Peter Preaches at Cornelius’s House
The previous entry ended with Acts 10:28 when Peter asks Cornelius:
May I ask why you sent for me?”
Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’33 So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”
34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Cornelius’ explanation of why he summoned Peter actually adds detail to the story about Cornelius’ visitation. In Acts 10:3 the angel that appeared to Cornelius’ was not described. The author just said “He distinctly saw an angel of God”. However, as Cornelius retells the events, he adds that “Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me”. This small nuance seems more important to Cornelius than to Luke (the author of Acts). However, angels are often described as being bright or shining. In fact, Luke mentions these shining messengers in his gospel. 3 times Luke mentions angels in his gospel and with the exception of Zechariah’s visitation, they are described as shining or illuminated.
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:8)
While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. (Luke 24:4)
The shining angel theme is familiar iconography for the Jewish people and for the early Christians. It was a way of making sure people understood the visitor as other-worldly.
Another very familiar theme in Judaism is the emphasis on giving to the poor, which was one of the reasons why God chose Cornelius for this important message.
God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor (Acts 10:31)
The act of giving to the poor, or giving alms, was very important in Jewish life. In the post on Acts 1:1-7, a number of Biblical passages are listed supporting the giving of alms, as well as some early rabbinic teachings on giving. However one thing not mentioned which is helpful for the discussion about giving, is that the Deutero-Canonical (apocryphal/intertestamental) books of the Old Testament explains the spiritual importance of giving alms and Luke taps into these known writings.
In the book of Tobit, giving alms to the poor was important because it could bring about salvation. According to Tobit, righteousness requires alms-giving.
For alms-giving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life, (Tobit 12:9)
I, Tobit, walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of my life. I performed many acts of charity for my kindred and my people who had gone with me in exile to Nineveh in the land of the Assyrians. (Tobit 1:3)
In other books like Sirach, it’s states:
Giving to the poor can make up for sin, just as water can put out a blazing fire. (Sirach 3:30)
Tobit also provides important information as to HOW alms-giving became so important. The author, unwittingly, also tells us when this Jewish theme became important which was during the time Israel was captive in Nineveh. Although, the text of Tobit was likely written during the Babylonian exile of Judah, not the Assyrian exile of Israel. Nevertheless, without a temple to make sacrifices at, prayer and alms-giving became the best substitute for maintaining their relationship with God and their national identity. Additionally, the lack of care for the poor is without question the 2nd most mentioned damnable accusation that the prophets charged Israel with. It’s 2nd only to not following the Torah. Of the later prophets, the ones who were nearest to the exiles, God declares some stinging corrections about taking care of the poor and is one of the reasons that God is giving them over to the nations.
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” Ezekiel 16:49
He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 22:16)
Thus, the importance of alms-giving in the Jewish life not just a matter or substitution for lacking a temple, but also for appeasing the Lord, who accused them repeatedly of not caring for the poor. If Israel and Judah were taking the prophet’s warnings seriously, then alms-giving would have been a natural response to their messages.
Another interesting feature of Peter’s visit is that Cornelius seemed to just be expecting a message from Peter and nothing more. That would explain Cornelius’ invitation to Peter, to speak as the Lord asked him to.
Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” (Acts 10:33)
However, when Peter arrived, all those in attendance got a whole lot more!
Peters speech begins with a declaration that God’s salvation was not fully understood until now.
I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (Acts 10:34-35)
What follows is a brief retelling of Christ’s death and Resurrection. For the first time, one of the 12 apostles has recognized that Christ was sent not only for the Jews but also for the gentiles. However, as of that very moment, Peter was the only disciples aware of this theological transition that had taken place.
All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:43)
From this passage we can learn a few things. Firstly, the importance of taking care of the poor among us is not just about doing good deeds. Its about righteous living. A righteous person would wan’t to serve the less fortunate. Secondly, God’s grace is far greater than most people allow for. Peter had to have a visitation from God in order to understand the breadth of salvation. May we not be so stubborn as to act as gate keeper to heaven for those that we believe are not good enough.
“Peter in the House of Cornelius”, by Barend Fabritius, 1653
Image of Painting from “Werner Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler II”, Landau/Pfalz, 1983, nr. 550