Summary: Who was I that I could withstand God?
The turning point in Luke’s Gospel was when Jesus ‘steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:51). The turning point of Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, is found in the breaking down of objections to the inclusion of Gentiles in the church, first on the part of Peter (Acts 10:15; Acts 10:34; Acts 10:47; Acts 11:17), and then on the part of the apostles and brethren in Jerusalem (Acts 11:18). Beyond this watershed, the narrative concentrates less on Peter, and more on Paul and his Gentile missions: bringing us finally to Rome, where we at last leave Paul ‘preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern Jesus Christ with all confidence, no man forbidding him’ (Acts 28:31).
In Acts 10:1-48, Luke has already given a chronological account of the events which gave rise to the challenge of Acts 11:3. Now he allows Peter to retell the story from his point of view, for the benefit of those in the church who were critical of him. This is good, thorough, journalism; and, along with a third telling of Peter’s story at the so-called Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:7-11), establishes the importance of this event in the history of the church.
Now, at first glance, this may appear to be an argument over Jewish kosher laws, instructing the people as to what they should and should not eat (Acts 11:7-8). However, it soon transpires that what is at stake is the ‘who’ of the company we break bread with (Acts 11:3). Interestingly, incidentally, we see here Peter’s willingness to answer to the other apostles and brethren on this matter, setting it in order for them to understand (Acts 11:4).
Taking this passage (Acts 11:1-18) as a whole, the focus is very much on what God has done. “The Apostles and brethren who were in Judaea heard that Gentiles had also received the word of God” (Acts 11:1). Isn’t it a shame when we must put one of our leaders on the carpet before we will do what we should have done when we first heard such a report: give glory to God (Acts 11:18)?
Still, if we must hear such a report, it is all to the good. It establishes, from beginning to end, that this is the work of God.
1. Peter starts with the thrice repeated vision (Acts 11:5-10); his ‘looking intently’ into the sheet (Acts 11:6); the order to eat (Acts 11:7); Peter’s objection on kosher grounds (Acts 11:8); and the further injunction, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (Acts 11:9). Are we talking about food here, or people?
2. Peter next inserts his first awareness of the other players in what was unfolding, with the arrival “at that very moment” of the three unexpected messengers from Cornelius (Acts 11:11). “Then the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me” (Acts 11:12). So Peter was not without witnesses!
3. Then Peter recounts how he first heard what had happened to Cornelius (Acts 11:13), and exactly what it was that was expected of him there (Acts 11:14). Isn’t it just like our God, to have been working in one place and another at more or less the same time in order to draw together those who must needs encounter one another? Many of us can testify to such things in our own lives.
4. Peter felt that he had hardly begun to speak before the Holy Spirit fell upon his listeners, “as upon us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). Peter remembered Jesus’ saying, reported in all four Gospels, “John indeed baptised with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:16). At the time Peter had asked, ‘Can anybody forbid water, that these should not be baptised who have received the Holy Spirit just as we?’ (Acts 10:47). Here Peter reframed the argument: “If therefore God gave them the same gift as (He gave) us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:17).
Even the diehards in Jerusalem were silenced, and glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted unto the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18)! Repentance, after all, is a gift of God, given under the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. We must be careful, therefore, that we do not stand in God’s way, by being too exclusive concerning those who we will receive as part of the family of God.