Peter takes up the challenge that is presented to him, which is also a challenge to the legitimacy of the Gospel message and to the commission given to him and the rest of the disciples by Jesus. As if to emphasize that this subject is quite crucial to the church of the Christ, Luke has Peter retelling the whole of the story of his encounter with Cornelius (so we get to read the story twice, back to back---by contrast, we read the story of Paul’s “conversion” three times in Acts, all of which are offered separately). Indeed, “Peter began and explained it to them point by point” (11:4). He talks about the men that came to him, saying “The Spirit told me to accompany them without hesitation” (11:12a). He also points out that six of the brothers that were with him, presumably all Jewish believers in Jesus, went with him and also entered the house of the Gentile Cornelius (11:12b).
Peter relates Cornelius’ words to him, which were that “he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter, who will speak a message to you by which you and your entire household will be saved.’” (11:13-14) Peter emphasizes that it would be the message that would bring salvation---a message that would bring these Gentiles into covenant and so begin the process of transformation (the working out of their salvation, if you will), rooted in belief (like Abraham) in the Gospel that generates an unswerving loyalty to the faithful God revealed in Jesus, that will conform these believers into the image of God in Christ and so cause them to more accurately bear the divine image as truly human beings, reflecting the glory of God into the world and articulating the praises of all creation back to God. Inherently then, it is belief in this message that grafts these Gentiles into the tree of God’s covenant people (to borrow some terminology from Paul, as he reflects on what God has done and is doing in and for the world via His kingdom people). The belief that Jesus is Lord generates salvation. The adoption of covenant markers (works of the law) as that which brings salvation, continues the process of salvation, or indicates salvation, here goes un-contemplated.
Yes, Paul must lean heavily on this experience of Peter. Peter will go on to build on the fact that it is the message, with its content and the power of that content, that generates salvation (justification, right-standing, covenant inclusion). Before we go on to hear what Peter says, so as to remain mindful of the fact that we are analyzing this portion of Acts so as to understand Romans and the thinking of Paul, we should take this opportunity to remind ourselves of Paul’s insistence that “the Gospel… is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16b). Being reminded of that, we get to hear Peter say “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as He did on us at the beginning” (11:15). Though it is not reiterated, we know from the story of chapter ten that these Gentiles were said to have spoken in tongues and praised God, with this following his reminding them of cross and Resurrection of Jesus. The actions, said to be indicative of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, are the indication of belief in Jesus as Lord, with all of this occurring independent of the exercise, application, adherence to, or mention of any of the works of the law. When Peter tells the story in Jerusalem, he does not make mention of this occurrence, instead forcing the recollection of what happened to them at “the beginning,” at Pentecost, when they too enjoyed this experience.
God indeed shows no partiality (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11). The Holy Spirit is poured out on all who believe the Gospel, adopting people into Abraham’s family (God’s household) without discrimination. He continues to make his case and to contemplate what all of this means, adding “I remembered the word of the Lord, as He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (11:16), as the stories of Israel’s defining water-crossings resonate and come to be shared by these newly adopted sons and daughters through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit and its work to produce a believing trust in the message of the Gospel. Continuing, Peter says “Therefore if God gave them the same gift as He also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ,” with that gift being the inclusion in God’s kingdom project that was begun in the Resurrection and is carried on through the announcement and conscientious enactment of the Gospel, “who was I to hinder God?” (11:17) The question is informative and enlightening, while also being a damning verdict on those that wanted to maintain certain boundaries and covenantal delineations. With these words on the lips of Peter, we are not left to wonder why Paul would eventually accuse Peter of hypocrisy.
With Peter having voiced his position and his question, a collective verdict is rendered. We read that “When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.’” (11:18) With this statement, as we realize the covenant and story-of-Israel language that it conveys, this group of early church elders realized that Gentiles, without restriction and without the need to adhere to the traditional covenant markers (as evidenced by the fact of their belief in Jesus, their speaking in tongues, and their praising of God that made them equal to themselves as those that experienced Pentecost, which also aligned them with the story of Abraham and belief that preceded circumcision or any other requirement), now share in the story and covenant and inheritance of Israel, standing with them in exile and joining with them in the experience of exodus that was the life of the resurrection of the body.