Peter Meets Cornelius – Starting an Outline

Our immediate goal is to rightly divide this passage — meaning that we should apply what we have learned about the differences between Israel’s kingdom program and our Age of Grace to it.  The alternative is to continue to see Peter and Paul as equals, both operating under the Great Commission with an identical message and audience.  I hope that you have become convinced that’s not the case by now!  (Okay, okay, maybe you’re not convinced — it’s hard to overthrow a lifetime of orthodox learning — but maybe, just maybe… you’re beginning to consider the possibility…)

Let’s get our heads on straight first.

  • Luke detoured to describe Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus and the events in his life that followed it, looking forward several years (Acts 9:1-31), because Paul’s conversion event occurred after Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian and before Peter’s encounter with Aeneas in Lydda in chronological order.
  • Luke resumes the story of Peter and the Kingdom program in Acts 9:32 in a “meanwhile back at the ranch” manner, while Paul is in distant Antioch, working with Barnabas and receiving the full revelation of God’s program of grace to the gentiles over a period of several years.
  • Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem (“The Twelve”) have proclaimed the Kingdom gospel in Jerusalem, have gone through a persecution that scattered the Jewish believers to the surrounding world, and have now begun to proclaim the Kingdom gospel in the second circle of the Great Commission — Judea and Samaria (southern Israel and middle Israel, Acts 1:8).  Most recently in Luke’s narrative (Acts 9:31) that circle had been expanded to include Galilee (northern Israel).

Peter’s travels and preaching up to this point have been limited to Jews, and the passage we are about to study will confirm that.  In spite of the Great Commission’s coverage of “the uttermost parts of the earth”, it apparently has not occurred to Peter, the other Jerusalem apostles and Jewish believers everywhere that the Gentiles will be included on any basis other than the one they already knew under the Law – proselytes who adopt Judaism as their faith.  As we shall see, Peter still thinks of Gentiles as “unclean” and therefore not to be associated with — or even set foot in their house!  He has a lot to learn.  And learn he will!

The Passage Outlined

We’re going to apply the technique of divide-and-conquer to this passage, breaking it into a few major parts, and then applying the technique again to break those parts into a few smaller parts (three or four), and so on.  In each case, we need to quash our natural desire to “go for the details” immediately.  Our purpose is to build a framework of context on which we will hang the details later.  So here is our first outline:

  1. Cornelius’ and Peter’s visions (10:1-16)
  2. Peter comes to Cornelius’ house (10:17-48)
  3. Peter explains to the church in Jerusalem (11:1-18)

Now we’ll break those major parts into a few sub-parts (the new parts are shown in italics):

  1. Cornelius’ and Peter’s visions (10:1-16)
    1. Cornelius’ vision (10:1-8)
    2. Peter’s vision (10:9-16)
  2. Peter comes to Cornelius’ house (10:17-48)
    1. Peter receives and accompanies Cornelius’ servants (10:17-24a)
    2. Peter and Cornelius meet (10:24b-33)
    3. Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household (10:34-43)
    4. The Holy Spirit falls upon them and they are baptized (10:44-48)
  3. Peter explains to the church in Jerusalem (11:1-18)
    1. Peter held accountable by the Jerusalem church (11:1-3)
    2. Peter’s defense (11:4-16)
    3. The conclusion (11:17-18)

Now let’s focus on just the first main point and first sub-point of the outline, applying the divide-and-conquer principle one more time (the new parts are shown in color):

  1. Cornelius’ and Peter’s visions (10:1-16)
    1. Cornelius’ vision (10:1-8)
      1. Cornelius described (vv1-2)
      2. Cornelius meets an angel (vv3-6)
      3. Cornelius sends for Peter (vv7-8)

We are finally ready to start hanging some details on this framework!  Of course, if we find that the details are getting too complicated, it probably means that we need to divide-and-conquer once again.  There’s nothing magic about applying it only three times!

As we begin to flesh in the details, we may find that questions come to mind.  We’re going to write them down with the details as they come to mind, and go back and answer them later.  So if we consider just the first three lines of the outline above, it looks like this:

  1. Cornelius’ and Peter’s visions (10:1-16)
    1. Cornelius’ vision (10:1-8)
      1. Cornelius described (vv1-2)
        1. a man
        2. lives at Caesarea (Which Caesarea? Is it inside Israel?  Which part of Israel?)
        3. a Roman centurion (What’s a centurion?)
        4. a member of the “Italian cohort” (What’s a cohort?)
        5. devout, God-fearing, as is his entire household (What “God”?)
        6. gives alms to the Jewish people (What are alms?)
        7. prays to God continually

You are no doubt beginning to have a vision of your own — of endlessly-expanding outlines, especially in a passage of this length and complexity!  That’s a lot of work!  Yes, Bible study IS a lot of work.  I hope that you can also see the degree of understanding of God’s Word that it will give you.  This is what Hans Finzel means when he talks about “mining the scriptures.”  Certainly no labor in this earthly life could be more rewarding given the subject, nor better prepare us for the life to come, nor help us to know our personal God and Savior better!  Is it worth doing?  Ask Him.

Happily, not every passage needs to be studied at this depth to understand it.  The story of Peter and Cornelius doesn’t need this depth because it is such a factual and straight-forward account of the events.  We will pause to look at some of the details, those which are important to rightly divide the passage — evidence that Peter’s ministry under the Great Commission was very different from Paul’s message of Grace.

A practical point bears repeating here.  Developing such an outline today is greatly simplified if you have a writing tool that is able to spread existing lines apart so that more lines can be inserted between them.  A ball-point pen and a legal pad just won’t do!  You need a computer with word processing software or a spreadsheet.  Trying to do this with scissors and library paste is really inefficient!

If you are game, here’s an assignment for you.  Develop your own outline for the entire Acts 10:1-11:18 passage, going no deeper than three levels and not including any details.  You’ll be able to compare your outline to mine in the next post.  I think you’ll be surprised (if you follow the rules) at how identical they will be.  This is the first step in having confidence that you can arrive at the same understanding of God’s Word as anyone else — independently from the commentators and even the preacher.  This is how the believers in Berea “searched the scriptures daily” to see if what Paul was telling them was really what God said.  They sought independent confirmation of Paul’s preaching directly from the Holy Scriptures.  And so can you!

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