Commentary on Acts 11:1-18
Since much in Acts 11:1-18 repeats what has already occurred in the preceding narrative (10:1-48), we may be tempted to consider the report as simply demonstrating Luke’s thoroughness as an historian. But this would be a mistake. A characteristic feature of Luke’s writing is his use of direct and indirect discourse—or “character speech”—to focus his recipients’ attention on critical moments in the narrative and to draw out their key implications.
Relatedly, Luke also uses these instances of character speech throughout his account to amplify central dimensions of the Kingdom’s arrival in the ministries of Jesus and his followers. Here, Peter’s recounting of the visions he received and the events in Cornelius’ home emphasizes the boundary-breaking character of God’s redemptive work and the necessity of abandoning those ideologies which are ill-suited to God’s realm.
A watershed moment for the early Church
Luke has been preparing his recipients for the reality that God’s salvation would extend to the Gentiles (for example, Luke 2:29-32; 24:47; Acts 1:8). In the immediately preceding chapters, Luke has brought this dimension of the Kingdom’s arrival squarely into view: the ministry of Philip, Peter and John in Samaria (Acts 8:4-25); Philip’s witness to the Ethiopian eunuch (if the latter is to be seen as non-Israelite; 8:26-39); and Jesus’ description of Paul as “one whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (9:25). What makes the Cornelius episode a notable intensification of this motif is its remarkable length (spanning Acts 10:1-11:18), the detail in its narration, the occurrence of multiple visions from “the Lord,” and the controversy it sparks among the believers in Judea. It is a watershed moment in the expansion of the Church’s ministry and the shape of their community.
Controversy ignited and resolved (for now)
Luke frames this episode and Peter’s speech to focus our attention on contrasting understandings of who belongs in God’s Kingdom, and to show how the controversy created by these contrasting understandings is resolved among the early believers, at least for now. The preceding passage culminates with those in Cornelius’ household believing the good news, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah (10:44-48). Yet while recounting these remarkable events, Luke hints at the conflict to come. The “circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (verse 45). Then, Luke informs us that Peter and the circumcised believers stayed with Cornelius and his family for several days (verse 48).
That concluding statement may strike us as a rather benign detail—one that simply speaks to the newly expanded community Luke often shows resulting from the proclamation and acceptance of the gospel. But Israelites communing with Gentiles—even those who have received the Holy Spirit? That transgresses long-established boundaries deemed fundamental to the vocation of God’s people, Israel. That Gentiles would be gifted with the Holy Spirit, and thus be granted a place in God’s new age, was itself an astonishing development for these Israelite believers! But even more unfathomable to some was the notion that Israelites would share the table with Gentiles.
For as we transition to our passage, news of Gentiles accepting the word of God reaches the believers in Judea (verse 1). We would think this would be cause of both wonderment and celebration! But then Luke shares the almost expected response: “So, when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?!”
Peter’s careful, deliberate reply, recounting “step by step” his vision from God and the events to follow, lead to the key point of his defense: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that could hinder God?” (verse 17). When Peter’s critics hear this, Luke tells us, “they were silenced.” And then the celebration that we might have expected back in verse 1 erupts: “And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”
It may strike us as odd that the “circumcised” believers, including Peter (“By no means, Lord!”), would invest so much importance in distancing themselves from Gentiles. But such purity norms reinforced for Israelites their identity as a people set apart to serve God, to honor God’s Torah, and to receive God’s deliverance. Purity codes for many Israelites, including these circumcised believers, emerged from and reinforced Israelite understandings of how creation, humanity, and daily life were to be ordered, or “mapped out.” In short, purity is about things (objects, food, times, people) in their proper place, as ordained by God.1 The concerns of the uncircumcised believers were not trivial legalisms. They reflected essential elements of their worldview that defined their role and place as the people of God.
And so, what we see depicted in this narrative, at this watershed moment in the church’s young history, is “repentance that leads to life” not only among Gentiles in Cornelius’ household, but also among their circumcised fellow believers in Judea. We witness a miraculous change of heart, inspired by the Lord, that will now infuse the early believers with a radically transformed sense of the kind of community that is possible in God’s new realm. This transformation is far from complete.
Both within and beyond the pages of Acts, the church will continue to struggle with the Spirit’s calling to reframe their sense of who belongs, and how Israelite and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, are to serve and share the table together. These parts of our history call us to join our ancestors in the struggle to map our worlds, ourselves, and others in ways that lead us all more fully into God’s life-giving realm.
- See Karl Allen Kuhn, “Purity: Things in their Proper Place,” Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Reading the Bible in the 21st Century; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018) 89-122.