The context for this story begins with God’s call of Abram, when God promised, “All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:3). While the Old Testament relates the story of Israel as God’s chosen people, there is also an undercurrent that reminds us of God’s love for Gentiles. And so the Jewish law prescribes fair treatment for aliens (Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:19)—and Rahab (Joshua 6:25) and Ruth (Ruth 1:16-17), both Gentiles, became part of Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:5)—and God sent Jonah to Nineveh to save the Ninevite Gentiles (Jonah 1:2).
In the New Testament, this openness to Gentiles accelerates. After his resurrection, Jesus told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (1:8). At Pentecost, Peter (not yet understanding the full import of his words) said, “For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far off, even as many as the Lord our God will call to himself” (2:39).
However, in the early chapters of Acts, membership in the church required prior membership in the Jewish faith.
But then in chapter 8, Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch—a man who, because of his physical defect (castration) was not eligible to become a full member of the Jewish community.
And then chapter 9 tells the story of the conversion of Saul (Paul), who will become the great apostle to the Gentiles.
And then in the first half of Acts 10, Cornelius and Peter both saw visions given by God. In his vision, Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a devout Gentile, was ordered to send for Peter. In his vision, Peter saw unclean animals (unclean according to Jewish law) and received an order from God to kill and eat them. Just as Peter was trying to understand the meaning of this troublesome vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrived. Then the Spirit said to Peter, “Behold, three men seek you. But arise, get down, and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them” (10:19b-20). Peter went with the men to Joppa, where he met Cornelius. He said, “You yourselves know how it is an unlawful thing for a man who is a Jew to join himself or come to one of another nation, but God has shown me that I shouldn’t call any man unholy or unclean” (10:28).
“Luke, himself a Gentile by birth, had good reason to emphasize…the bringing in of the Gentiles” (Bruce, 211).
ACTS 10:34-35. GOD DOESN’T PLAY FAVORITES
34Peter opened his mouth and said, “Truly I perceive that God doesn’t show favoritism; 35but in every nation (Greek: ethnei—from ethnos) he who fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.
The Greek grammar in Peter’s speech is quite weak. Scholars speculate that Luke (the author of the book of Acts) was using an Aramaic source (Aramaic is a Semitic language used by Jewish people in New Testament times). Luke was not Jewish, and it appears that he translated rather literally from an Aramaic source.
“Peter opened his mouth and said, ‘Truly I perceive that God doesn’t show favoritism'” (v. 34). The Hebrew Scriptures always prohibited Jewish people from showing favoritism to wealthy or powerful people, and made it clear that Yahweh did not show favoritism to privileged people (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 10:17-18; 2 Chronicles 19:7).
But the favoritism of which Peter speaks is favoritism toward the people of Israel. In the Old Testament, God chose Abram and Abram’s descendants, bringing them into a covenant relationship that made Israel to be known as God’s chosen people Genesis 12:1-3; Exodus 19-24; Joshua 24; 2 Samuel 7:12-17). However, these covenants were all preliminary to the covenant established by Jesus (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). As Paul will later say, because of Christ’s work, “there is neither longer Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
“but in every nation” (ethnei—from ethnos) (v. 35a). While ethnos can have various meanings, it is often a code-word for Gentile. Peter’s phrase, “every nation,” clearly means people from Gentile nations.
“he who fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him” (v. 35b). But if God is not partial to people of a particular race, he is partial to those who fear him and who do what is right. The standard for righteousness in the past has been adherence to Jewish law. However, Peter says that he now understands that fearing God (having reverence for God) and doing what is right are now the criteria by which God will judge.
This doing “what is right” is not works-righteousness, but it acknowledges that God expects correspondence between faith and behavior. A person who reverences God will try to honor God by acting in accord with God’s will. Grace is still necessary, because “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), but God knows our hearts. God knows whether we are trying to honor him by doing his will. It is not acceptable to profess faith while making no effort to do God’s will.
ACTS 10:36-38. HE IS LORD OF ALL
36The word which he sent to the children of Israel, preaching good news of peace (Greek: eirenen—fromeirene) by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all— 37you yourselves know what happened, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached; 38even Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
“The word which he sent to the children of Israel, preaching good news of peace (eirenen—from eirene) by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all” (v. 36). The eirene peace that Jesus came to bring is like the shalom peace of the Old Testament. It is the kind of spiritual peace that one experiences when he/she is right with God and neighbor—the kind of “centered” life that is not self-centered but God-centered—the kind of life that willingly submits to God’s will—the kind of life that make it possible to sleep at night, knowing that one has tried to do the right thing.
It is kind of peace with God that one achieves by honoring the first commandment (“love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind”)—and the kind of peace that one achieves with other humans by honoring the second commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself”—Luke 10:27).
But this eirene-peace cannot be achieved by one’s own efforts. God sent the message of peace “by Jesus Christ.” Jesus makes it possible to achieve this eirene-peace, because “he is Lord of all”—not just of Jews, but also of Gentiles—not just of whites or blacks—not just of men or women—not just of rich or poor—not just of Americans or Europeans or Africans or Asians—”he is Lord of all.”
Keep in mind that Peter is saying these things to a Roman centurion. To say that Jesus “is Lord of all” could be considered treasonous in a system that honors Caesar as Lord.
“you yourselves know what happened, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee” (v. 37a). That message of peace “proclaimed throughout all Judea.” When Peter uses the word “Judea” here, he is not speaking of the southern province only. The message began in Galilee, the northern province.
“after the baptism which John preached” (v. 37b). John the Baptist came “preaching a baptism of repentance for remission of sins” (Luke 3:3). He came to “Make ready the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight” (Luke 3:4) so that “All flesh will see God’s salvation” (Luke 3:6).
• When people asked what they should do, he told them to share their clothing and food with those in need (Luke 3:10-11).
• When tax collectors asked what to do, he said, “Collect no more than that which is appointed to you” (Luke 3:13).
• When soldiers came, he said, “Extort from no one by violence, neither accuse anyone wrongfully. Be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).
John pointed to the one who would “baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). This was the beginning of the message of peace through Jesus Christ—the one who was capable of bringing peace, because “he is Lord of all” (v. 36).
“even Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power” (v. 38a). When John the Baptist baptized Jesus, “the Holy Spirit descended in a bodily form as a dove on him; and a voice came out of the sky, saying ‘You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased'” (Luke 3:22).
Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed” (4:18).
Jesus’ temptation followed, after which Luke recorded, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and news about him spread through all the surrounding area” (Luke 4:14).
“who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (v. 38b). Jesus modeled the kind of behavior that he expected of his disciples. In his ministry of healing and exorcism, he helped people who were in desperate need—people who could not be expected to return the favor. When Peter spoke earlier of “works righteousness” (v. 35), this is surely one aspect of what he meant.
ACTS 10:39-41. WE ARE WITNESSES OF EVERYTHING HE DID
39We are witnesses of everything he did both in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they also killed, hanging him on a tree. 40God raised him up the third day, and gave him to be revealed, 41not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen before by God, to us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
“We are witnesses of everything he did both in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem” (v. 39a). To serve as a witness, one must have first-hand knowledge of that to which one bears witness. The apostles knew of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, but they especially knew first-hand of Jesus’ resurrection. Before they had seen the risen Christ, they cowered in hiding, fearing that the authorities would come after them next. But they were transformed by seeing the risen Christ. They came out of hiding and proclaimed Jesus publicly to the crowds assembled for Passover in Jerusalem—the city that killed Jesus.
“whom they also killed, hanging him on a tree” (v. 39b). Jewish law said that “he who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Jesus experienced a shameful death so that he might experience a glorious resurrection.
“God raised him up the third day, and gave him to be revealed” (v. 40). It was the verdict of humans that Jesus should die a dishonorable death, but it was the verdict of God that he should be raised on the third day.
The three days were Friday (the day that he was crucified), Saturday (the only day that he lay in the grave for a full 24 hours), and Sunday (the day of his resurrection).
“and gave him to be revealed” (v. 40b). Kistemaker has compiled a list of ten resurrection appearances (the following ten lines are quoted from Kistemaker, 48):
1. The women at the tomb (Matt. 28:9-10)
2. Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18)
3. Two men of Emmaus (Mark 16:12; Luke 24:13-32)
4. Peter in Jerusalem (Luke 24:34; I Cor. 15:5)
5. Ten disciples (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23)
6. Eleven disciples (John 20:24-29; I Cor. 15:5)
7. Seven disciples fishing in Galilee (John 21:1-23)
8. Eleven disciples in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-18)
9. Five hundred persons (presumably in Galilee; I Cor. 15:6)
10. James, the brother of the Lord (I Cor. 15:7)
“not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen before by God, to us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (v. 41). Luke reported an appearance to the apostles where he invited them to touch him to see that he was not a ghost. He also asked for something to eat. “They gave him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. He took them, and ate in front of them” (Luke 24:42-43).
ACTS 10:42-43. THIS IS HE WHO IS APPOINTED BY GOD
42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that this is he who is appointed by God as the Judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him, that through his name everyone who believes in him will receive remission of sins.”
“He commanded us to preach to the people” (v. 42a). Jesus commanded the apostles to preach “to the people.” They initially took this to mean the people of Israel, but are now coming to the realization that Jesus intended them to preach to all people.
“and to testify that this is he who is appointed by God as the Judge of the living and the dead”(v. 42b). The understanding of Jesus as the eschatological (end times) judge goes back to John the Baptist, who said that he would “gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). Jesus himself spoke of eschatological judgment on several occasions (Luke 10:10-14; 11:31-32; 12:2-5; 13:24-29; 19:12-26; 20:45-47).
“All the prophets testify about him” (v. 43a). When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord, Simeon said, “Master, according to your word, in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation ” (Luke 2:29-30). The prophet Anna “gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). John the Baptist was Israel’s first great prophet in four centuries, and his mission was to bear witness to Jesus. Jesus spoke of himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Luke 4:16:21)
“that through his name everyone who believes in him will receive remission of sins” (v. 43b). This is the message of the prophets—that it is possible to receive forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name by believing in him.
Immediately after this story, the Holy Spirit will fall upon Gentiles, confirming God’s intention of including them among his holy people (10:44-48).
Then Peter will report his vision and his encounter with Cornelius to the church at Jerusalem. Jerusalem Christians will praise God and respond, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (11:18).
Then a large number of Gentiles will turn to the Lord in Antioch. The Jerusalem church will send Barnabas to investigate, and he will witness their grace and endorse their conversion (11:19-24)—and it will be in Antioch that the disciples will first be called Christians (11:26).
Then we will hear of James’ death and Peter’s imprisonment and his miraculous release from prison (12:1-19). After that, we will hear of Peter only once more—at the Jerusalem Council where Peter will testify to the apostles and elders that God intends the church to include Gentiles (15:7-11). After that, Peter will disappear from the book of Acts and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, will assume ascendancy.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsyvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Kistemaker, Simon J., New Testament Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999)
Malcolm, Lois, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Pelikan, Jaroslav, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Soards, Marion L., The Speeches in Acts (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan