Acts 10 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Peter's Witness to Cornelius

"The ground is level at the foot of the cross." There is no platform of religious or ethnic heritage or practice that one must climb to qualify for God's saving favor. First-century Jews, even Jewish Christians, would have disagreed. Today, some nominal Christians look to bloodlines or certain religious rites to erect their platform. But the startling good news of Peter's message is that no religio-ethnic or cultural conditions must be met to qualify for God's salvation blessings.Peter and Cornelius Meet (10:23-33)

Because of the precedent-setting nature of Peter's visit to Cornelius (compare 15:7) or possible trouble the visit would cause Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem, Peter sets out with a delegation of six brothers who can serve as witnesses (10:45; 11:12). The journey to Caesarea takes somewhat longer than it had taken Cornelius's envoys, maybe because of the larger group and their lack of mounts (Williams 1985:175).

Cornelius's expectancy in many ways models the stance of the people of God toward the final salvation (Lk 3:15; 7:19-20; 12:46; compare Ps 119:166). Obediently and magnanimously he too gathers a delegation including relatives and close friends (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 7:350; compare Acts 11:14).

There is some understandable awkwardness when Peter and Cornelius meet. It is not because of Peter's reluctance. Luke chronicles his determined progress (10:24-25, 27). Rather, it's due to Cornelius's enthusiastic greeting in which he falls at Peter's feet in homage (NIV in reverence; literally, "he worshiped"). Is this indeed "worship" from a God-fearer? Everett F. Harrison (1986:180) says no. But if Cornelius is showing only respectful gratitude, Peter probably would not correct him so forcefully. (All other uses of the term refer to true or false worship--Lk 4:8; 24:52; Acts 8:27; 24:11; Lk 4:7; Acts 7:43). Filled with joy at the sight of the one whose message will bring salvation and filled with awe at seeing the one whom an angelic vision said to summon, Cornelius naturally falls down in worship.

Peter will have none of this. Grabbing him by the arm, he tells him to get up, letting him know that he himself is only a human being. Peter is living out his commitment to a strict monotheism that will brook no worship of any but God (Lk 4:8; compare Ex 20:3-5; Deut 5:7-9; Rev 19:10; 22:8-9; contrast Haenchen [1971:350], who says he is just modeling humility). At the same time he places Cornelius and himself on the same footing. Peter avoids two extremes when he treats humans as neither "gods" nor "dogs" (Acts 10:26, 28; Stott 1990:189; compare Acts 3:11-12; 14:15). With a simple act and firm words, Peter removes from Cornelius's mind and heart the difference between Jew and Gentile. This is the starting point for any who would take the gospel to those who have never heard. There must at the least be acknowledgment of the level ground of creation: "I too am a human being."

Conversing, they enter the house and encounter a large gathering. Luke consistently uses this phrase to describe the effect of miracles and response to the gospel at each stage of the fulfillment of Acts 1:8 (2:6; 4:4; 5:16; 8:7). The response of the Gentiles potentially will be as enthusiastic as that of the Jews.

When Peter says that it is against our law to associate or visit with a Gentile (literally, "a person of another race"), he is not pointing to explicit Old Testament teaching as much as to Jewish custom. Nehemiah did take the mandate excluding Ammonites and Edomites from the assembly (Deut 23:3-4) and extended it to all Gentiles (Neh 13:3). Rabbinic law extended the separation, however, by proscribing Jewish social contact with Gentiles, particularly accepting hospitality in their homes (m. `Aboda Zara 5:5; m. Toharot 7:6; compare m. Demai 3:4). In the end, in Jewish eyes, Gentiles themselves became a source of ritual impurity (t. Demai 3:14; t. `Aboda Zara 4:11).

Despite this deep-seated taboo, Peter announces he has learned the lesson of the heavenly vision, which providentially converged with the arrival of Gentile messengers and the Spirit's instruction "Go with them, not making any distinctions" (10:9-19). Peter puts it tersely: God has shown me that I should not call any man impure [common] or unclean (v. 28; compare vv. 14-15). Just as the external cultural barrier between holy and profane (the common), clean and unclean, has come down, so the prejudicial barrier between races and ethnic groups is forever removed. No human being is to be treated as profane, somehow beyond the reach of a sacred God's saving and sanctifying work. No human being is to be viewed as unclean, a hindrance to my pursuit of spiritual purity before God (compare Jesus' example in Lk 5:30; 7:34; 15:1).

Peter has acted on his new insight by coming without objection (compare Acts 10:20). Now he wants to know why he has been called. Cornelius's response indicates that God has orchestrated this historic meeting, the inauguration of the Gentile mission.

Cornelius's vision and his subsequent obedience are the most repeated features of his conversion narrative (10:3-7, 22, 30-33; 11:13-14). Thus Luke continues to emphasize that the Gentile mission is God's will and would not have happened without divine intervention. In Cornelius's retelling here Luke emphasizes that it was while at prayer, and possibly in answer to a particular prayer for further knowledge of the way of salvation, that the angelic vision was given (compare 10:4; Lk 1:13). Cornelius's comments conclude with an expression of polite gratitude--it was good of you to come (compare 3 Jn 6)--and a statement of the receptivity of all present. Cornelius also stresses the message's divine origin and universal applicability, along with his audience's accountability. Is Luke holding up Cornelius as a model for hearing the gospel?Peter's Speech (10:34-43)

Luke introduces Peter's speech with solemnity: "having opened his mouth" (compare Acts 8:35; 15:7). Peter's speech proceeds in three stages: an introduction with the theme (the impartial God sends the message that Jesus, through whom peace comes, is Lord of all people--10:34-36), a statement of the kerygma, which proves the theme (vv. 37-41) and a conclusion (the witness of apostle and prophet, which applies Christ's judicial and saving lordship to the hearers--vv. 42-43).

Peter begins by declaring, God does not show favoritism. He uses an idiom reflecting ancient Near Eastern practice. Literally the concept is "to receive the face" (Hebrew nasa' panm/Greek lambano prosopon). To greet a social superior, one lowered the face or sank to the earth. If the one thus greeted raised the face of the greeter, it was a sign of recognition and esteem. Such favoritism may have been welcome to those who experienced it, but it was not to be found in a judge (compare the Old Testament picture of God as impartial judge: Deut 10:17; 2 Chron 19:7).

Peter applies this character quality to God's dealing with persons from every nation (ethnos). This term refers not simply to nation-states but also to any racial, ethnic or cultural grouping by which humans distinguish themselves. Peter says that persons in every ethnos who fear God and do right are acceptable (dektos), welcome, to him.

Does this statement teach a "larger biblical hope" that the vast majority but not absolutely all will be saved? Does it teach that God will judge the heathen by light they have, not according to "the light that did not reach them" (Pinnock 1990:367; compare Anderson 1970:102; Marshall 1980:190)? It is true that dektos means "pertaining to that which is pleasing in view of its being acceptable" (Louw and Nida 1988:1:299). It is used in the Old Testament of acceptable sacrifices and prayers and of moral acts (Lev 1:3; 19:5; Prov 15:8). In each case, however, God declares the conditions for acceptability. Is the acceptability or welcome spoken of in Acts 10:35 right standing with God, salvation? Only if the verse is divorced from its immediate and larger contexts. If Cornelius is already a saved believer, why does the angel tell him to send for Peter, who would bring "a message through which you and all your household will be saved" (Acts 11:14; Fernando 1987:133)? That Cornelius or anyone else can be acceptable to God for salvation without hearing the gospel or confessing the name of Christ contradicts the angel's message and Luke's understanding of the way one comes to salvation through the gospel message (11:14; compare 11:1; Lk 8:11-15; Acts 16:30-31).

In Acts 10:35 Peter and Luke are seeking to avoid two extremes: the Jews' ethnic pride and prejudice, which saw no Gentile as a fit object of God's saving call, and the view that the religions of all cultures are equally valid bases for being acceptable to God.

What Peter is saying is the same thing that the writer to the Hebrews points out: "anyone who comes to [God] must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Heb 11:6). In turning away from idols to the one true God, Cornelius demonstrated belief in God's existence; in turning away from pagan immorality to doing what is right according to the Old Testament ethic, he showed his earnestness in seeking God. He had made the first steps of repentance, which did not save him but made him a proper candidate to hear the good news, according to a "more light" principle (compare Acts 11:18).

In a day of religious pluralism, when compassionate Christians seek to guard against prejudicial bias and see the good in all religions, Peter's speech clearly teaches us that though God does not play favorites with nations, he does make distinctions in matters of religion. Only those who worship him, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent can know eternal life (Jn 17:3).

Peter now states the theme of his message (Acts 10:36). Within the framework of God's dealings with a particular nation, the people of Israel, God sent a message (see references at 10:44), telling the good news (see comment on "evangelize" at 8:35) of peace [accomplished] through Jesus Christ (compare 10:43). Peter next highlights the universal scope of salvation blessings. This Jesus Christ is Lord of all people. The peace Christ achieved is not just for the Jews but for all people. The peace Christ wrought is the basis for tearing down the platforms of ethnic pride and the barriers of ethnic religious prejudice so that Jew and Gentile, indeed all persons, can be at peace with each other.

Peter's bold declaration draws out clearly God's intention announced from the very beginning of his Son's saving mission (Lk 2:10, 14). Now we know that "all the people" (Lk 2:10) includes the Gentiles. When the shattering good news "Jesus Christ is Lord of all people" is heard and heeded, the church is liberated from its cultural parochialism, set free to witness "across the tracks" and across the world.

Peter now offers proof, through the kerygma, for Christ's universal lordship (Acts 10:37-41). Twin themes run throughout his account of Jesus' life, death and resurrection: historical verifiability and divine accomplishment. He marks the events in terms of time and place (vv. 37, 39-40). He identifies the apostles as eyewitnesses to the events (vv. 39-41). Peter realizes that Jesus was not seen generally after his resurrection, and he explains this. God chose those who would see the risen Lord, thus indicating that their witness not only has his approval but has its origin in divine initiative, not human motivation (compare Lk 6:13-16; Acts 1:2). Peter further testifies to the resurrection's historical authenticity by saying that during the postresurrection period the apostles ate and drank with him (Christ). To be a witness of one who eats and drinks with you is to experience him with all your senses (Lk 24:30, 39-43; Acts 1:3-4; compare Jn 20:19-23, 27; 21:12; Tobit 12:19). In all these ways Peter proves that Jesus' life, death and resurrection, which demonstrated that he is Lord of all, happened in space and time. This was of utmost importance to Luke's readers, for his narrative was intended to help them "know the certainty" of "the things that have been fulfilled among us" (Lk 1:4, 1).

What God accomplished in Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection is the proof of his universal lordship. Peter says God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and power for his ministry (compare Lk 4:18/Is 61:1; Lk 3:22; 4:1, 14; 10:21). It is interesting that Isaiah presents the servant of the Lord as having a ministry that extends to all nations (Is 42:6; 49:6; compare 11:1-5). Peter focuses on the power of Jesus' ministry. He exercised his lordship by doing good (euergeton; Hellenistic kings held a related royal title, euergetes, Lake and Cadbury 1979:121; compare Lk 22:25) and by releasing those oppressed by the devil's power (Lk 13:16; compare 11:14-23; this should not be limited to physical healings, as Marshall 1980:192; it should extend to exorcisms--E. F. Harrison 1986:183). This ministry showed God was with him (compare Mt 1:23/Is 7:14).

It is his resurrection-exaltation that decisively demonstrates his lordship (Acts 2:36). Peter simply states that God raised him and caused him to be seen (1:2-3; 3:15; 4:10; 13:30, 37). In the Great Commission delivered by the risen Lord we begin to see the essential link between resurrection and universal lordship. The apostles were commissioned to carry the message He is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. Only the One who has conquered the power of death is qualified to judge all humankind, living or dead, and render and execute verdicts of eternal life or death.

Peter mentions only briefly Jesus' death, the jarring antithesis to his universal lordship (10:39). What was a cursed death to the Jews (note the allusion to Deut 21:22 in Peter's phrase hanging him on a tree) was equally despicable to Romans. Crucifixion was fit only for non-Roman citizens, slaves and provincials. Only if a Roman citizen was convicted of treason would he be crucified. How could One whose followers claimed was "Lord of all people" have been crucified? Peter does not answer that question here, though the allusion to a cursed death, understood in both a promise-and-fulfillment and a vicarious-atonement framework, would certainly go a long way to legitimize it (compare Lk 22:35-37/Is 53:12).

Peter's conclusion applies Christ's universal lordship to his audience (Acts 10:42-43). In Jesus they face both a final accounting and a unique opportunity. Part of the message the risen Lord commanded the apostles to proclaim (Lk 24:47) and testify or warn (diamartyromai, Acts 2:40; 8:25) the people is that God has appointed Jesus the judge of all humankind in the last day. The theme of final judgment occurs consistently in speeches to Gentiles (17:31; 24:25). It seems to be a way to talk about repentance in terms relevant and motivating to them. Indeed, Peter moves easily in this one sentence from a particularist view, he commanded us to preach to the people (the Jews), to a universal view, he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead (all humankind). To this universal Judge all must answer.

Peter immediately turns to the good news that through the name of this universal Lord (2:38; 4:12) all are presented with the unique opportunity to receive the forgiveness of sins. He grounds this expression of salvation blessings, forgiveness of sins (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 13:38; 26:18; compare Lk 1:77; 4:18), in the witness of all the Old Testament prophets (Is 33:24; 53:4-6, 11-12/Lk 22:37; Jer 31:34; Dan 9:24; compare Lk 24:25-27, 44-47). And he moves again from the particular, the Jewish prophets' witness, to the universal, the promise that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness.

Peter's preaching on the impartial God and the universal Lord and Savior now shows how Christ's Great Commission lies at the heart of a "go" theology (Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8). Such a centrifugal momentum must drive the church today.God's Confirmation (10:44-48)

Salvation blessings come to those who hear, receive, believe and hold fast to the Word, the gospel message (Lk 8:15; Acts 2:22; 3:22-23; 4:4; 15:7; 13:44; 19:5; 26:29; 28:26-28). So here the Spirit falls on them, just as Peter speaks these words of the welcome promise of forgiveness to all who believe and the audience hears the message (probably referring to the gospel, not just Peter's sermon--Lake and Cadbury 1979:122; compare Lk 8:15; Acts 4:4; 8:4; 10:36; 11:19; 15:7; 17:11).

In our day Western society is increasingly turning its back on its rational, cognitive heritage in favor of high-impact, "high-touch" experience. Some Christians engaged in crosscultural mission hail this mindlessness as a liberation that permits us to frame a truly contextual gospel free of Western rationalism. Yet at the very beginning of crosscultural mission, Peter neither depended on power encounter nor denigrated the cognitive. In fact, the Word and the Spirit were interdependent. And so must it ever be.

Luke's description of the Spirit's coming lets us know that the Gentiles' salvation is divinely worked, complete and authentic. It is all of God, for Peter has not even finished his speech. He has not given an invitation. God, the knower of all hearts, has chosen to cleanse their hearts by faith (15:8-9). He demonstrates that these Gentiles have indeed been given "repentance unto life" (11:18) by pouring out the gift of his Spirit on them, as he did on Jewish believers at Pentecost (2:4, 17, 33; compare 2:38; 8:20; 11:17). That the Spirit came on them (literally, "falling on," 8:16; 11:15) points not only to arrival but also to suddenness and intensity (Turner 1981:49). By combining this description with the imagery of "pouring out on," inundating with as with an overwhelming tidal wave (10:45), Luke highlights the completeness of the salvation experienced. Its authenticity is manifested by the Gentiles' speaking in tongues.

As the NIV marginal note indicates, there is some uncertainty about what the word tongues refers to and hence how it is to be translated. The literal translation tongues here would refer to Spirit-inspired ecstatic utterances of "heavenly languages" that require an equally inspired interpreter (1 Cor 14; compare Acts 19:6; Longenecker 1981:394: Haenchen 1971:354). The marginal reading other languages (note that other is not present in the Greek text) points to human languages (2:4-8). If we opt for the "ecstatic utterances" interpretation, we have to explain the claims that the experience paralleled that of Acts 2 (10:47; 11:15, 17). Williams says they need to be similar though not identical to satisfy the claims of the text (1985:184). If we opt for the "foreign languages" explanation, we must account for the lack of the term other and how such an outburst of foreign languages could have been convincing to the Jewish believers. It would have been convincing if these Gentiles spoke in languages including Hebrew and Aramaic, which the Joppa believers could follow.

Though it is difficult to be certain about the nature of the "tongues" (Kistemaker 1990:400), what the early believers conclude from this manifestation is certain: salvation blessings have been poured out on uncircumcised Gentiles. This challenges the Jews' basic assumption that a holy and pure God would not pour out his Holy Spirit on profane, common and unclean Gentiles, unless they became holy and ritually pure through becoming Jews. No wonder that Jewish Christians with a commitment to circumcision showed the same "astonishment" at this phenomenon as the Pentecost crowd did (2:7, 12; compare 8:13; 9:21).

The experience of salvation always evokes praise to the Giver of salvation. So here, as at Pentecost (2:11) and in Ephesus, the last evangelized area of Paul's missionary journeys (19:17), the newly converted or newly filled-with-the-Spirit magnify God.

Expecting a negative answer, Peter asks, in essence, "Who is going to stand in the way of God's work?" Only at the risk of resisting God would someone dare to hinder the full incorporation into the church via baptism of Gentiles who have the Spirit's baptism (compare Lk 18:16; Acts 5:39; 8:36; 28:31). So Peter orders their baptism and enjoys their hospitality for a few days.

The ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross. What a comfort to all the racially and culturally despised in our day, who thirst for the dignity that comes from spiritual equality in the "Christ identity." What a challenge to the church to live out, through acceptance across racial, class, ethnic and gender lines, our profession that we serve an impartial God who has sent us a universal Lord and Savior.

Previous commentary:
Peter's Vision

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