Cracking the Cornelius code—part 1

Warning: This article may crush the customs that you cherish and thwart the traditions that you treasure.

John K. McVay, PhD, serves as president of Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington, United States.

I sense a growing, gnawing hunger. Not the physical, stomach-growling kind (that comes a bit later)—but a spiritual hunger, a cavernous opening of heart and mind that leaves one feeling a deep, almost painful, hunger for God. Such a hunger will propel you to a place where you can be alone with God. This will urge you toward prayer and drive you to your knees. And, on this day, it does that for me.

And so there, on a sizzling rooftop in the seaside town of Joppa, I look out over the scores of other, nearly identical rooftops, marching their way to the azure waters of the Great Sea. And though the town is named after a daughter of the wind god, there is no wind. It is hot and still; and it is lonely. No one else is foolish enough to be on a scorching rooftop at noontime. In my urban isolation, I begin to pray: “Oh, Lord, I cannot explain this strong, spiritual hunger. I do not know why I am driven to my knees on this rooftop. But I know that I need You.”

As I am praying, a strange thing happens. Through the spiritual hunger, physical hunger begins to assert itself. In my experience, this is strange. In those moments when I am spiritually hungry, as hungry as I am on that rooftop, nothing else matters. And yet, there it is—piercing through the strong, spiritual desire is that basic, human instinct for food. And the smell of lentil stew, cooking down below, is wafting up to the rooftop. And just at that moment, a truly weird thing happens.

My perfectly alert, conscious state begins to be altered. The scenes of reality become entwined with surreality. A new reality is superimposed over the scene before my eyes of steamy roofs and an azure sea. Slowly the surreal becomes the real. A huge container, rather like a large tablecloth, descends slowly but steadily from the heavens, suspended by its four corners. As it descends, I see movement. Things are moving around inside that cloth, writhing, causing the tablecloth to bulge here and then there. As it descends a little farther, I can see the cause of the commotion.

It is a zoo in there.

An array of faces flop over the edge of that sheet. Some I know; others I do not. One moment I am staring into the gentle eyes of a newborn calf; the next, into the quizzical eyes of a large-nosed, floppy-eared animal with its handlike paws grasping the edge of the cloth. Then comes the yellow-eyed, reptilian stare of an oversized snake. And with the sights come sounds: squawks, bellows, hisses, and grunts. And smells, the aroma of cooking lentils now amid a rank mix of animal odors. There are smelly, strange, creepy critters in there, some of the strangest animals that have ever walked on four feet. And snakes of all sizes and colors together with birds, eagles, vultures, and the like. It is as though an earthquake occurred at the zoo, and all the animals got mixed up together in this textile ark.

The oversized tablecloth still descends. As it lowers further, I see more of the animals. My adrenaline flight instinct kicks in. In just a moment, the container will lie flat on the rooftop and all of those creepy crawling things will be free to pursue me, the only prey available. It is easy to see what I should do—run.

As I turn on my heels to do so, a voice speaks: “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” I recognize the voice, and still I disagree with the command: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice speaks again: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Twice more comes the divine command, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Twice more I repeat my protestations. Twice more comes the tagline, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”1

Then, in a flash, it is gone. The tablecloth vanishes into the heavens. The rooftops and the Great Sea come back into focus. Right on cue my hostess, a slight note of exasperation in her voice, shouts up to me, “Peter, dinner is ready . . . and there are three men here to see you!”

Men or menu?

Seventh-day Adventists have been highly interested in the story of Peter’s strange vision—told in the story about Cornelius. We employ it often in Bible studies. We are specialists in what “they” does not mean. We are justifiably concerned that the zoo-in-a-tablecloth vision of Peter not be misunderstood as an endorsement to eat anything in sight. It is refreshing to have our view validated by others. Chris Miller titles an article on the topic with a clever question, Did Peter’s vision in Acts 10 pertain to men or the menu? He answers this way: “This event [Peter’s vision] could be dealing with the abrogation of food laws, but it would be very difficult to prove it from the Book of Acts. . . . The only change in Peter’s dining habits at the time had to  do with the men, not the menu.”2

We have argued well the case for what the Cornelius narratives do not mean, and we appreciate Miller’s help in making the point. However, if the stories about Cornelius, including Peter’s vision, do not mean the abrogation of Jewish food laws, what do they mean? The narratives of Peter’s ministry to Cornelius are clearly important in Luke-Acts. Luke tells the story three times, just as he does the story of the conversion and call of Saul of Tarsus. He tells and retells the story in considerable detail and with narrative skill, he encodes the story, encrypting his message as a story with seven dramatic scenes and an echo:

  • Scene 1—Acts 10:1–8—The vision of Cornelius
  • Scene 2—Acts 10:9–16—The vision of Peter.
  • Scene 3—Acts 10:17–23a—The entourage from Cornelius arrives at the house where Peter stays.
  • Scene 4—Act 10:23b–33—Peter and Cornelius meet and share their visions with each other.
  • Scene 5—Acts 10:34–43—Peter preaches the gospel to the house-hold of Cornelius
  • Scene 6—Acts 10:44–48—The Spirit descends on the members of Cornelius’s household, and they are baptized.
  • Scene 7—Acts 11:1–18—Back in Jerusalem, Peter defends his ministry to the household of Cornelius, retelling the story.
  • The echo—Acts 15:7–11—Years later, as part of the proceedings of the Jerusalem Council, Peter briefly narrates his ministry to the household of Cornelius.

So why does Luke exercise such great narrative skill in repeatedly recounting the story of Cornelius? And how do we crack his code, extracting the message concealed there?

The tipping point 

Cornelius represents the tipping point of Christian mission. One could argue that he is not the first Gentile won to faith in Christ. Philip has already preached in Samaria (Acts 8:4–25), and the Ethiopian official, a man from the ends of the earth, has also been won to faith in Christ (Acts 8:26–40).3 These people, though, are regarded as still within the orbit of Judaism. On the fringes, yes, but still within it. Cornelius is clearly a Gentile. And he is won to faith by none other than Peter himself. The clear identity of Cornelius as a Gentile and the involvement of Peter and the Jerusalem church make this the “decisive breakthrough.”4

Cornelius is the test case, the precedent. With him, a change occurs. The paradigm shifts. The tipping point is reached. The gospel will not be—cannot be—constrained within the boundaries of Judaism. It will go as well to the Gentiles.

As we carefully examine the Cornelius code, though, we discover another message encrypted there. This is more than a simple news flash about Christian mission. It is more than a record of the next great thing in evangelism. To crack the Cornelius code is to make a pilgrimage into the heart of God Himself. The Cornelius stories present more than great missiology. They offer profound theology. And in doing so, they offer us an enigma, a strange riddle to decipher. In that echo of the Cornelius files at the Jerusalem Council, Peter says something profound about God: “After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart [Greek, ho kardiognōstēs theos, “the heartknower God” or “the heartknowing God”], testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us’ ” (Acts 15:7–9).

God, indeed, is the heart-knowing and heart-cleansing God.

Data management

Some years ago it became known that the United States (US) Treasury Department had issued “compulsory subpoenas” to SWIFT, the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. At the time, SWIFT was distributing data messages among 7,800 financial institutions in more than 200 countries, each day handling more than 11 million transactions and exchanging US$6 trillion. The United States government required SWIFT to provide data on financial transactions by suspected terrorists. The purpose? To “follow the money,” to prove links between terrorists, and disrupt terrorist activity.5

Compare the data that flows through SWIFT with the data handled by the heart-knowing God. If the US Census Bureau’s World Population Clock is correct, there are now about 7.5 billion people in the world.6 So God handles data from 7.5 billion hearts—a bit more than 7,800 outlets. SWIFT handles 11 mil-lion transactions a day. By contrast, each of those 7.5 billion people think how many thoughts a day? Pray how many prayers? This data stream is inestimable. The US Treasury subpoenaed the SWIFT data to ferret out terrorist activity. The heart-knowing God needs no subpoena. He has instant and complete access to every one of those 7.5 billion hearts. His interest, though, is not in terrorist activity. His interest is in glimmers of Spirit-inspired faith. He scans the data to save, not to condemn.

God is the heart-knowing and heart-cleansing God. But here is what makes that wondrous fact part of an enigma: His followers are surface-reading people: “ ‘For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ ” (1 Sam. 16:7). Imagine that you are a good, law observant Jewish-Christian believer who hears the description of Cornelius in Acts 10:1 and judges based on “outward appearances.”

Wrong man? Wrong place?

“In Caesarea there was a man . . .” He lives in the wrong place. Caesarea is the headquarters of the Roman occupation. It is the administrative and military capital of Palestine and is filled with collaborators of Rome. It is a highly urbanized and cosmopolitan city overrun by Gentiles and known for its ungodly and lascivious ways. For that reason, Jews call it “the daughter of Edom.” When you sail into the large, beautiful harbor of Caesarea, you sail right toward the Temple of Augustus and Rome. And it boasts all the godless installations of the Roman city it is—theater, amphitheater, and hippodrome. It is a heathen, pagan, idol-worshiping place.

“In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius . . .” He lives in the wrong place, and he bears the wrong name. He is named “Cornelius,” a common, Gentile name, underlining his separation from grace.

“In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion . . .” He lives in the wrong place, bears the wrong name, and practices the wrong occupation. It would be bad enough if he were a mere soldier in rank. But he is in charge of many others who suppress the populace.

“In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort . . .” He lives in the wrongplace, bears the wrong name, practices the wrong occupation, and comes from the worst place. As a concluding characterization, confirming Cornelius’s separation from grace, he is part of the “Italian Cohort.” He comes from Italy, the headquarters of the occupying power. He comes from the “lair of the dragon,” Rome.

The algebra of exclusion

Jewish-Christian believers sometimes practiced what they believed to be a Bible-based algebra of exclusion: “Gentiles are idolaters. We Jews steer clear of idolatry and idolaters. So Gentiles are unclean, off limits.” Peter and company would never have included Cornelius and his ilk on their list of target audiences for the gospel. God had to go to considerable extremes to convince them that Gentiles like Cornelius represented the future of His church. Had they followed their own well-considered evangelistic strategies and church-growth plans, they would have missed the whole Gentile mission, and Christianity would have fizzled into obscurity.

God’s followers may be surface-reading people. Their God, though, is the heart-knowing and heart-cleansing God. “But the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). When God looks upon Cornelius, He sees beyond living in the wrong place, bearing the wrong name, practicing the wrong occupation, and coming from the worst place. What does He see? “He [Cornelius] was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10:2).

And what of us today? We dare not forget these stories about Cornelius. They draw us out of our constrained views of Christian mission and toward the expansive horizons of God’s grace.

Part 2 will be published in the May 2018 issue.


1  Acts 10:13–15. All Bible quotations in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version.

2   Chris A. Miller, “Did Peter’s Vision in Acts 10 Pertain to Men or the Menu?” Bibliotheca Sacra 159 (2002): 317.

3  And ministry to the Gentiles had likely already occurred in Antioch (Acts 11:19–24). Cf. James D. G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), 132.

4  Ibid.

5  “U.S. Searching Bank Transactions,” CNN Money, June 23, 2006, /international/terrorism_finance/index.htm?cnn=yes.

6  U.S. and World Population Clock, /popclock/.

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John K. McVay, PhD, serves as president of Walla Walla University, College Place, Washington, United States.

March 2018

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