Cornelius’s Vision (10:1–8)
Are genuine seekers after God saved, if they have responded to the light they have but have never heard the gospel? The experience of Cornelius begins to answer this question.
Fearing God and Helping the Needy (10:1–2) At Caesarea, a mainly Gentile city, residence of the Roman proconsul (from A.D. 6 onward), lived Cornelius, a Roman centurion. He was in command of sixty to one hundred men and was the equivalent of an army captain or company commander. His unit was part of the Italian Regiment (the Cohores II Miliaria Italica Civium Romanorum). A cohort had ten centuries and was the equivalent of a modern military battalion. This battalion was an auxiliary unit, not part of a regular Roman legion. Such a battalion of archers was first made up of Roman soldiers and then filled out in the provinces.
Cornelius would have been a winsome figure for Luke’s Roman audience. Polybius said of centurions, the backbone of the Roman army, “They wish centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard pressed and be ready to die at their posts” (Histories 6.24.9).
This “solid citizen” along with all his family (literally “all his household,” which would have included household servants and military orderlies and their families) was devout and God-fearing. Luke does not quite use “God-fearer” (hos phoboumenos or hos seboumenos) as a technical term (Acts 10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26, 43, 50; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7). But it does point to that class of monotheistic Gentiles who worshiped the God of the Old Testament, kept the Old Testament ethical code, attended synagogue, observed the sabbath and practiced the main requirements of Jewish piety (Levinskaya 1990). Because they refused to become proselytes, Jews still regarded them as ritually unclean Gentiles. Luke emphasizes Cornelius’s piety: regular prayer (the Jewish practice was three times a day: m. Berakot 4:1; compare Dan 6:10) and many acts of charity among the needy of the Jewish people (Tobit 1:16; Sirach 7:10; 16:14; compare Mt 6:1–14).
God may do preparatory work in a culture before missionaries arrive. But note Cornelius’s worship is directed to the one true God.
The Opportunity to Receive “More Light” (10:3–6)* At about three in the afternoon (literally, “the ninth hour,” the Jewish afternoon hour of prayer and sacrifice), in broad daylight, Cornelius, wide awake, sees clearly a vision in which an angel approaches him and addresses him by name. Staring in fear (compare 1:10; 3:4, 12; 6:15; 7:55), Cornelius responds, What is it, Lord? (compare 9:5). Lord can mean anything from a courteous “sir” (so here says Bruce [1990:254]) to a divine title (E. F. Harrison 1986:176 says it indicates that Cornelius knows he is in God’s presence). Cornelius probably is indeed giving some worshipful acclaim, although he may not know the exact identity of the one to whom he is speaking (Longenecker 1981:386).
The angel says Cornelius’s prayers and acts of charity have risen as the aroma of the meal offering rose as a memorial before God (Lev 2:2, 9, 16; Ps 141:2; Tobit 12:12; Longenecker 1981:386). It is too much to say that Cornelius has been praying that he might be fully incorporated into the fellowship of the people of God (as Pesch 1986:1:337; Kistemaker 1990:373).
What we see emerging to this point is the basic outline of the “more light” principle of God’s redemptive mercy (compare Lk 8:18; 19:26). Cornelius has responded in faith and obedience to the “light” he has received, as evidenced by his piety. He fears the one true God, prays to him regularly and acts in love to the needy among God’s people. Such obedience is not a “works righteousness” that earns salvation. This we can see by God’s response. He does not declare Cornelius saved. Rather, he grants him “more light” by which he and his household may be saved (Acts 11:14). God’s response is embodied in a command to send for the messenger who carries the gospel, the essential “more light” (4:12). What have we done with the light we have received?
The angel tells Cornelius to send to Joppa, thirty miles south, and fetch Simon who is called Peter from the house of Simon the tanner, located by the sea (a good water supply was needed for the tanning trade). God deals with Cornelius this way to demonstrate that salvation comes to all people in the same divinely commanded and enabled way: through human messengers who proclaim the gospel (Lk 24:47).
We need to constantly remind ourselves of this, whether we are considering the claims of the gospel and are tempted to wait for some extraordinary experience, or whether having received it and become a witness to it we are tempted to become lax in evangelism, thinking that there may be other ways God will save people.
Cornelius Obeys (10:7–8) Cornelius calls two household servants (an oiketēs had a particularly intimate relationship with the master, since he served him in very personal matters; Philo De Plantatione 55) and a soldier who is an orderly (the NIV translation of both terms misses the intimate relation these men have to Cornelius). He tells them everything that had happened (Williams [1985:172] notes the emphatic position of everything in the Greek text). As members of his household, all three would be God-fearers (compare Acts 10:2), though Luke emphasizes the devoutness of the military orderly.
Cornelius sends them to Joppa to find and bring back Peter. Some have supposed that the thirty-mile distance requires that they ride (Marshall 1980:184). Others suggest that a determined march through the night with rest stops would permit them to arrive about noon the next day (Haenchen 1971:347; compare 10:9, 17). In any case, Cornelius’s immediate obedience to limited information models for us the kind of faith that will truly receive salvation. It depends on God’s word of promise alone.
Peter’s Vision (10:9–23)
A Muslim doesn’t consider it impolite to go into the kitchen of non-Muslim hosts to make sure milk and meat are not mixed in the meal preparations. So strong is our commitment to ethnic distinctives of diet, especially when they are grounded in religion. We do not readily leave the comfort zone of our religio-ethnic identity. But if Peter is to spearhead the Jerusalem church’s Gentile mission, God must move him out of his Jewish comfort zone.
A Culinary Vision (10:9–16)* Luke dovetails the actions of Cornelius’s messengers with those of Peter. About noon (literally, the sixth hour, with daylight hours reckoned from six a.m.) on the following day, as they are approaching the city, Peter climbs, probably via an outside stairway, to the flat rooftop of Simon the tanner’s house. His purpose is prayer, according to the pattern of pious Jews who prayed three times a day, though this was not necessarily one of the officially prescribed times (m. Berakot 4:1; Ps 55:17). The rooftop provides solitude, possibly an awning for shade, and the refreshment of breezes off the Mediterranean.
During his prayers Peter becomes very hungry. As the meal is being prepared (the normal Jewish pattern was a light meal in the forenoon and the main meal about sunset, so this was not a regular meal), a trance comes on him. It is not a dream (contra Williams 1985:173), nor does Peter lose control of his senses. Rather, the presence of the Lord so comes upon him that he is in a profound state of concentration. He is partially or completely oblivious to external sensations but fully alert to subjective influences as God communicates with him visually and audibly (Kistemaker 1990:377; compare 22:17). Commentators have suggested that Peter’s hunger, his thoughts of conflict between Jews and Gentiles in the churches of the coastal plain, and the flapping of the awning or the sight of ships in full sail on the Mediterranean are psychological influences on the vision’s details (Longenecker 1981:387; Marshall 1980:185). Luke, however, speaks only of Peter’s hunger. What we do learn from this narrative’s setting is that God is again taking the initiative to bring Peter and the Gentiles together.
Peter sees heaven opened and a “vessel” or “container” (NIV’s something is too general) like a “linen sheet” (in Martyrdom of Polycarp 15.2 the word refers to a ship’s sails) being let down … by its four corners. The four corners probably refer to the worldwide dimensions of the vision’s significance (“four corners of the earth,” Rev 7:1; less certain is an allusion to Noah’s ark, as Derrett 1988:206).
The categories of animals it contains do correspond to a comprehensive Old Testament cataloging of the animal kingdom on land and in the air (Gen 1:24; 7:14; 8:19; Lev 11). Whether all kinds indicates that the assemblage includes both clean and unclean animals (E. F. Harrison 1986:178; Longenecker 1981:387) or just the unclean (Haenchen 1971:348; Marshall 1980:185) is not clear. Peter’s protest at the command to kill and eat indicates that at least some unclean animals are present. The vision’s purpose—proving a new freedom in association of Jew and Gentile—is best accomplished if a mixture is present.
Peter is commanded to slaughter these animals according to the proper method and eat (Deut 12:15–16; m. Ḥullin). Luke lets us know this mandated behavior change is from God by showing a rare free intercourse between heaven and earth (compare 1:10–11; 2:2; 7:55–56) and a direct voice from heaven (Lk 3:22; 9:35; Acts 9:4, 7; compare 7:31). Divine revelation is required if Old Testament revelation and the layers of ethnic prejudices built upon it are to be set aside.
In the strongest possible terms and appealing to Ezekiel 4:14, Peter faces what he may view as a temptation or test of loyalty. He refuses, announcing his firm resolve to live in ritual purity (compare Mt 16:22; Lk 22:33): I have never eaten anything impure or unclean (Lev 10:10; 11:1–47; Deut 14:3–21). That is, I have never eaten anything that is accessible to every human being (NIV impure, literally “common”) but by divine mandate is forbidden to me as part of God’s holy people. Such food is unclean, not only because God declares it to be such but also because if I eat it I will become ritually defiled, unfit to come into God’s presence in worship.
The voice comes again, this time providing the rationale: God has declared all foods clean. Peter is not to go on declaring some foods profane or “common.” Jesus’ teaching and behavior had certainly prepared the way for such a declaration (Mk 7:14–23; Lk 11:39–41), and the cross was the salvific basis for it (Eph 2:14–15; Col 2:14). The sheet from heaven and the voice both bear witness that all God’s creatures are now to be viewed as clean and good, not to be refused (Gen 1:31; 1 Tim 4:3).
This whole transaction occurs three times. What is the basic truth here? It is divine mandate, not something inherent in the creature, that establishes the dividing line between clean and unclean.
Divinely Sent Gentile Guests (10:17–23)* Peter is thoroughly perplexed (NIV’s wondering about is too weak; compare 2:12; 5:24; Lk 9:7). Is he confused by an evident divine contradiction, a heavenly voice commanding him to disregard food laws that God had given Moses for Israel? Or is he wondering what significance this boundary abolition will have for his identity and behavior as a Jewish Christian?
By providential coincidence, Cornelius’s men appear at the gate and call out for Peter just as he is puzzling over the vision. God the Holy Spirit speaks to Peter, telling him that three men are seeking him (compare v. 21). In describing their pursuit of Peter who will tell them how to be saved (11:14), is Luke presenting a model of the spiritual stance every Gentile should take (17:27; compare Rom 2:7)?
Peter is to go with them without making a distinction for himself (NIV do not hesitate; Greek diakrinō). In the middle or passive voice this verb can mean either “to take issue with” or “to be at odds with oneself, to doubt, to waver, to have misgivings” and is so understood here by many (NIV; Bruce 1990:257; Kistemaker 1990:382; compare v. 29). But since Peter’s objections are really based on continuing prejudicial distinctions between Jew and Gentile, and the vision as he comes to properly interpret it has to do with removing such distinctions (v. 28), it seems best to take the verb here in an intensified form of its active meaning, “to make a distinction, to differentiate” (compare 11:12; 15:9; Marshall 1980:187; Stott 1990:187; Krodel [1986:191] takes it as meaning both). So taken, the Spirit’s instruction is Peter’s focal point of illumination concerning the vision. If he will act out “not making distinctions” with these Gentiles even to the extent of table fellowship in their household, he will understand the vision and its implications. And today if we would understand God’s Word, especially where it challenges our prejudices, we too must wrestle with its meaning and its implications. We may expect to understand it more and more fully as we obey it more and more readily.
Peter meets the men with a declaration that he is the one they are “looking for.” He asks why they have come. Placing Cornelius in the most favorable light possible, the messengers describe their master’s character, his reputation among all the Jewish people (compare Lk 7:5) and the angel’s instruction.
Peter invites the men in to be his guests. In this he does not go beyond what a law-abiding Jew might do (Marshall 1980:187). Still, because of their visit’s purpose, Peter’s hospitality is a sign that he agrees to their request, which was not permitted for a Jew. Peter in this brief encounter grows in his discipleship. Obedience to the Spirit will lead to understanding. Understanding demands further obedience.
God by his word was breaking down prejudicial barriers as his witnesses obeyed. What breakthroughs does God want to bring about through us as we obey?
Peter’s Witness to Cornelius (10:23–48)
“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 nāsā’pānîm/Greek lambanō prosōpon). 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 (euergetōn; Hellenistic kings held a related royal title, euergetēs, 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.
* 10:3 Visions—often double visions—occur in four episodes in Acts. Each time they function to give divine guidance for the advance of God’s mission, especially in the face of human resistance or uncertainty (Ananias and Paul, 9:10, 12; Gentile Cornelius and Jewish apostle Peter, 10:3, 17, 19; 11:5; Paul and the European mission, 16:9–10; Paul and the evangelization of Corinth, 18:9; compare 5:19–20; 8:26).
* 10:9 Lake and Cadbury (1979:114) suggest that in the light of Acts 10:30 the following day should be understood as calculated from the time of the journey’s start. If Cornelius receives the vision on Monday and the men begin their journey on Tuesday, verse 9 points to Wednesday noon.
10:12–13 Derrett (1988:206) makes a case for the primary reference being to the animals at and after the flood. The order of categories is closest to that of Genesis 7:14 and 8:19, and the lack of mention of fish makes sense not only because fish were absent from the ark but because they do not have “the breath of life” in them and were given as food (Gen 6:19–20; 7:2–3, 8, 14–15).
Derrett believes that this command (Acts 10:13) is a auditory substitute for Deuteronomy 12:15, 21 and has the effect of repealing the food laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 (1988:211). If the allusions to Genesis 6–9 are accepted, the heavenly vision appears to be reestablishing the eating practices permitted to Noah (Gen 9:3). As long as blood is not eaten, both Jew and Gentile can eat clean and unclean food.
10:14 Unclean in the Old Testament is “anything associated with a foreign cult, or hostile to Yahweh.” It defiles, making those who come in contact with it ceremonially unclean (Hauck and Meyer 1965:416). In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 the clean-unclean distinction marks what the holy people of God are and are not permitted to eat. Gordon Wenham (1981) closely critiques and finds inadequate all the suggested rationales for the distinction: hygiene, association with idolatry, carnivores as unclean, and ethical symbolism. He proposes an overarching symbolism of purity understood as integrity and wholeness. Animals that do not seem to fit their class are unclean (for example, those having many more legs and wings than normal—Lev 11:20–23). Wenham applies this to Israel’s relation to God. The diet was limited to certain meats in imitation of God, who had restricted his choice among nations to Israel. It reminded them of their calling to be a holy nation.
* 10:19 B (Vaticanus), an important fourth-century witness, is the one early manuscript referring to “two” men to which the NIV marginal note points. A group of Western and Byzantine manuscripts do not have any number. If the “two” reading, which would count the soldier only as a guard, is original, then the readings that have “three” or that omit the number are corrections in the light of Acts 10:7 and 11:11. But because the soldier seems to be more important than a mere guard and the diversified manuscript witness to the reading “three” gives it the strongest support among the options, it seems best to follow that reading (Metzger 1971:373).
One must be careful neither to reduce the Spirit’s communication in “some direct unmistakable way” to “growth of inward conviction” (Marshall 1980:187) nor to lump the angel (10:3), the heavenly voice and the Spirit into one divine reality that “it is both exegetically and experientially difficult, if not impossible, to draw any sharp lines between” (Longenecker 1981:389). While there is certainly a unity of purpose and action from the Triune God, the distinct methods of communication must not be ignored (compare 8:26, 29; 13:2; 16:6, 7).
* 10:30 NIV translates idou (“behold”) as suddenly and may miss some of its importance as a demonstrative marker. It serves to point out divine intervention and providential convergence of events throughout the narrative (vv. 17, 19, 21; 11:11).
* 10:35 Bassler (1985) contends that Luke’s view of God’s impartiality differs from Paul’s radical eschatological approach (Rom 2:10). She says Luke seems to incorporate the distinction in Greco-Roman universalism between those who use reason to live virtuously and those who do not. She contends that Luke employs the Jewish Christian ideal as the standard of behavior for the virtuous life. In this way God’s impartiality “acknowledges the ability of Gentiles to conform to Jewish-Christian standards of merit” (1985:551). But such a view does not take into account the fact that Cornelius still needs to hear a message in order to be saved (Acts 11:14).
10:36 Due to the lack of a connecting particle, the precise relation of verse 36 to its immediate context should not be determined by linking it to what precedes, thus making impartiality the context of the gospel (contrast Marshall 1980:191). Then the reception of forgiveness by all those who believe (v. 43) becomes unnecessary. Nor should we link the verse to what follows, making the message the object of you know (see v. 37; compare RSV). Then verse 37 following cannot properly function as proof of the sermon’s theme contained in this verse (Burchard 1985:293; compare Lk 2:15, 17). Rather, verse 36 should be allowed to maintain its independent status with a minimum of emendation. It contains the gospel message on the pattern of its first announcement to the shepherds (Lk 2:10–14). The NIV permits such a reading, though it does deemphasize the verse’s climax by making it a dependent clause. The verse should read, “As to the word [accusative of respect] that God sent to the children of Israel, bringing good news of peace through Jesus Christ: This [Jesus Christ] is Lord of all [people].”
10:42 Though some see the people as referring to both Jew and Gentile because of verse 34 (Williams 1985:181; Kistemaker [1990:399] says it refers to Gentiles), this understanding fits neither the usage in the immediate context (v. 41) nor Peter’s and the Jerusalem church’s practice to this point in carrying out a Jewish mission (Longenecker 1981:393). Though it may explain the delay in the direct Gentile mission (E. F. Harrison 1986:184), Peter’s articulation should probably be understood as saying that the gospel reaches the Gentiles through the Jews (Krodel 1986:198; compare 3:25–26).
* 10:45 Circumcised believers probably refers to a certain party within Jewish Christianity that believed circumcision was necessary for incorporation into the church, as Kistemaker (1990:403) contends, not simply to Jewish Christian believers in general (Lake and Cadbury 1979:122).
William J. Larkin Jr., Acts, vol. 5, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), Ac 10:1–44.