Commentary on Acts 10:34-43
This text is part of a much longer story about Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Both the historical and the literary contexts are important to understand its significance.
The story begins in the coastal city of Caesarea — a seaport built by Herod the Great and named for Caesar Augustus. After 6 CE, when the Romans deposed Herod’s son Archelaus and sent a Roman prefect to rule over Judea, Caesarea became the seat of Roman government in Judea with a considerable Roman military presence.
In this city lives a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Roman occupying army, a division known as the Italian Cohort. A centurion was a professional officer in the Roman army, the commander of a group of about 100 soldiers. Nothing more is said about Cornelius’ military career. Instead, this Gentile military officer is described as being a devout man who feared God, who gave alms generously, and prayed constantly to God (Acts 10:1-2). Later in the story, he is described as “an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation” (10:22).
Cornelius is among a group of Gentiles that Acts calls “God-fearers,” Gentiles who were associated with a synagogue, participated in Jewish worship and prayers, and even supported the synagogue financially. In order to become full-fledged proselytes of Judaism, however, these Gentiles would have to follow all of the commandments of the law of Moses, including circumcision for men. It seems that there were few Gentiles willing to go that far.
One place where this became an issue among the faithful was in table fellowship. Unless Gentiles were willing to adopt all of the Mosaic laws about food preparation and which foods were clean and unclean, Jews could not eat with them. In fact, Jews were not even allowed to enter Gentile homes so that they would not become “unclean.”
Knowing all of this makes what happens in this story of Peter and Cornelius all the more astonishing. One afternoon while praying, Cornelius sees a vision in which an angel of God tells him to send for a man named Peter who is staying in Joppa. While Cornelius’ men are on their way to Joppa to find Peter, Peter is praying on the roof of the home where he is staying. He falls into a trance and sees a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven with all kinds of animals on it, both clean and unclean. He hears a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat” (10:13).
Peter is shocked. On this sheet he sees all kinds of animals that he has learned from birth are not to be eaten. “By no means, Lord,” Peter says, “for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice speaks again and says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times, and the sheet is taken back up into heaven (10:14-16).
Just as Peter is puzzling about what to make of this strange vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrive, ask for Peter, and tell him about Cornelius’ vision. Peter and some of the other believers go with these men to Caesarea, where Cornelius has gathered a large group of family and friends to hear what Peter has to say. But first Peter listens to Cornelius tell his story, and as he listens, the meaning of his own vision becomes clear. Peter believes that God has shown him that he should not consider anyone unclean.
This is where our text begins. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” Peter says, “but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (10:34-35). He then proceeds to tell Cornelius and his household the story of Jesus, emphasizing God’s action through Jesus and the universality of his mission, for “he is Lord of all” (10:36). Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; although he was put to death, God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear to certain witnesses, who are now sent to proclaim the promise of forgiveness to all who believe (10:37-43).
Unfortunately, our text stops here, with Peter wrapping up his short sermon. But what happens next amazes everyone and is crucial to understanding this story: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” (10:44-45).
The most astonishing “conversion” in this story is that of Peter and his companions regarding their understanding of how God is at work. These Jewish believers understood Jesus to be the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. It is not that they didn’t think Gentiles could become part of the family of faith — Jews welcomed Gentile converts. What astounds them is that the Holy Spirit and the gift of faith came to these Gentiles without them first becoming Jews, without them being circumcised and adopting the law of Moses. The Holy Spirit has been poured out on them just as they are — as Gentiles. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter asks (10:47). The assumed answer, of course, is a resounding “No!” Cornelius and his household are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (10:48).
This is a major turning point in the book of Acts and in the history of the church. One of the next big questions to work out is this: If Gentiles are becoming part of God’s people without first becoming Jews, what does this mean for table fellowship? Can Jews and Gentiles eat together? It took many years and struggles for the early church to work this one out. The conclusion eventually reached was that yes, Jews and Gentiles can eat together. However, this required Jewish believers giving up long-standing taboos in order to welcome strangers to the table. Gentile Christians everywhere are beneficiaries of that bold new direction the early church took, that daring step forward in mission under the prodding and leading of the Holy Spirit.
One direction a sermon might take is to ask, where is the Spirit leading us today? What strangers is the Spirit calling us to welcome? Do we welcome only those who are already like us, or who are willing to become like us? Or are we willing to be changed for the sake of welcoming new people and new generations? Are we willing to loosen our grip on long standing, dearly held traditions, that may present obstacles to welcoming others to the table?
Another direction might be to focus on the fact that this story of Peter and Cornelius is a genuine dialogue. Peter tells Cornelius about Jesus only after listening to Cornelius and hearing how God has already been working in his life. Peter’s listening helps him to understand the vision he was given on the rooftop and to discern the new thing that God is doing.
It is, after all, about what God is doing. The Spirit is always way ahead of us, just as the Spirit was way ahead of Peter, working in the lives of Cornelius and his household long before Peter showed up or had a clue what God was up to. The Spirit blows where it wills, often breaking down barriers long thought indestructible and opening up new possibilities for drawing all people into God’s loving embrace.
April 16, 2017