A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 10:23b-48. Peter preaches to Cornelius’ household.
The next day, Peter and his entourage set out north along the coastal road to Caesarea. They were a party of ten, the three Gentiles from Cornelius, Peter himself and *some of the brothers from Joppa* (23b), who numbered six (11:12). If they went on foot, it must have taken them a good nine or ten hours, apart from stops. So it was the following day that they reached their destination. They found a considerable company awaiting them, for *Cornelius was expecting them* and had assembled not only his personal household but also *his relatives and close friends* (24). His spiritual humility and receptivity may be judged from the fact that, *as Peter entered the house*, he ‘threw himself at his feet – as if he were a heavenly visitant’. It was an inappropriate gesture, however. Peter *made him get up*, affirming that he himself was only a man (cf. Acts 14:11ff.; Rev.19:10; 22:8-9).
If Cornelius’ act of falling down before Peter was unbecoming, so too according to Jewish tradition was Peter’s act of entering a Gentile home. *It is against our law*, Peter said (28). This is not the best tradition of *athemitos*, however, which ‘denotes what is contrary to ancient custom or prescription (*themis*), rather than to positive enactment (*nomos*)’. In fact, the word describes what is ‘taboo’. But now Peter felt at liberty to break this traditional taboo and to enter Cornelius’ house, because God had shown him that no human being was unclean in his sight.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Peter had just now repudiated both extreme and opposite attitudes which human beings have sometimes adopted towards one another. He had come to see that it was entirely inappropriate either to worship somebody as if divine (which Cornelius had tried to do to him) or to reject somebody as if unclean (which he would previously have done to Cornelius). Peter refused both to be treated by Cornelius as if he were a God, and to treat Cornelius as if he were a dog.
Peter went on to say that, having been sent for, he had come, *without raising any objection* (29), or ‘without demur’ (NEB). Why, then, had Cornelius sent for him?
In reply, Cornelius told the story of his vision of the angel (30-33) which had taken place four days previously. His account is identical with Luke’s (3-6), except that he now calls the angel *a man in shining clothes* and omits any reference to the terror he had experienced at the time (4). He then thanked Peter for coming and added: *Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us* (33). It was a remarkable acknowledgement that they were in God’s presence, that the apostle Peter was to be the bearer of God’s word to them, and that they were all ready and open to listen to it. No preacher today could ask for a more attentive audience.
*Peter began* his sermon with a solemn personal statement of what he had learned through his experiences of the previous few days. He stated it both negatively and positively. First, ‘*I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism’* (34). *Prosopolempsia* means ‘partiality’. It was forbidden to judges in LXX, who were not to pervert justice by discriminating in favour of either the rich or the poor (eg.Lv.19:15). For with the divine judge ‘there is no injustice or partiality or bribery’ (2 Ch.19:7). Peter’s statement, however, has a wider connotation. He means that God’s attitude to people is not determined by any external criteria, such as their appearance, race, nationality or class. Instead, and positively God *accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right* (35). Better, and more literally, ‘in every nation whoever fears God and works righteousness is acceptable (*dektos*) to him’. I will leave for the time being a full examination of this statement. It is enough now to draw attention both to its context in Acts 10 and to its contrast with ‘no favouritism’. The emphasis is that Cornelius’ Gentile nationality was acceptable so that he had no need to become a Jew, not that his own righteousness was adequate so that he had no need to become a Christian. For God is ‘not indifferent of religions but indifferent to nations’. As Lenski asks: ‘if his honest pagan convictions had been sufficient, why did he seek the synagogue? If the synagogue had been enough, why was Peter here?’ Peter will soon teach him the necessity of faith for salvation (43)
Tomorrow: Acts 10:23b-48. Peter preaches to Cornelius’ household (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.