A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 11:1-18. Peter justifies his actions.
The news that *the Gentiles also had received the word of God* spread far and wide. *The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea* heard about it. It was understandable that, just as the apostles needed to endorse the evangelization of the Samaritans who ‘had accepted the word of God’ (8:14), so now they were concerned about the conversion and baptism of the first Gentiles, who had similarly received it (1). Not that they summoned Peter to give an account of himself. Luke writes only that *Peter went up to Jerusalem* of his own accord (2). And the editor of the Bezan text, anxious to put this beyond question, added that Peter had ‘for a considerable time wished to journey to Jerusalem’, that he eventually did so on his own initiative, and that he ‘reported to them the grace of God’.
At all events, on arrival at Jerusalem, *the circumcised believers criticised him* for having entered *the house of uncircumcised men* and having eaten with them (3). Some have suggested that Peter’s critics were the ‘circumcision party’ (JBP), that is, ‘the right wing of Jewish Christians’, ‘the extremists’ or ‘the rigorists’. But the Greek phrase need only mean ‘those who were of Jewish birth’ (NEB), namely the whole Christian community of Jerusalem, all of whom up to that time were Jews. Recent events in Caesarea had naturally disturbed them.
In verses 4-17 Peter *explained everything to them precisely as it had happened* (4). In fact Luke now rehearses the whole story a second time, but more briefly, with a different order of events, and through the lips of Peter. Luke’s own narrative had followed the chronology of the four days, beginning with Cornelius’ vision of the angel. Peter, however, because he is recounting things as he himself experienced them, begins with his own vision of the sheet, and does not mention Cornelius’ vision until the fourth day, when he heard it from Cornelius’ lips (although the three men from Cornelius had already mentioned it, 10:22). Peter’s order of events is important because it helps us to live through his experience with him, and so to learn just how God had shown him that he should not call anybody impure or unclean (10:28). It took four successive hammer-blows of divine revelation before his racial and religious prejudice was overcome, as he explains to the Jerusalem church.
First came the *divine vision* (4-10) of the sheet containing animals, reptiles and birds. In verse 6 the *wild beasts* are an addition, and so is Peter’s statement that he ‘looked into’ the sheet ‘intently’ (NEB). The vision was followed by the voice which gave Peter the startling order to *Get up…Kill and eat* and, after his protest, rebuked him that he was not to *call anything impure that God has made clean*. The whole vision, including the order and the rebuke, was repeated three times, so that the heavenly voice addressed him six times altogether with the same basis message. In consequence, Peter grasped that the clean and unclean animals (a distinction which Jesus had abolished) (Mk. 7:19) were a symbol of clean and unclean, circumcised and uncircumcised persons. As Rackham put it, ‘the sheet is the church’, which will ‘contain all races and classes without any distinction at all’, even though the full import of this dawned on Peter only later.
Tomorrow: Acts 11:1-18. Peter justifies his actions (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.