Acts 11 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Peter's Defense of His Gentile Mission
What would convince a charismatic that the cerebral theological discourses that pass for sermons in emotionless orthodoxy can call people to genuine faith? What would convince those in a formal tradition that the faith of those who have responded to emotionally charged charismatic preaching is authentic?
How Peter convinced Jerusalem church members who had been prejudiced against uncircumcised Gentiles becomes a model for us as we seek to sort through claims to God's working which challenge our biases.
The conversion of Cornelius's household was a truly momentous event: the Gentiles also had received the word of God (10:44-45; compare 8:14; 17:11). The gospel had decisively crossed its last cultural threshold. The scope and level of the reporting also shows the import of this milestone. The church throughout Judea, even the apostles, heard about it.
Peter is not summoned, yet he may anticipate some trouble, so he goes up to Jerusalem, taking along corroborating witnesses (see v. 12). There he immediately encounters criticism from circumcised believers. The reference to circumcised believers does not seem to refer here to the whole church, which was completely Jewish at this time (contrast Longenecker 1981:397). Rather, it points to certain believers who were particularly zealous for the law and insisted on no social intercourse between circumcised and uncircumcised (Bruce 1988:220; Gal 2:12). They charged Peter with making himself ritually unclean by entering a Gentile's house and eating with him (see comment and background information at Acts 10:28).
Commentators may speculate about the motivation behind these charges--perhaps fear of persecution from unbelieving Jews (Bruce 1988:219) or Jewish-Roman tensions under Caligula (Kistemaker 1990:408). But what is clear is that prejudice led to a myopic view of the situation (compare the Pharisees' treatment of Jesus: Lk 5:30; 15:1). How sad it is when man-made rules designed to protect our holiness and bring us close to God prevent us from seeing and rejoicing when God grants salvation to those who had not known his grace.
Early reports of Cornelius's conversion may have been fragmented and garbled. To set the record straight, Peter explains (18:26; 28:23) the situation in an orderly fashion (compare Lk 1:3; NIV's everything . . . precisely as it had happened communicates more the intent than the method itself). Peter's report is an orderly, reliable, factual account of the divine initiatives in word and deed that brought Cornelius and him together.
Luke shows the reliability of his account by using it as a second witness to the events of Acts 10 (compare Deut 19:15). He presents it as a first-person eyewitness report. All the events are relayed either as Peter experienced them (his vision, Acts 11:5-10; the arrival of Cornelius's men and the Spirit's command, vv. 11-12; the Spirit's coming, vv. 15) or as they were reported directly to him (Cornelius's vision, vv. 13-14). The six brothers are brought in as witnesses as well (vv. 12-15). Their number may be significant for commending the truthfulness of the account to Luke's Roman audience, since it was the custom in Rome to authenticate a really important document by attaching seven seals to it (Barclay 1976:87). Finally, Peter calls on his audience as witnesses when he likens what happened at Caesarea to what they themselves experienced at Pentecost (v. 15).
This is above all a factual report of the divine initiative via interpreted acts to bring salvation to the Gentiles. Peter makes no comment on his personal circumstances, his perplexity about the vision or his own interpretation of the events' significance (10:9-10, 17, 19, 28-29, 34-35). He lets the facts speak for themselves. Any interpretation of their significance is objective and revealed, for it comes from heaven, the Spirit and the angel (11:7, 9, 12, 14).
In this way Peter teaches the main lessons of his experience. God has cleansed all foods (v. 9). The dietary laws that marked the distinction between Jew and non-Jew are abolished. The Spirit commands that Peter live out this new freedom by accompanying uncircumcised men to their master's house, "not making any distinctions" (v. 12). He is not to treat them as he would have when the food laws, which made distinctions, were still in force (diakrinanta should be taken as a true active [Marshall 1980:196], not with its middle meaning, "hesitation," as in NIV, probably under the influence of 10:29; compare 10:20). The angel tells Cornelius that the purpose of Peter's visit is to proclaim a message by which uncircumcised Gentiles may enter into salvation (11:14).
Indications of Peter's understanding of the events' significance are not entirely lacking. He emphasizes the divine origin of his vision (11:5/10:11). He stresses the providential ordering of events by his immediate juxtaposition of them: his vision and Cornelius's men's arrival (11:11/10:17-18), the beginning of Peter's preaching and the coming of the Spirit (11:15/10:44). Finally, he hints at the divine rejection of the Jewish taboo against entering a Gentile's house when he notes that the angel appears in his [Cornelius's] house (11:13).
From the content of Peter's report we learn again that the real hero of the Cornelius conversion narrative is God, "the gracious prodding One who makes bold promises and keeps them, who finds a way even in the midst of human distinctions and partiality between persons" (Willimon 1988:99). Where distinctions born of racial, ethnic, class or gender prejudice stand as obstacles to the advance of the gospel, we can be sure that God will prod us to eliminate them.
Peter's method shows that "the proof of Christianity always lies in facts" (Barclay 1976:87). God speaks a word and then fulfills it. God acts to fulfill his saving purposes and then interprets that act so that we may understand and appropriate it to ourselves. Whether for the Christian or the non-Christian, the method and the expected response are always the same: report the facts through reliable witnesses; receive, believe and act on the report.
Peter now seizes on the similarity of the coming of the Spirit to Cornelius's household and the Spirit's coming to the disciples at Pentecost. He points to the divine origin and the salvation-history significance of the Pentecost experience by remembering Jesus' words of promise (Acts 1:5; compare Lk 3:16). John's baptism of repentance, in preparation for the coming of the Messiah at the last day, would be superseded by the Spirit's baptism, inaugurating the presence of the salvation blessings of that last day. At Pentecost, Peter says, we experienced this same gift, the Holy Spirit himself (Acts 10:45-47; 15:7-11; compare 2:38; 8:20), by meeting only one condition: belief in the Lord Jesus Christ (15:7, 11; compare 2:44; 4:4, 32; 8:12; 10:43). If Cornelius's household has received this gift without being circumcised, then Gentiles too must be acceptable to God on the same condition.
To refuse to incorporate the Gentile believers into the church via baptism and full table fellowship would be to thwart God's purposes. Peter cannot, indeed he would not be able to, stand in the way of God (NIV's Who was I to think that I could oppose God? makes explicit the element of judgment; see comment at 10:47). It was incumbent upon Peter, if he was to follow God's lead, to treat these Gentiles as full brothers and sisters in Christ by accepting their hospitality and eating with them.
As with the Samaritans (8:14-17), the external manifestation of the Spirit's coming and presence serves a limited though vital purpose in salvation history. It should not be taken as a normative pattern for all Christians in all times and places. This time the Spirit comes before any profession of faith or water baptism, demonstrating that God the knower of all hearts has indeed cleansed these Gentiles' hearts by faith, making them fit to receive the Holy Spirit. Not only does this sequence of events convince Jewish Christians of the soundness of Gentile conversions, it also links the Spirit's coming to conversion so as to call into question any view of baptism of the Spirit as an experience subsequent to conversion/regeneration (see note at 1:5).
The facts, the divinely given interpretation and the apostle's application prove convincing. The critics had no further objections (literally, "became or were quiet"; see Lk 14:4; Acts 21:14) and glorified God with a confession that the Gentiles' faith is genuine. Such praise usually occurs in Luke-Acts in response to a miracle or to news of the Gentile mission (Lk 5:25-26; 13:13; 18:43; compare 2:20; Acts 13:48; 21:20; compare Lk 23:47). So then, God has even granted the Gentiles repentance unto life. The phrasing indicates that the Jewish believers understand the "revolution in principle" that has occurred. It is not just an isolated God-fearer's household but the Gentiles, all non-Jews, to whom the door of salvation is wide open. Further, this repentance is not a precondition produced by human effort. It is a gift from God to the Gentiles, just as it was to the Jews (Acts 3:26; 5:31).
What then should convince us that God is at work even in ways that cut across the grain of our prejudices? A plain hearing of the facts and their interpretation, judged by the promises of God's Word, is where we start. And when we keep in mind that salvation begins with the gift of repentance, our prejudices, which will always demand that the outsider meet certain performance standards, will melt away. In their place will come wonder and praise to God that his salvation has touched people whom we, left to ourselves, would not.