The Liberation of Peter: The Gospel to the World

Acts 10:34, NRSV:Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Luke’s narrative of the encounter between Peter and Cornelius is not a story of Cornelius’ conversion, but a story of Peter’s Liberation. The God-fearing and just Cornelius waits for Peter’s awakening so that he may receive the good news of God’s salvation. Are there God-fearing and just people in the world waiting as Cornelius waits? Do those today who assume the messianic title Christ (Christian) stand fully awake as Peter with a message of reconciliation and peace to a world that becomes increasingly alienated?

The author of Luke/Acts sets out to tell the story about the Gospel as the only hope for a chaotic world. Luke makes the reader aware that this good news of God’s salvation cannot remain locked up within a religious superstructure that reduces the Gospel to cultic taboos and ritualistic requirements that close out anyone who does not conform to these things. The Christ event, according to Luke, defines the very nature and purpose of history. It recapitulates the life of the whole world in one act of God through Messiah who establishes God’s covenant of justice so that “in every nation anyone who does what is right is acceptable” to God. Luke’s message is one of radical inclusiveness—particularly of those least esteemed by the religious/social systems of their day. Only Luke begins with a narrative of the birth of Jesus Messiah, and utilizes hymns of celebration for God’s salvation of the poor, the humble, the besieged nation of Israel, and the non-Israelite. Only Luke includes Mary among the disciples; only Luke has stories such as the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son (Luke 15), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–33), the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14); all showing how God goes for those that religion and society excludes.

In reinforcing the deep implications of this point, it is very important to look more closely at the memory text for this lesson. The Greek New Testament text reads thus: “Concerning truth, I understand that God is not one who shows partiality, but in every nation, the one who fears him and does works of justice is acceptable to him.” Very importantly, the word translated righteousness literally means justice.

Doing justice is an overarching theme in Luke/Acts. Only Luke has Jesus beginning his ministry by declaring his manifesto from Isaiah the Hebrew preacher of justice: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, the let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Cornelius

Fearing God and doing justice is precisely how Luke describes Cornelius: “a devout man who feared God” and “gave alms generously to the people” (Acts 10:2). Cornelius was a Gentile whom the average Jew of that day saw as unworthy of receiving the promise of the Gospel simply because he was not a practicing Jew. It did not matter that he had devoted his life to God and to God’s justice. It is easy for the present reader of Luke’s account to take for granted the preaching of the gospel to everyone who will listen. This was not so in Luke’s day. Jews believed that only they were the people of God and the heirs of the Abrahamic promise. Anyone could access this blessing as long as they become fully practicing Jews. Indeed today, many still have this attitude in the practice of their religion, so that religious tradition today is the most profound demonstration of tribalism and divisiveness. But the early Church opposed this very attitude. Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9–16), which prepared him to go to Cornelius, underscores this opposition.

Peter’s Liberation

In the story of Cornelius’ reception of the Holy Spirit, the focus is not Cornelius; rather, the focus is Peter. Cornelius is not the one in need of conversion, it is Peter the apostle—prominent among the “twelve.” Notwithstanding that many have labeled the book of Acts as the Acts of Paul (because Luke’s ultimate concern is with the spread of the Gospel outside of Jerusalem, to the whole world, from the preaching of Jews to the conversion of non-Jews), in the most significant sense, Peter is the liberated/liberator of the narrative. It is at the point at which the angel unlocks the prison door and releases Peter (Acts 12:1–18) that the narrative takes up singular focus on the work of Paul to the Gentiles:

A light shone in the cell,

Peter was awakened,

and the chains fell off his wrist (Acts 12:7)

That miraculous undoing of the prison is a powerful symbol of the release of the Gospel to the Gentiles through the spiritual liberation of Peter. Luke uses the ministry of Peter to portray the journey of the Church—a Jewish movement embracing the coming of Messiah as a spiritual rather than religious/political event. Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles begins in Antioch, but it is Peter who, after his visionary enlightenment, convinces the Jerusalem Church that the gospel to the Gentiles is according to the just providence of God. It is as a result of this conviction that the Jerusalem church sends Barnabas to validate and organize the growing Gentile Jesus-followers, thus establishing the first Gentile church—the church at Antioch (Acts 11:1–26). Peter’s liberation signifies the liberation of the Church and the dissemination of the Gospel of peace and reconciliation. “But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has brought both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14).

A Religion(less) Church?

It is important to underscore that ultimately the conversion of the Gentiles by the Jewish Jesus-followers was not a conversion to a Judaism requiring them to conform to Jewish practices (contrary to the desires of many Jewish believers [See Acts 15:1–29]). Neither was it a signal of the start of a new religion. The early Church comprised believers who were on the one hand practicing Jews, and on the other God-fearing Gentiles who had no interest in Jewish practices. In a strict sense both these groups underwent deep spiritual transformation in order to worship and minister together in spite of their radical diversity. The conversion of the Gentiles was a conversion to God who is One—a turning away from idolatry in all its divisive forms, and all manner of immorality—greed, self-gratification and oppressive structures that characterized life in the Greco-Roman empire. As Paul puts it, because God is One, there cannot be one God for Jews and one for Gentiles. Rather God is One and will grant the spirit to both Jews and Gentiles (See Romans 3:29–30). As Peter puts it in his defense to the Jerusalem church, “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17)

In as much as a world religion, Christianity, emerges from this great spiritual awakening of the first century, Christianity has in many places become the very thing against which the early Church fought. When Christianity became the Roman state religion, it suppressed all other religions including Judaism. Luke’s narrative heralds a gathering together of a divided world through Christ—“a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and a glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). According to Luke, God liberates Israel from her oppressors so that Israel may become a light to the world (See Luke 1:67–79). Though Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles, and Peter to the Jews (Galatians 2:8), it is Peter who initiates the spread of the Gospel, because it is he (among many others), not Paul, who receives anointing at Pentecost. Having been liberated from his own divisive prejudices, Peter takes up the God-given responsibility and leads the initiative to break down the walls between Jews and Gentiles making possible a movement of diversity—a powerful witness to God’s reconciling Grace.

Liberation of the Church?

It is the responsibility of the church today to initiate the liberation of a world in chaos. But it has no power to do this if it remains shackled to the divisive prejudices that is the very problem that this world faces. There are many today who fear God and practice justice that the Church does not reach because it judges these people unworthy in one form or another. “America has become a new missionary frontier.”[1] Studies show that America’s unchurched population is the largest mission field in the English-speaking world and the fifth largest globally. Among the unchurched are children and grandchildren of faithful church goers and church leaders who believe that the church is not Christian. Yet among these non-churchgoers is a keen and rising interest in spirituality.[2] This scenario is becoming increasing so in many other parts of the world. In defending before the Church his unqualified outreach to the “unworthy/unclean” Gentiles, Peter asks: “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed, who was I that I could hinder God?” The church heeded the Spirit’s prompting through Peter and began perhaps the most unifying movement in history.

Where does the church stand today? Some say that it needs “revival and reformation.” If we are to take Peter’s ministry as the paradigm, perhaps what it needs is liberation.

Olive Hemmings is professor of religion at Washington Adventist University.

Image credit: Pexels

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[1]Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids, MI, 2003), 85.

[2]Leslie Newbigin, Unfinished Agenda (London: SPCK, 1985), 242.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8923
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I ask myself: Did Mr Ted Wilson study this week’s Sabbath School lesson? Like in 1st century when Jewish Christians could and should learn from pagans, so 21st century’s Adventists should learn many good and just things from unchurched people in the Western world.
I also ask myself: Why is it so that people who read Holy Scriptures (than and now) have a hard time with learning about justice and equality? Why do they go behind those who never in their life have prayed more than when they said “God, help me,” and why did they recognise so late that all humans are equal and that women have the same rights as men? Is the Bible really so indefinite about those simple truths?

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Beautiful and powerful. Thank you, Dr. Hemmings!

Frank

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So the question begs, “ What must it take for our GC officers and spiritual leaders to think along these lines? Whatever the answers may be, mental maturity has to be at the top of the list. That is, the resolution of egocentric thinking and the acquisition of empathy. Without these, mental immaturity reigns no matter what chronological age we have.

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@webEd
I routinely look for the byline on articles here-and do not always see one.
Is there a policy to not post one with certain writers, topics, or am I missing something else?

Back to the article. The existential angst of the “emerging church” is almost like a pupal caterpillar, cocooned so long he is afraid of her new wings, and so tries to forcibly remain inside the “known safety” that will inevitably kill it.

I have attended revival meetings and they usually result in temporary enthusiasm.
But why do they even do that? It is because of what is presented/taught compared to what is usually presented/taught. The problem is that it is temporary because of competing interests and lack of reformation of teaching methods.
The same goes for liberation.

Adventist pastors & SS teachers usually present that Peter’s vision refers to people only and not flesh foods, whereas outside the denomination the point is made that all meats are clean. Who is correct?

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What do they think?

How is one supposed to reach this mission field? Are they supposed to “share Jesus” or tell them the “good news”?

Are they supposed to invite others to a church of poor , blind, naked, lukewarm Laodiceans where there is discord about WO and leadership?

I have even heard in sabbath school class where one does not need to share any message…that if one would just “smile” at others. So much for deleting any confrontational method. Some would even say that smiling can be observed by others as flirting.

Dr. Hemmings’ byline can be found on the original article on the Spectrum website:

https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2018/08/10/liberation-peter-gospel-world

Hope this helps.

-WebEd

I believe others are correct. Clean and unclean ritual distinctions were abolished with the gospel going to the Gentiles. Separation for belonging to the people of God along those lines was to no longer be in force. In that world, you were what you ate. Ritually clean Jews who were inside the covenant ate only ritually clean foods. Unclean Gentiles who were regarded as outsiders ate unclean foods. They were visible markers of ones status and belonging.

I believe that’s why God gave Peter that vision in that form. Not only was he not to regard any non Jew as unclean any longer, he wasn’t to judge them by what they ate. He was about to be invited to stay at the house of a Gentile who would believe in Christ, and receive the Spirit in the same way as Jewish believers, totally apart from these ritual practices. He was to sit and eat with them at the same table. That type of separation would be death to the new unity of the gospel.

I think that we have totally missed the boat in Adventism by requiring these cultic distinctions for membership in the church. It muddies the inclusiveness of the gospel and blunts its power.

With all that said, I believe the idea of teaching people the value of good, holistic, health practices, and that these food sources are not the most healthy choices is valuable. Research bears this out. Just don’t make it a baptismal requirement couched in old covenant ritual language. It flies in the face of the NT, especially Paul saying, "I am convinced that nothing/ no food is in and of itself unclean.

Nor does eating it make one unclean before God.

Thanks…

Frank

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Creative eisegesis, but it doesn’t fly. Peter himself explained the meaning of the vision, and it had nothing to do with food. But, be my guest, eat whatever you want. See how that works for you.

As for Paul, he was clearly speaking of ceremonial uncleanness, since the one issue he had to deal with numerous times was that of food offered to idols, and whether or not Christians should be eating it.

As for unclean meats, we don’t need the Bible to tell us how bad things like dead pigs and lobsters are. They were never meant to be used as food.

I’m a vegetarian. Stop assuming motive. It says little for you.

Frank

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Why did God say "I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’

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It was a symbolic vision. Why is this so difficult? Is it because so many here want to discredit SDA beliefs? Sometimes it seems that way. At any rate the vision is explained later in the same chapter. So, either Peter was confused; not being able to tell the difference between man and beasts, or he understood the vision for what it was, a directive from God to stop treating Gentiles as “unclean.” Does anyone seriously believe that there are now no limits on what one can eat? Pigs have never been fit for human conscription. Did God miraculously make them healthful in the first century AD?

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I was not assuming motive. You were arguing for the typical Christian interpretation of the vision. I would have said the same thing, whether I knew you were a vegetarian, or not.

Hey, didn’t we just do this Carol? You had some great points. But I guess it’s ALL allegory…

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The distinctions in the first century were totally based on cultic and ritual separation. Adventism has read health into it. That’s eisegesis. Go back and study Jewish sources to see if health is even mentioned. It was not. It was viewed as an outward covenant badge that helped distinguish Jews from their unclean Gentile neighbors.

The vision was given in this form to tell Peter that this wall was coming down. It was an impediment to the spread of and unity of Jews and Gentiles in the gospel. Nowhere is there record in the NT that Gentiles converts were required to adopt the Levitical food laws. Not in the Jerusalem council. Not in Paul’s letters. Nowhere. To argue this is to argue from silence.

However, I also shared that from our perspective, we can still teach about the health benefits of avoiding such foods as part of a much broader emphasis on holistic health. Just don’t let old covenant cultic requirements be an obstacle to baptism and belonging.

Frank

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Then don’t imply that I cango eat whatever I want, or that that was somehow behind by reasoning, when you don’t even know me. You start to make it personal in that way. Not cool!

Frank

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Let’s assume you were right with your “symbolic vision.” Wouldn’t you say we can apply this symbol also as a directive from God to stop treating women as “unclean,” meaning less than equal with men?

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Why not? If you are correct, then you can go and eat anything you want. That’s not demeaning; it’s just a fact.