Peter's Vision

God has gone way out in front of them

Saint Peter with the keys of the church.
Photo by tommao wang on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

April 23, 2023

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Commentary on Acts 10:1-17, 34-35

Peter’s vision, which sets in motion events leading to the inclusion of Gentiles among the followers of Jesus, is the most important turning point in the book of Acts and in the story of the early church. Because of these events, those of us who are Gentiles are welcomed into a relationship with the God of Israel.

The story fittingly follows Easter, since the resurrection of Jesus Christ leads to Pentecost and the fulfillment of God’s promise that “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:16). In his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is established as “Lord of all,” as Peter proclaims (10:36), and the promise made in Jesus’ infancy that he would be “a light to the nations” begins to be fulfilled.

However, none of this is a foregone conclusion, and for Jesus’ first followers, it would have been unthinkable that salvation would be offered to Gentiles. After Pentecost the mission of God does begin to expand—first to the detested people of Samaria (Acts 8:4-13), and then to the Ethiopian eunuch, a marginal member of the people of Israel (8:26-40)—but the idea that this mission would go beyond these groups would be far from Peter’s mind. Luke spends so much time on this story, repeating elements of it several times in Acts 10, recounting it again in Acts 11, and returning to it once more in Acts 15, not only to emphasize the story’s importance but also to show how Peter, and then the rest of the church in Jerusalem, slowly begin to grasp the sea change that is taking place as the Gospel is opened to the Gentiles.

The story emphasizes that this transformation was not orchestrated or even desired by the disciples; rather, it was God who was behind it all. God’s desire for the Gentiles to be included in the salvation brought by Christ moves all the action in this story. Peter struggles to catch up with what God is doing, and to overcome his resistance to the unimaginable change unfolding. This pericope is often called “the conversion of Cornelius,” but it could equally be called, “the conversion of Peter,” since in the space of four days Peter’s entire worldview is transformed. Those who encounter the disciples describe them as “turning the world upside down,” (Acts 17:6) but in doing so the disciples’ own world gets upended by the Holy Spirit.

For Peter, the transformation begins with a vision of clean and unclean animals being lowered from heaven, being told to eat them, refusing, and hearing a voice telling him that what God has made clean he must not call profane. This command violates the laws he has been taught, so he is puzzled and cannot stop thinking about the vision. His world is shifting, but he does not yet understand what God is about. Then strangers, Gentiles, appear at his door, sent by the Spirit, summoning him to come speak to the Gentile centurion Cornelius. Here Peter does something amazing: he invites these messengers into his home. Already a mingling of Jew and Gentile is happening, people being together against the strictures of the culture. Peter is starting to change; already the vision is working on him.

A next step toward transformation happens when Peter enters Cornelius’s house. Even as he declares that this boundary-crossing is “unlawful,” Peter quotes the voice from his vision telling him not to call anything unclean. This is another leap in Peter’s understanding: he discerns that God’s message is connected to the otherwise baffling fact that he is standing in a Gentile home. Peter is starting to get it, but still he asks, “why did you send for me?”

Once Peter hears Cornelius’ story, he arrives at a new insight, best translated as: “I am beginning to grasp that God shows no partiality.” It is dawning on him that these righteous Gentiles might deserve to have the Gospel preached to them, which he proceeds to do, and that they might believe in Christ and so receive the forgiveness of sins. But it still does not occur to him that they could become part of the church.

Then comes the biggest surprise: the Holy Spirit interrupts Peter’s sermon and falls upon his Gentile hearers, and they begin speaking in tongues, just as the disciples did at Pentecost. The presence of the Spirit is unmistakable, astounding the disciples. God has gone way out in front of them, making it clear that the Good News of Christ is for all nations. The standard practice is that new converts were baptized by the disciples, and then received the Holy Spirit. But here the order of things is reversed: the Holy Spirit acts unilaterally to draw these Gentiles in, and then it is up to the church to recognize what the Spirit is doing and baptize them. Peter finally grasps that this is what God wants, and orders it to be done.

The most shocking part of this story is what happens next: Peter stays with Cornelius for several days. This intimacy with Gentiles would have been unthinkable to him a few days earlier; accepting their hospitality is the consummate sign of the great shift that has happened.

Since we know how this story ends, we might think that Peter ought to have understood from the beginning what God was up to, but that would be to underestimate the social norms that divided Jews and Gentiles. Rather, Peter should get credit for allowing himself to be led by the Spirit into this transformed understanding of who the Gospel was for. At every stage, although he does not understand what is happening, he follows the Spirit’s guidance faithfully, even if it means transgressing his own religious norms. He allows God to completely overturn his sense of who ought to be part of the Jesus movement.

The question for us is whether we are open to being so radically changed as Peter was. Can we pay attention to the voice of the Spirit, even when it is telling us to do something unimaginable, to widen the boundaries of our communities beyond what we are comfortable with, to give and receive hospitality with those who seem much too “other” for us to consider communion with them?


God of all nations, you made it clear that all people are invited to partake of the glory of your salvation. Help us to invite all people to your goodness, so that no one might be forgotten in your saving grace. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.


Just a closer walk with thee ELW 697
Rock of ages, clefts for me ELW 623
Create in me a clean heart ELW 188/Various
I want Jesus to walk with me ELW 325, UMH 521, NCH 490


Just a closer walk, arr. Stan Pethel