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.