Connections 01.12.2020: Too Small for Walls

Acts 10:34-48

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. closed its doors on December 31, 2019 after eleven years of operation. I hated to see this happen.

The Newseum was a project of the Freedom Forum. According to the Newseum’s website (newseum.org), the Freedom Forum’s mission “is to foster First Amendment freedoms for all.” Also according to the website, “At the Newseum, visitors experienced the story of news, the role of a free press in major events in history, and how the core freedoms of the First Amendment—religion, speech, press, assembly and petition—apply to their lives.”

My Good Wife and I visited the Newseum in 2018. Its interactive exhibits were interesting and inspiring. One of its most moving exhibits dealt with the Berlin Wall, and particularly with the role the press played in its removal. The Newseum had the largest collection of sections of the Wall outside of Germany.

We have a refrigerator magnet that we bought in the Newseum gift shop. Inspired by the Berlin Wall exhibit, it says, “The world’s too small for walls.”

This week’s lesson text is also about bringing down the walls that separate people. Peter’s experience with Cornelius was God’s way of revealing the good news proclaimed in another context by our refrigerator magnet.

In a sense, the world was much smaller in the first century than it is now. Experts estimate that the world’s population in the first century was around 200 million. Today it’s about 7.7 billion. Peter, Cornelius, and other first-century folks didn’t know that North and South America (and many other places) existed.

But in another sense, the world is much smaller now than it was then. Modern travel makes it possible to get to the other side of the world in a matter of hours. Modern technology allows us to communicate with someone on the other side of the world immediately.

In first-century Israel, the wall between Jews and Gentiles was high. God led Peter and Cornelius to get together so the Jewish Peter could proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentile Cornelius. In Christ, that wall was coming down.

Recent anti-Semitic acts of violence and vandalism reveal that some Gentiles, some of whom probably (and sadly) consider themselves Christians, still imagine a high wall between them and Jewish people. We are all aware of other walls that separate other groups.

The good news of Jesus Christ should lead us to work to remove those walls. How committed are we to continuing the good work of bringing down the walls that separate people? How does the good news of Jesus continue to bring down the walls between people? Can the news we share be good if it causes walls to go up rather than to come down?

Yes, the world’s too small for walls.

And the good news of Jesus Christ is too big for them.

Discussion

  • What does it mean for God to show “no partiality” (v. 34)?
  • What does it mean for Jesus to be “Lord of all” (v. 36)?
  • Can you summarize Peter’s message in one sentence? What is the core truth of his sermon?
  • Why do you think Peter emphasizes the fact that he and the other apostles were witnesses to Jesus’ ministry and to his resurrection?
  • In the verses immediately following our lesson text (vv. 44-48), God sends the Holy Spirit on Peter’s Gentile audience. Why do you think God did so in this case?

Reference Shelf

Verses 34-35 make explicit the gospel’s universal implications. The God behind the gospel is the God of all, “a central theological axiom,” according to Luke Johnson. This God shows no partiality with regard to race, ethnicity, or national origin. Yet v. 35 makes clear that God’s lack of partiality is directed “in any nation [toward] anyone who fears him and does what is right.” It is precisely these people who are “acceptable to him.” The piety of Cornelius, of which readers were reminded in v. 31, does have a bearing on his standing before God.

To make his case that the blessings of the gospel are for all people who fear God and do what is right, Peter presents the essential kerygma (vv. 36-42…). Close reading of this presentation of the kerygma, curiously, does not explicitly make Peter’s case that God shows no partiality. God sent the message of the gospel (logos) to Israel (v. 36a). “That message spread throughout Judea” (v. 37a), the “country of the Jews” (RSV), culminating in “Jerusalem” (v. 39). Even v. 42 states that Jesus commanded his disciples “to preach to the people,” not noting for Cornelius that Jesus explicitly commanded his disciples twice to preach to non-Jews (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). Peter does conclude with an emphatic statement that “all the prophets testify . . . that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness” (v. 43). Still, if one listens to this kerygmatic summary as Cornelius would have heard it, one wonders what exactly would have convinced him that this gospel is for all people.

Readers should recall that the speeches of Acts, as much as they may bear some connection with history, are directed primarily to the readers. Perhaps the opening words of Peter’s speech, “You know” (v. 36, NRSV; v. 37, Greek NT), give away to readers the real audience of these words, for Peter had no reason to assume that Cornelius “knew” the gospel story. But readers do! The primary actors within the kerygmatic summary, God and Jesus, are not unknown figures to the reader. The God who acts in this summary is the God with whom the reader has become quite familiar in the whole narrative of Luke–Acts to this point. It is this God whose Spirit inspired Simeon to proclaim at the beginning of the story that Jesus would be a light to Gentiles (Luke 2:31-32). This same God has just now brought Peter and the Gentile Cornelius together.

Parenthetically, Peter notes that Jesus is “Lord of all” (v. 36). This could speak directly to Cornelius, if he understood pantōn (“all”) to include “all people,” a possible, though not necessary, rendering of the Greek word. Readers, however, recalling that Jesus did command his disciples to proclaim forgiveness of sins to all nations in his name (Luke 24:47), would easily recognize the universal implications of the expression “Lord of all.”

Finally, while Cornelius must simply trust Peter’s declaration that the prophets testify to the universal efficacy of the gospel (v. 43), readers can recall the climactic line of the prophetic quotation that introduced the first sermon preached in Acts: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21, quoting Joel 2:32a). Recollection of this prophetic declaration, especially when combined with the readers’ knowledge of Jesus’ command to preach forgiveness to all nations “in his name,” should convince the reader that the gospel is for all people. The next scene will confirm this, both for the reader and for the characters within the narrative.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 173-74.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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