as retold by Tanja Cilia
Before we begin our story, close your eyes and imagine a country where all the buildings, stretching for miles and miles, are made of stone, and have flat roofs! Now, can you imagine your favorite bed-sheet, about ten times its actual size floating down from heaven?
Let us begin our story with Cornelius the Centurion in the city of Caesarea. He was called a centurion because he was in charge of one-hundred soldiers in the Roman Army. He was a kind man, and his family helped the poor. One afternoon, an angel called Cornelius by name and told him that God had heard his prayers. He also told him to send to Joppa for Peter to come and bring salvation to his household. Now this was a wonderful thing, because until that time, it was thought that only Jews were going to be saved. This was a misunderstanding, because Isaiah was one of the prophets who had insisted that Israel was to be a light to the non-Jewish people, like Cornelius, who were at that time called Gentiles.
Now let us return to the flat roofs of the houses. These sometimes had steps leading up to them from the street, as well as from inside the house, and one could go from one roof to another. The roofs were – and still are – used as an extension of the house. People may even have picnics or hang clothes to dry, or sleep there in summer, or dry straw or cure salted tomatoes and capers and pickles, on them – or even have some “quiet time” to pray.
You can imagine what they are like if you imagine a patio on the top of a house, rather than as a balcony. By law, the roofs have a low sill or ledge at the edges for safety, about four feet high.
One afternoon, Peter was very hungry, and while downstairs a meal was being prepared, he went up the steps to the roof to be alone in prayer. This house was in Joppa, by the Mediterranean seaside, and it belonged to a tanner, a person who cures hides to be made into leather items. The work created a lot of nasty smells, and the sea was a handy source of salt water needed for it. This tanner was called Simon. His was not a holiday house – it was by the sea because in Biblical times, anyone who did this kind of job was considered not good enough to live in the centre of the city. Tanners worked with the bodies of dead animals, and they were considered “unclean.”
Did you notice how often people in the Bible are referred to by their names and their jobs? The fact that Simon is a tanner is mentioned twice, as if to show us that Peter decided to go to the house of a Jewish person who would have had to wash himself ceremonially several times before going to the Synagogue to pray in order to become “clean!”
There, on the roof, Peter had a vision. A cloth that was much, much larger than a sheet, something like the sails of a yacht, came down from heaven. Inside it, he could see all kinds of animals. This huge sheet was lowered and raised three times.
Peter heard a voice that told him “Rise, Peter! Kill and eat!” Now the Jews have a lot of rules that concern which animals may be eaten, and which may not, and if you want you can look for it in the Book of Leviticus, chapter eleven, verse one, and Deuteronomy, chapter fourteen, verse three.
The food that is “good to eat” is called “kosher.” Unclean food is not kosher. For example, unclean animals include the camel, badger, rabbit, lizard, pig, shark, catfish, snake, bat, eagle, hawk, vulture, owl, gull, and stork. But in Peter’s vision, the animals that he could eat were both kosher and non-kosher. This was a powerful symbol that Peter understood immediately. It showed that Jesus was the Savior of both the Jews and the Gentiles, who at that time were considered unclean.
When Peter’s vision was over, guess who came to see him? That’s right – Cornelius’s messengers – two servants and a soldier – to invite Peter to his home in Caesarea! They had been traveling for about thirty miles, having left after Cornelius had his vision. This incredible “coincidence” confirmed that the Word of God was for everybody, not just for the Jewish People. Think about it! Peter saw a vision on the roof of Simon’s house and the Romans promptly came in through the door of this very house asking him to preach to the Gentiles. The house itself became a symbol of God’s welcoming love for the whole world!
Simon the tanner actually invited the Romans inside (they were just in time for lunch!) – and this, too, was a wonderful thing that had never happened before, because Jews and Gentiles did not usually mix together, socially. They certainly never ate together!
Peter later went to Cornelius’s house and brought them the Good News of Jesus Christ. When he returned from Joppa to Jerusalem, he began preaching that non-Jews were also a part of God’s family. Some did not like it, but Peter chided them, saying, “If God therefore gave to them the same gifts as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)