[10:1-33]. The Hebrew Peter forced to appear as a Pagan.
Peter was in Joppa without being accompanied by other apostles, since they are not mentioned and since he remained there for «many days» (9:43): this would have facilitated his journey to Caesarea, a city also on the coast and well connected with Joppa (about 50 km).
The story told here revolves around Cornelius, chosen by God not by chance. Cornelius was a Roman centurion, an army officer in charge of a hundred soldiers, who actively operated in the region with authority. This allowed him to interact deeply with the Jewish environment in which he was inserted and from which he learned who God really was and the concrete way in which to relate to him (vv. 2-4); even among some of his soldiers there was widespread sympathy for Judaism (v. 7).
Cornelius had “adhered from outside” to Judaism, but it was not possible for him to be a full member while remaining a centurion: certainly not because the God of Israel was contrary to a sensible use of arms, but because he could evidently not abstain from the service on the Sabbath day, nor observe the alimentary rules commanded by Moses and exasperated by the Pharisees. Caesarea was a sort of “Roman capital” of the area and there a centurion was well placed among the ruling class.
In short, Cornelius was just the right person to receive the Gospel and spread it in his Roman environment: the parallel with the eunuch is evident (8:27ff) and the fact that Philip had ended up in Caesarea makes us suppose that he also took care of the Roman neo-converts.
That Cornelius was already prepared can be deduced from his understanding of the angel who spoke to him and from sending immediately some of his trusted men to seek Peter (vv. 3-8). As the men of Cornelius made the not-so-short journey, God began to prepare Peter with an enigmatic and unsettling vision, but without giving him time to think about it too much, nor the possibility of seeking the other apostles’ advice (otherwise it would have been all more difficult, as can be deduced from the negative reaction reported in 11:2).
The vision that Peter had was an invitation to eat all sorts of animals: since this was forbidden by the written Word of God, how could that vision come from God? It was to be suspected that there was the paw of the diabolic “roaring lion”, always ready to devour believers who turn away from God (1 Peter 5:8). And yet it seemed that the authentic voice of God, which Peter knew well, had spoken to him.
Peter could not solve his tangle of thoughts, but precisely in those circumstances the men sent by Cornelius arrived, who moved the problem from the theoretical to the practical (according to the style of the God of Abraham), inviting Peter to go with them to Caesarea without being clear about the reason, but knowing that there was also someone there who had received an equally enigmatic vision. Peter agreed to go to Caesarea to try to understand it more, but the perplexities remained and then he was prudently accompanied by some brothers in faith (v. 23).
When Peter arrived at Caesarea and entered Cornelius’ house, he did not find only a family in front of him, but a sort of assembly, for Cornelius had purposely invited his relatives and friends: on the whole they were probably not few, since at that time the families were numerous and given the social position of Cornelius.
As soon as he saw Peter (v. 25), Cornelius knelt before him in a way that Peter valued as worship; this is a sign that, although he was “God-fearing” (v. 2), Cornelius still had typical “pagan fears”.
Peter began his speech with words that often seem strange to us and that therefore “we jump”: «You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation» (v. 28). We instinctively reply: «But Peter what do you say! You are a Christian!». We have already mentioned that Peter was not a “Christian”, but a Jew who had accepted the Jewish Messiah, from whom he had learned to live Judaism in a more faithful way to the Word of God, certainly not to transgress it!
Peter continues: «But God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean». We want to say: «It was about time, dear Peter! How did you not understand earlier the great novelties brought by Jesus!». Do we realize that those “great novelties” were not understood even by the other apostles? (11:1-3). Do we realize that those apostles, who in our opinion still had “blinders”, were able to carry out the extraordinary actions told so far? We who feel “one step higher” than Peter, have we done more than him?
Peter ends his introductory speech by asking why they had sent for him (v. 29): he was there, in other words, without having understood first why. This is not strange, because we are not able to take on too many things and then God reveals them to us little by little: as to Abraham, when God invited him to leave without telling him where (Heb 11:8), as when Jesus invited his disciples to follow him (Mk 1:16-20).
[10:34-48]. The “Gospel of Cornelius”.
Verses 34-43 should be enlarged and framed, because they summarise what could be called “the Gospel of Cornelius”, that is, the Gospel adapted for the first time to a non-Jew: let’s then see what Peter said in more detail.
«In every nation» (v. 35a). The apostles expected the universal expansion of the Gospel to take place within a “Judaism”; the first surprise of Peter, then, is that God was at ease in a pagan house too. This attitude would have become one of the dearest flags for Christians and it is right for it to be so, what is not right is to backproject this realisation of Peter at the beginning of Acts or even at the beginning of the Gospel.
« anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him» (v. 35b). Before meeting Peter, Cornelius was indeed pleasing to God (cf. v. 4), but it is only with the message of the Gospel that he would understand the forgiveness of sins, receiving the Holy Spirit.
« the word that he sent to Israel» (v. 36). The message that God addressed to Cornelius was “indirect”, being the adaptation of something more complex, originally revealed «to Israel»: for Cornelius this was quite evident, but then we, his descendants, forgot him and demanded that the true Gospel be that which developed outside of Judaism!
The message that Peter brought to Cornelius was not substantially different from that preached before to the Jews, even if explicit references to the Old Testament (Abraham, Moses, David, prophets) are missing. Jesus is presented in his humanity («Jesus of Nazareth», v. 38), in his powerful life, death and resurrection, in his ability to forgive sins.
According to Old Testament prophecies, the Hebrews expected much more from the Messiah than what Jesus achieved in his first coming; that is why Peter also announced to the Hebrews what Jesus would do in the future («restoring all the things», 3:21). The message to Cornelius, however, ended with the personal dimension of salvation, not because Peter decided to stop there, but because it was the Holy Spirit who interrupted him at that point, suddenly descending upon all the listeners, who were «speaking in tongues and extolling God» (v. 46).
Peter recounted this unexpected interruption of the Spirit by saying that he had «began to speak» (11:15) and this is a sign that he wanted to say many other things, but God used with Cornelius that “gradual method” which he often adopts, so that only a “first dose” would be revealed to him: for Peter it was a “small dose”, but for Cornelius that little was already a total revolution.
The trouble, as mentioned before, is what then we, descendants of Cornelius, have made of it, stating that that little in reality would be the totality: in fact we Christians, not being able to understand them, often despise the broader horizons, considering them even harmful!
Faced with the evidence of the conversion of Cornelius and his friends, Peter found the courage to baptise for the first time an uncircumcised. All this opened up huge perspectives, but Peter was puzzled and troubled by what he had done and one can guess that by the fact he stayed there only a few days and only because of the insistence of the new converts (v. 48).
That of Cornelius, for Peter, remained an exception hardly understandable and he did not immediately get its logical consequences, which instead anonymous believers did (11:20-21), who from the episode of Cornelius drew the implicit rule, becoming an instrument for the formation of the first church with the prevalence of uncircumcised, which was the church of Antioch (here is another note “in filigree” of the arisen “inadequacy” of Peter).
Even when the newness of Antioch was consolidated by Barnabas and Saul (11:22-26), for Peter a “baptised and uncircumcised” remained an incomprehensible combination, to the point that later, just as he was visiting Antioch, he promoted a resounding turnaround, forcing Paul to a very severe public reprimand (Gal. 2:11-21).
The baptism of an uncircumcised as Cornelius, therefore, was the beginning of a great revolution in the Church and God began it with a fact, he then consolidated it with other facts (church of Antioch) and spread it with further facts (first missionary journey of Barnabas and Paul, Chap. 13-14): only later a first biblical frame will be sought (Acts 15), only later Paul will explain in writing all the consequences on the theological level (Letter to the Romans), only towards the end of the New Testament there will be the reflections contained in the Hebrews’ letter. As usual then, God first produces the facts and then the talking: to better understand his work, we must then first reflect on the facts (Acts of the Apostles) and then on the discourses (Letters of the Apostles).
There will be a way to talk about it, but we anticipate a question: «The baptism of an uncircumcised like Cornelius, occurred against, beyond or in line with the Old Testament?» Our belief, as in some way already communicated, is that it happened in line with it, but we will see the reasons by commenting on Acts 15; for the moment we simply observe that even in the Old Testament, when human beings’ salvation was at stake, God had asked one of his servants to eat very impure food… And Ezekiel had raised the same objection as Peter! (Ezekiel 4:14; Acts 10:14).