Commentary on Acts 11:1-18
Peter and Cornelius and Trouble in Jerusalem
This lesson for the 5th Sunday of Easter is the concluding episode of the narrative of Peter and
Cornelius that starts at the beginning of chapter 10. It is one of the longest stories of Luke-Acts and thus also one of the longest in the New Testament. Luke spends much energy on this story and writes with carefully chosen and artfully woven words that underscore its significance.
It will be important for the preacher to read the whole of the narrative to catch its development toward its climactic conclusion, which is surely programmatic in the grand sweep of the story of Luke-Acts. As many have noted, and as is explicitly stated in the text (see 11:15; “the Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us”; see also 10:47), this story is for Christian mission to “all nations,” the authorizing outpouring of the Spirit. In addition, the reader is invited to see the introductory comments on the lesson from Acts for the 2nd Sunday of Easter for a summary of perspectives and themes of Luke-Acts and the witness to the resurrection that provide background and setting for this lesson and for the Sundays of Easter.
“Even to the Gentiles?”
Literarily, though part of the much longer Peter-Cornelius narrative, 11:1-18 is marked as a unit by the parallel phrases that frame it and at the same time focus its significance–this story is about the coming of the “word of God” “even to the Gentiles.” The surprise and wonder, couched in the key word “even” are an important motif for Luke (the NRSV thus gets it wrong in verse 1, but right in verse 18; see also 26:20, 23), especially when linked to the central message of the power and promise of God’s word for salvation (see Luke 1:37: “all God’s words/promises are possible”; and see Acts 11:14 below where the same Greek “word” or “promise” is used as in Luke 1:37; Greek: rhema, used a total of thirty three times in Luke-Acts, and nine times in the birth narrative alone).
Important also in the framing of the story is the surprising transformation and distance that stands between the “hearing” of verse 1 and that of verse 18. In verse 1, the hearing leads not to rejoicing, but to the Jerusalem community’s accusatory criticism of Peter’s questionable actions of associating with and eating with people who were not circumcised (11:2-3). In verse 18 the “hearing” is one in which the criticisms have been silenced, and leads rather to praise of God who has “given even to the Gentiles, the repentance that leads to life.”
The Gospel on Trial
Between this beginning and ending, in verses 4 through 17, Peter answers the charges by narrating “step by step” each detail of the experience. Peter is on trial here, and he is careful to include details of his and Cornelius’ respective visions. He reports his careful examination of the sheet, noting three times that its origin was “from heaven.” Numbers are important here and give confirmation of the significance of this event. Even though potentially embarrassing, Peter fesses up to the fact that it took three times for him to get the point–the vision of the sheet, the instructions to “kill and eat,” his reluctant “No way,” and the answering voice from heaven: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Now he gets it. And so it is significant in the Peter-Cornelius narrative that this is now the fourth time that the vision of Cornelius is told (10:1-8, 22-23, 30-33), but it is the first time that Peter himself tells it. Now also for the first time Peter puts that vision of Cornelius together with his own vision of the sheet and thus, links them in his own perception of God’s design and purpose.
With scripture-sounding language Peter tells how “behold”, “three men” are “immediately” at the door, “commissioned” to send for him. Important for Peter’s argument is his assertion that he goes at the direction of the Spirit of God, who charges him to go without any hesitation (11:12; the NRSV’s “not to make a distinction” is surely wrong; see 10:29), though Peter takes along six brothers for support. Peter admits that even the content of his preaching is provided by the Spirit through these messengers who marvelously already anticipate the “words of promise by which Cornelius and his whole house will be saved!” (11:14; see Luke 3:6: “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”).
In fact, Peter now recognizes that the Spirit is way out ahead of him in all this salvation business. Though he did not recognize it as the events took place and even as he laid out the story of God’s forgiving love (see 10:43-44), now he recognizes that the Spirit was present in these events from the beginning. The Spirit did not wait upon Peter to finish his sermon. Nor is it ever the preacher who is in control of the power of the word.
What Power Did I Have?
Instead, the preacher Peter remembers, just like the women at the resurrection (Luke 24:8) that the power rests in the word and promise of God. That remembrance leads to the culminating piece of the argument. It comes in the form of a condition intended to silence the opposition with its now apparent truth. “If God gave them the same gift as to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then what power did I have to stand in the way of God?” (11:17; a more accurate translation than that of the NRSV).
The argument here in the original Greek is in the form of a condition of fact, impossible to show clearly in English. It underscores the reality of the conclusion. It is a done deal. The argument is as persuasive as the experience of the Spirit’s presence. The opposition is silenced; only the praise of God remains. It is a question of power, after all, and the power belongs to God. God has decided to give the gift of faith and the repentance that leads to life that accompanies it.
Finally, in the context of the power of the resurrection promise, that last phrase is important. When the church here evaluates its mission, it reconfirms what has been true from the beginning. This is God’s mission. It is not just absolution, but repentance itself that is the gift of God (see Luke 1:17; 3:3,8; 5:32; 15:7; and especially 24:47 as well as Acts 5:31). This is the key to the transforming power that this story and the message of Easter hold in store for all who hear and believe its promise.