Commentary on Acts 10:34-43
Julia Foote (1823-1900) a nineteenth-century black female preacher wrote in her autobiography:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, for this wonderful salvation, that snatched me as a brand from the burning, even me, a poor, ignorant girl! And will he not do for all what he did for me? Yes, yes; God is no respecter of person.”1 The truth that God shows no favoritism gave hope to a black woman familiar with slavery’s dehumanization of the black race, the racism that prohibited her from receiving communion before all whites had been served, and the ecclesial dogma that declared that God did not call women to preach. In our text Peter’s proclamation that God is no respecter of persons is not a new truth. According to a literal translation of Exodus 10:18 in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), God does not marvel at the face (ou thaumazei prosopon, usually rendered “shows no partiality”) and God receives no gift (bribe). We find similar wording at Acts 10:38: “God is not a face-receiver” (prosopolemptes).
Both the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament have analogous grammatical constructions that are rendered “respecter of persons” or “favoritism” in English translations. God does not receive the face. God is not persuaded to act for good or evil based on the outward appearance that human beings see or receive when they encounter one another. The face refers to physical characteristics and to generally humanly determinable distinctions such as ethnicity, gender, age, and race. While God has always been known as a God who does not receive the face, God had to convince Peter of the relevancy of this truth for his ministry in a diverse world. It is easy, safe, and comfortable to hold abstract truths about inclusivity and justice absent the challenge of concretely practicing or incarnating such truths where we live, work, and minister.
The God who raised Jesus is a boundary-crossing God
Cornelius was no ordinary Gentile; he was a Godfearer. He diligently prayed to God, contributed to the poor, and enjoyed a good reputation among the Jews (10:2, 22). Cornelius is not the first Godfearer we encounter in Acts. The Ethiopian eunuch is also a Godfearer. In chapter 8, the eunuch is returning from Jerusalem and is sitting in his carriage reading Isaiah when the Spirit tells Philip to join the eunuch. After discovering that the eunuch does not understand what he is reading, Philip explains to him the Christological meaning of the passage.
Instructively, Philip did not need a vision about favoritism prior to his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. This may be because their meeting takes place on a public road and not in the home of a Godfearer. Differently, Peter’s meeting with Cornelius took place in Cornelius’ home. It appears that God knew Peter would need more convincing to cross the boundary line that prohibited Jews from table fellowship with Gentiles, even Godfearing Gentiles.
God sent Peter a vision, ostensibly about the traditional Jewish distinction made between clean and unclean animals and the prohibition against eating the unclean meats. Peter does not initially understand the meaning of the vision. But when Cornelius’ slaves show up at his door saying that a holy angel directed Cornelius to send for Peter, Peter gets up and goes with them (10:19-33).
It is not until Peter arrives at Cornelius’ home and hears his story that Peter understands his own dream and declares the Jesus is Lord of all (10:34). Something in Peter died that day and something in Peter resurrected. Inclusivity began to replace prejudice. God continues to act. God gives visions to Jews and Gentiles¬ (even Gentiles who have yet to hear and accept what God did in Jesus). And so Peter’s first line of testimony in Cornelius’ house is that God is no receiver of faces. The human face, no matter how rich or poor, light or dark, symmetrical or asymmetrical, ordinary or extraordinary receives no “brownie points” with God. And Peter’s second point is that God preached peace by Jesus (10:36).
God did not receive the face of Jesus
Even though Jesus was a Jewish man who lived in Nazareth, it is neither his Jewishness nor his maleness that is crucial to his identity as the resurrected Jesus. What is significant is what God did through Jesus when he walked the earth: God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power. And in this power Jesus performed good acts including healing those whom the devil oppressed. God was with Jesus. God values most what God did in, through, and with Jesus. And it is this that God expects and respects (favors) in humanity. Thus in every nation God finds acceptable those who fear God and who work righteousness (10:35) because God is living and working in them. God’s raising of Jesus affirms that the life Jesus led on earth is worthy to be replicated. As believers in the resurrection, God calls us to imitate the Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus brought healing to the oppressed. We are to engender healing among the oppressed.
The God who raised Jesus forgives regardless of the face
God does not forgive sins based on the face. All who believe in what God did in Jesus receive forgiveness. And it is because of the forgiveness of God that we do not have to fear the judgment of God. God consecrated Jesus to act as judge of the living and the dead. Judgment is not left to human beings who judge the face. Judgment has been given to Jesus. This work of judgment signifies Jesus’ intercession on our behalf. God through Jesus is still at work for and with us. As JoAnne Terrell writes “The empty cross is a symbol of God’s continuous empowerment…Not the resurrection but Christ’s intercession signals the end of the gospel story and the beginning of Christ’s significance for us, ‘on our behalf.'”2 And if God had not resurrected Jesus, we would have no intercessor.
1 Julia A. J. Foote, “A Brand Plucked from the Fire. An Autobiographical Sketch” in Sisters of the Spirit, edited by William L. Andrew (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986) 189.
2 JoAnne Marie Terrell, Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1998) 125.