The Cornelius narratives in Acts 10:1–11:18; 15:7–11 challenge us with a strange riddle. God, a heart-knowing God (vv. 7–9), works through 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).2 God, who seeks the salvation of all people, is served by saints bent on guarding and constraining His pursuit. Buried in these stories about Cornelius are three keys that will help us crack this riddle of the Cornelius code and journey into the heart of God.
The Qumran solution
The big, burning question for early Christians was, Should God’s holy people fellowship with Gentiles? The answer of the Qumran community, the code of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was intriguing. God has granted the Qumranians “to inherit the lot of the Holy Ones. He has joined their assembly to the Sons of Heaven” (1QS 11:7, 8).3 The worshipping community on earth, you see, is joined with the one above. So worshipers below are in the presence of and participating in worship with “the Sons of Heaven,” “the Saints,” the “holy ones,” the angels. The fact that angels are present in the congregation affects who can join in worship. “And no man smitten with any human uncleanness” such as paralysis, blindness, or deafness “shall enter the assembly of God. . . for the Angels of holiness are [with] their [congregation]” (1QSa 2:3–10).4
God, in the last days, will establish a temple made up of people. To this temple, composed of men, “shall not come [even to the tenth generation and for]ever, Ammonite nor Moabite nor bastard nor stranger nor proselyte for ever.” Why? It was because “His holy ones [the angels] are there” (4Q174 1.1–7).5
The code of the Dead Sea Scrolls is decipherable. If you wish to know who is pure and who is impure, watch the angels leave. If the wrong people are in the assembly, the angels, being holy, will depart. Angels do not associate with impure people like Ammonites, Moabites, or even a full convert. In short, angels will not have anything to do with Gentiles. That is the code of Qumran, the code of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Follow the angel
But what of the Cornelius code? What does it have to say? If you wish to leave behind your merely human views of who is pure, clean, and acceptable to God, then attend to key no. 1: follow the angel as he goes in. “One afternoon at about three o’clock he [Cornelius] had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, ‘Cornelius’ ” (Acts 10:3). Later, Peter ends up back in Jerusalem defending his evangelistic field school in Caesarea. As part of his defense of his actions, Peter says: “ ‘He [Cornelius] told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter” ’ ” (Acts 11:13).
This is actually the fourth time that Luke has related to his readers the vision of Cornelius. Luke waits until now to disclose that the angel actually went into Cornelius’s house: “‘He had seen the angel standing in his house.’ ” Chris Miller writes, “The rhetorical impact of this revelation cannot be overemphasized. The statement came directly after Peter admitted that he had entered the man’s house (v. 12) in the face of the accusation (“you went to uncircumcised men,” v. 3). Peter admitted that he was guilty as charged, but the trump card of his defense . . . is that Peter was not the first one in the house; an angel of God had entered this Gentile house before Peter! In essence he said, ‘Blame the angel; he rushed in first.’6 If you would crack the Cornelius code, you must use key no. 1: follow the angel as he goes in.
Listen to Peter
Buried in the Cornelius code is another key that will help us crack it and journey into the heart of God, key no. 2: listen to Peter as he speaks up. When Peter shows up at the home of Cornelius in Caesarea, Cornelius is waiting and has assembled the congregation. He has estimated the travel times, sent out the messages, and convened “his relatives and close friends” (Acts 10:24). As Peter speaks to this group, he shares three words from on high that give us another key to crack the Cornelius code.
Peter walks into Cornelius’s home and sees the gathered congregation. The sight inspires statement no. 1 (v. 28): “‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’”
The preliminaries over, the introductions given, Peter gets down to preaching and begins with statement no. 2 (vv. 34, 35): “Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’” I am not so sure Peter is right about his own understanding. But I dare to believe, though, that Peter is right about God: “‘God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’”
Peter shares the Savior with those saints in Caesarea. He tells the story of Jesus. His sermon is about to be rudely interrupted, but before it is, he shares statement no. 3 (v. 43): “ ‘All the prophets testify about him [Jesus] that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’ ” As the old hymn puts it, “Come, every soul by sin oppressed. . . . He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now.”7
Watch the Spirit
Buried in the Cornelius code is a third and final key that will help us crack it and journey into the heart of God, key no. 3: watch the Spirit as He comes down. This key is buried a bit more deeply than the others. It is itself encrypted. But follow the logic. Peter is preaching, and the Spirit decides it is time to interrupt: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days” (vv. 44–48).
Whatever doubts Peter and his entourage have about Cornelius and his household are power-washed away by a torrential downpour of the Spirit. Please notice carefully: The Gentiles have just heard and believed the gospel. The Spirit descends. Peter and the six Christians who accompany him from Joppa hear the Gentiles speaking in a wide variety of tongues, just as Jewish Christians did in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4–8).
The descent of the Spirit and the gift of tongues shout a divine message: Hear echoed in the strange phonemes of the world’s languages planted on your tongues My destiny for My church, the mission I have bequeathed to it. I wish for every person of every nation to be part of My church! They are already Mine by creation, My sons and daughters. Let Me use you to make them Mine again by redemption, drawn from “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6, KJV).
See God’s heart
Peter’s writhing tablecloth is not a picture of his future menu. It is a picture of the church as God was then shaping it and bringing it into being—and as it is now developing. The members you serve and the people you will seek to win are unlikely to look or act like you. They may not come from your race, speak your dialect, or know your culture. The churches you serve will be full of diverse people and—God be praised!—more are on the way. Peter’s vision is God’s way of shouting, “Vive la différence!”
Christian mission is not so much something that we plan as it is a wondrous journey of discovery into the very heart of God Himself. The itinerary is bound to surprise. The very one we might judge to be on the fringe, unimportant to the future of Christian mission may, in fact, be the linchpin, the tipping point, the crucial figure inducing a paradigm shift in outreach. To understand that, and more importantly to experience that, would be to crack the Cornelius code and begin the trek into the heart of the heart-knowing God.
1. Part 1 can be found in the March 2018 issue of Ministry.
2. Unless otherwise noted, Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version. Emphasis is added.
3. Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 3rd rev. and aug. ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 79. The Qumran community was a Jewish monastic community that lived near the shores of the Dead Sea.
4. Ibid., 102.
5. The translation is that of George J. Brooke, Exegesis at Qumran: 4Q Florilegium in Its Jewish Context, JSOTSupplement Series 29 (Sheffield, UK: JSOT, 1985), 91, 92.
6 . Chris A. Miller, “Did Peter’s Vision in Acts 10 Pertain to Men or the Menu?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 159, no. 635 (July–Sep. 2002): 313, 314.
7. John H. Stockton, “Only Trust Him,” 1874.
The next great thing?
A postlude from John McVay
It has been a long, challenging day of ministry. While dinner is baking, you sit in a comfortable chair on your back deck, the smell of lentil loaf in the air. And the real begins to bond with the surreal. A goat. Stumbling across the sky, superimposed above your lawn. His beard is long and scraggly. His hair mangy. As you try to separate the strands of reality from surreality, the old goat begins to morph before your eyes. Satyr-like, the old goat’s head becomes a human face. The front legs become hands and the back, feet. And before long, there he stands. An old goat. Wholly other. His wrinkled hands, laced by prominent veins, quiver as they reach out to you. There is a dull look of a bygone era in his eyes. He repeats the same story to you three times in as many minutes. He fumbles with his hearing aid and snaps his jaw awkwardly to readjust his dentures. His eyes, refracted through thick glasses, seem too large and are full of anguished plea. There is no chance he will lead a small group, chair the finance committee, or help underwrite the building program. Even helping a bit with the yard work is in his past. What good is he now? Who is he, friend in ministry? A threat to your time and efficiency? A deterrent to church growth? Dead wood?
Or is it just possible that he represents the next great thing in mission? Could it be?
The smell of lentil loaf engulfs you, and the scene changes. A writhing, black snake appears, cobra-like,its hooded form glistening in the sunlight as it jerks and writhes its way toward you. The hood morphs into hair. The long, lithe, reptilian body gives way to her slender form, garbed in too few clothes. She holds in her hand a small, electronic trinket. She holds it with such care and attention that it seems sacred, the crucible of her life. Thin wires trace their way up through her dyed, jet-black hair to ears pierced with cheap metal for their full arc. Matching metal flashes a few inches above her low-slung, metal-studded belt . . . and in her lips. . . and on her tongue. Her body jerks and writhes as she stands there; her arms and wrists bear the marks of self-harm, of cutting. Who is she, this one who now materializes before you? A distraction to your real ministry? Someone impervious to the message you bear? A waste of time, effort, and care that could more profitably be spent on others who have greater potential to build the church and grow the kingdom?
Or is it just possible that, in a youth-oriented, postmodern culture, she represents the next great thing in mission? Could it be?
There is a hint of burnt lentils in the air, which means the crusty bits around the edges are just about right. And the scene shifts yet again. A raptor, a hawk, a falcon.Appearing quickly, flying straight for you. As he hurtles toward you, you flinch. He brakes with outstretched wings, his talons come straight for you; he utters a piercing, wrenching cry. In that frozen moment of time, the hawk morphs. The talons become legs. The feathers a robe. The crested head, a turban. And now there he stands, an apparition hovering over your deck, this Osama bin Laden look-alike. An AK-47 is slung over the back of his robed form, his chest crisscrossed by bullet sashes. The needle on the baptismal candidate meter in your mind drops perilously close to zero. Yet his robe thins at the knees, betraying a piety that mirrors Cornelius’s own, a devout man who fears God with all his household, gives alms generously to the people, and prays constantly to God. He addresses you in Arabic with blessings and words of Godward praise drawn from the Qur’an. Who is he? A terrorist bent on destroying the civilization of which you are a part? An armed imam breathing anathemas down upon the infidel? Someone impervious to the message you bear?
Or is it just possible, given the shifts of macro-demographics, that he represents the next great thing in mission? Could it be?
O Lord, just as You did for Peter and those early Christian saints, impel us beyond our personal, ecclesiastical, and missional boundaries. Teach us that not every constraint we feel is one You endorse. Not every ban we have posted is one You have revealed. Not every boundary we acknowledge is one You trace. And not every anathema we hear is a curse You have spoken. Jog us out of our deepening ruts in evangelism, mission, and ministry, and set us on a new course, an itinerary into Your very heart. Breathe new life into us, dry bones and all, that we might rise and live and minister in your name. Grant us the joy of cracking the Cornelius code and knowing You, our heart-knowing God.