This is the thirty-second entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. In this entry Cornelius explains why he called for Peter and Peter shares the Gospel with Cornelius and his friends, with surprising results for Peter.
For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.
E) Preparation for the Gentile Mission: the Conversions of Paul and Cornelius (9:1-12:25): Cornelius sends men to fetch Peter (10:30-48):
30 Cornelius replied, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31 He said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33 Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.”
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (NRSV)
This section begins with Cornelius answering Peter’s question from Acts 10:29, “Now may I ask why you sent for me?” While Peter might have his suspicions, based on his own visionary experience, and the men who have come to get him, this seems to be a genuine question. Cornelius then replays his own experiences, which we as readers already know, in answer to Peter’s query. He says that a man in “dazzling clothes” appeared to him as he was praying (Acts 10:30), which is unquestionably an angelic being (Gilbert, JANT, 219). The circumlocution is slightly interesting, since in Acts 10:3 Cornelius’ visitor is identified as an angel and Cornelius addresses the angel as “Lord” (Johnson, Acts, 190). This might simply be a subtle way, however, to indicate this devout Gentile’s confusion regarding the nature of divinity in a Jewish context.
Cornelius recounts that the angel assured him that his “prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God” (Acts 10:31). Luke Timothy Johnson notes that in the LXX (Septuagint), the verb mimnêskomai is used of God “remembering” his covenant with Israel, which gives a sense of the importance of this verb for God’s relationship with this Gentile (Johnson offers Gen. 4:1, 9:15; Exod 2:24, 6:5; Lev 26:42; Ps 105:45, 135:23 as examples; Johnson, Acts, 190-91).
It was also the angel who instructs Cornelius to send for Peter and so he says: “I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say” (Acts 10:32-34). Cornelius states they are all there to listen to Peter, but even then he acknowledges that they are in “God’s presence” and that what Peter will say is only “all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” Cornelius assumes, that is, that Peter will have a message from God (Johnson, Acts, 191). “Cornelius' recapitulation of his own vision (vv. 30–3) heightens the solemnity of the scene: we find ourselves alongside the listeners, poised and expectant ‘in the presence of God’ to hear what God has commissioned Peter to say (v. 33).” (“Commentary on Acts” in The Oxford Bible Commentary). In some sense, Peter only realizes right then himself that he has a message from God for Cornelius and the others. But does he even know what his message is to be?
Whether he did when he arrived, he knows it as he begins to speak. “Peter then moves into a recapitulation of the gospel message he has preached in Jerusalem, subtly adapted for this Caesarean setting. This is the fullest summary Luke gives of the gospel story in Acts.” (“Commentary on Acts” in The Oxford Bible Commentary). Gary Gilbert states that “the speech summarizes major themes in Acts: Jesus is the prophesied anointed one and Lord (2.36; 4.33; 8.16; 15.11; 16.31; 19.5; 28.31); his death has been vindicated by God (2.24, 32; 3.15; 4.10; 5.30; 13.30); the apostles are chosen witnesses to proclaim Jesus (1.8; 2.32; 3.1513.31; 23.11; 26.16); all experience forgiveness of sins through believing in Jesus (2.38; 5.31; 13.38; 26.18)” (Gilbert, JANT, 220).
Richard Dillon argues that this speech of Peter indicates Lucan composition and its relationship with early Church tradition more than any other speech in Acts. In Acts 2-3 Dillon says we have the focus on the call for repentance, particularly from fellow Jews, now “comes a kerygma of universal forgiveness under the one appointed judge of the world (vv 42-43), matching the conclusion of Paul’s speech to the Gentile Athenians (17:30-31) and the argument of 1 Thess 1:10” (Dillon, NJBC, 746). Dillon’s crucial question is this: “does this sermon represent a traditional teaching pattern out of which the Synoptic Gospels developed” or “has Luke reshaped the Petrine kerygma into an outline of the narrative gospel in his own literary genre”? (Dillon, NJBC, 746).
Would it be possible to answer both? It is difficult to see, regardless of Lucan composition and skill, that this scene does not represent the realities and decisions that the early Church confronted in bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles and which included Peter’s own experiences and decisions. What this speech does is take the “expanded Jesus kerygma,” which begins with “Good News” to Israel (Acts 10:36), and connects the “Gospel” with Jesus’ earthly activity (Acts 10:37) (Dillon, NJBC, 746). This speech, therefore, “brings out the characteristic shape of the story, starting in Galilee after John's baptism (v. 37), and stressing the charismatic power of Jesus' healing ministry: nowhere else does Luke make it so clear that he sees all healing as liberation from demonic power (v. 38 ) (“Commentary on Acts” in The Oxford Bible Commentary).
This “healing” is now seen as available to anyone as Peter states that he now understands that “God shows no partiality” but that the experiences of Cornelius indicate that God is for all who “fear him” and “do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). Gary Gilbert states that according to the Hebrew scripture “previously God had not distinguished on the basis of wealth or status (Deut 10.17-18; Sir 35.12-13), but now God does not attend to one’s ethnicity” (Gilbert, JANT, 220). God’s “impartiality,” says Johnson, becomes a “central theological axiom,” which “Peter is just now grasping or coming to understand” (Johnson, Acts, 191).
“In every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:35). Indeed, “acceptability before God is open to those ‘in every nation’ (v. 35) who fear him and perform righteous acts (cf. Rom 2:10–11, where the same word is used)” (“Commentary on Acts” in The Oxford Bible Commentary). “Fears him” is found in Ps 15:1-2 and is a description of Cornelius in 10:22 (Gilbert, JANT, 220). Dektos the adjective for “acceptable” is used in the LXX to describe “acceptable” sacrifices received by God (see all of the passages cited in Johnson, Acts, 191). Cornelius is being described, that is, by terms formerly used to describe righteous Jewish behavior. Gilbert states that the twin themes of “fearing God” and “doing right” echo the Jewish teachings, pronounced by Jesus also, to love God and love neighbor (Gilbert, JANT, 220).
The rest of the speech, Acts 10:36-43, give a basic creedal statement of the early Church. Acts 10:36, “You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all,” is an oddly worded summation of Jesus’ work, but stresses two themes: peace brought by the Messiah; and Christ’s Lordship. “God sends the message about his fairness to Israel through the work of the Messiah, expressed as the good news of peace,” which is a messianic blessing (Johnson, Acts, 191-2). Gilbert stresses that, particularly in this context, preaching peace is the message of reconciliation (Gilbert, JANT, 220). “Lord of all” might have a particular resonance for the Gentile Cornelius and his friends since it assumes for Jesus the title of pagan gods, roman emperors and God (Gilbert, JANT, 220), such as Osiris for instance (Johnson, Acts, 192).
The next verses, Acts 10:37-38, offer an account of Jesus’ ministry: “That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” In Acts 10:38, the “anointing” of Jesus, which uses the verb chriô, shows how Luke understood Jesus’ messiahship in prophetic terms (Johnson, Acts, 192). Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit and dynamis, power, a connection found throughout Acts, but Jesus “doing good” utilizes the verb euergeteô, which is found only here in the whole New Testament (Johnson, Acts, 192). The absence of euergeteô from the New Testament is fascinating and somewhat surprising, since it was a common verb that described kings and their benefactions; in fact it appears as a key element of divine kingship in the Pythagorean kingship documents of the Hellenistic period. Is it used here by Luke because of its connections to Gentile kingship as a means of connecting Cornelius and his friends to Jesus’ Messianic kingship? One usage is hardly enough to make a decision, but the context might be telling.
Part of Jesus’ “doing good” is healing those who were “oppressed by the devil” (katadynasteuô), a verb which appears only here and in James 2:1, where it indicates the rich oppressing the poor. “Nowhere else does Luke make it so clear that he sees all healing as liberation from demonic power (v. 38 )” (“Commentary on Acts” in The Oxford Bible Commentary). Peter’s speech indicates that God must do battle with Satan’s kingdom and in fact has overcome evil (Johnson, Acts, 192).
Peter then switches to the witnesses of Jesus’ ministry: “We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:39-42). “Peter now repeats the charge that Jesus was ‘put to death’ (v. 39), though without specifying who was responsible (for ‘hanging on a tree’ cf. ACTS 5:30) (“Commentary on Acts” in The Oxford Bible Commentary), but Gilbert must be correct that Luke has in mind the Jewish leaders as the ones who put Jesus to death in Acts 10:39 (Gilbert, JANT, 220). Though the Romans “put him to death by hanging him on a tree,” the tree (xylon) evokes the curse text of Deut 21:23, “cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree” (Johnson, Acts, 193).
The witnesses testify to the events of Jesus’ life (10:39) and the events of his death and resurrection (10:41) (Johnson, Acts, 193). Johnson is certainly correct to see the explicit connection between resurrection appearances and eating with Jesus, which certifies that their witness is grounded in real, concrete human events (Johnson, Acts, 193). This Jesus, who commanded them to witness to his life and resurrection, is also the judge – a word only used elsewhere in Acts in 17:31 – “of the living and the dead.” It is Jesus’ role as judge of living and the dead which makes sense of his role as “Lord of all” (Johnson, Acts, 193). Finally, it is not only these living and breathing people who are witnesses to Jesus’ Lordship, but the Scripture, however relevant this is to Cornelius and his friends at this point: “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). Not only is prophetic fulfillment “central to Luke-Acts” (Johnson, Acts, 193), it is the promise of “forgiveness of sins through his name” to “everyone who believes in him,” even Gentiles.
Peter’s speech ushers in a new Gentile Pentecost in Acts 10:44-48. “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days” (Acts 10:44-48).
The key in Acts 10:44 is that the Holy Spirit falls upon the “all who heard the word” and thereby “repeats the events of Pentecost” (Gilbert, JANT, 220). It is the third outpouring of the Holy Spirit (2:1-4; 4:3; 8:17) in Acts and it shocks the “circumcised brothers” who had come from Joppa that the “gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). There was no question that it must be the Holy Spirit because the Gentiles were speaking in tongues, just as the Jewish believers were at Pentecost. Peter’s understanding of the event proceeds in this manner: since they are speaking in tongues, the Holy Spirit must be the cause. Since they have the Holy Spirit, God must have accepted these Gentiles. Since God has accepted these Gentiles, we must ratify God’s acceptance with baptism.
For Johnson, they significant phrase is Peter saying the Gentiles have received the Holy Spirit “just as we have” (Johnson, Acts, 194). “The act of baptizing Gentile believers (v. 48) follows as a logical consequence: the structure of Luke's narrative makes it quite clear that the initiative in this case is God's. The form of the question (‘Can anyone withold?’ v. 47) recalls the Ethiopian's question about baptism in 8:37: within the narrative, this is a rhetorical question which expects the answer ‘No’, but the very existence of the question implies that some at least in Luke's audience might have preferred to answer ‘Yes’.” (“Commentary on Acts” in The Oxford Bible Commentary). Peter understands that the presence of the Holy Spirit indicates that they show evidence of belief in Christ Jesus and so unilaterally decides to baptize them.
While it is difficult to find “a climax” in Acts of the Apostles, even to this point in the book one could argue for Pentecost, or the arrest of Peter and John, or Stephen’s martyrdom, or Paul’s conversion, the conversion of the Gentiles here ranks high on the list of events which might be considered as the “core” of this Gospel. It is hard to imagine Acts without the Gentile mission, and while the Ethiopian eunuch scene raises questions about previous Gentile conversion, this is the central conversion event for Luke, the point at which Acts turns its attention in full to the Gentile mission as the story of the Church.
Next entry, Peter reports the Gentile response to the Gospel and his decision to baptize Gentiles to the Jerusalem Church.
John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine - The Good Word