Commentary on Acts 11:1-18
According to several interpreters, there is an apparent redundancy in this passage.
The Cornelius episode and its effects have been the focus since the beginning of chapter 10. We get the point! God is accepting Gentiles without the requirement that they participate in Judaism.
But this is not just repetition for repetition’s sake. Each time the acceptance of Gentiles is relayed a different aspect shines through, depending on the audience and particular situation. The constant remains, however, in that each telling focuses on God’s initiative through the Spirit and its effects.
We can see in this drawn out telling of Gentile acceptance that the newness that results from the work of the Spirit has several sides and it comes slowly in stages. Peter first experiences the vision from God that overturns the categories of clean and unclean that shaped his existence (Acts 10:1-23). Even the most cherished things are not immune from the newness that results from the resurrection. Then Peter’s realization is verbalized in proclamation to the Gentiles. The effect is not just for Peter to see things differently; it is for the benefit of the Gentiles’ participation in God’s salvation (10:23-48). Not only is Peter changed, but Gentiles’ relationship to God is changed.
Out present pericope is the third wave, slowly eroding away the wall that keeps Gentiles from sharing in the waters of salvation. This time the situation concerns those in Jerusalem, the perceived center of authority of the early church. When Peter comes to Jerusalem, they do not even ask about the Gentiles. They question Peter’s actions: “So you ate a meal together with Gentiles, hmmm?” The indictment is clear. They were concerned with making sure that Peter was acting as a proper Jew, maintaining his identity as one of God’s holy people.
The situation is almost as humorous as it is tragic. For the reader of the narrative, the concern of those in Jerusalem seems to wildly miss the point. The Holy Spirit had just broken down common and unchallenged ethnically and socially based evaluations of humanity, and the “leaders” in Jerusalem are worried that Peter ate in the home of a Gentile. This story puts the reader in a position to recognize the superficiality of the Jerusalemites’ concern. It also suggests that the change does not always begin from the perceived top where one might expect. The perceived authorities are playing catch-up with God’s work.
The Value of Publicly Sharing Experience
Often Peter’s speech is classified as a defense speech or a piece of forensic rhetoric. While formally it may be this, the story also invites us to see Peter’s response as more pastoral than argumentative. There are no fancy theologically-loaded words. He does not argue Scripture with them. He does not argue with their underlying hermeneutical lens. Verse four says that Peter “explained…step by step” his experience of God’s work among the Gentiles. Formally, perhaps it is forensic rhetoric, but the appeal is to experience — his experience of God and of the Gentiles’ reception of the Spirit. “Let me tell you a story…”
In Acts the public sharing of personal experiences of God is a vital part of the ongoing proclamation of the good news. On the one hand, experience of God comes through atypical channels; it does not need the validation of the church leaders. While the overall point of Luke’s story seems to show the positive reception by those in Jerusalem, their agreement is not necessary, just as the Jewish leadership’s agreement was not necessary in Acts 5. Nevertheless, in the story the advancement of God’s work comes through Peter’s witness to his experience. His experience would be of limited value unless he shared it with the rest of the community of faith.
They “Accepted” the Word of God
Peter’s report in this passage is prefaced with the statement, “The Gentiles received the word of God.” Notice also that whereas the Jerusalem leaders were focused on Peter’s actions, Peter draws attention to the activity of God among the Gentiles. He does not explain himself in the face of their accusation; he explains the activity of God.
Both the previous scene in Acts 10 and Peter’s present speech mention “acceptance.” In Acts 10 God “accepts” all who fear God and work justice; here the Gentiles’ receive or “accept” the word of God. The same Greek root is used in both instances. Not only this, but the point of our present pericope seems to be to show the leaders’ own acceptance of God’s new work as well. Both the Gentiles’ acceptance and the leaders’ acceptance of God’s initiative lie at the center of this pericope. But the acceptance means something slightly different for both parties. The Gentiles accept God’s logos that results in their participation in the community of salvation. The leaders accept also this message, but their acceptance comes through accepting the Gentiles as table-fellows, not just mental assent to the truth of the message.
It is a Gift
Peter emphasizes that what both the Gentiles and the Jewish believers hold in common is a gift from God. It is not immediately clear what that gift is. It could be the Holy Spirit; it could be repentance that leads to life; it could be salvation. While the work of the Spirit seems to be the primary referent, I would also suggest all of the above. The giving of the Holy Spirit, of repentance to life, and of salvation relate to each other; to receive one is to receive all. The importance again is on God’s initiative as the gift-giver.
Peter’s witness makes public his personal experience and his experience of others’ faith. Sharing experience in this case transforms and results in the shared glorification of God (11:18). God’s gift for all is not always shared or communicated in high-brow “theologically correct” expressions. They often do not fit established theological categories or come through the typical channels. But they testify to the fundamentally human nature of the way God breaks on through. At its root, the good news is not a universalized theological truth to be believed, but an experience of God that draws us into corporate and shared confession and glorification of God. “Do you know what God has been doing? Let me tell you…”