The Ministry of Peter
With Paul’s departure to Tarsus, Peter is again the main character in Luke’s narrative of the early days of the Christian church.
Peter is portrayed in a sort of itinerant ministry throughout Judea and the surrounding regions. Acts here tells two brief miraculous stories, the healing of Aeneas and the resurrection of Tabitha (Dorcas), which are then followed by the story of Cornelius in chapter 10.
The conversion of Gentiles was the most controversial issue in the apostolic church. Though the discussions that followed Cornelius’s baptism were far from solving all the difficulties, the outpouring of the Spirit, reminiscent of what had happened at Pentecost, helped to convince Peter and the brethren in Jerusalem that the blessings of the gospel were not restricted to Jews. Meanwhile, the church in Antioch had already started moving toward the Gentiles, as well.
This week’s study also includes the rise of a new, short persecution— this time under King Herod—and its impact on the apostles, who had been spared in the persecution carried out by Paul.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, August 11.
Peter was visiting the Christian communities through the coastal region of Judea. His purpose was probably to give them doctrinal instruction (Acts 2:42), but God used him powerfully to perform miracles in the same fashion as those performed by Jesus Himself.
Despite the brevity of the account, the miracle reminds us of the well-known story of the Capernaum paralytic healed by Jesus (Luke 5:17–26). Even the detail about the bed is similar. More important, however, was the impact of Aeneas’s cure, not only in Lydda but also in the coastal plain of Sharon. Having verified for themselves the reality of the miracle, many people turned to the Lord.
Tabitha—the Aramaic for “gazelle;” in Greek, Dorcas—was a believer very dear in her neighborhood because of her works of Christian charity. The story of her resurrection also parallels a miracle performed by Jesus, the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter (Luke 8:41, 42, 49–56), which Peter had witnessed. Following Jesus’ example, he asked everybody to leave the room (see Mark 5:40). Then he knelt down and prayed, after which he called to the dead woman, “ ‘Tabitha, get up’ ” (Acts 9:40, NRSV).
The apostles performed many miracles; yet, in fact, these were God’s actions through the apostles’ hands (Acts 5:12). The similarities with Jesus’ own miracles were perhaps to remind the church, including us today, that what matters most is not so much who the instrument is but the measure of his or her surrender to God (see John 14:12). When we fully allow God to use us for the gospel’s cause, great things can happen. Peter not only resurrected Tabitha, but the miracle also led to many conversions in Joppa (Acts 9:42).
In Joppa, Peter stayed with a certain Simon, a tanner by trade (Acts 9:43). Meanwhile, in Caesarea, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Joppa, there lived a Roman centurion named Cornelius. He and his household were devout worshipers of God, though they had not yet formally adhered to Judaism, meaning that Cornelius was still an uncircumcised Gentile. In a God-given vision, he was instructed to send messengers to Joppa and invite Peter to visit him (Acts 10:1–8).
It is important to know that Peter’s vision was not about food but about people. Yes, it was around noon, Peter was hungry, and the voice told him to kill and eat; yet, God used the vision, not to remove the distinction between clean and unclean animals but to teach Peter about the inclusive character of the gospel.
The vision was explicitly intended to break Peter’s resistance against Gentiles. Peter’s view was that if he entered Cornelius’s house and fellowshiped with him, he would defile himself and so become unfit to worship in the temple or to come before God’s presence. First-century Jews from Judea and the surrounding areas did not associate with uncircumcised Gentiles.
The problem was with the contemporary theology, which excluded the Gentiles from the commonwealth of Israel, even though this view had become a perversion of the whole point of Israel’s existence as a nation, which was to reach out to the world with a knowledge of the true God. Because circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, uncircumcised Gentiles came to be segregated and treated with contempt. They could have no part whatsoever in the blessings of the covenant unless they accepted circumcision and became Jews. Such a concept, though, was incompatible with the universal scope of Jesus’ death, as the early believers, over time, were coming to understand.
Acts 10:44–48 reveals a critical moment in the early church’s history. It was the first time that the gospel was being preached to uncircumcised Gentiles by one of the apostles. Unlike the Hellenistic believers, the apostles and other Judean believers were not ready to receive Gentiles in the church. Since Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, they thought that the gospel was to be shared only with Jews from near and far. The Gentiles would first have to be converted to Judaism and then be accepted into the community of faith. In other words, before Gentiles could become Christians, they first had to become Jews. That was the thinking that needed to be changed among these early Jewish believers.
The gift of tongues given to Cornelius and his household was added as a clear, observable sign that such a concept was mistaken, that God has no favorites, and that in terms of salvation both Jews and Gentiles stand on equal footing before Him.
The long-established Jewish prejudice concerning Gentiles led the believers in Jerusalem to criticize Peter for having eaten with uncircumcised people. It seems that they were more concerned with Jewish ceremonial scruples than with the salvation of Cornelius and his family. They might have feared that if the church broke with such practices it would represent a denial of Israel’s faith; they would lose God’s favor, and become liable themselves to the same accusations—from their fellow Jews—that had led to Stephen’s death.
“The time had come for an entirely new phase of work to be entered upon by the church of Christ. The door that many of the Jewish converts had closed against the Gentiles was now to be thrown open. And the Gentiles who accepted the gospel were to be regarded as on an equality with the Jewish disciples, without the necessity of observing the rite of circumcision.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 136.
As at Pentecost, here, too, they spoke in languages previously unknown to them, rather than in ecstatic or heavenly languages. Only the purpose was different: while for the apostles the gift aimed at the church’s world mission, for Cornelius it functioned as a confirmation that God’s grace was operating even among the Gentiles.
Motivated by Cornelius’s conversion, Luke briefly interrupts his account of Peter’s ministry to show the gospel’s initial progress among the Gentiles.
This section of Acts 11 refers back to Paul’s persecution in chapter 8. Thus, while the previous developments were taking place in Judea and elsewhere, some of the Hellenistic believers who were forced to leave Jerusalem were spreading the gospel way beyond the borders of Judea.
Luke gives special attention to the great city of Antioch, in Syria, where refugees began to preach to their fellow Jews and to the Hellenists, and many of them were accepting the faith. Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8 was then being realized through the efforts of these Hellenistic Jewish Christians. They were the ones who became the real founders of the mission to the Gentiles.
Because of the church’s success in Antioch, the apostles in Jerusalem decided to send Barnabas to evaluate the situation. Noticing the great opportunities for the advancement of the gospel, Barnabas sent for Paul in Tarsus, feeling he could be a vital helper.
Barnabas was right. During the year he and Paul worked together, large crowds, mostly Gentiles, heard the gospel. The enthusiasm with which they spoke about Jesus Christ made the believers there become known for the first time as “Christians” (Acts 11:26). That they “were called” Christians indicates the term was coined by those outside the church, probably as a form of mockery, while the believers preferred to refer to themselves as “brethren” (Acts 1:16), “disciples” (Acts 6:1), or even “saints” (Acts 9:13). By the time Acts was written, “Christian” had become a common designation (Acts 26:28), and Luke seems to approve of it. “Christian” means a follower or an adherent of Christ.
Turning again to Judea, we are faced now with the account of King Herod’s executing James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee (Mark 1:19). He also wanted to do the same with Peter.
The King Herod mentioned here is Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great (Matt. 2:1); he ruled Judea from a.d. 40 to 44. As a result of his show of piety, he earned popularity among his Jewish subjects, especially the Pharisees. His attempt to win the favor of the Jews by attacking some apostles fits perfectly with what we know of him from other sources.
Because James’s execution was effective in fulfilling Agrippa’s agenda, he planned to execute Peter, as well. Peter was arrested and delivered to four squads of four soldiers each to guard him, one squad for each of the four watches of the night. Peter had four soldiers at a time with him: he would be chained to two soldiers, one on each side, and two would guard the entrance. Such extreme precaution was certainly taken to try to avoid what had already happened to Peter (and John) some time before (Acts 5:17–20).
The night before the day that Agrippa had planned to put Peter on trial and execute him, Peter was once again miraculously released by an angel. Next, we find the story of Agrippa’s death at Caesarea (Acts 12:20– 23). Attempts have been made to identify the cause of his death (peritonitis, an ulcer, even poison); yet, Luke is clear in saying that the king died because of a divine judgment.
Further Thought: “In the tenth chapter of Acts we have still another instance of the ministration of heavenly angels, resulting in the conversion of Cornelius and his company. Let these chapters [8–10] be read, and receive special attention. In them we see that heaven is much nearer to the Christian who is engaged in the work of soulsaving than many suppose. We should learn through them also the lesson of God’s regard for every human being, and that each should treat his fellow man as one of the Lord’s instrumentalities for the accomplishment of His work in the earth.”—Ellen G. White Comments, The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1059.
“When the church prays, the cause of God will go forward, and His enemies will come to naught, even if this does not exempt the church from suffering and martyrdom; Luke’s belief in the victory of the gospel is thoroughly realistic and recognizes that though the word of God is not fettered, its servants may well have to suffer and be bound.” —I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), pp. 206, 207.