The radical advance of a radical gospel (preaching resource for 1/8/23)
This post exegetes Acts 9:32-11:18 providing context for one of the RCL readings for 1/8/23. This exegesis draws on multiple resources including commentary from John Stott and F.F. Bruce.
|"St. Peter and Cornelius the Centurian" by Cavalino (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
In the pericope that spans Acts 9:32-11:18, Luke tells the story of the radical advance of a radical gospel—good news for all people, including Gentiles. To the Jewish Christians led by Peter, this was a radical concept indeed. And Luke chooses to tell the story from Peter’s perspective—for indeed, the Holy Spirit used Peter to open the door of the gospel to the Gentile world—an opening that came through a Roman Centurian names Cornelius and his family.
In examining this pericope, we remember that Jesus had given Peter 'the keys of the kingdom' (Mt.16:19). Peter had already been used by the Holy Spirit to open the kingdom to Jews on the Day of Pentecost and then to Samaritans soon afterwards. Now he is to use these keys again to open the kingdom to Gentiles. He does so by evangelizing and baptizing Cornelius, the first Gentile convert.
From this story we learn to confront our own prejudices—our own narrow views of the gospel. And we learn to reach out beyond our own comfort zones with boldness and courage—following the Holy Spirit where he leads us in advancing the gospel in our world.
Luke tells this story in five vignettes—each centered on Christ working by the Holy Spirit in and through Peter.
Peter’s ministry is authenticated (9:32-43)
Peter is introduced as he *traveled about the country* (32a). His purpose was not only to preach the gospel, but also *to visit the saints* (32b), in order to teach and encourage them. On one such tour, two incidents took place. In Lydda, about twelve miles south-east of Joppa, there lived a man named Aeneas, who had been paralyzed and *bedridden for eight years* (33). In Joppa there lived a woman named Tabitha (Dorcas in Greek), whom Luke describes as *a disciple...who was always doing good and helping the poor* (36). But she *became sick and died* (37). By the way in which Luke records these two sets of miracles, it is evident that his purpose is to authenticate Peter as a true apostle of Jesus Christ. Four factors support this suggestion:
1. Both miracles followed the example of Jesus
Aeneas is reminiscent of that other paralytic, who lived in Capernaum. As Jesus had said to him, 'Get up, take your mat and go home,' (Mk.2:11) so Peter said to Aeneas, 'Get up and tidy up your mat' (34). And the raising of Tabitha recalls the raising of Jairus' daughter. Because the people were weeping noisily. Peter 'sent them all out of the room', just as Jesus had done. Further, the words spoken to the dead person were almost identical. Indeed as several commentators have pointed out, if Peter spoke Aramaic on this occasion, only a single letter would have been different, for Jesus had said *Talitha koum!* (Mk.5:41, 'Little girl, get up!'), whereas Peter would have said *Tabitha koum!* (40).
2. Both miracles were performed by the power of Jesus
Peter knew that he could not overcome disease and death by his own authority or power. So he did not attempt to do so. Instead, to the paralyzed, bedridden Aeneas he said. 'Jesus Christ heals you' (34), while before addressing the dead Tabitha 'he got down on his knees and prayed' (40), a detail which must have come from Peter, since nobody else was present.
3. Both miracles were signs of the salvation of Jesus
Because of his confidence in the power of Christ, Peter dared to address the deceased man and the dead woman with the same word of command: *anastethi*, 'Get up!' (34, 40). Yet *anistemi* is the verb used of God raising Jesus, which can hardly have been an accident. This is not to forget that Tabitha was 'resuscitated' to her old life (only to die again), whereas Jesus was 'resurrected' to a new life (never to die again). It is rather to point out that recovery from paralysis and resuscitation from death were both visible signs of that new life into which by the power of the resurrection we sinners are raised.
4. Both miracles redounded to the glory of Jesus
When Aeneas was healed, *all those who lived in Lydda and Sharon* (the coastal plain) *saw him and turned to the Lord* (35). Similarly, when Tabitha was restored to life, *this became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord* (42). In accordance with the purpose of the signs, which was to authenticate and illustrate the salvation message of the apostle, people heard the word, saw the signs, and believed.
Cornelius sends for Peter (10:1-8)
Peter has responded boldly to the challenge of sickness and death—but how will he respond to the challenge of racial discrimination? Luke may be hinting at Peter’s openness to this challenge by ending the story of Aeneas and Tabitha with the information that 'Peter stayed in Joppa with a tanner named Simon' (9:43). For, since tanners worked with dead animals, in order to convert their skin into leather, they were regarded as ceremonially unclean. But Peter disregarded this, which seems to show that he was already in a state of mind which would fit him for the further revelation of the next chapter, and for the instructions to go and baptize the Gentile Cornelius.
Cornelius was stationed at Caesarea, the administrative capital of the province of Judea, boasting a splendid harbor built by Herod the Great. Luke introduces him as *a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment* (1). In addition, *he and all his family* were *devout*, their godliness being expressed both in generosity to the needy and in regular prayer to God (2). By calling Cornelius, 'God-fearing' probably means that he was what was called a 'proselyte of the gate'—a non-Jew who had accepted the monotheism and ethical standards of the Jews, and attended synagogue services, but had not become a full proselyte and been circumcised. So, although later (22) he is described as 'respected by all the Jewish people', he was still a Gentile, an outsider, excluded from God's covenant with Israel.
It is difficult for us to grasp the impassable gulf which existed in those days between Jews and Gentiles (including even 'God-fearers'). The Jews had become filled with racial pride and hatred and despised Gentiles as 'dogs'—developing traditions which kept them separate from Gentiles. No orthodox Jew would ever enter the home of a Gentile, even a God-fearer, or invite such into his home (see verse 28). No pious Jew would sit down at the table of a Gentile.
This then was the entrenched prejudice which had to be overcome before Gentiles could be admitted into the Christian community on equal terms with the Jews, and before the church could become a truly multi-racial, multi-cultured society. We saw in Acts 8 the special steps God took to prevent the perpetuation of the Jewish-Samaritan schism in the church; how would he prevent a Jewish-Gentile schism? Luke regards this episode as being so important that he narrates it twice, first in his own words (Acts 10), and then in Peter's when the latter explained to the Jerusalem church what had happened (11:1-18).
It is first made clear that Peter is to be God's instrument in this development, for Cornelius was instructed to send for him. *One day at about three in the afternoon*, which Luke has already identified as a time of prayer among Jews (3:1), *he had a vision* in which *he distinctly saw* an angel who called him by name (3). In response to his terrified question, the angel told him that his *prayers and gifts to the poor* had *come up as a memorial offering before God* (4), so that he had taken note of them, and that he must *send men to Joppa*, about thirty-two miles along the coast to the south, to fetch Simon Peter who was staying *by the sea* with Simon the tanner (5-6). It was at Joppa, centuries previously, that the disobedient prophet Jonah had boarded a ship in his foolish attempt to run away from God (Jon.1:13). But Cornelius the centurion, who was himself used to giving commands, immediately obeyed this one, sending two servants and one soldier to Joppa (7-8). The angel did not preach the gospel to the centurion; that privilege was to be entrusted to the apostle Peter.
This initial incident set the stage for what followed. For the primary question was how God would deal with Peter. How would he succeed in breaking down Peter's deep-seated racial intolerance? The principal subject of this chapter is not so much the conversion of Cornelius as the transformation of Peter.
Peter receives a vision (10:9-23)
On the *following day* after Cornelius' vision , *at about noon* (i.e. twenty-one hours later), even as Cornelius' men *were approaching the city* of Joppa, Peter *went up on the* flat roof of the tanner's house *to pray*(9). *He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance* (10) and had an extraordinary vision. *He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to the earth by its four corners* (11). The main point of his vision was what the sheet *contained*, namely *all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air* (12), evidently a mixture of clean and unclean creatures calculated to disgust any orthodox Jew. Yet, having seen the vision, he now heard *a voice* which issued the shocking order: '*Get up, Peter. Kill and eat*' (13). *'Surely not, Lord!' Peter replied*, adding '*I have never eaten anything impure or unclean'* (14). So *the voice spoke to him a second time, 'Do not call anything impure that God has made clean'* (15). After this it seems that the whole vision of the sheet was repeated *three times, immediately* after which *the sheet was taken back to heaven* (16).
The vision itself left Peter confused. But *while he was wondering (RSV, 'inwardly perplexed') about the meaning of the vision,* the delegation *sent by Cornelius found out where Simon's house was and stopped at the gate* (17). *They called out, asking if Simon who was know as Peter was staying there* (18). Then, *while Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him* (in some direct, unmistakable way), '*Simon, three men are looking for you (19). So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I [the Spirit] have sent them'* (20). The key expression *meden diakrinomenos* in 10:20 and *meden diakrinanta* in (11:12), is usually translated 'without hesitation' (RSV) or 'without misgiving' (JBP, NEB), but it could mean 'making no distinction' (11:12, RSV), that is, 'making no gratuitous, invidious distinction between Jew and Gentile'. Thus although the vision challenged the basic distinction between clean and unclean foods, which Peter had been brought up to make, the Spirit related this to the distinction between clean and unclean people, and told him to stop making it. That Peter grasped this is clear from his later statement: 'God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean' (28).
So *Peter went down and said to the men* who had come from Cornelius: '*I'm the one you are looking for. Why have you come?'* (21). *The men replied, 'We are 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* (22). At this *Peter invited the three men into the house to be his guests* (23a). This seems to mean that he gave them a night's lodging' (NEB), even though they were uncircumcised Gentiles.
We note how perfectly God dovetailed his working in Cornelius and in Peter. For while Peter was praying and seeing his vision, the men from Cornelius were approaching the city (9-16); while Peter was perplexed about the meaning of what he had seen, they arrived at his house (17-18); while Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit told him that the men were looking for him and he must not hesitate to go with them (19-20); and when Peter went down and introduced himself to them, they explained to him the purpose of their visit (21-23).
Peter preaches to Cornelius' household (10:23b-48)
The next day, Peter and his entourage set out north along the coastal road to Caesarea. They were a party of ten, the three Gentiles from Cornelius, Peter himself and *some of the brothers from Joppa* (23b), who numbered six (11:12). If they went on foot, it must have taken them a good nine or ten hours, apart from stops. So it was the following day that they reached their destination. They found a considerable company awaiting them, for *Cornelius was expecting them* and had assembled not only his personal household but also *his relatives and close friends* (24). His spiritual humility and receptivity may be judged from the fact that, *as Peter entered the house*, he 'threw himself at his feet - as if he were a heavenly visitant'. It was an inappropriate gesture, however. Peter *made him get up*, affirming that he himself was only a man.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Peter had just now repudiated both extreme and opposite attitudes which human beings have sometimes adopted towards one another. He had come to see that it was entirely inappropriate either to worship somebody as if divine (which Cornelius had tried to do to him) or to reject somebody as if unclean (which he would previously have done to Cornelius). Peter refused both to be treated by Cornelius as if he were a God, and to treat Cornelius as if he were a dog.
Peter went on to say that, having been sent for, he had come, *without raising any objection* (29). Why, then, had Cornelius sent for him?
In reply, Cornelius told the story of his vision of the angel (30-33). He then thanked Peter for coming and added: *Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us* (33). It was a remarkable acknowledgement that they were in God's presence, that the apostle Peter was to be the bearer of God's word to them, and that they were all ready and open to listen.
*Peter began* his sermon with a solemn personal statement of what he had learned through his experiences of the previous few days. He stated it both negatively and positively. First, '*I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism'* (34). Peter's statement means that God's attitude to people is not determined by any external criteria, such as their appearance, race, nationality or class. Instead, and positively God *accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right* (35). Better, and more literally, 'in every nation whoever fears God and works righteousness is acceptable (*dektos*) to him'. This does not mean ‘acceptable’ in the sense of ‘saved’—rather it means that Cornelius' Gentile nationality was acceptable so that he had no need to become a Jew. Peter will soon teach him the necessity of faith for salvation.
After this introduction, Luke summarizes Peter's sermon (36-43) which centered on the gospel—the message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and on the salvation God offers through Jesus. This salvation is, indeed, for all, for *everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name* (43). This 'everyone' includes Gentiles as well as Jews.
As Cornelius, his family, relatives, friends and servants listened, their hearts were opened to grasp and believe Peter's message, and so to repent and believe in Jesus. Then, *while Peter was still speaking these words the Holy Spirit came on all* those Gentiles *who heard the message* and believed (44), which was the condition Peter had just mentioned (43). The small group of Jewish Christians *(circumcised believers) who had come with Peter* was *astonished* ('absolutely amazed', JBP) *that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles* (45), whom they had regarded as uncircumcised outsiders. But they could not deny the evidence of their eyes and ears, *for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God* (46), as had happened on the Day of Pentecost. Indeed, this event has often been referred to as the Gentile Pentecost.
Peter was quick to draw the inevitable deduction. Since God had accepted these Gentile believers, which indeed he had (15:8), the church must accept them too. Since God had baptized them with his Spirit (11:16), '*Can anyone keep [them] from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have'* (47). How could the sign be denied to those who had already received the reality signified? So Peter *ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then*, having been welcomed into God's household, *they asked Peter to stay with them* in their household *for a few days* (48), no doubt in order to nurture them in their new faith and life. The gift of the Spirit was insufficient; they needed human teachers too. And Peter's acceptance of their hospitality demonstrated the new Jewish-Gentile solidarity which Christ had established.
Peter defends his actions (11:1-18)
The news that *the Gentiles also had received the word of God* spread far and wide. *The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea* heard about it. It was understandable that they were concerned, though *Peter went up to Jerusalem* of his own accord (2). On arrival there, *the circumcised believers criticized him* for having entered *the house of uncircumcised men* and having eaten with them (3). Peter replied with a clear defense of what had transpired (4-17). In giving this defense, Peter concludes that God had now welcomed believing Gentiles into his family on equal terms with believing Jews. If Peter had been convinced by the evidence, so now was the Jerusalem church: *they had no further objections* (literally, 'they remained silent') *and praised God.* As F.F. Bruce puts it, 'their criticism ceased; their worship began'. And they had good reason to glorify God for, they concluded, *God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life* (11:18).
This pericope speaks powerfully to us in the 21st century church in a number of ways. Following are some possible applications.
1. The unity of the church
Since God did not make distinctions between people groups in forming the church, we must not do so today. We must be vigilant to avoid setting up distinctions that God has torn down—it is a constant battle, just as it was for Peter, who despite his experiences recounted in this passage later had a bad lapse in Antioch, where he withdrew from fellowship with believing Gentiles and had to be publicly opposed by Paul (Gal.2:11ff). And throughout the history of the early church, the ‘circumcision party’ continued their racist propaganda, and the Council of Jerusalem had to be called to settle the issue (Acts 15).
Yet the ugly sin of discrimination has continued to reappear in the church, in the form of racism (color prejudice), nationalism ('my country, right or wrong'), tribalism, social and cultural snobbery, and sexism (discriminating against women). All such discrimination is inexcusable in Christian community because it is offensive to human dignity and is blasphemy because God accepts without discrimination all who repent and believe.
2. The gift of the Spirit
Luke gives significant prominence in this passage to how the Holy Spirit works in all believers (without distinction). All believers receive the gift of the Spirit (10:45, 47; 11:17)—which is also referred to as being 'baptized' with the Spirit (11:16). Cornelius’ water baptism signified and sealed his total salvation (11:14) which God had given him, including both the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit (10:43, 45), as on the Day of Pentecost (2:38).
3. The power of the gospel
Luke has now recounted the conversions of both Saul and Cornelius. The differences between these two men were considerable. In race Saul was a Jew, Cornelius a Gentile; in culture Saul was a scholar, Cornelius a soldier; in religion Saul was a bigot, Cornelius a seeker. Yet both were converted by the gracious initiative of God; both received forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit; and both were baptized and welcomed into the Christian family on equal terms. This fact is a vital testimony to the power and impartiality of the gospel of Christ, which is still 'the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile' (Rom. 1:16).