On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew near to the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray about the sixth hour:…
The gospel is here compared to —
I. A GREAT SHEET. A small sheet would not suffice to convey the truth God was about to reveal — that all nations were to be gathered into His Church. Judaism was only a small sheet, just big enough to cover Palestine. But Christianity was a "great sheet" — a clear hint as to its cosmopolitan character. Christianity as let down from heaven is larger than as reproduced inhuman creeds; as revealed by God it is larger than as apprehended by man. The tendency of man is to narrow the love of God, to contract the Divine sheet till it becomes no bigger than a pocket handkerchief. But just as the creation is larger than science, so is the Church of God greater than any one particular Church. Just as God is greater than man, so is the Divine revelation more comprehensive than any creed formulated by human wisdom. "Our little systems have their day," etc.
II. LET DOWN FROM HEAVEN. The idea of the comprehensiveness of the gospel has come down from God.
1. You will not find it in heathenism. The idea of universal fellowship based on universal equality never occurred to any philosopher. True, there was a dark, unconscious feeling after it. Plato's republic was a strenuous groping after the Christian kingdom of God; but it falls far short of it, because it places the ground of unity in the intellect instead of in the spiritual nature. That is only a republic among philosophers; the labouring classes are reduced to a condition of hopeless servitude.
2. You will not find it in Judaism. A few prophetic intimations were given in the Old Testament that the Gentiles would pay homage to the Messiah; but how they were to reap the benefits of redemption was not known. Now, however, the mystery is made known, but the majority of the believers utterly failed to realise it, and sought to discredit it. Upon this truth hinged the great controversy of the apostolic age; and so novel was it, so contrary to the current of thought of the age, that it took the whole lifetime of the apostles to establish it. A great truth is always slow to be apprehended by the masses of men. Take, for instance, gravitation. At the time of Sir Isaac's death no astronomer above forty years of age believed in it. Take again the principle of Free Trade; today England is the only country which thoroughly believes in it, and not all England. But these truths were not by any means of the same consequence to society as the important truth taught Peter.
III. KNIT AT THE FOUR CORNERS. The gospel is to extend its frontiers and to exert its influence over the four quarters of the globe.
1. God began with a family. He calls Abraham and separates him to Himself. In Genesis, accordingly, we find family religion the first step in the recovery of the lost world. In Genesis God has a cause, though not a kingdom — just a few worshippers, but no visible organisation.
2. After the family comes the nation. Out of Abraham's posterity God formed a nation for Himself. That is progress. It would not do to take any nation. It was necessary to have a people whose fundamental characteristic was religiousness; and it was equally necessary to train them, else they would constitute a kingdom of the devil. Judaism was not a very spiritual kingdom, but it was the best which could be established under the circumstances, and served as a nucleus for a more spiritual kingdom to come. But this kingdom could only be continued on two conditions: that it be small in extent, and that it be fenced off from the rest of the world. If it were wide in area, the sense of oneness in the subjects would have been weakened, if not destroyed, in the early stage of spiritual education. If it were not partitioned off, there would be such a rush of world life into it that the Divine element would soon be quenched. The laws of this kingdom, however, as of every new kingdom, point to defensive, not aggressive, measures, which is as much as it can do for centuries in presence of the huge world powers; and in order to defence it must be consolidated in one country and one nation.
3. But as the family merged in the nation, so the nation must merge in the world. The text evidently points out that another bold move forward is about to be made. Peter is directed to go and convert Cornelius, an uncircumcised heathen. His conversion created more excitement than any single conversion on record, not because one more soul was added, but because of the new principle it embodied, the new policy it served to inaugurate. Circumcision was here declared to be nothing, and uncircumcision nothing, but to many they were then everything. This shows a marvellous change in the policy of the kingdom. Henceforth it is to act on the aggressive. It is no longer to be confined to one people — it claims all nations. "God shall enlarge Japheth, and He shall dwell in the tents of Shem." Shem means concentration, Japheth expansion. Therein we have summed up the characteristics of religion among the Asiatics and Europeans.
IV. CONTAINING ALL MANNER OF FOUR-FOOTED BEASTS OF THE EARTH, AND WILD BEASTS, AND CREEPING THINGS, AND FOWLS OF THE AIR. Peter is here taught that the distinction between clean and unclean is abolished.
1. We trace here the same progress. First, the family is made clean. Through the fall the whole creation had become common and profane. Is it to remain so? Is God to be forever cheated out of the world His hands had made? No; He resolves to reclaim it. Not, however, all at once. God will make a beginning by separating one family. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are each separated, made clean unto God.
2. Will God stop there? No; the order of His operation is progress. The Israelites, like all other nations, were by nature unclean, lying under the curse. But by the sprinkling of the blood of the covenant they were made clean. But this nation is the "first fruits." Not only man had become unclean, but the irrational creation. Sin struck the universe with leprosy to its very heart. The animal creation, therefore, needs to be made clean. The clean nation must have clean food. God accordingly cleanses certain species of animals. Behold then a small proportion of the rational and irrational creation made clean by the establishment of the kingdom of God. In Genesis all the world, with the exception of one family only, is unclean; but in Exodus, one nation, at least, and a certain proportion of animals, have been made clean. That is progress anyhow.
3. Is the rest of the world to remain under the dominion of sin? No; the kingdom of God under the New Testament undertakes the task of cleansing the whole universe. The difference once established between the Jews and other nations is annulled, not because the Jews are made unclean, but because the Gentiles are made clean. The whole world was lying under the curse, and therefore unclean; but Jesus Christ was made a curse for the world, and consequently lifted it from men and animals. Since His sacrifice the world in its totality is clean, not morally, but judicially. What Judaism did ceremonially for one nation, Christianity has done efficaciously for all nations. The whole world is now clean. All mankind now virtually belong to the kingdom of God, and it is the paramount duty of the Church to take possession of them in the name of the Redeemer and make them so in reality. "What God hath cleansed call not thou common." "Clean" — this is the keyword of the kingdom of God. Beauty was the keyword of Greek civilisation; strength of the Roman; but the keyword of Christianity is "clean."
V. After the vision came THE INTERPRETATION.
1. Peter thought on the vision. This truth of revelation was to become a truth of reason. The Church is to continue its study of the Divine Word till all the truths of revelation become at last truths of reason. Revelation answers its purpose only as it becomes the legitimate property of reason. Take, e.g., the existence and unity of God. When this truth was revealed to Israel, no man in the native light of reason had a clear perception of it. But the reason has at last been educated up to it. So again with the moral law — the eternal difference between right and wrong. When this truth was revealed to Israel it was in advance of reason. But the reason has been gradually educated up to it. The Incarnation is still in advance of reason. But then is it never to enter reason? It is no more unbelievable to Christians than the unity of God to the Hebrews; and as the latter has passed from the region of mystery to that of reason, so I believe will do the former. Take again the truth made known in the text — the equality of Jews and Gentiles. At the time it was made it was far in advance of reason. Peter thought on it and believed it; but his whole history shows he had never been able to think right into it and through it. To the last it was to him more of a truth of faith than a truth of reason. But this truth is gradually working its way into the universal reason.
2. But Peter was not left to unravel the meaning of the vision — the clue was afforded him by the arrival of messengers from Cornelius. God always explains His supernatural revelations by natural events. Providence is the best commentary on the Bible. Just when God was stirring large thoughts in Peter respecting the universality of the gospel, He was also working in Cornelius to send a messenger to the apostle desiring a fuller knowledge of salvation at his hands. God often brings about these secret correspondences. Hardly is there an important discovery made in science but two or three inventors, ignorant of each other's designs, claim it as their own.
(J. Cynddylan Jones, D. D.)
Creeping things. — The presence of "creeping things" in the sheet is a voice —
I. MANIFESTING GOD.
1. The largeness of His mercy. This sheet was a great sheet, and it included "creeping" things. Satan aims at contracting our views of God; at making us think that He has no room for us, or that He has no room for others.
2. The sovereignty of God's grace. He makes as much of the creeping things hidden away, despised by men, as of the four-footed beasts. He sent His messengers out into the highways and hedges to compel the poor to come in.
3. The minuteness of God's arrangements. The lesser were not lost to sight in that great sheet; they were presented to the apostle's eye in their proper place, as well as the four-footed beasts.
4. The depth of God's condescension. Proud man would have gathered into that sheet only what was of apparent value; it would never have entered into his mind to think about the creeping things at all — to tame a wild beast would be something, but what credit or honour or profit could he get out of "creeping things!"
II. DIRECTIVE TO OURSELVES. And this —
1. When we are oppressed with a sense of our insignificance and meanness. Satan, for his own purpose, helps on this thought. He says, "I can understand God caring about so and so, he is worth something; but who knows or cares about you?" Then we are troubled about the little capacity we have for glorifying God, and Satan marshals before our minds all our weaknesses, our unfavourable position, our want of intellect or wealth. And how shall we meet all this? Only by falling back upon God Himself. We cannot explain His making any account for us, any more than we can for His including "creeping things" in that great sheet let down from heaven. Then, again, the child of God is often tempted to have heart sinkings about the future; but let him remember that God has His eye on every particle of the believer's dust. It is recorded of Lady Maxwell that she was at one time much troubled by the curious temptation that she was so insignificant she would be liable to be passed over hereafter. But we may meet all such temptations as , the mother of , met the surprise of her friends at Ostia, when they expressed their wonder that she did not fear to leave her body so far from her own country. "Nothing," said she, "is far from God, and I do not fear that He should not know where to find me at the resurrection." The small, as well as the great, are remembered in the grand distribution of rewards.
2. When we compare ourselves with those who seem to have some pretensions. The creeping thing seems ready to shrink into nothingness when placed side by side with the four-footed beast. Very often we review the character of such and such a believer, and we say, "Oh, if only I were like this man, I might feel some comfort." But remember the great beasts had no cleanliness, except from the solitary fact of being in the sheet, and so the safety and acceptance of small and great alike are due to the goodness of the Lord.
3. In forming our estimate of others we shall not exalt the great ones nor despise the weak ones if we remember well what there was in this sheet that Peter saw.
4. We have also the comforting thought that, however humble, we have our place. We may be small, and of no reputation, but the Lord thinketh on us, has a place for us, and this should be enough. And as regards our affairs, it is true that they are mere straws in comparison with the great affairs of others; we have only to do with shillings where they have to do with thousands of pounds; we have only to do with aches and pains, where they have to do with life and death. But He who fashioned the creeping thing knows its needs, and He who fashioned us knows ours.
(P. H. Power, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: