The context for this story begins with God’s call of Abram, when God promised, “All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:3). While the Old Testament relates the story of Israel as God’s chosen people, there is also an undercurrent that reminds us of God’s love for Gentiles. And so the Jewish law prescribes fair treatment for aliens (Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:19)—and Rahab (Joshua 6:25) and Ruth (Ruth 1:16-17), both Gentiles, became part of Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:5)—and God sent Jonah to Nineveh to save the Ninevite Gentiles (Jonah 1:2).
In the New Testament, this openness to Gentiles accelerates. After his resurrection, Jesus told the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (1:8). At Pentecost, Peter (not yet understanding the full import of his words) said, “For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far off, even as many as the Lord our God will call to himself” (2:39).
However, in the early chapters of Acts, membership in the church required prior membership in the Jewish faith.
But then in chapter 8, Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch—a man who, because of his physical defect (castration) was not eligible to become a full member of the Jewish community.
And then chapter 9 tells the story of the conversion of Saul (Paul), who will become the great apostle to the Gentiles.
And then in the first half of Acts 10, Cornelius and Peter both saw visions given by God. In his vision, Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a devout Gentile, was ordered to send for Peter. In his vision, Peter saw unclean animals (unclean according to Jewish law) and received an order from God to kill and eat them. Just as Peter was trying to understand the meaning of this troublesome vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrived. Then the Spirit said to Peter, “Behold, three men seek you. But arise, get down, and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them” (10:19-20). Peter went with the men to Joppa, where he met Cornelius. He said, “You yourselves know how it is an unlawful thing for a man who is a Jew to join himself or come to one of another nation, but God has shown me that I shouldn’t call any man unholy or unclean” (10:28).
And then Peter preached a Pentecost-like sermon to these Gentiles (10:34-43). He concludes with these words, “All the prophets testify about him, that through his name everyone who believes in him will receive remission of sins” (10:43). Given the presence of Gentiles, the word “everyone” is significant.
ACTS 10:44-46a. THE HOLY SPIRIT FELL ON ALL WHO HEARD THE WORD
44While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the word. 45They of the circumcision who believed were amazed, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was also poured out on the Gentiles. 46aFor they heard them speaking in other languages and magnifying God.
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the word” (v. 44). Just before being interrupted, Peter was saying “that through his name EVERYONE who believes in him (Jesus) will receive remission of sins” (10:43). God chooses that pregnant moment to interrupt Peter—to endow “all whose who heard the word” (including the Gentiles who were present) with the Holy Spirit.
This sequence is highly unusual, since the gift of the Holy Spirit usually follows baptism (2:38; 8:14-17; 19:1-7).
However, the gift of the Holy Spirit is appropriate to this occasion, because it represents a breakthrough of outreach by the church to Gentiles. Gentiles were always welcome in the church if they first became Jewish proselytes. In this case, however, there has not been (nor will there be) any mention of conversion to the Jewish faith. God gives the gift of the Spirit to these Gentiles as confirmation of his intention to accept Gentiles into the church without prior conversion to the Jewish faith.
This occasion has been called “The Gentile Pentecost,” because there are several parallels with the Jerusalem Pentecost. Peter’s sermon (10:34-43) is shorter than his Pentecost sermon (2:14-36), but is similar in many respects. The outcomes on both occasion involved baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
“Indeed, from this moment forward whenever Peter is asked to interpret the status of uncircumcised Gentiles within the church or in relationship to Jews/Jerusalem, his final appeal will not be to his vision but to Cornelius’s reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Wall, 167).
“They of the circumcision who believed were amazed, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was also poured out on the Gentiles” (v. 45). This parallels the surprise of the crowd at Pentecost who, when they heard the apostles speaking in various languages, “were all amazed, and were perplexed, saying one to another, ‘What does this mean?'” (2:12).
This verse doesn’t tell us that Peter was astounded, although he was probably surprised that these Gentiles would receive the Holy Spirit prior to baptism. But God has prepared Peter for this moment by Peter’s vision and his conversation with Cornelius, the Roman centurion (10:1-33). Peter has been a defender of the Jewish faith, but God has dragged him kicking and screaming (10:13-14) into a new posture. Once Peter was convinced that God intended the Christian Gospel for Gentiles, he did an about-face and became an advocate for Gentiles.
But the circumcised believers (Jewish Christians) with Peter are astounded. They have not yet come to understand God’s intention to admit Gentile believers into the church without prior conversion to the Jewish faith. Their preparation for this moment has been much less complete than was Peter’s.
“For they heard them speaking in other languages and magnifying God” (v. 46a). The speaking in tongues is a certain sign that these Gentiles have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Scholars tend to agree, however, that the speaking in tongues mentioned here is different from the speaking on tongues at the Jerusalem Pentecost. In Jerusalem, the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability… (and) everyone (members of the crowd) heard them speaking in his own language” (2:4, 6). The purpose of speaking in tongues on that occasion was twofold. First, it confirmed to the crowd that something miraculous was taking place. Second, it helped the apostles to communicate with people who otherwise could not have understood them.
This speaking of tongues by Gentiles also has two purposes. First, it confirms to the Jewish believers that God has blessed these Gentiles with his Spirit. Second, it enables the Gentile believers (because they obviously are believers at this point) to extol God—to praise God and to glorify his name. Therefore, most scholars agree that this is an ecstatic speaking in tongues like that mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:2.
ACTS 10:46b-47. CAN ANY MAN FORBID THE WATER FOR BAPTIZING
46bThen Peter answered, 47“Can any man forbid (Greek: kolusai – from koluo—prevent, hinder) the water, that these who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we should not be baptized?”
“Can any man forbid (koluo—prevent, hinder) the water, that these who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we should not be baptized?” (v. 47). Peter, who has so recently been converted from his Jews-only perspective, now provides the initiative for baptizing these Gentiles. He obviously believes that they need baptism even though they have already received the Holy Spirit.
Koluo is the same verb that the eunuch used when he said, “Behold, here is water. What is keeping (koluo) me from being baptized?” (8:36). The eunuch was also a Gentile, and each case, the koluo question is asked in such as way as to expect the response, “There is nothing to prevent it.”
Note that Peter says nothing about circumcision as a prior condition to baptism.
“who have received the Holy Spirit” (v. 47b). The reason for Peter’s advocacy is that he has seen evidence (speaking in tongues) that God has endowed these Gentiles with the Holy Spirit. Peter understands that gift as God’s welcoming sign to Gentiles.
Peter has always been slow to move beyond generally accepted boundaries, but he has never been slow to move once he understood such movement to be God’s will.
“as well as we” (v. 47c). There is no distinction between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers. Both have received the same Spirit.
ACTS 10:48. HE COMMANDED THEM TO BE BAPTIZED
48He commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay some days.
“He commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 48a). Apparently Peter does not baptize the Gentile believers personally, but orders other Christians—presumably those who accompanied him from Joppa (10:23)—to administer it.
“Then they asked him to stay some days” (v. 48b). Not long ago, Peter would have refused the hospitality of a Gentile’s home and table, because he believed that it was God’s will that Jews should maintain their separateness from Gentiles.
While this verse does not explicitly tell us that Peter accepts this invitation, it strongly implies it. God has provided ample evidence (Peter’s vision and the gift of the Holy Spirit to Gentiles) that God intends to open the church to Gentiles. Just as there was no reason to withhold the water of baptism from Gentiles, there is no reason for Peter to decline Gentile hospitality.
Peter will defend his actions to the Jerusalem church in 11:1-18, and will further defend them to the council in Jerusalem in 15:1-21.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsyvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Malcolm, Lois, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Pelikan, Jaroslav, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan