After the great miracle of raising Tabitha from the dead, Peter did not return to Lydda, but remained at Joppa, his summons to which place had perhaps only slightly anticipated his intention of proceeding thither.
It is probable that among the disciples at Joppa there were persons of good worldly standing and consideration, any of whom would have felt honored in receiving the apostle under their roof. But he chose to take up his abode with “one Simon a tanner,” of whom we subsequently learn that his house was by the sea-side, that is, beyond the town, for the trade of a tanner was one which the Jews would not allow to be exercised within any of their cities. This was from a primary regard to sanitary considerations—which, among this people, always took the form of pronouncing a thing, a trade, a practice, to be “unclean,” and which far more effectually realized the objects in view than all the rules of all the “boards of health” in the world. The trade of a tanner was for some reason or other regarded as mean and low among the ancients generally; and by the Jews in particular was held in great contempt. In the Talmud we read, “Woe unto him whose trade is a tanner!” Being aware of this, we may find some probability in the conjecture of some ancient commentators, that the trade of Peter’s host is here so pointedly specified, in order that it might appear that the apostle did not feel himself elevated by the dignity of the late miracle above mean persons and things.
It was during his stay with Simon, at his house by the seaside, that Peter one day withdrew for secluded devotion to the house-top at the noon-tide hour of prayer. He then became exceedingly hungry, and would gladly have taken some food, but the mid-day meal, being the first considerable meal of the day, was not yet ready. While in this state he fell into a kind of ecstasy or trance, in which, in mental vision, he beheld a vast sheet of open work, probably like a net, let down by the four corners from heaven. Observing this more narrowly, he perceived that it contained all kinds of living creatures—animals tame and wild, birds, and even “creeping things.” A voice was then heard: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat!” But to this, with the prompt readiness of one whose mind was still replete with notions derived from the ceremonial law, Peter objected: “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” The call implied that he might use for food any of the creatures presented to his view; and his response expressed his reluctance, his moral inability, to eat that which the law of Moses pronounced unclean.
To this the voice replied—“What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” This—whether the entire vision, or the voice only, is not certain—was repeated three times, either to impress it more strongly upon Peter’s mind, or to confirm in the strongest manner the truth and certainty of the truth thus conveyed. The reader will recollect other instances in which certainty is indicated by repetition, and especially by threefold repetition. Thus, in Gen_41:32, Pharaoh’s dreams are expressly declared to have been repeated, in order to indicate that the Lord would certainly and shortly bring the things to pass.
But what things were in this case denoted by the vision? This was the question on which Peter pondered. He seems to have been in doubt whether by this vision God meant only to indicate that every distinction of meats was abolished by the Christian religion, and therewith, perhaps, the ceremonial law, of which practically that distinction formed a most prominent part; or whether a yet deeper meaning was not concealed under it—namely, that the Gentiles, who did not observe this distinction of meats, and were on that and other grounds accounted impure by the Jews, were to be so regarded no longer, nor their society to be any longer shunned, but the doctrines of the Gospel were to be freely preached to them.
His doubts on this point were soon resolved; and he speedily learned that this vision had been sent to him in order to determine and guide his conduct, under circumstances which might otherwise have perplexed him greatly.
While he was still considering this matter, three strangers, one of them a Roman soldier, appeared at the tanner’s gate, inquiring whether “Simon, whose surname is Peter” (to distinguish him from the master of the house, who also bore the name of Simon) “lodged there.” The house was probably not high, so that Peter’s attention may have been attracted be the knocking and the enquiries at the gate. And then, to free him from doubt, the Spirit deigned to acquaint him that the men who sought him had been sent by Himself, and that he was to go with them without doubt or fear. On this Peter went down to the strangers, and informing them that he was the man for whom they enquired, asked what they wanted with him.
In reply, they entered into a recital, from which he gathered that they were servants of a centurion named Cornelius, at Caesarea; and that their master had sent them to request his presence at that city, as he had been “warned from God by a holy angel” to send for him, and to hear words of him. We know more of what had passed than this, but we less suppose that this is a concise statement of the historian to avoid a repetition of the full narrative, than simply just so much as Cornelius had told his messengers to say—not to them entering upon the full explanations which he meant himself to give to the apostle on his arrival.
Caesarea was fully thirty-five miles from Joppa, and the men who had traveled that day and half, needed some rest and refreshment. Peter therefore did not think of setting out with them at once, but, purposing to go with them the next morning, he meanwhile invited them into the house, and provided them with food and a resting place. The conversation of the strangers during the rest of the day, probably gave ground for the impression, that the occasion was likely to prove one of considerable importance; and Peter himself had good reasons for entertaining that conviction. It was probably, therefore, in consequence of this that, when he departed the next morning, he was accompanied by six of the disciples at Joppa—not only, of their own accord, to do him honor, but possibly at his own request, to be his witnesses and vouchers under the new, difficult, and deeply-responsible circumstances, in which he could not but already feel that he was likely to be placed when he should reach Caesarea.