A Tiny Text with Immense Significance - Reflections on Acts 10:44-48

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, April 29, 2024

A Tiny Text with Immense Significance

Acts 10:44-48

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          Acts 10-15 presents to the reader the full implication of what the Gospel of Jesus Messiah actually means for the emerging Christian communities, as well as for Christian communities now. In these crucial chapters of Acts, Peter comes to see that membership in the church of Jesus has nothing to do with being a citizen of a particular nation or being one who observes special customs that make one acceptable to God. On the contrary! The way one responds to God from “fear of the Lord” or more precisely from “faith” determines one’s entry into the fellowship of Jesus. In short, being a “good Jew” from the land of Israel is, for Peter, no longer a necessary sign for entry into the new community of Christ. The radical nature of this belief often is overlooked by modern readers, but its sheer audacity, its world-breaking reality, must not be underestimated. Right here we modern Christians may find the rationale for a fully inclusive gospel. After Peter’s conversion to this view, no longer may any persons be excluded from full inclusion in true Christian communities.

          In Acts 10, Luke begins his narrative journey to this earth-shattering truth, ending in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 wherein Peter’s astonishing viewpoint about the full inclusion of the Gentiles is affirmed by those who formerly would have found such inclusion anathema. Step by step, Luke leads his readers to the conclusion that he wishes for all to reach: both Jews and Gentiles are welcome, indeed are prized, in the communities of Jesus Messiah. Peter makes it plain to the council and to us that the “message of God sent to the children of Israel,” formerly thought to be exclusive to Judaism, already carried within it the implicit message of peace and reconciliation between all peoples. That means, for Luke, that the extension of the mission of the church to Gentiles is a continuation of Jesus’s own words and works.

          Acts 10 is the story of the Roman centurion Cornelius, a Gentile, who at the instigation of a vision from God asks to be visited by Peter, a Jew. Before Peter arrives at Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, he has a dream wherein he envisions a huge sheet, let down on earth by its four corners and filled with all manner of “four-footed creatures and snakes of the earth, as well as birds of the sky” (Acts 10:12). A voice commands Peter to “kill and eat,” but the faithful Jew Peter quickly responds, “Not at all, Lord, for I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” But the dream voice announces an amazing new thing: “Things God has cleansed, you stop making common” (Acts 10:14-15). Three times the sheet is lowered and three times Peter hears the voice telling him to kill and eat creatures he formerly would never have touched, let alone eaten. Peter’s emerging insight about the rich implications of the gospel are soon stretched even beyond what may be eaten.

          He goes to the house of Cornelius and enters the door. With that entry into the house of an “unclean” Gentile, Peter takes a most fateful step. Cornelius has gathered a crowd of relatives and close friends to hear the words of Peter, and they are certainly not disappointed in what the apostle says. “You do understand how it is forbidden for a Jew to associate with or to visit a person of another race. But God has shown me not to call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Peter goes on to say that he is frankly amazed to find himself having fellowship with all these Gentiles but concludes with powerful and crucial words: “In truth, I am grasping that God is no respecter of appearances. Rather, in every nation, the one who fears God and acts righteously is acceptable to God” (Acts 10:34-35). The NRSV translates the famous 10:34 “I truly understand that God shows no partiality,” which is the apparent implication of Peter’s words, though the more accurate reading has to do with “appearances,” as is found in the LXX of 2 Kings 3:14 where “lifting the face” refers to preferring one person over another. Also in Lev.19:15, the same phrase is used to forbid judgment “on the basis of appearances,” that is allowing extraneous factors, particularly bribes to sway fair judgment. Peter now “begins to see” (the force of the verb used here) that his former convictions about Jews and Gentiles are undergoing radical change.

          After this wonderful and expansive speech, “the Holy Spirit fell on those who were listening,” and “the believers from the circumcision (the Jews) were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:44-45). Peter orders the immediate baptism of all of them, “since they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did” (Acts 10:47). It will be this scene among others that Peter will recount to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

          After one reads this amazing portion of the book of Acts, no longer can we in good faith exclude any persons, calling them unclean or common. It is far past time for any Christian community to cease excluding anyone for any reason. Peter, that great apostle, learned what we all must learn: truly God is no respecter of appearances.

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