Commentary on Acts 10:44-48
This is the best kind of transition: it’s tight, provocative, and suggestive of the theme of the entire story.
In Acts 10:44-48 Luke displays his narrative prowess by seamlessly resolving one storyline (begun with the introduction of Cornelius in 10:1) while simultaneously setting the stage for the ethnic and theological drama about to unfold in Jerusalem (11:1 ff.). At the same time, Luke lets this scene reverberate the theological melody of the entire book: the universal outpouring of the Holy Spirit (2:17).
This passage is a continuation of Peter’s vision and obedience to go to the Gentiles. It marks a major shift in Peter’s ministry; it is Peter’s conversion of sorts.1 Since 9:32 Peter has been touring the region of Judea, Galilee and Samaria, witnessing the Spirit’s work among the Gentiles. Note that since the great dispersion (8:1) Peter has served as a witness in the passive sense; i.e. he is witnessing the work of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles. In our pericope, Peter is a witness in the active sense; he is bearing witness to the Word and directly through him the Spirit makes herself manifest.
Peter was summoned to Joppa from Lydda to raise Tabitha, a woman of holy works, from the dead. So when he arrives in Caesarea at Cornelius’s request, Peter is coming off a big win — a feat unparalleled since the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry! There is little wonder why Peter arrives in Caesarea with a bit of an entourage; if the dead heed the words of this apostle what else might be capable through him?
There are strong resonances in this pericope with some of the most profound scenes in Acts up to this point. The outpouring of the Spirit among the Gentiles echoes the Spirit’s work at Pentecost (2:1 ff.), and especially Peter’s pronouncement that the Spirit would be poured out on all peoples (2:17). Peter’s rhetorical question in 10:47 (“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”) mirrors the words of the Ethiopian Eunuch in 8:36 (“Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”). And even as this text reflects core themes in Acts, it opens up several transitions in the text as well.
This text is powerful from a literary point of view and if Hollywood decided to render this pericope as a feature film they would try to enlist an actor like Denzel Washington or Tom Hanks — a profoundly emotive thespian — to play the role of Peter. The scene has everything: a conflicted character torn between custom and conviction; a rising tension produced by the presence of Peter’s compatriots (oi ek peritomes pistoi); a climax rendered through ecstatic catharsis; and a denouement with dispelled anxieties and the invitation of friendship. There’s even a trace of the supernatural that leaves the characters in amazement. Somebody call Tom Hooper!
And yet the formation of Peter’s character through this text, indeed the need for formation, arises from ethnic prejudices that Peter was slowly beginning to shake. It appears that the Holy Spirit was steadily whittling away the hardness of Peter’s heart toward those others he had been taught to avoid. It is clear from Peter’s Pentecost speech that he has yet to grasp the full scope of Joel’s prophesy quoted in 2:17 (“I will pour out my Spirit on all people”), for four times in his Pentecost sermon Luke reminds us that Peter is addressing his fellow Israelites (2:14, 22, 19, 36).
Following the great dispersion motivated by Stephen’s murder and subsequent persecutions of the believers, Luke explicitly states that Peter and the apostles remain in Jerusalem. Luke’s narrative arch in the Book of Acts follows the Spirit out of Jerusalem; in other words, if the tendency of the early evangelists (perhaps ours as well) was to bear witness to the good news among their own ethnic group, the Spirit breaks through such ethnocentrism, leading them to proclamation before other peoples.
Peter’s rooftop trance re-negotiates his ethnic sensibilities. We may learn much from the constructive proposal on reading ethnic negotiations in Acts by Eric D. Barreto. Barreto writes, “As a constructed social reality, ethnicity is a projection of our own anxieties and hopes, an inclusive impulse to identify who we are but also an exclusive effort to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them.'”2
Today’s lectionary is a case in point for Barreto’s argument. In 10:28 Peter reminds all of Cornelius’ close friend and relatives, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (emphasis added). Peter’s vision has not only re-negotiated how he relates to those of other ethnicities (the external relation), but also who he is in relation to others (the internal relation). Acts 10:44-48 is an overwhelming confirmation that Peter is leaning into his own identity according to God’s plan.
The Holy Spirit falls when Peter is still speaking these words. In other words, that flashy rhetorical flourish he had crafted in his early morning sermon prep was never experienced; that breathtaking display of poetic piquancy went unheard by the gathered Cesareans. This pericope reveals without equivocation that the Holy Spirit is the true preacher. The Holy Spirit makes the Word (logon) manifest through — or perhaps in spite of — our words (rhemata).
Sometimes we, like Peter, are called to a ministry of proclamation and proximity. It is difficult to measure who received the greater blessing in this pericope: Cornelius or Peter. What we can be certain of is that God was at work through the Spirit to tear down ethnic barriers so that God’s very Word could be heard. This Word has the power to re-negotiate our preconceptions of others, about what they can or cannot do. Moreover, the Word has the power to transform our own character as well by leading us into proximity of the others whom God loves.
1 Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 258.
2 Eric D. Barreto, Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16, WUNT II 294 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 183.