In Acts 9 Peter goes to Joppa, staying in a house that Luke points out is “by the sea” (Acts 10:6). Peter was originally staying at the nearby town of Lydda, but he went to Joppa at the request of some disciples, and there he raised Tabitha from the dead. Later Cornelius sends his servants to Joppa to retrieve Peter. The location of Joppa in all of this is not incidental.
Joppa is a seaport. It is where Jonah went in order to get a ship to flee from the presence of the Lord, who commanded him to go preach to Ninevah (Jonah 1). Jonah didn’t want the glory to depart from Israel and transfer to the Gentiles, so he went to Joppa to escape, to go the other way.
Peter, “the apostle to the Jews” (Gal 2:8), also finds himself in Joppa. In Joppa he is faced with two options: go preach to the Gentiles, or attempt to flee from God’s call, restricting God’s salvation to Israel. Peter is a new Jonah.
Peter went to Joppa at the request of the disciples so that he might raise Tabitha from the dead. Peter becomes an agent of resurrection, bringing new life to Tabitha, who was “full of good works and acts of charity” to the saints and widows (9:36, 39, 41). Tabitha was a Jew, so that was easy enough for Peter. Raising Tabitha from the dead, physically, was doable.
After Peter raises Tabitha, Cornelius sends servants to him in Joppa to bring him back to his house so that he and his household can hear what he has to say—a message of salvation (10:22; 11:14). Cornelius, like Tabitha, is marked by pious devotion and acts of charity: he was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (10:2). In terms of his character, Peter should be just as eager to bring new life to Cornelius, no less than Tabitha.
But Peter seems to have some level of hesitancy about going to Cornelius, which is why God commands Peter not to hesitate in obeying his command to go to him (10:20). Peter needs a threefold vision to spur him on to go along with Cornelius’s servants and enter into Cornelius’s household and declare the message of salvation (10:10–16). Afterwards, the circumcision party back in Jerusalem criticizes Peter for associating and eating with uncircumcised men (ch. 11). Raising Cornelius and his household from the dead spiritually proves to be a harder thing than raising Tabitha from the dead physically.
Like Jonah, Peter has initial reservations about bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. He wants the glory to stay within Israel. Unlike Jonah, however, Peter learns his lesson. When he understands the meaning of the vision, he goes to Cornelius’s house “without objection” (10:29). The apostle goes from Joppa to Caesarea, bringing a message by which Cornelius and his household are saved, the firstfruits of the Gentiles.
When God showed mercy to Ninevah, Jonah responded in anger: “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jon 3:2–3).
When God showed mercy to Cornelius, Peter replies, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:17).
The leaders of the church in Jerusalem conclude: “Then to Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (11:18).