The scene from Acts which is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Acts 10:44–48) reports what occurred in Caesarea after an impassioned speech to Gentiles, by the Jewish man, Peter (10:34-43). What takes place in this scene needs to be understood in the context of the speech just given, and indeed in terms of the whole span of events recounted in this volume.
1 Preach it, Peter!
Peter’s speech begins in the characteristic style of previous speeches, by announcing God as its subject (see https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/16/what-god-did-through-him-peters-testimony-to-jesus-acts-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/14/what-god-did-through-him-proclaiming-faith-in-the-public-square-acts-2/)
As its particular theme, it employs “the impartiality of God” (10:34), a scriptural theme (Deut 10:17; Job 34:19; Wisd 6:7; Sir 35:13-15). This theme reinforces the message of the vision (10:11-16) which rebutted the levitical holiness motif and validated table-fellowship as being consistent with divine impartiality, a key aspect of God’s nature.
This divine impartiality is especially evident in Jesus, who can be affirmed as Lord of all (10:36). Peter interprets the life of Jesus as the action of God, who anointed him, was with him, raised him and made him manifest (10:37-43).
Peter affirms the apostolic witness (10:39,41; see 2:32, 3:15, 5:32) and the prophetic witness (10:43; see 2:25-31,33-35, 3:18,21-25, 4:25-26); once again, Luke has him make the exaggerated claim that “all the prophets testify about him” (10:43; see 3:24). These prophets testify to “the forgiveness of sins” which is essential to the proclamation (2:38, 5:31, 13:38).
Jesus has been “ordained by God” to be the eschatological “judge of the living and the dead” (10:42), a concept which Paul will later express (17:31; cf. 24:15). The speech thus comprises a consistent exposition of God’s activities in Jesus, extensively in the past as well as (briefly) in the future.
2 Spirit, come!
The response to this speech is both unequivocal and not unfamiliar when the spirit falls on the Gentiles (10:44-48). At the beginning the spirit had instructed Peter to accompany the messengers from Cornelius (10:19-20) and initiate contact with this household of the Gentiles in Caesarea; at the conclusion of the speech to this group “the holy spirit fell upon all who heard the word” (10:44).
The spirit, of course, was an important element in the ancient Jewish worldview. The creation story of the Hebrews affirmed that creation took place when “the spirit moved over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:1–3). Moses and the elders whom he appointed as judges were filled with the spirit (Num 11:16–17, 25) and judges were filled with the spirit (3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14).
Prophets were anointed by the spirit to declare “the word of the Lord” for the people of their time (1 Sam 19:20, 23; Isa 11:2; 59:21; 61:1; Ezek 2:2; Joel 2:28–29; Micah 3:8; Zech 7:12, referring to “the former prophets”). Indeed, the servant of the Lord himself is guided by the spirit (Isa 42:1).
This coming of the Spirit had happened before, and it will happen again, as the story of Acts continues. But there is something striking and significance about this story of the coming of the spirit.
This has happened before. The spirit has twice filled the messianic community gathered in the Jewish capital, Jerusalem (at Pentecost, 2:1-4, and subsequently, 4:31). When the spirit is poured out on the Gentiles (10:45) in this gentile capital, it is already known that this is an act of God (2:17).
In both previous cases, God had acted through the spirit in relation to Jews. That this current outpouring of the spirit, outside of Judaea, amongst Gentiles, is still an act of God, is emphasised by a series of narrative comments. The Jewish believers present express surprise at “the gift of the holy spirit” (10:45), but the reader already knows that such a gift is from God (2:38, 8:18).
They hear the Gentiles “speaking in tongues” (10:46), a phenomenon already experienced as a divine event in Jerusalem (2:11). Peter draws this connection when he interprets the event: they “received the spirit as we also [did]” (10:47; see 2:38). Peter and his fellow Jews thus “exulted God” (10:47; see 5:13).
Indeed, the Spirit had come to these Gentiles after a striking sequence of events had taken place. Peter had a vision whilst praying in Joppa, that he was no longer to keep separate at table (10:9-16). No longer were Jews to eat separated from Gentiles. God had declared all foods clean (10:15), so separate table fellowship was now overturned. Peter receives this dramatic change to the status quo—and he faithfully acts on it.
Peter and his companions in Joppa share at table with the men from Cornelius (10:23; 11:4-11) and then, when they have travelled to Caesarea, with the household of Cornelius and those who were baptised with him (10:48; 11:12-18). Indeed, the very point of the vision seen by Peter is to establish an inclusive, all-embracing table fellowship in the Jesus movement, open to both Jews and Gentiles, from this point onwards (11:3).
This is a moment when the old is overturned, and the new is implemented. It is a strong moment of transition for the early church. From this time, the good news spreads amongst Gentiles; to the extent that it does, indeed, reach “to the ends of the earth”.
Baptism ensues (10:48; cf. 2:38). The deepest significance of this moment for Luke is identified as being that “the gift of the holy spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45). That God has acted even on the Gentiles signals that the ‘turn’ which has been anticipated since 8:4 has come about in a fulsome way.
The author’s interpretation of the events that have taken place in Caesarea draws them into close relationship with the interpretation of Jesus which Peter has given (here, and in earlier speeches in Acts). The impartial God who has acted through Jesus (10:34-43) is the same God who declares all things clean (10:15), who shows this to Peter (10:28), who gifts Gentiles by pouring out the spirit (10:45), and who is exulted by the people (10:46). It is language about God which interprets the significance of the narrative at each key moment.
The consequence of this dramatic event is noted briefly: “they invited him to remain for some days” (10:48b). Table-fellowship with Gentiles and the breach of the food rules was considered to be the inevitable result of God’s actions (see also 11:15–18). Such hospitality continues to be one of the key markers of the church.
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).