Last Sunday we were visiting the “Tri-Cities” area of Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Korazin on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This week we are going to travel down to the Mediterranean Sea to a city called Caesarea. Caesarea is an ancient city that really began to take shape after the Persians had given the area from the city of Dor to Joppa to the Sidonians in the 5th century B.C. They gave the area on the coast to the Sidonians because the Sidonians had helped the Persians during the Persian invasion of Greece. The city wasn’t called Caesarea back in those days; it was called Strato’s Tower, named after the Sidonian King Abdashtart. The Sidonians used the port city as a way station for their merchant ships in their trading with Egypt until the city came under Jewish control after the conquests of the Hasmonean ruler, Alexander Jannaeus. Later, in 63 B.C., the city came under Roman rule when Pompey conquered it in 63 B.C.
The city remained pretty insignificant until the Roman Emperor Augustus gave the city to Herod in 30 B.C. If I learned anything from my trip to Israel it was that Herod the Great was a building machine. You can’t believe the building projects that Herod completed during his reign as King. Caesarea was one of the most impressive sites I saw while I was in the Holy Land. In twelve years, from 22 to 10 B.C. Herod built an entire city which he named Caesarea in honor of Emperor Augustus.
In his twelve years of construction Herod built beautiful palaces, a large marble temple in honor of Augustus, an amphitheater, a hippodrome that seated 20,000 people, and a theater which was built facing the Mediterranean Sea.
The main reason Caesarea had not become an important port city before Herod’s time was because of the wicked currents and tides that made it difficult for ships to land. Herod conquered this problem by building an artificial harbor with two breakwaters. The breakwaters were built with concrete that would harden under water. The southern breakwater extended out from the shore and arced back toward the north. The distance of the southern breakwater was about 1800 feet out into the sea. The northern breakwater extended out into the sea for 750 feet. When the project was completed Herod had built an artificial harbor that covered 40 acres and could handle 300 ships.
With the huge harbor and beautiful city built by Herod, Caesarea became one of the most important cities on the coastal plains. With the growth of the city one huge problem was exposed—Caesarea had no fresh water. There were no springs or rivers close by. Water had to be hauled in to the city or the citizens had to catch rainwater to meet their needs. I told you that Herod was a construction genius and once again his genius showed when he addressed the problem. Herod had his engineers build two aqueducts from the southern slopes of Mount Carmel to bring fresh water into the city. The distance from Mount Carmel to Caesarea was about ten miles!
Because of its magnificent harbor and flowing fresh water Caesarea grew into a large city made up of both Jews and Gentiles. This posed problems because the Jews were devoted to the exclusive worship of God while the Gentiles worshipped all kinds of pagan idols as well as the Emperor. The relationship of the Jews and Gentiles in Caesarea was tense to say the least. Around 66 A.D. the synagogue was desecrated and 20,000 Jews were massacred. This led to the First Jewish revolt which brought about the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Titus, the Roman General whose troops destroyed the Temple, sentenced 2,500 Jews to fight with wild beasts in the amphitheater in Caesarea as entertainment for his brother Domitian’s birthday.
The Romans had taken control of Caesarea in the year 6 A.D. and the city became the capital of the province of Judea for the next 500 years. It also became the headquarters for the Roman fighting forces stationed in Judea.
In the time that we have remaining today I want to introduce you to one of the soldiers who called Caesarea home. His name was Cornelius and he was a Gentile, a mortal enemy of the Jews. In Acts 10 we learn that Cornelius was a “centurion” in what was known as the “Italian Regiment.” John MacArthur, in his commentary on Acts, writes,
A Roman legion at full strength consisted of 6,000 men, and was divided into ten cohorts of 600 men each. A centurion commanded 100 of these men, and each legion therefore had 60 centurions, who were considered the backbone of the Roman army. The Roman historian Polybius described centurions as “not so much venturesome daredevils as natural leaders of a steady and sedate spirit, not so much men who will initiate attacks and open the battle as men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard pressed and be ready to die at their posts” (Histories vi. xix–xlii, cited in Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Roman Civilization: Sourcebook 1: [New York: Harper & Row, 1966], 435). (MacArthur, John, Commentary on The Acts of the Apostles)
We also learn from our study of Acts 10 that Cornelius and his family were “devout and God-fearing, he gave generously to those in need, and he prayed to God regularly.” Let’s take a look at Acts 10:3-8 and see what happened to this Gentile soldier.
3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” 4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. 8He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa. (Acts 10:3-8 NIV)
Remember that Cornelius was a Gentile. A vile, pagan, dog of a man. That’s what the Jews called the Gentiles, dogs! In Acts 10 we run into this despised man and what do we learn about him? He has abandoned his pagan ways and he has devoted himself to YHWH God in the best way he knows how. He is a man of prayer. He fears God. He gives to those who are in need. He doesn’t know the Hebrew Bible. He doesn’t visit the Temple. He is a Gentile. Yet if you look at his life I will assure you that he is living, as best as he knows how, for the glory of God. What was Cornelius doing when he had his vision of the angel of God? Acts 10:3 doesn’t specify. Luke simply tells us that it was about 3:00 pm when he had the vision. I will tell you that Cornelius was praying. You may ask, “How do you know that?” I’m so glad you asked. If you will turn with me to Acts 3:1 we can find the answer to our question.
1One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer– at three in the afternoon. (Acts 3:1 NIV)
Three in the afternoon was the most important time of prayer for the Jews. Peter and John were heading to the temple to pray at 3 in the afternoon. Cornelius had stopped what he was doing to go to God in prayer at 3 in the afternoon. There is an important lesson for us to learn here my friends. We could spend several weeks studying the passages of God’s Word where people are praying and God moves, things happen. This shouldn’t surprise us because God has told us in Jeremiah 33:2-3.
2“This is what the LORD says, he who made the earth, the LORD who formed it and established it– the LORD is his name: 3 ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’ (Jeremiah 33:2-3 NIV)
When God’s people pray God moves, He answers, He strengthens, He encourages, He comforts, He acts! 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says, “Pray continually!” Cornelius was praying when he had the vision to send some of his men to Joppa to get Simon Peter. Now Joppa is about 30 miles away from Caesarea so it took the men some time to get there. While Cornelius’ men were making their way to Joppa, Simon Peter is staying at the home of Simon the tanner who lived by the Mediterranean Sea. We read in verse 9 that Peter went up on the roof to pray.
9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” 14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” 16This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. 17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. (Acts 10:9-17 NIV)
Isn’t it interesting? What was Peter doing on the roof of Simon’s house? He was praying. I don’t need to point out to you once again that God is at work when we pray. Peter wasn’t as excited about his vision as Cornelius was about his was he? Peter saw a sheet let down from heaven with all kinds of animals and birds in it, clean and unclean. Peter was hungry and God told him to take one of the animals, kill it, grill it, and eat it. Peter was a good Jew. He wouldn’t eat anything that wasn’t “kosher.” In Leviticus 11 and Leviticus 20:25-26 we find dietary laws and lists of what the Israelites could and couldn’t eat. God had given these to His people to separate them from the pagan people who lived in the land. Peter had lived “kosher” and he wasn’t going to violate the laws of God!
What Peter didn’t realize was that the new covenant had changed things. Jesus had died on the cross to give His life for Jew and Gentile alike. It was no longer time for separation. Jesus had torn down every wall that separates us from each other. Paul understood that the dietary laws were nullified at the cross and that is why he wrote to the Romans,
1Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. (Romans 14:1-3 NIV)
What you eat or choose not to eat is a matter of preference, not law. Peter’s vision of the sheet with clean and unclean animals really wasn’t about Peter’s diet—it had a much greater significance. God was preparing him for a world-wide mission. We read in Acts 10:18, that while Peter was still pondering his vision, Cornelius’ men were calling out.
18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. 19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” 21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?” 22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. 24 The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. 26 But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” 27 Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. (Acts 10:18-28 NIV)
Peter made the trip to Caesarea and when he arrived at Cornelius’ house there was a big crowd of Gentiles waiting on him. What a shock! The prejudice of the Jews, which was deeply ingrained in Peter, made Peter uncomfortable. Peter told the truth. He said that it was against the law to associate with Gentiles, and it was, but not because they were Gentiles. God called His people to separate themselves from the surrounding nations because God knew that they would turn the hearts of us His people away to their idols and so-called gods. In Deuteronomy 6:13-15 we read,
13 Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. 14 Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; 15 for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. (Deuteronomy 6:13-15 NIV)
I need to clarify something for us. It wasn’t that God was simply calling His people, the Jews, to distance themselves from other nations, He was calling His people to distance themselves from anyone who would entice them to serve other gods. Deuteronomy 13:6-8 teaches us about this. Read along with me.
6 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. (Deuteronomy 13:6-8 NIV)
When Peter saw the big crowd of Gentiles who had gathered at Cornelius’ house the vision that was so muddy and confusing became crystal clear. Peter said, “But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” Peter got it. He didn’t know exactly what God was doing, but he knew that God had led him to Cornelius’ house. Peter asked, “Why did you send for me?” Cornelius told Peter about his vision. After Cornelius shared his vision with Peter, we read,
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. (Acts 10:34-36 NIV)
Peter went on to tell the Gentiles the story of Jesus from the time of John the Baptist preaching “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” all the way through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection on the third day. Peter went on to tell the Gentiles that before Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father He commanded His followers to preach the Good News to the people. Then something marvelous happened. Peter didn’t offer an altar call. He didn’t tell the Gentiles to bow their heads and search their hearts. He didn’t tell them they needed to get right with the Lord. He was in the midst of his sermon when we read in verse 44.
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. (Acts 10:44-48 NIV)
God was working! God was working! Peter was obedient to what God had called him to do. Cornelius was obedient to what God had called him to do. But it was God who was working! We should never forget that my friends. We must be obedient to what God has called us to do. Forget about whether people think it is right or prudent or wise or beneficial; just be obedient to what God has called you to do.
I can remember when I first came to this church—a white church in the middle of a predominately black neighborhood. I was a white pastor serving an aging, declining; some would have said “dying” white church in the middle of a predominately black neighborhood. I knew God was calling us to be something that we were not, something this church had never been. God was not calling Britton Christian Church to be a white church; He was calling this church to be a lighthouse of hope to all people.
After I had been here awhile some folks started asking me, “What is your vision for Britton Christian Church?” I was honest with those who asked. I told them what I felt God was calling us to be, even though we hadn’t seen any evidence that the work had begun. They looked at me like I had an arm growing out of my forehead. I had the opportunity to go to some friend’s house one night and meet one of the most influential Christian leaders in the world. My friends had told him about Britton Christian Church and he wanted to meet me. He asked the question, “What do you see God doing at Britton?” I told him the same thing I had told everyone else. When I finished talking he said, “Mike I understand your passion, but let me share with you what I’ve learned through many years of our ministry. We tried to reach all people but it didn’t work until we learned that for us to reach Asians we had to hire Asian workers, to reach Latinos we had to hire Latinos, to reach African-Americans we had to hire African-Americans.” I was crushed. When I got home late that night Connie was waiting up for me to see what had happened. When I told her she said, “Mike, we didn’t come here to follow his vision, we came here to follow God’s!”
Britton Christian Church is not a white church, black church, brown church, red church, or yellow church—it is a lighthouse of hope for all people! This is what God has called us to be and it is His work! We must be obedient to what God has called us to do and be, but we must also know that it is His work!
I’m so glad that Peter was obedient to God aren’t you? I’m so glad that Cornelius was obedient to God aren’t you? Because of the obedience of these two men, acting in accordance with God’s will, the very first Gentile was baptized in Caesarea! Cornelius was the first Gentile baptized, but how many millions more have come to faith since Cornelius was transformed from a God-fearer to a Jesus-follower?
Not everyone was excited about what happened. In the very next chapter of Acts we read that Jews throughout Judea heard the rippling of the waters of Cornelius’ baptism. Read along with me from Acts 11:1-3.
1The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:1-3 NIV)
God has not called us to be pleasing to those around us—He has called us to be obedient. If you are going to be obedient to God then get ready—He will take you where you never thought you would go, He will give you tasks you could never have seen yourself doing, and He will use you like you never dreamed you could be used. The first act of obedience is to recognize God at work in your life, calling you, preparing you like He did Cornelius, to move you from where you are to becoming one of His followers. Will you recognize this today and ask Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
Oklahoma City, OK.
June 4, 2006