Studies in the Book of Acts
Accepts people of every nation (10:34-35)
Peter begins his speech with the point that there are no impure or unclean people in God’s eyes in terms of their receiving salvation. God “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (10:35). Peter himself is being educated on this point, as well as his audience. He is summarizing his own experience of God during the past few days, since seeing the vision of the animals.
Peter’s words — “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism” (11:34) — registers his own surprise at the new understanding he has just received, and which he can now pass on to others. The light is dawning in Peter’s mind that people are not acceptable to God simply because they are members of a particular nation, a nation that seeks to express its uniqueness in protective rituals. God accepts anyone “who fears him and does what is right” (19:35), that is, in simple terms, all who trust in him.
God’s choice of a people who experience his saving grace — whether the nation of Israel or individuals for salvation — rests on his unmerited act of grace. This includes receiving the Holy Spirit now and eternal life in the future. However, such grace, if it is accepted, calls forth a response of obedient service and faith toward God. That is, the people of God respect him and “do what is right.”
The prophets said that grace would one day be extended to all nations. For example, Isaiah spoke of a time when God would call Egyptians and Assyrians (two dreaded enemies of ancient Israel) as his people, along with the Israelites (19:25). But somehow God’s purpose was forgotten by the Jews who returned to Judea in the 6th century B.C. after their nation had been defeated by the Babylonians and sent into captivity. Upon their return, the Jews felt the need to protect their identity as Torah torchbearers against idol-worshipping Gentile paganism. Thus, the notion developed that Gentiles could become part of the people of God (whether nation or church) only if they first became law-observant, God-fearing Jews.
Good news of peace (10:36)
But now a new thing is happening: the “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (10:36) — and it is being sent to Gentiles directly. The apostle Paul explains this peace as a two-fold endeavor. God’s purpose is to “create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). The gospel of salvation is meant to break down the enmity and differences between Jews and Gentiles, creating a single new people of the Spirit. Thus, spiritually speaking, there is no such thing as a “Jew” and a “Gentile.” They are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).
Jesus’ gospel of peace is meant “to reconcile both of them to God through the cross” (Ephesians 2:16). Thus, Jesus’ work establishes peace between humans and God, and between one branch of humans and all others. As Paul explains it, Jesus “came and preached peace to you who were far away [Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]” (verse 17).
“We are witnesses” (10:37-43)
Of course, Cornelius and his family do not yet fully understood what the good news of peace means to them specifically, as Gentiles. Peter is here to relate the meaning of the gospel to their lives — that they can share in the promise of salvation.
Though Peter assumes that his hearers already know something about this ministry…he proceeds to summarize it in greater detail than anywhere else in his recorded preaching. In scope and emphasis, the account is much like the portrayal of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel. [ibid., 393.]
Since Peter has been one of the witnesses of everything Jesus did in Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee (10:39), his hearers can be confident in what he says. The task of witnessing includes giving the meaning of Jesus’ work during his ministry (10:39) and explaining the significance of his death and resurrection (10:41). Peter begins his accounting of Jesus’ ministry by first referring to the work of John the Baptist. Luke consistently makes John’s work of baptism as the turning point in God’s purpose with humanity, and the beginning point of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 3:3; 16:16; Acts 1:22).
Peter characterizes that ministry in terms of Jesus doing good and healing all who are under the power of the devil (10:38). The work of the Holy Spirit is central to Acts, and Luke here shows that the liberating works of Jesus are possible because God has anointed him with the power of the Spirit (10:38). Peter goes on to explain that the glorified Jesus has been given the authority to judge both the living and the dead. However, he doesn’t emphasize condemnation. Rather, as Hebrews tells us, Peter speaks of Jesus as the “author” of salvation and as a merciful and faithful high priest who makes “atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:10, 17).
Peter presumably cites texts from the Old Testament as evidence, because he insists that “all the prophets testify about him” (10:43). And what they testify explains in what way Jesus is the judge of both living and dead: “That everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).