|n a global world we regularly encounter people from different places. In meeting these individuals, we soon realize that there are invisible barriers that make it more difficult to understand, communicate, and witness to those outside of our group. While the external barriers such as language, culture, and worldview are often recognized by the church in its mission, the invisible but very real internal barriers, existing in the hearts of all of us, are often overlooked.
The story in Acts 10, known as “The Conversion of Cornelius,” could just as well be branded as “The Conversion of Peter” because of Peter’s real struggle to cross the threshold of a Gentile household. In the parallel conversion story of Saul in Acts 9 the church leader Ananias also shows a reluctance to go and talk with the blinded Pharisee. In this article I would like to show that the significant external barriers that exist in people to the reception of the gospel are often dwarfed by the internal barriers that exist in the church.
In the two narratives of Acts 9:1-30 and Acts 10:1-48 there is an initial vision given to Saul and Cornelius, whom the Lord desires to convert, and a secondary vision given to Ananias and Peter, who are the instruments through whom God will speak His message. As noted in the table on page 16, the initial vision is given to a Jewish Pharisee and a Roman God-fearer. Saul, “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5), incensed by the teachings of Stephen and the activities of the young church, breathed “out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1). His reputation for maliciousness against the church was widely known and feared, even outside the province of Judea (verses 13, 14).
In contrast to Saul, the devout Cornelius had a sterling reputation among the Jews. Acts 10:2 tells us that “he and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” The angel relates that his prayers and gifts for the poor have been remembered by God, and his servants call him a “righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people” (Acts 10:22).
The visions given to the two men also compare and contrast well. Both visions happen unexpectedly during the day. Whereas Saul suddenly sees a flash of light from heaven (Acts 9:3), Cornelius “distinctly” sees an angel from God (Acts 10:3). The salutation given to each man is distinct. Whereas Cornelius is greeted by his name (verse 3), the stricken Pharisee is asked the penetrating question “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).
The final acts in these initial visions are the commands given by Jesus to go into the city and by the angel to send men to Joppa to get Peter. While it is true that one is sent while the other sends, in both cases the next step in the drama is to be borne by earthen and not heavenly vessels. What is important to underline is the willingness of both Saul and Cornelius in their response to the heavenly encounter. Neither of the men exhibits any hesitancy or reluctance to obey the heavenly vision. This is in contrast to the difficulty the Lord would have in convincing both Ananias and Peter to overcome their fears and prejudices that are clearly shown in the secondary visions of Acts 9 and 10.
When the Lord first calls to Ananias in a vision, calling out his name, the disciple responds by saying, “Yes, Lord” (Acts 9:10). The Lord follows up the willing response of Ananias by instructing him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision Saul has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight” (verses 11, 12).
The facts that it was the Lord speaking to him, that it was revealed that Saul was now praying to God instead of arresting the disciples, and that Ananias himself would go and perform a miracle should have been enough to calm his fears. Despite these assurances, however, Ananias strongly objects because of Saul’s reputation (verses 13, 14). The Lord does not attempt to argue with Ananias but in more forceful language tells him to “Go!” for Saul would become His instrument.
The initial reluctance of Ananias to obey the Lord’s command to visit Saul is amplified further in the well-known story of Peter and the vision of the unclean animals in Acts 10:9-16. It is apparent that the Lord had to carefully arrange the timing of the vision with the arrival of the envoys from Cornelius (verse 17) and the Spirit’s insistence that Peter go meet with them (verses 18-20) in order to convince Peter that he needed to comply with the request.
Although Peter testifies before Cornelius that “when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection” (verse 29), it is clear that the “apostle to the Jews” (Gal. 2:8) was clearly out of his contextual comfort zone. Ellen White tells us that when the Spirit asked Peter to go downstairs and meet the envoys, it “was a trying command, and it was with reluctance at every step that he undertook the duty laid upon him; but he dared not disobey.”*
Although the basic outline of proclamation—being filled with the Spirit, miracle, and baptism—is followed in the parallel narratives, they contrast in both scope and detail. Whereas Ananias’s ministry toward Saul is conveyed in just two verses (Acts 9:17, 18), Peter’s visit to Cornelius is 25 verses long (Acts 10:24-48). When Ananias finds Saul he greets him and relates how the Lord has sent him so that Saul’s eyes may be healed and he may be filled with the Spirit. Immediately Saul’s eyesight is restored and he is baptized.
This same basic pattern is followed in a much more expanded way in Acts 10:24-48. After Peter instructs Cornelius not to worship him, they go into the house where a large number of relatives and close friends have been called together. Peter reminds them that although it is not lawful for Jews “to associate with a Gentile or visit him,” he is there because God has shown him that he should not call any man unclean (verse 28).
After Cornelius relates his vision about the sending for Peter, the apostle begins by telling about his own realization “that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (verses 34, 35). He further explains that through the people of Israel, God sent the message of peace through Jesus Christ, “who is Lord of all” (verse 36). In marked contrast to the deliberate laying on of hands and the filling of the Spirit in the previous chapter, the Spirit comes spontaneously upon all who heard the message while Peter was still speaking (verse 44). Having received the witness and affirmation of the Spirit, Cornelius and his household are baptized and incorporated into the church.
Mission and Overcoming Internal Barriers
When Peter first greeted Cornelius he reminded all present that it was not lawful for Jews to “associate” with a Gentile (verse 28). In biblical Greek the word is a cognate of the noun kolla, which is the literal word for “glue.” Thus what is brought to view here by Peter’s use of this word is not just a casual Bible study given to a foreigner but a much closer union than the Jews could ever imagine with the Gentile world. The vision of Peter, which commanded him to eat the animals (as opposed to merely talking to or taking care of them), already showed the intimate relation the Lord desired to exist between the culturally diverse people of the world. It is no wonder that Peter dragged his feet to the house of Cornelius. The Lord was calling him to go far beyond a courtesy call to have an intimate, strong, and long-lasting relationship with somebody he did not know or cared little about.
I have discovered in my own pastoral call that an ongoing and growing ministry for people demands not only an informed intellect to wisely deal with the external barriers but a renewed heart, both within the one being ministered to and myself. Overcoming the internal barriers in others demands that my own internal barriers also be dealt with by the same Spirit who worked within the hearts of Ananias and Peter. This requires grace, courage, and wisdom. It is a call to deeper personal conversion with our risen Lord that enables us to go and make disciples of all the nations until He comes.
*Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 137.
A passionate pastor and teacher, James H. Park, PH.D., ministered in the Los Angeles area for 25 years before accepting a call to teach at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines. He is currently chairing the Applied Theology department and focuses in his ministry and research upon discipleship and mission.