Easter 6 • Acts 10:34–48 • May 13, 2012
By James W. Voelz
Perhaps the most critical issue for the early church was the matter of Jews and non-Jews/Gentiles. First and foremost: Did non-Jews have full access to the salvation of God in Jesus Christ? Second and more practically important: If non-Jews are full heirs of the promise to Abraham in Christ, how then should the Jew and the non-Jew relate to one another and live together? The book of Acts is focused upon these questions, as is St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The second question is the focus of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The prior, more fundamental question is addressed in chapter 10 of Acts.
The center of Peter’s discourse concerns Jesus. It is worth noting that 10:37 seems to have historical importance as a fundamental plot outline of Mark’s Gospel (in reverse): “throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee, after the baptism that John preached.” 10:38–39 then give the content of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus’s mighty deeds first, then Jesus being put to death.
In ancient historiography, speeches were critical. They gave insight into the speaker’s character, and they set the scene for and interpreted key events. The current pericope is a key speech in Acts, at a key moment in the history of the church. It is repeated almost verbatim in Acts 11, showing how important this incident was.
Finally the use of the word “wood,” ξῦλον, for the cross is used twice in Acts by Peter (5:30 and here) and seems to be an early formulation. Noteworthy is Peter’s own use in 1 Peter 2:24, which argues for the “historicity” of this speech.
10:36: The first several words are difficult in terms of syntax. It is best to read the ὅν as the third word and to regard the entire verse as an introductory accusative of respect, e.g.: “As far as the word which he sent to the sons of Israel, announcing as good news peace through Jesus Christ is concerned—He is Lord of all . . . (10:37) you know the thing/matter that has happened . . .”
10:37: The noun ῥῆμα relates well to the Hebrew rbd, which means word or deed/thing. Thus, here it is best rendered “thing” or “matter,” most likely to be understood as something spoken about.
10:39: The pronoun ὦν (fifth word) is an example of “assimilation of the relative” pronoun. It should be the accusative plural ἅ, as the object of ἐποίησεν, “he did.” But, in classical fashion, it assimilates to the case of its antecedent, which is genitive. (This happens in classical authors [only] when the relative should be accusative and when its antecedent is either genitive or dative.) The aorist participle κρεμάσαντες is also of interest. It is nominative, but it follows the main verb (ἀνεῖλαν). In such cases, it often conveys means, “by . . .” That works well here.
10:41–2: Two perfect passive participles occur in these verses: προκεχειροτονημένοις and ὡρισμένος . . . As perfect passives do generally, they convey the state of the noun they modify, i.e., “picked out ahead of time” and “marked out.” Note the use of the perfect passive participle in English in such a translation.
10:42: The noun κριτής is a predicate nominative. Jesus was the one marked out to be judge.
10:47: The most difficult syntax in the pericope, several understandings are possible. Probably best is to take the τοῦ μὴ βαπτισθῆναι τούτους clause as the object of the infinitive κωλῦσαι (i.e., what is prevented), with the μὴ in this clause as a “sympathetic negative” reflecting the negative connotation of “prevent.” Thus, it would be rendered, “Someone is not able to prevent these people from being baptized . . . can he?” With this understanding, the ὕδωρ at the beginning is an(other) accusative of respect, i.e., “as far as water is concerned . . .” (Note that the water is an issue after the Spirit has been poured out in 10:44.) The other possibility is to understand κωλῦσαι to mean “withhold” (see LXX Gen. 23:6), and the infinitive clause to give “with respect to what” the withholding occurs. This would be rendered, “Someone is not able to withhold water as far as them being baptized is concerned . . . is he?” The only problem here is the negative in the infinitive clause; this does not appear in the Genesis parallel. Finally, it should be noticed that this is a good example of a question beginning with μή or a compound thereof to suggest a negative reply.
10:34: God not being a respecter of persons is the theme of this entire pericope.
10:35: Note the placement of the phrase “in every nation”—right up in front in emphatic position. This dare not be minimized. The rest of verse 35 can be troublesome, because it sounds like works-righteousness. It really builds off of 10:22, where Cornelius is seen as a just man, a God-fearer (probably meaning one who observes Jewish ways but is not circumcised), and 10:31, where he is seen as one who prays to God. The approach here is similar to that of James 2; Peter is describing a faith that is not alone. This represents a practical understanding of faith and of the Christian life (for those who understand my vocabulary, it is a “Newtonian” passage). That this is not the full understanding of the faith is seen in 10:39, where Peter’s speech culminates in the declaration that all of the prophets witness that “everyone who believes in him gets forgiveness of sins through his name.” It’s finally about faith and forgiveness of sins, but 10:35 reminds us that “cheap grace” is never an option.
10:36: Announcing peace is another critical idea in this speech. This is peace between God and man (Rom 5:1) and peace between man and man (Eph 2:14). It is the latter that is highlighted in this pericope but based upon the former. The phrase “He/this one is Lord of all” seems alien here, but it is the basic confession of the early Christians, viz., “Jesus is Lord.”
10:38: Note the retention of the spiritual dimension, with the mention of the devil as an important part of the “problem” Jesus confronted.
10:39: The emphasis on witnesses is no small thing. Paul does this in 1 Corinthians 15 when he lists those to whom Jesus appeared as the resurrected one (1 Cor 15:5–8). Note that they are not only witnesses to the resurrected Lord, they witnessed his public ministry. This was a requirement for the replacement for Judas (Acts 1:21–22), and Paul is aware of this difference (see Acts 13:31 where he does not place himself among the “witnesses”). This difference between him and the apostles who had followed the earthly Jesus was probably at the base of his dispute with those who questioned his ministry (see 2 Cor 11:5; 12:11).
10:41: The emphasis on eating and drinking with Jesus, no doubt, emphasizes that he arose bodily, and that he was not an apparition or spirit after the crucifixion. The sheer physicality of the resurrected Lord is an important theme in the post-resurrection scene of Luke 24 and John 21.
10:41: Peter’s emphasis on Jesus’s second coming is congruent with Paul’s emphasis on the same in his speech on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:31).
10:43: The emphasis on the prophets bearing witness forges a strong OT connection, especially for Jewish hearers. Paul is no different in saying that Jesus died and rose again according to the Scripture in his mini-creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4. It is worth emphasizing again that the forgiveness of sins through faith is a key theme in this speech as its denouement.
10:44: The Holy Spirit falls on the hearers as a result of the speech and before any baptism, which causes problems (see v. 47). Cornelius’s reception of the Spirit is one of four outpourings in the book of Acts. The four are: Acts 2; Pentecost in Jerusalem; Acts 8 in Samaria; Acts 10 (here) Cornelius; and Acts 19, the disciples of John the Baptist. These four are accompanied by signs, such as speaking in tongues. Why? They correspond roughly to the four divisions of the spread of the gospel in Acts 1:8, where Jesus says that his followers will be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Acts 2 covers Jerusalem, Acts 8 Samaria, Acts 10 the end of the earth with the representative of the Roman Empire that ruled the inhabited world, and Acts 19, Judea, the area in which John the Baptist did his preaching and ministry. At each step across a new boundary, the Spirit makes his presence known, to assure those that see and hear that it is the Lord’s doing and the Lord’s will. (see 10:45 [also 8:14–17]). By the way, this pericope does not prove that baptism with the Holy Spirit is a step beyond Christian baptism with water. On the contrary, Peter’s reaction that nothing should prevent a baptism with water for Cornelius and his house shows that reception of the Spirit and baptism with water are intimately connected and should not be separated. To see another testimony to the link between the reception of the Spirit and baptism with water, see Acts 9:17–18 (read the parallelism carefully).
10:45: Note the reaction of the onlookers and, again, the key point that the Gentiles are co-heirs with the Jews and not second-class citizens.
10:46: Of what the speaking in tongues comprised is not clear. It might well have been human languages because the Jewish on-lookers knew what the Gentiles were saying, they were known to be magnifying God.
10:47: This verse is key—no one can withhold baptism with water, even if the Spirit has been received. The Spirit and baptism go together. (See again Acts 9:17–18.)
10:48: Note that Peter stays with a Gentile. Earlier he had said that Jews do not have dealings with Gentiles (10:28). What a change!
“God shows no partiality”/“In every nation . . .”
Introduction: People like to be with their own kind. Thus, a church growth principle is homogeneous people groups: churches grow best when congregants are very similar. But the early church did not see it that way because God does not see it that way. And Peter experienced that cross-cultural desire of God within this text.
Main Points from the Text:
It is natural to think that some people are worse off than others and further from God. This was Peter’s natural way of thinking as a Jew, a member of God’s special people. (Indeed, he did not easily outgrow this attitude [see the problem with Paul in Galatians 2].
But all people need to be right with God. At its heart, this is the need for the forgiveness of sins.
All people receive forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ.
All people also receive the Holy Spirit, who is never separated from baptism.
Thus, all are one as possessors of the one Spirit.
We are no different than Peter or the rest of the early church; we have great difficulty with the concepts of “One in the Sight of God” and “One Together in Christ.”
This is why we need reminders such as this text. Equality and unity are not Biblical concepts that are easy to embrace. That should not surprise us; our fallen human nature resists anything that does not exalt ourselves.
This is why forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name is so important. It is key to our standing before God; it is also key to dealing with our lack of understanding of and acceptance of our standing before God and of each other.
We are strengthened in this task by the common Spirit, who fills and guides us all.