Once again the Sunday lectionary points us towards the reading from Acts as an important point of focus in the post-Easter narrative. The reading ‘which must be used as either the first or the second reading’ is Acts 11.1–18, the final episode in the ‘Petrine narrative’ which began with Peter healing Aeneas and raising Tabitha at the end of chapter 9, which was last week’s reading. After this week’s reading, we see the focus shift from Jerusalem to Antioch, which becomes a major centre of the Christian community, sending Paul and Barnabas out on their ‘missionary journeys’. Peter makes an appearance in chapter 12 when he is miraculously released from prison (as Paul is too in chapter 16), and gets one mention at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.7—and that is his last appearance in Acts.
The episode with Cornelius is pivotal to Luke’s narrative in Acts, marking the formal admission of Gentiles as Gentiles into what was until now a Jewish renewal movement which hailed Jesus as the (unexpected) Jewish Messiah. This move has been adumbrated first in the response of Samaritans to the good news, brought by Philip in Acts 8.4, and in Philip’s further ministry to the Ethiopian official (‘eunuch’) in Acts 8.26f. This man appears to have been a ‘God fearer’ since, though not Jewish, he has ‘come to Jerusalem to worship’ (Acts 8.27). Here, faith comes to those groups immediately adjacent to the Jewish nation, but the flood of the good news is about to burst even these banks. The importance of the Cornelius incident is shown by Luke’s recounting it, then recounting it again in Peter’s first speech, and again now. Luke appears to communicate the importance of events by including detail and repetition—and so we later hear several accounts of Paul’s ‘conversion’ as well, signalling the importance of that incident in the spreading of the good news about Jesus.
The comment in Acts 11.1 that the apostles and ‘brothers’ (believers) in Judea had heard about what happened is a classic device of Luke to link the previous episodes with what he now relates. But it also contains some important detail. First, Cornelius has functioned (as have the Samaritans and the Ethiopian official) as a ‘bridge’ character; he is not a pagan, but belongs to a group that Luke has called ‘God fearers’. To adapt Jesus’ words in Mark 12.34, he is not far from the people of God—and yet he is clearly not yet counted a member. However respected he is, as far as the (Jewish) Jesus movement is concerned, he represented ‘Gentiles’ who have received the ‘word of God’—a phrase sometimes denoting Jesus, sometimes the Scriptures, but here, the message of the good news as it has been proclaimed.
The same phrase has already been used by Luke in Acts 8.14 of the Samaritans, inviting us to see the link and the parallel. For Luke’s first readers, they will recognise that Luke is describing the spread of the gospel in a way familiar to ancient historians, describing events kata genos, by ‘kind’ meaning race or region. It is no accident that Luke is careful to specify locations, ethnic groups and issues of social status.
So when Peter goes to Jerusalem, the news has preceded him. He is not, it appears, criticised by the apostles, but ‘those of the circumcision’, οἱ ἐκ περιτομῆς. The NIV is wrong to translate this as ‘circumcised believers’, not least since all the believers in Jerusalem were circumcised! Rather this refers to those who were adamant about careful keeping of the law, so the ESV is probably right to use the phrase ‘those of the circumcision party’, a group which Paul will later loudly clash with in his letter to the Galatians. The criticism is that Peter ‘ate with them’—in social context (as all through the New Testament) sharing food being a sign of partnership and fellowship with them—which is not actually mentioned in the previous accounts, but inferred.
In his defence, Peter offers a forensic speech which dispenses with introductory comments and launches immediately into the narratio, the story of what has happened, told from his own point of view, and so fitting in the meetings with Cornelius’ messengers and household in the order he experienced them—though, surprisingly, not mentioning Cornelius’ name, perhaps because it is his status as a Gentile, rather than his personal identity, which matters.
As a speech in defence of his actions, Peter includes three things which an educated person would expect to see in such a defence. The first is the mention of the threefold vision, and then the Spirit directing Peter (something not made explicit in the previous accounts) to go with Cornelius’ men (Acts 11.12). The second is the corresponding mention of the angelic visitation to Cornelius in Acts 11.13; together with Peter’s experience, this offers a sense of divine approval, and effects a metastasis, a transfer of responsibility for what has happened from Peter to God. The third element is the mention of the six companions Peter has as witnesses (I am not sure whether the total of Peter and his companions being seven is of any significance). A reliable defence should always offer witnesses who can corroborate what has happened.
The instruction of the Spirit to Peter is not quite as the NIV has it in Acts 11.12 ‘to have no hesitation’. The actual phrase is that Peter should go ‘without making any distinction’. This is expressed elsewhere in the NT, including in 1 Peter 1.17, in the idea that God is ‘impartial’ or (in the AV) ‘is no respecter of persons’. The decisive theological move relates to how one becomes a member of the people of God—no longer by ethnicity, or accepting and living by the law, or doing those things as well as recognising Jesus as Messiah and Law, but now by receipt of the Holy Spirit alongside recognising the truth about Jesus. Luke emphasises the role of the Spirit in all parties throughout this account; it should be the normal expectation of any believer that the Spirit will speak, direct, guide and reveal.
The end result of Peter’s defence is not, at least immediately, further division, but unanimous agreement that God is indeed at work. This is the result that Peter is aiming for in his closing rhetorical question ‘Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?’ (Acts 11.17). It is worth noting that Luke describes Peter’s opponents as ‘being silent’ (Acts 11.18), using the verb hesuchazo, ἡσυχάζω, a cognate of the term used by Paul in 1 Tim 2.12 for women ‘to be silent’. It clearly cannot mean not saying anything, since those who are ‘silent’ also exclaim in praise to God! The sense is that their quarrelling and arguments are at an end.
There isn’t any real sense in the narrative that Luke is pitching Scripture against experience, as some might infer from the contrast between obedience to the (scriptural) food laws and the direction of the Spirit; Luke in fact shows much less interest in the food laws compared with Matthew and Mark. In any case, the final resolution of the Gentile question is resolved in the Council meeting in Acts 15 precisely by appeal to the Scriptures, which point to the drawing of all peoples to Zion and the presence of God as God’s ultimate goal.
Nor does Luke appear to be offering a paradigm by which specific groups might be gradually included in the people of God in stages. In the first century worldview of the writers of the New Testament, humanity was divided quite clearly into two groups: Jews and Gentiles. The Cornelius episode does not describe a gradual, staged inclusion of the next group of humanity in the offer of the good news, to be repeated at intervals and offered as a model for the inclusion of successive new groups of humanity at different stages of history. No; rather, this was a decisive, not-to-be-repeated step of recognising that the good news was not only for the one half of humanity, the Jews, but for both halves, Jews and Gentiles, together. As such, this is Luke’s narrative exposition of what Paul states in Eph 2 (writing to people in a region that, if Rev 2.9 is anything to go by, saw some tension between Jews and Gentile Christians):
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two [that is, Jews and Gentiles] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away [that is, Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [that is, Jews]. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Ephesians 2.14–18)
Although Luke does have an interest in the poor and the marginal, it is again striking that both the Ethiopian and Cornelius were people of prestige and status. Luke seems to be explaining not only how a Gentile like his patron Theophilus has come to be included in the people of God, but how such respectable and wealthy people in the Roman world have come to be included. The good news about Jesus has spread out, from one people group to another, and one region to another, but it has also spread up the Roman social ladder, touching on every layer of society.
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