Exegesis Acts 10:34-38

  Peter began to speak: “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. He sent the message to the Israelites, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. You know the events that took place throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how he went about doing good and healing all who were under the tyranny of the devil, because God was with him. We ourselves are witnesses of everything he did in both the Judean country and in Jerusalem, and yet they killed him by hanging him on a tree. God raised up this man on the third day and caused him to be seen, not by all the people, but by us whom God appointed as witnesses, 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 appointed by God to be the judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that through his name everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.”

  While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came down on all those who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and declaring the greatness of God.

Then Peter responded, “Can anyone withhold water and prevent these people from being baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” He commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for a few days.

Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Ac 10:34–48.

Interpretations

  1. Why was Peter’s change in position on the Gentiles so radical?

Peter starts his speech in Acts 10 with a declaration of “Now I truly understand that God doesn’t show favoritism…” This statement is essential because of Peter’s prior understanding of the gospel. Before his vision (10:9-16) and his interaction with the Gentile Cornelius (10:17-33), who also had a vision (10:1-8), the Gentile question was still a murky issue. This whole scene is preceded by Saul’s conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. Luke is setting up Saul (now Paul) to be a missionary to the Gentiles. Laying the ground for this work, God is tenderizing Peter’s heart towards the Gentiles.

New Testament 3 Production Still Photography

The scandalous nature of Peter’s declaration came from his vision in vs. 15 when God told Peter after he had been told to eat unclean animals, “What God has made clean, do not call impure.” It was unthinkable for the Jews of first-century Palestine to associate much less eat a meal with a Gentile. To do so would put the Jew in a state of religious uncleanness, and the religious authorities and society would ostracize them. However, he promised that his gospel would go to all nations (Mark 16:15-16; Luke 21:35). That included the Gentiles. However, the disciples, now following the risen Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit, still hung on to their Jewish understanding of ritual uncleanliness. Therefore, Peter’s revelation was a radical departure from the norm. It was a revolutionary idea that the Jewish Christ-follower and the Gentile Christ-follower were equal before God and were equally eligible for God’s salvation through Jesus.

  • What was the significance of the Gentile’s reception of the Holy Spirit?

Going back to Acts 8:4-25, Philip the evangelist (not the apostle) moved out from Jerusalem to Samaria. In Samaria, he preached the gospel and baptized the Samaritans with John’s baptism of water and repentance. He apparently had a great deal of success in bringing Samaritans to faith. Later, Peter and John traveled to Samaria (vss. 14-16) to confirm that these conversions were genuine. After the apostles prayed over them, the Holy Spirit’s reception sealed the fact that these people were real believers in Jesus. With John’s baptism, they had a partial gospel. With the Holy Spirit, they had the complete gospel.

Jumping up to the text at hand, the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius’ house even before Peter could make his invitation. Peter’s speech (vss. 34-43) set the stage for Gentiles to genuinely come to faith. Before he was done with the address, the Holy Spirit interrupted him and fell on the Gentile household: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came down on all those who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and declaring the greatness of God.” (Vss. 44-46).

Application

The passage at hand reminds us that the gospel is for all people. No people group who have ever existed, existing today, or will exist in the future are excluded from salvation through Jesus. This idea was a radical departure for the first Christ-followers. Being Jewish, they were raised and taught that Gentiles were unclean – filthy. The Jewish people who followed Christ witnessed his resurrection and were filled with the Holy Spirit still clung to the world they were a part of. But God has a way of blowing apart those things which are not of Him.

The gospel of King Jesus was commissioned to his followers to spread throughout the whole world. Because Jesus makes his offer of salvation to every person, so must we be aware that God is putting people in our path that need to hear this good news. Perhaps these people are not people we usually associate with. Maybe it is a group of people with whom we hold some fear, resentment, or anger. If that is the case and it is not usual for God to bring these types of people our way, this indicates God wants us to stretch the idea of evangelism and who enters His Kingdom. For when we look at people as “unclean,” then we are looking at Jesus as “unclean.” Peter expanded his understanding and love for God when he opened up Cornelius’s family to the gospel and the Holy Spirit’s filling. God will do the same when we reach out to people that might not be the kind of people we want to reach out to. Even though we were all under sin and unclean, Jesus took on our uncleanliness on the cross. Because of this, no person is unclean who comes to Jesus in repentance and faith.

Summary and Review

  1. Summary –  

This scene is one of the layers of scenes the narrator of Acts provides, leading to the culmination of Acts 15. Steven is martyred by the Jewish leaders and Saul (Acts 7), signifying a turn away from Jewish evangelism. Philip follows in Acts 8 with his mission to the Samaritans (despised by the Jews) and an Ethiopian eunuch (representing the edge of the known world – a Gentile). Next, the narrator provides the scene of Saul’s conversion from Christ persecutor to Christ-follower with a mission precisely to the Gentiles (Acts 9). Entering into Acts 10, an introduction is made to Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a God-fearing Gentile whom his Jewish neighbors respected. Cornelius receives a vision about Peter. Peter receives a vision of what is clean and what is not clean. In Caesarea, Peter receives these visions and is told that he should go to Cornelius.

The narrator brings the story to Acts 10:34-48. Peter starts the passage with what is called the Petrine creed. This creed is a declaration that the gospel of King Jesus the Messiah is for all people – Jew and Gentile. Peter preaches the gospel in a new way that is inclusive of these spiritually hungry Gentiles. Before Peter can give an “alter-call,” the Holy Spirit falls on the new believers, and they speak in tongues.

After this scene, Peter defends this new movement of the gospel to the Jerusalem church, and a new faith community of Jewish and Gentile believers is started in Antioch (Acts 11). The Gentile narrative is continued in Acts 13 – 14 with Paul’s first missionary journey outside of Palestine and the Gentile world. When Paul returns to Antioch in Acts 15, there was a dispute concerning the nature of this new movement to the Gentiles. Some Jewish believers declared that Gentile believers must be circumcised and follow the Law. Paul was vehemently against this ideology. The dispute was moved to Jerusalem and then the church leadership. There, both Paul and Peter make a strong case against the Judiaising of the Gentile believers. The Jerusalem council agrees and asks that Gentiles refrain from sexual immorality and meat offered to idols and eating blood. After Acts 15, the narration of Acts turns permanently to the gospel’s mission to the Gentiles. In no small way, this mission was affected by the scene at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10.

  • Critical Assessment

The Petrine creed leading into the Spirit descending on Cornelius and his household is a pivot point for the narration of Acts and the Christian church as a whole. God had been laying the groundwork, starting with Jesus and his interactions with Samaritans and Gentiles and then continuing in Philip and Paul’s commissioning. The two Philip narratives seem to be more of an oddity than a turning point, but they foreshadow the great movement God will be doing in the Gentiles. Peter was given a dream, and that dream was realized in the Holy Spirit’s surprising move upon the Gentile household.

However, according to Wright:

“So we shouldn’t be as surprised as Peter was when, with the story only told in barest outline, the holySpirit fell on all those who are listening. This is, though, a moment we have been waiting for since the first two chapters. Jesus told his followers that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth, and the holy Spirit had fallen on the believers in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and in Samaria (Acts 8). Now at last, the Spirit comes on Gentiles as well.”[1]

Marshall continues this thought: “Peter could have had no better-prepared and eager an audience than this, and was quick to seize on the situation as the starting-point for his address… Peter expresses his realization that God will accept anybody of any race who reverences him and lives righteously. God is no respecter of persons.”[2]

The reader of Acts should not be surprised by this turn of events. The evangelism of the Gentiles has been building throughout the gospel of Luke, declared by Jesus in the first chapter of Acts, and then foreshadowed in Philip’s ministry. Marshall again speaking on Philip’s ministry in Samaria: “[The Samaritans] were thus brought into fellowship with the whole church, and not merely with the Hellenist section of it. This explanation is preferable to the view that the Samaritans had not responded fully to the preaching of the gospel.”[3] (emphasis original to text). Peter saw the Samaritans, hated by the Jews as half-bred people, become fully integrated into the church. Now he has seen Gentiles also brought into the family of Jesus. The stage is set for a showdown in Jerusalem, where the matter of the Gentiles will be decided.

  • Reactions and questions and application –

Many years ago, when I was attending Gordon College, I took a class in Christian Theology. The professor, Dr. McDonald, had us memorize the Petrine Creed of Acts 10. Other professors teaching the course had students memorize the Apostles Creed of the Nicene Creed. But Dr. McDonald believed that this passage was an essential creed for us to know. I am glad he had us memorize the passage. Every time I read this section, I try to put myself in Peter’s place. His whole paradigm of spirituality has been upended since he met Jesus and now since the Holy Spirit fell powerfully on Cornelius and his family. I suppose it was a sense of amazement, joy. But I also suspect there was a sense of fear and dread in bringing this new shift to the church in Jerusalem. I imagine the thought going through his head “This is amazing! But what are John and James going to say?”

As I encounter God and see him work through people, I try to keep this in mind. God is not a God who sticks within my understanding of his work; He works in ways that continually surprise and challenge me. Each time he surprises me, I have to rethink my own paradigm. I have to ask myself the question, “Does this fit into my understanding of ministry, or do I need to broaden my view of what God can do.”


[1] Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2008), 167.

[2] I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 5, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 200.

[3] I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 5, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 162.

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