3.9 Acts -- The Conversion of Peter
It wasn't only Saul who had scales over his eyes. Peter was about to receive his own visitation from Heaven.
The next two chapters of Acts (10 and 11) are concerned with the massive shift that occurred in the early church's understanding of its identity and mission. We do not know how long this was after Jesus' Ascension, probably several years. There had been at least one major wave of persecution, followed by a time of peace (Acts 9:31). Paul had already been to visit the disciples in Jerusalem. In Galatians, Paul tells us it was three years after his departure to Arabia before he went to Jerusalem. All this time, the church in Jerusalem was composed of traditional and Hellenized Jews, with satellite branches among some of the Samaritan villages. There is no record of any outreach to pagans or Romans. Christianity was still a sect of Judaism, in membership and beliefs.
God changed this comfortable in-group attitude by a one-two punch, recounted in Acts 9-11. Punch one was Paul. Punch two was Peter. God initiated both encounters, neither man sought them.
A Godfearing Roman centurion named Cornelius had a vision in which an angel told him his prayers and alms had been accepted by God. He was to send servants to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon. The next day Peter had a vision of unclean animals and voice saying "Kill and eat." Peter objected:
"Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."
The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean" (Acts 10:14-15).
This vision was repeated three times. The messengers from Cornelius showed up, and Peter went with them to Caesarea. He entered Cornelius' house, an act contrary to tradition:
"You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean" (Acts 10:28).
This shows us that till then, several years after Jesus' Ascension, the Jewish believers were still following the Law and not associating with Gentiles. The wall of separation between Jew and Gentile still stood. Cornelius related his vision, and asked Peter to give him God's message. But God first had a message for Peter. Peter said to Cornelius,
"I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right" (Acts 10:34-35).
Other versions read:
"God is no respecter of persons" (KJV).
"God shows no partiality" (RSV).
The key Greek word here for favoritism is "prosopoleptes" (a compound word, constructed from "face" and "receive"). It is found elsewhere in the New Testament (see Rom 2:11).
"To greet a social superior, one lowered the face or sank to the earth. If the one thus greeted raised the face of the greeter, it was a sign of recognition and esteem. Such favoritism may have been welcome to those who experienced it, but it was not to be found in a judge....Peter applies this character quality to God's dealing with persons from every nation (ethnos). This term refers not simply to nation-states but also to any racial, ethnic or cultural grouping by which humans distinguish themselves. Peter says that persons in every ethnos who fear God and do right are acceptable (dektos), welcome, to him" (IVP New Testament Commentary, Vol 5, 1995).
Let's compare this to the Old Testament:
"I will make a distinction between my people and your people" (Ex 8:23).
"I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel?" (Num 23:9-10)
"The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession" (Deut 7:6-8).
"He has declared that he will set you in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made" (Deut 26:18-19).
Can we get a clue now why this word, prosopoleptes, was such a stumbling block for Jewish believers? The entire Old Covenant was built on the presupposition of distinction, that God did indeed show favoritism. Jesus Himself was the supreme evidence of that favoritism -- for he was not only the embodiment of the Jewish hope, but was in himself the union of God and Abraham's seed.
And now, suddenly, in one vision, God closed the door on the Old Covenant, by refusing to practice "prosopoleptes." The Old Testament was not overthrown, as critics claimed, but fulfilled. The terms of that dispensation were no longer in effect: the Law and animal sacrifices were no longer the mediator between God and man. God had established a New Testament, and extended the boundaries of its application to all men. This was a tremendous revelation, it shook the foundations of the early church. It did not come through Scripture study, or from the council of the disciples, it was too big for that. Peter and the other disciples did not learn this from Jesus during their apprenticeship, despite the pro-Gentile teaching in John's Gospel. It came only through direct revelation by the Spirit of God -- partly given to the Gentile Cornelius, partly to the apostle. And to convince Peter it wasn't a "pizza" vision, it occurred three times.
Peter then shared the message of the Resurrection of Jesus, and forgiveness of sins to all who believe in him.
"While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God" (Acts 10:44-46).
The Jews who came with Peter had not had the vision of the unclean animals themselves, and had less confidence that God had really opened the doors of salvation to non-Jews. But Cornelius' living room became the Gentiles' Upper Room, as the experience of Pentecost was replicated upon the uncircumcised. This testimony from heaven was undeniable, and the new believers were immediately baptized in water.