Acts 11:1–18 . . .
“Repentance for the Gentiles”
We’ve seen how the Lord encouraged Peter to go to the house of the Gentile centurion, Cornelius. No Jew would have considered entering a Gentile home, much less eating with Gentiles, for fear of contracting ceremonial defilement. Yet, the Lord Jesus had clearly told the apostles to go into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature. But in their centuries-old Jewish way of thinking, the disciples thought that Jesus meant they were to go and "preach to Jews who were scattered all over the world." The thought of preaching the gospel to pagan Gentiles, including those Gentiles coming to salvation without first becoming religious Jews, was simply unthinkable to them.
Having already read and discussed Acts 10:24–48 last week, we might just skip over today's eighteen verses, since they repeat the story of chapter 10. But whenever Scripture repeats something, we need to take notice; there's an important lesson here that we might miss, even if we make a hearty effort to learn it. Our text shows how God changed the thinking of these Christians on a matter that was essential for the spread of the gospel. If the Gentiles had been required to adopt Jewish rituals and ceremonies to be saved, the gospel wouldn't have been spread around the Gentile world as it had, and it would be a different “gospel.” The Holy Spirit inspired Luke to include this story twice so that the Jewish believers especially would see that salvation is not a matter of adopting Jewish rituals, but rather of God saving people of every race through faith in Christ alone.
In today's text, Luke portrays Peter as a man who's in “hot water,” being “called on the carpet” for evangelizing Gentiles. One can almost see these “circumcised saints” standing at the city gates, with fire in their eyes and their hands on their hips, waiting for Peter to arrive. Can you imagine someone looking Peter squarely in the eye and greeting him with the words, “You have a lot of explaining to do!” Many might have doubted Peter's ability to talk his way out of this situation.
Peter himself had referred to his actions as "illegal," at least as far as the Jewish interpretation and application of the Old Testament laws of ceremonial cleanness were concerned (10:28). It was a risky thing for Peter to accompany Gentiles to the house of a Gentile — and then to be their guest for several days.
Peter’s initial refusal to partake of anything “unclean,” and his reluctance to have any fellowship with Gentiles, are important clues to the deep rift that existed between Jews and Gentiles, a rift that affected the church. Peter’s change of mind and heart became a turning point for the church in Jerusalem in its attitudes and actions toward Gentile converts. We come today to the conclusion of the incident involving Peter and his Jewish companions, and Cornelius and his Gentile companions. The Jerusalem saints will confront Peter, hear his defense, and reach their conclusions. The importance of the decision they'll reach can hardly be overemphasized.
The Charges Against Peter (11:1–3)
The news that Peter had preached to Cornelius's household and won them over to Christ spread quickly throughout the churches of Judea. Some of the Jewish Christians were offended. When Peter went to Jerusalem, they criticized him sharply. Not only did Peter go into a Gentile's home to speak with Gentiles, but he ate with them. The Jews in Peter's day felt that either type of interaction with gentiles made a Jew unclean and broke the law of God.
The charges against Peter were plain: "You, who are supposed to be a faithful Jew, associated with and even ate with Gentiles!" This offended these Christian Jews, so they criticized Peter. We must remember that sharing a meal someone was an essential sign of fellowship in that culture. However, Peter's breaking of bread with Gentiles was considered to be a significant compromise to these Jewish Christians.
They faulted Peter for having eaten with men who were uncircumcised. Had those who'd gathered in Cornelius's home been Jewish converts rather than mere “God fearers,” they wouldn't have had grounds to object. They didn’t challenge Peter for preaching the gospel to Gentiles; they didn’t question why he hadn't circumcised these believers; they didn’t object to the fact that he had them baptized. What they likely objected to was Peter's accepting them all as “clean.”
Peter Tells Them the Whole Story (vv. 4–17)
After hearing the Jews protest his visit to Cornelius, Peter faced a choice. As an apostle, he had the authority to rebuke his critics sternly. But his desire was not to hurt them; rather, to help them. Thus, he spoke to them gently. And he revealed the reasons for his conduct.
He reviewed in some detail all the events that led up to his meeting in Cornelius's house: He spoke of his vision, showing him that he was no longer to consider Gentiles as unclean; he told them immediately afterward that he learned that three messengers had arrived at the house where he was staying; he recalled that when these men invited him to Caesarea, he went without hesitation because the Spirit had directly commanded him to go.
To explain why Cornelius sent his messengers, he said that an angel had visited him, a Gentile, instructing him to summon Peter who'd speak the words of salvation to him. Peter testified that when the Gentiles in the assembled crowd heard and believed these words, the Holy Spirit came on them, just as Jesus' Spirit had done at Pentecost. In conclusion, Peter justified his outreach to Gentiles by arguing that he dared not interfere with God's outreach efforts.
Peter's account is an obvious condensation of 10:9–43. God is emphasizing the importance of these events by repeating the story. The conclusion of his telling his brethren the whole story is important: "The Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning"shows that God's stamp of approval was on this ministry to the Gentiles. How could these believing Jews withhold their approval when God had given his?
Peter wisely and patiently retold the entire story, from the beginning, to his Jewish brethren. He started with his vision and reported how the Spirit had directed him to accompany the messengers whom Cornelius had sent to Peter to bring him to Caesarea. God was in this from beginning to end. How could Peter do anything else? He clinched his defense by focusing on the baptism of the Spirit, which he and his Jewish companions witnessed (v. 16–17).
The Church’s Agreement (v. 18)
This one verse — v. 18 — is vitally important: It reveals to us what the real error was in the Jews' thinking, and of Jewish Christians, too. It reveals to us what Peter’s fellow-apostles were really upset about. Let's look at what this one sentence says about the error of the apostles: (1) the primary issue at stake here was the gospel, the salvation of Gentiles; (2) fellowship (or food) was subordinate to the gospel; (3) the apostles changed from "grumbling" to "giving glory to God," and from "protesting against Peter's actions" to "praising God"; and (4) the apostles now admitted that God’s purpose and grace was the very thing they'd previously rejected: that God had granted salvation to the Gentiles, because they were Gentiles.
Somehow even the apostles had retained the false conception that salvation belonged solely to them as Jews. Surely, salvation was for the Jews; but it wasn't for the Jews only. God’s purpose was to save the Jews and, through them, reach the whole world. The Jews weren't intended to be the “end” of God’s purposes, but his "means." Because they failed in this stewardship, God wouldn't only save the Gentiles, he'd use them to save the world, and, finally, bring the Jews back to himself as well.
- Q. 1 Why do you think God chose Peter to be the first to go to the Gentiles?
- Q. 2 How do you explain the attitude changes seen in vv. 2 and 18?
- Q. 3 Have you been criticized for breaking religious traditions?
New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 11.]
† Watch this video clip of Acts 9:32–11:10, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke,
† . . . and this follow-up clip, covering Acts 11:10–12:25.
Peter Explains His Actions
11 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
4Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds.7Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
8“I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
9“The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
11“Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying.12The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”