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Telling the Gentiles about Jesus
Acts 10.34-48

Acts for Everyone Part 1

34Peter took a deep breath and began.

‘It’s become clear to me’, he said, ‘that God really does show no favouritism. 35No: in every race, people who fear him and do what is right are acceptable to him. 36He sent his word to the children of Israel, announcing peace through Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all! 37You know all about this, and how the word spread through all Judaea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John proclaimed.

38‘God anointed this man, Jesus of Nazareth, with the holy spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were overpowered by the devil, since God was with him. 39We are witnesses of everything he did in the land of Judaea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day, and allowed him to be seen, 41not indeed by all the people, but by those of us whom God had appointed beforehand. We ate and drank with him after he had been raised from the dead. 42And he commanded us to announce to the people, and to bear testimony, that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets give their witness: he is the one! Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his Name.’

44While Peter was still speaking these words, the holy spirit fell on everyone who was listening to the word. 45The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were astonished, because the gift of the holy spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles too. 46They heard them speaking with tongues and praising God.

Then Peter spoke up.

47‘Nobody can deny these people water to be baptized, can they?’ he said. ‘They have received the holy spirit, just like we did!’ 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus the Messiah.

Then they asked him to stay for a few days

When the children were younger, we used to play story tapes in the car on long journeys. They sat very, very still right through entire books like The Railway Children or the Narnia cycle. They didn’t want to miss a thing. Right through, nobody asked how far we still had to go, or whether they could have a sandwich now, or could we stop for a bathroom break. Something about the story drew them into a whole new world. As long as they were living in that world, it had them in its power. Even the simplest of stories can do this.

Jesus himself, of course, told stories a good deal. The parables were designed to woo people in to a different world, a different way of looking at things. When the story finished, they were left somewhere quite different from where they had begun. They had changed, because their way of looking at the world had changed.

The first apostles themselves went on telling and retelling the stories which Jesus himself had told, but they quickly found that they had another story to tell which was even better: the story about Jesus himself. You could tell it this way, you could tell it that way, you could make it longer or shorter (though always with the same decisive ending, of course), but whichever way you did it this story carried power of a new kind. It had all the power of the good story, the novel, the parable, the story-tape in the car, but it had two extra things as well. First, it was the focal point of the true story of the creator God and his world, of the covenant God and Israel: at this point, the greatest narratives of all time come rushing together. Second, it was the story in which the name of Jesus himself was front and centre. We have learnt quite a lot, reading Acts, about the power which the name carried in itself, let alone in a narrative framework acting as a kind of showcase.

So we shouldn’t be as surprised as Peter was when, with the story only told in barest outline, the holy spirit fell on all those who are listening. This is, though, a moment we have been waiting for since the first two chapters. Jesus told his followers that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth, and the holy spirit had fallen on the believers in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and in Samaria (Acts 8). Now at last, the spirit comes on Gentiles as well. Granted, Caesarea is hardly ‘the ends of the earth’, but the message has now reached out to embrace not only Gentiles but Romans. From here, it may be a long step geographically but it’s only a short step culturally to everywhere else in the then known world, from Britain and Spain in the west to Parthia, India and Egypt in the east.

So what is this message about Jesus? How did they tell the story in those early days? Well, as I said, they told it in a wide variety of ways. But Peter’s short address here follows a fairly standard pattern, the pattern which was, more or less, worked up by Luke and the other gospel writers into their much longer writings.

It begins with Jesus’ preaching to Israel. This wasn’t a generalized message which just happened to be sent to the Jews because Jesus just happened to be Jewish. Israel was the nation entrusted with God’s promise for the whole of creation; it is noticeable that when addressing the Gentiles Peter doesn’t omit or tone down this particularity, even when he’s just said that God shows no favouritism. This tension must not be dissolved, as so many theological schemes have done; it is of the essence of the message. Indeed, what Peter says throughout might be thought to be so Israel-specific as to be quite irrelevant to the Gentiles he’s talking to. John the Baptist announced his message to Israel, Jesus went around Judaea and Galilee, the events came to their climax in Jerusalem, and now we, a group of Jewish people, are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. The only mention, throughout all of this, of anything that looks wider than the story of Israel, with Jesus in the middle of it, is Peter’s declaration near the beginning that ‘He (Jesus) is Lord – of all!’ (verse 36). Oh, and the final line: everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (verse 43).

So why did this message, about the mission of Jesus to Israel, have the effect it did on Cornelius and his family and friends? At one level, of course, because this message is itself powerful. When Paul talks in his letters about ‘the gospel’, he doesn’t primarily mean ‘the way you too can get saved’. He means ‘the message that says that Jesus, the crucified and risen one, is the Lord of the whole world’. And, he says, that message itself carries its own power. It acts as a summons to all who hear it. Some mock, of course; but others find themselves gripped, changed from the inside out, aware of a new presence and power inside them. So it was that day.

But there is something else going on here as well. Here we see a message that stands, as it were, at the threshold. Peter’s words to the Jews in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost started where they started, with the recent events concerning Jesus, and the meaning those events had for all who heard of them. Paul’s messages in Acts 14 and Acts 17 are given to Gentile audiences who have no thought that they might have anything to learn from Jews or Judaism, let alone from such an odd mutation within Judaism as Christian faith appeared to be. But what we have here is a message to someone who had been on the outside of Judaism but pressing his nose hard against the window to look in; one who respected and valued the Jewish traditions, and was doing his best to honour the God of Israel as far as the normal limits permitted. Peter is saying, in effect, ‘Well, you have been standing in the doorway looking in with admiration at Israel and its traditions; now see how God has fulfilled Israel’s dreams in sending Jesus.’

The key things to be highlighted, within that framework, are the things that God did. The gospel is after all a message about God, a message whose subject matter is Jesus. We already know, and Peter already knew, that Cornelius had showed boundless reverence for Israel’s God. So he tells the story of Jesus as the story of God’s actions.

To begin with, God sent the message of peace through Jesus (verse 36). When Jesus announced God’s kingdom, he did so in the teeth of nationalist expectation of imminent armed revolt against Rome. No, declared Jesus: it was a message of peace (Luke 10.5–6; 19.42). But, to underwrite the message, God anointed Jesus with the spirit and power: in other words, he really was ‘the Messiah’, the anointed one, even though his form of kingship didn’t look like what people had expected. Third, God was with him, a phrase which those who carry the Bible in their heads will recognize as a promise going way back into Israel’s traditions of leadership and monarchy (Exodus 3.12; Joshua 1.9; Judges 6.12, 16; 1 Samuel 10.7, and many other passages), and coming forward into Jesus’ own sense of vocation and the divine presence (John 10.38, etc.). Fourth, God raised him from the dead, the central affirmation of the story; fifth, God chose us as witnesses, which is why we’re here in the first place; sixth, God told us to preach and spread the word; and, finally, overlapping with the punchline at the end of Paul’s speech in Athens, and vital for the overall truth of the gospel, God ordained Jesus as judge of the living and the dead. In other words, Peter is saying: ‘Cornelius: the God whom you have worshipped from afar has done all this, as part of his global plan to set everything right at last; and, at every stage, Jesus is in the middle of it all! God has thus fulfilled the purposes for which he called Israel in the first place; and you, Cornelius, and everyone everywhere who believes this message, will receive a welcome at once, without more ado, into the family whose home has, written in shining letters above the door, the wonderful word “forgiven”.’

Cornelius and his household don’t even have a chance to say, ‘We believe.’ The spirit comes upon them and they speak with tongues, just as the apostles did on the day of Pentecost. There are many signs of new life recorded in Acts, of which ‘tongues’ is only one, and it is by no means always present; but sometimes, when it happens, it happens for a purpose. Here

the purpose is clear: Peter and those with him (circumcised, that is, Jewish, men) need to know that these uncircumcised people have been regarded by the holy spirit as fit vessels to be filled with his presence and voice. And if that is so, there can be no barriers to baptism. All this is what is meant by the opening line of Peter’s speech, ‘God has no favourites.’ This doesn’t mean that God runs the world as a democracy, or that he simply validates and accepts everyone’s opinion about everything, or everyone’s chosen lifestyle. It means that there are no ethnic, geographical, cultural or moral barriers any longer in the way of anyone and everyone being offered forgiveness and new life. That is a message far more powerful than the easy-going laissez-faire tolerance which contemporary Western society so easily embraces. Cornelius didn’t want God (or Peter) to tolerate him. He wanted to be welcomed, forgiven, healed, transformed. And he was.

Taken from Acts for Everyone Part 1 by Tom Wright

Publisher: SPCK - view more
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