Commentary on Acts 10:34-43
The first Easter drastically changed how Christians understand God’s activity in the world.
Today’s first reading features a similar paradigm shift in Christians’ understanding, regarding how wide-reaching God’s favor truly is.
I. The literary context: Acts 10:1-11:18
Our reading occurs within the larger narrative episode surrounding Cornelius (10:1-11:18), which Beverly Gaventa calls “the climactic moment of the first half of Acts.”1 The extensive length of the story and its surprising number of repetitions (e.g., 10:28-29, 30-32, 11:4-17) both imply the profound significance of the episode. The central discovery of the episode is stated at its close: “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (11:18). Despite the particular issues of table fellowship (10:28; 11:3), baptism (10:47-48), and circumcision (11:3), the Spirit’s manifestation confirms the overall point: God has accepted Gentiles alongside Jewish believers (10:45-47; 11:18).
II. The text at hand: Acts 10:34-43
Today’s reading features Peter’s message to the gathered household of Cornelius. After opening exchanges (10:24-33), Peter addresses directly the context at hand:
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34b-35).
The Greek is bolder about God’s lack of partiality: “God is not a partiality-shower (lit. ‘face-taker,’ prosopolemptes).” The concept appears elsewhere in Scripture regarding God’s lack of favoritism toward the rich and powerful (Deuteronomy 10:17; Lev 19:15; 2 Chronicles 9:17; Psalm 82:2; Sirach 35:15-16; Colossians 3:25; Ephesians 6:9; James 2:1, 9), but applying this same language to Jew-Gentile distinctions is quite new (also in Romans 2:11). The next verse only accentuates this meaning: “in every nation anyone who fears … is acceptable to him” (v. 35). The language of “acceptable” (dektos) is rare in Luke-Acts, and first occurs to describe the nature of Jesus’ ministry as “the year of the Lord’s acceptance (dektos),” (Luke 4:19, my translation; cf. 4:24). As these factors show, Peter’s message opens with one of the boldest declarations in Luke-Acts about the nature of God’s favor toward non-Jews.
Due to convoluted phrasing, translations render verses 36-37 in various ways. But two focal points in the text clearly emerge: God’s message entails “preaching peace by Jesus Christ,” and this Jesus “is Lord of all” (v. 36). Both points would have sound spoken loudly to hearers within the Roman Empire. The phrase “preaching peace” (euangelizomenos eirenen, lit. “proclaiming the good news of peace”) uses language employed elsewhere in association with Roman emperors (“good news” and “peace” regarding Augustus’s birth, OGIS 2:458; cf. Luke 2:14). Even more, the phrase “Lord of all” implies the inferiority of all rival lords, both human and divine (Epictetus calls Caesar “lord of all” in Discourses 4.1.12; Pindar calls Zeus the same in Isthmian 5.53). These parallels would be striking to a centurion of a leading cohort in the Roman army (Acts 10:1). However, Roman rulers are not the only rivals on the horizon: Peter’s speech later recalls how Jesus’ ministry confronted the oppressive power of the devil (Acts 10:38), a cosmic foe still at large in Acts (13:8-13; 26:18; cf. 19:11-20).2
The rest of Peter’s message (Acts 10:37-43) summarizes Jesus’ ministry, passion, and resurrection (vv. 37-38, 39b-41). Peter also emphasizes how Jesus’ followers are now witnesses (vv. 39, 41) called to testify — with ancient prophets — that he is both judge of all and source of forgiveness for believers (vv. 42-43). In fact, verses 37-43 spotlight major themes from Luke-Acts: John’s baptism, the Spirit’s presence, the devil’s oppression, the apostles’ testimony, Jesus’ resurrection, and the fulfillment of scripture. These verses summarize the highlights of Luke’s story about Jesus so that the audience in Cornelius’s home may hear the story authentically.
In the lectionary, Acts 10:34-43 appears most notably on Resurrection Sunday, and on that day is hardly the focal text.3 But this story’s contributions are not only independently profound, they are complementary to the message of Easter.
First, more directly than anywhere else in Luke-Acts (and arguably the New Testament), Acts 10:34-35 declares that “in every nation” God shows no favoritism to particular peoples. For a church now overwhelmingly Gentile that holds dear an Easter story entirely about Jewish characters, this is no small detail. For our benefit Peter’s message proclaims: God does not play favorites.
Second, the passage declares “he is Lord of all,” using politically- and religiously-charged language (kyrios, “lord”) to claim Jesus’ lordship over earthly and supernatural forces. In this way Acts 10:34-43 makes explicit what the resurrection story only implies: Jesus is Lord over all things — death, the devil, and all the forces that defy God.
Third, the message of Jesus is powerful. Just outside the bounds of our first reading, Peter’s message is interrupted by an unexpected guest: the Holy Spirit (vv. 44-45). Although the narrative of Acts complicates a formulaic relationship between the proclaimed message and the Spirit’s presence, the Spirit’s advent at several occasions (e.g., 2:37; 10:44) implies there is a mysterious power about the message of Jesus.
Whereas today’s Gospel reading states “he is risen,” our first reading declares boldly a message no less profound: “he is Lord of all.”
2 On this topic, see Susan Garrett, The Demise of the Devil: Magic and the Demonic in Luke’s Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989).
3 It also occurs as the second (epistle) reading on the Baptism of our Lord during Year A.