The context for this story has its roots in the covenant that God made with Abram. God said, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:3). The key words for our context are “all of the families of the earth.” Even in the very beginning, God’s promise was not just to Jews but to “all of the families of the earth.”
While the Jewish people tended not to understand that God’s mercy could include Gentiles, clues to that effect are scattered throughout the Old Testament (Genesis 22:18; Psalm 22:27; 46:10; 65:2, 5; 66:4; 72:11, 17, 19; 86:9; 102:15; Isaiah 2:2-4; 9:1; 11:9-10; 24:16; 40:5; 42:1, 6; 45:22-24; 49:1, 6, 22; 55:5; 56:3-8; 60:3; 65:1; 66:18-23; Jeremiah 3:17; 4:2; 16:19-21; Daniel 7:13-14; Joel 2:28-32; Zechariah 2:11; 8:22-23; Malachi 1:11).
Ironically, Peter (who at the time had no idea of the full meaning of his words) preached a sermon at Pentecost in which he quoted the prophet Joel, saying, “It will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (2:17). He also promised, “It will be, that whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (2:21). In the first instance, the key words are “all flesh.” In the second instance, the key word is “whomever”. When Peter spoke those words, he was firmly committed to a Jewish church. It took a dramatic God-inspired vision to open Peter’s heart to accept Gentiles in the church (10:1-33).
The extent to which Peter was committed to a Jewish church is reflected in Acts 10, which tells us of Cornelius, a devout Gentile. Then it tells us of Peter’s housetop vision where God called him to kill and eat animals which were prohibited under Jewish law. Peter responded, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (10:14). But God responded, “What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean” (10:15).
This vision was followed by God telling Peter to meet with three men, to include Cornelius. Peter 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). While Peter was speaking to these Gentiles, the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. So Peter ordered them to be baptized (10:44-48).
We are in the midst of a leadership transition from Peter to Paul—a leadership transition that mirrors the transition from a Jewish church to a Jewish-Gentile church. Peter was the most prominent apostle in the first part of the book of Acts, but Saul’s conversion in chapter 9 signaled the beginning of a new era. Chapter 10 tells the story of the vision that opened Peter’s mind to the inclusion of Gentiles in the church—and of Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized. Chapter 11 tells of Peter defending his association with Gentiles to the Jerusalem church. Chapter 12 will tell of Peter being imprisoned by Herod and released from prison by an angel. Beginning with chapter 13, Saul (Paul), the great missionary to the Gentiles, takes the lead among the apostles, and we will hear only once more from Peter (15:7-11).
ACTS 11:1-3. YOU ATE WITH UNCIRCUMCISED MEN!
1Now the apostles and the brothers (Greek: adelpho) who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. 2When Peter had come up to Jerusalem, those who were of the circumcision contended with him, 3saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men, and ate with them!”
“Now the apostles and the brothers (adelphoi—brothers) who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God” (v. 1). The church was founded in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, and Jerusalem was the center of activity for the first Christian leaders. In chapter 15, Christian leaders will convene a council to settle the issue of inclusion of Gentiles in the church. The Jerusalem church will continue for some time to offer leadership to the church at large.
In chapter 10, God convinced Peter that he should open his heart (and the doors of the church) to Gentiles. Now Peter must convince the leaders of the church that he has done the right thing.
“When Peter had come up to Jerusalem” (v. 2a). Peter has been in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean seacoast, about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Jerusalem (10:1). He met with Cornelius there and baptized him and other Gentiles (10:44-48). Now he goes to Jerusalem to join the gathered leadership of the church.
“those who were of the circumcision contended with him” (v. 2b). What does Luke mean by “the circumcised adelphoi“? Quite obviously, the “apostles and the adelphoi” mentioned in verse 1 are all circumcised believers. Some scholars assume that Luke uses “the circumcised adelphoi” to refer to the entire group to which Peter is reporting. Other scholars assume that Luke is using that phrase to refer to sub-group of conservative men who are especially determined to insure that Gentiles convert to Judaism prior to being accepted in the church.
“You went in to uncircumcised men, and ate with them” (v. 3). There are two offenses here:
• The first offense is going to uncircumcised men. As Peter acknowledged when he met with Cornelius, “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” (10:28a).
• The second offense is eating with uncircumcised me. Having table fellowship with another person is tantamount to showing approval of them—and no scrupulous Jew would want to show approval of a Gentile. Tacitus said, “The Jews are extremely loyal toward one another, and always ready to show compassion, but toward every other people they feel only hate and enmity” (Huffman, “Gentile”). More to the point, how can a Jew observe Jewish food laws while eating with a Gentile? By definition, Gentile food is unclean.
While it might seem to us that “the uncircumcised adelphoi” were being overly scrupulous, that would hardly have been the case for them. These deeply religious men have maintained their separate identity and the Jewish food laws throughout their lives. They have done so out of devotion to God—and out of a conviction that God wants them to do so. They can quote scripture and verse to back up their convictions. Everything in their culture contributes to these convictions. They can think of no good reason to let down familiar barriers—and can think of many good reasons not to do so.
• It is interesting that these “circumcised adelphoi” do not raise the issue of baptizing Gentiles. Their concerns have more to do with traditional Jewish values of maintaining their separateness and observing Jewish food laws than with the Christian rite of baptism.
ACTS 11:4-14. PETER EXPLAINED TO THEM
4But Peter began, and explained to them in order, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision: a certain container descending, like it was a great sheet let down from heaven by four corners. It came as far as me. 6When I had looked intently at it, I considered, and saw the four-footed animals of the earth, wild animals, creeping things, and birds of the sky. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter, kill and eat!’ 8But I said, ‘Not so, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered into my mouth.’ 9But a voice answered me the second time out of heaven, ‘What God has cleansed, don’t you call unclean.’ 10This was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven. 11Behold, immediately three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent from Caesarea to me. 12The Spirit told me to go with them, without discriminating. These six brothers (Greek: adelphoi) also accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying to him, ‘Send to Joppa, and get Simon, whose surname is Peter, 14who will speak to you words by which you will be saved, you and all your house.’
Peter is not at all defensive about his prior conduct in the face of the criticism of these “circumcised adelphoi.” God-given circumstances led to Peter’s change of heart concerning Gentiles, and he is confident that these “circumcised adelphoi” will share his change of heart if they hear that God accepted Gentiles and directed Peter to do the same.
This is essentially the story of 10:1-33 retold with a couple of significant variations:
• One is that the original story did not mention six brothers (adelphoi) (v. 12). These six adelphoi serve as witnesses to the things that Peter is reporting to the “circumcised adelphoi in Jerusalem.
• Another is that in the original story Cornelius made no mention of himself and his entire household being saved (v. 14; cf. 10:30-33).
The retelling of the story in such detail highlights the importance of the story.
ACTS 11:15-17. WHO WAS I, THAT I COULD WITHSTAND GOD?
15As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning. 16 I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit.’17If then God gave to them the same gift as us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?”
“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them” (v. 15a). The gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s action—not Peter’s. It serves as a clear sign that God accepts these Gentiles.
“even as on us at the beginning” (v. 15b). The Holy Spirit fell upon these Gentiles just as it fell upon the apostles on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4).
“I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit’” (v. 16). This is a reference to Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:5. Jesus’ original promise was fulfilled for the apostles on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), but God has extended the promise to Cornelius and his companions in Acts 10 (v. 15).
It is also helpful to remember that Jesus, shortly before his death, said: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and will remind you of all that I said to you” (John 14:26). That is what happened to Peter in the vision that God gave him.
“If then God gave to them the same gift as us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?” (v. 17). This is the key to Peter’s argument. God has blessed Cornelius and his Gentile companions in the same way that God blessed Peter and the apostles at Pentecost—with the gift of the Holy Spirit. God made it abundantly clear that he loves these Gentiles with the same love that he has shown the Jewish Christians. To refuse to accept these Gentiles would be hindering God—opposing God’s will. Peter could not do that, and by implication these “circumcised believers” in Jerusalem must not do it either.
ACTS 11:18. THEY HELD THEIR PEACE AND GLORIFIED GOD
18When they heard this, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
“When they heard this, they held their peace, and glorified God” (v. 18a). The “circumcised believers” first respond with silence—the kind of silence that people require to process a profoundly new and profoundly significant insight.
But as they “got it”—as the significance of Peter’s story dawned on them—their silence quickly shifted to praise.
“Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (v. 18). “Note the wording: ‘even to the Gentiles’! We hear a note of incredulity” (Craddock, 250). It is no wonder that they felt incredulous. Here, in one fell swoop, God has swept away the requirement for separateness from Gentiles that has stood for centuries. God has unbarred the door that locked out Gentiles throughout Jewish history. Most significantly, with Peter’s vision and the acceptance of Gentiles into the church, God has prepared the way for the expansion of the Gospel “to the uttermost parts of the earth” (1:8).
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)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
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)
Huffman, Douglas S., in Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Marty, Martin E., 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)
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, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan