and simple – an angel speaking a direct message – Peter’s vision is cryptic. In his vision hungry Peter by the sea sees food in a sail.
Peter sees the heavens open and a great sheet filled with unclean animals descend. He is told to kill and eat of the animals. The problem is that they are all unclean animals and forbidden to Jews. Peter responds horrified by the thought. The Lord says that Peter is not to call unclean what God has made clean. This happens three times.
Peter remains inwardly perplexed as to the application of this vision when the three men sent by Cornelius knock on the downstairs door. The Spirit then takes the Lord’s word about clean and unclean and makes the application for Peter: “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”
The Roman bows in submission before the Jew – it is sometimes quite extraordinary when God begins to work in a person’s life! The powerful centurion’s bowing before a Jew is witnessed by Cornelius’ his relatives and close friends whom he has invited to hear the word of God to be spoken by Peter. Peter and Cornelius speak with one another as Peter enters his house only to find “many people” there (c.f. the “many people” at Lydda and Joppa – but they were all Jewish).
Peter states that it was unlawful to Jews to enter the houses of Gentiles but that God had made that void and so he had come without objection. He then asks Cornelius why he had been sent for. Cornelius recounted his vision from three days ago and how he had immediately sent for Peter, his gratitude for Peter’s coming, concluding with the words: “Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
At this point is worth comparing this story with two stories from the Old Testament. The first is the story of Jonah. When God commanded Jonah to speak to Gentiles, Jonah had gone to the seaport of Joppa to flee from having to do so. Now Joppa becomes the location from which Peter will willingly take God’s word to the Gentiles. An interesting contrast between Jonah’s disobedience at Joppa and Peter’s obedience at Joppa. The God of Jonah forgave the sins of the Gentiles to whom Jonah preached, now the same God will not only forgive Gentles but also make them a part of his people.
The second Old Testament story relates to Ezekiel. At one stage Ezekiel is told to eat unclean food which, like Peter, he recoils at the thought. Eating clean food was one of the things that distinguished Jews from unclean-food-eating Gentiles. Ezekiel was to eat unclean food to show Israel that due to Israel’s sin God had removed the distinction between Israel and the Gentiles and now regarded them as Gentiles – not his people.
The similarity with Peter’s vision is that both Ezekiel and Peter are commanded to eat unclean food. In both cases it signified that the division between Jew and Gentile was being broken down. In Ezekiel’s case this meant Israel was becoming like the Gentiles in judgment. However, in Peter’s case this meant that the Gentiles were becoming like the Jews i.e. salvation for the Gentiles. Clean animals usually represented Israel and unclean animals usually represented Gentiles but in the gospel the division is being removed and this is why Christians no longer distinguish between clean and unclean meat.
Peter’s vision proclaims the universal sending out of the good news about Jesus.