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Acts 10:34-43

Astonishing Power

Peter’s sermon to Cornelius’s household in Acts 10 is full of surprises. The first, of course, is Peter’s astonishment that he’s even here, speaking to a Roman centurion and his associates. Peter begins by marveling at God’s universal mercy; he has truly apprehended something he previously did not compute, namely, that God does not practice προσωπολημψία, that is, favoritism, partiality, or prejudice (10:34). The scope of God’s saving mercy brought through Jesus is not limited to Jews; rather, the door is open to anyone who might seek God through Jesus—irrespective of nationality or origin (10:35). The point is rendered yet more starkly because as Peter declares these words, he stands in the home of not only a non-Jew, but a Roman official. God’s mercy through Jesus extends not just to people beyond the Jews, but to a man whose office makes him a powerful participant in the imperial regime that put Jesus to death. If a Roman centurion can become acceptable to the God revealed in Jesus, the ethnic qualification to become a member of God’s people is dramatically nullified. Anyone who “fears God and does justice is acceptable” to God (10:35).[1] But this is only the first surprise of Peter’s speech. While this one is for Peter and Jewish readers of Acts, the rest are for Cornelius and his Gentile household. To modern ears, conditioned by two millennia taking Jesus’s significance for granted, Peter’s words might sound benign; but to a household shaped by Roman imperial ideology, this speech is revolutionary.

Peter leads with what is most important: “Y’all know the message sent to Israel bringing-good-news [εὐαγγελιζόμενος] of peace [εἰρήνην] through Jesus Christ—this one [οὗτος] is Lord of All [πάντων κύριος]” (10:36). If the Roman centurion and his household before whom Peter speaks here have been shaped by the same sort of imperial imagination that produced the famous Priene Inscription, these words would have a seismic effect. For in that calendar inscription, dating from 9 BCE, it was not Jesus’s birth but Caesar Augustus’s that was celebrated as surpassing “good news,” and not for Israel, but for the citizens of the Roman Empire. It was Caesar, and not Jesus, who would “end war,” thus bringing peace. And certainly it was Caesar, and not Jesus, whom Peter’s audience in Caesarea would have called “Lord,” and “Lord of All.”

Peter uses all this language usually associated with imperial power and ascribes it instead to Jesus. Surprise on surprise! Jesus is the one who brings good news of peace to Israel, the oppressed people of God, and Jesus is Lord of All. This emphasis at the end of v. 36 is easily missed in modern translations, the NRSV included, which render the end of the verse, “he is Lord of All.” But Peter uses the demonstrative pronoun οὗτος, best translated here as “this one” in implied contrast to “that one.” So, at the end of v. 36, Peter reiterates Jesus’s claim to the title most frequently ascribed to him throughout Luke’s Gospel and extends its reach: Jesus was identified as “Lord” already in Mary’s womb (Luke 1:43), but here Peter gives that title a universal scope. By implication, too, the “Lord of All” is above all other “lords.” In short, Peter’s thesis concludes with the claim that “this one [Jesus]”—and, by implication, not “that one [Caesar]”—is Lord of All.[2]

Claiming that Jesus, rather than Caesar, is the Lord of All through whom good news of peace comes to Israel does not simply take Caesar’s accomplishments and power and ascribe them, instead, to Jesus. Rather, Jesus redefines these terms with the content of his life. Jesus does not practice a lordship of domination as Caesar does (cf. Luke 22:25), nor bring a peace that is merely the end of war. Peter recounts for his audience a summary of Jesus’s ministry: “God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power, with the result that “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him” (10:38). The power Jesus wielded gave life and wholeness to all wherever he went. The peace Jesus offers goes beyond the absence of violent conflict to a comprehensive flourishing. But not everyone wanted it.

Peter obscures responsibility for Jesus’s death by using third person plural verb without a subject, and avoids using the word “crucify”: “they killed [him], hanging him on a tree” (10:39). Such circumlocution could be a matter of realistically distributing the blame for Jesus’s execution among the whole variety of actors Luke’s Gospel names as well as deference to Roman reticence to speaking of crucifixion in polite company. For a Gentile audience, such a death would not, perhaps, evoke the cursedness of anyone subjected to it (cf. Deut 21:23), but its humiliation and degradation still would be clear.

Jesus’s death ought to make him unrecognizable as the “Lord of All,” but his claim to that title is vindicated in that “God raised him on the third day and let him be shown—not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen in advance by God—to us!—who ate and drank with him after his resurrection from the dead” (10:40-41). The one whom Peter proclaims as Lord of All bears that title not because he has run a conquering army across the Empire, but because he displays God’s victory over death and all destructive powers. The one who truly is Lord of All is the one whose power is endlessly and relentlessly life-giving—even in the face of death. That is, perhaps, the greatest surprise of all—after all, ἀναστάσις (resurrection) and “astonishment” are etymological cousins. But this surprise is also very good news.


[1] All translations of biblical text are those of the author.

[2] The analysis of this paragraph and the previous one draws substantially upon C. Kavin Rowe, “Luke-Acts and the Imperial Cult: A Way Through the Conundrum?,” JSNT 27 (2005): 279-300, esp. 289-94.


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