Absolutely the Most Important Chapter in the Entire Bible

Absolutely the Most Important Chapter in the Entire Bible July 13, 2012

Don’t you hate blog posts that start like this, with such an exaggerated claim? So do I.

Oh well.

I could have said this post will make you rich and famous, but I’m holding back.

Still, there is one chapter, in the New Testament, that I think is majorly huge–without it Christianity as we know does not exist.

And here’s the chapter. Ready?

Acts 10.

Bet you didn’t see that coming. Bet you thought I was going to pick something about Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, or resurrection. But I didn’t, did I?

Without Acts 10, you don’t go to church on Sunday, have summer youth missions trips, hymnals, cathedrals, Vacation Bible School, or Contemporary Christian Music. Heck, since so much of western culture reflects nearly 2000 years of Christian influence (and dominance, for ill and good), you could say that without Acts 10, the west as we know it doesn’t exist.

How is tbat? Before Acts 10, followers of Jesus were almost exclusively (maybe entirely) Jewish. From Acts 10 on, Gentiles come pouring in as equal members. So, it’s a big deal.

In Acts 10, the Apostle Peter has a vision of a large sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners. On that sheet were all sorts of animals considered unclean in Judaism. A voice told Peter to “kill and eat.” Even though Peter was hungry, he said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” Peter was a good Jew who stuck to ancient Jewish law about not eating “unclean” animals.

Peter was also a bit clueless at first about what this vision meant, but he would quickly understand that the ritually unclean animals in the vision symbolized Gentiles. At a time when maintaining ritual purity was a major concern (to distance Judaism from Roman culture), a vision like this was bound to signal a major transition.

No wonder Peter was confused. Why, after all, would God cancel out a law that God himself had commanded the ancient Israelites to keep?

In the Old Testament, for Gentiles to be accepted by God, they had to convert to the Israelite faith, which meant believing as Israelites believed and also acting as Israelites acted–i.e., keeping the law of Moses, especially the part about men getting circumcised. That way of thinking was in full force during the time of Jesus and what we see here in Acts 10.

So, this is a big deal.

Next, Peter travelled to Caesarea, to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Cornelius told Peter that he, too, had had a vision, telling him to go fetch Peter and bring him to Caesarea. Now the tumblers are falling into place, and Peter understands that the good news of Jesus is not to be limited to Jews.

So, Peter does what apostles tend to do: he began preaching. The heart of the matter is found in verses 44-48. As Peter was speaking, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”

Don’t pass this by too quickly.

Earlier, in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost the Spirit also fell on all who were present, but they were all Jews. Now here in Caesarea, you have Pentecost 2.0 and the Spirit also falls on Gentiles.

This is also a big deal.

In the Old Testament, the Spirit fell occasionally on major leaders, like Moses or the prophets. A couple of the prophets do speak of the Spirit one day falling on everyone–but by “everyone” they meant all Jews.” The Spirit falling on Gentiles was not part of the picture.

Even Jesus’ preaching was focused almost entirely on his fellow Jews, although we see hints of widening the scope here and there. Read the Gospels and see how “Israel centered” they are.

The first few chapters of Acts continue this Jewish focus of the gospel. The focus here is that many Jews were beginning follow this Jesus fellow, and zealous Jewish leaders reacted by putting these followers of Jesus to death, the Apostle Paul (known there as Saul) being their most famous hit man.

But here, in Acts 10, the focus shifts entirely from a Jewish intramural squabble to a much larger question: “Pentecost, with normal everyday Jews receiving the Sprit of God, was enough of a paradigm shift. But now, the Spirit seems to be out of control, falling on Gentiles, too.”

Peter then went  back to Jerusalem to explain things to the Jewish leaders (and I imagine he was rehearsing his speech all the way), who caught on right away: “Then God has given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

We might read this and think “no duh” but don’t be fooled: this was a revolutionary insight that changed everything. What the church today may take for granted–being overwhelmingly Gentile–was inconceivable at the time of the first followers of Jesus.

With the Gentiles now welcomed as part of the family of God–as Gentiles, without converting to Judaism first–much of the drama not only of the book of Acts but of Paul’s letters (especially Romans and Galatians) becomes clear:

If Gentiles are equal members of God’s family, what do we do about all that stuff in the Old Testament where God tells the Israelites to maintain their purity, and that Gentiles were not welcome as long as they remained Gentile? 

In other words, what in the world (literally) is God doing? Much of the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters, is taken up with answering that question.

The bottom line:

In Acts 10, Israel’s story ceased being “Israel’s story” and was opened up to Gentiles. In order to do that, the old rules had to give way to a new and unexpected chapter. The Spirit is given to all.

Without Acts 10, you don’t go to church on Sunday. So, yeah, exaggerated blog post titles aside, Acts 10 is sort of a major moment.

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  • This exaggerated blog post title paid off. Well done!

    • peteenns


  • Jamie

    What do you do with Acts 15, then?

    • peteenns

      I think Acts is the result of Acts 10.

  • John Willard

    Apparently it was as vital as you say to Luke as well – a gentile – since he made it the longest story in Acts, overflowing into the first 18 verses of chapter 11.

    • Bev Mitchell

      Yes. And Luke+Acts is 40% of the NT. Probably quite important.

  • Yes you are very correct. But it also has major implications about how we who are mostly Gentiles actually live out our faith and a life with God. It brings up huge questions about righteousness and purity and a godly lifestyle for us today.

    In fact, in recent years it has consumed my thinking about how what a faith without the law really looks like. And in examining modern Christian contexts, I have noticed many uncanny parallels between contemporary Christianity and they legal Judaism of Jesus time.

    Just like you pointed out that the Jews had to remain separate from the Roman and did this by way of the law, Christians do the same thing today with their outwardly righteous motifs. Somehow I don’t imagine that Paul envisioned that his letters to the early churches would have resulted in a new law that we would someday use almost exactly like the old law was used in Judaism.

    I think that this chapter is enormously important, and I think that there is even more in it for us today to glean in regards to how we are truly supposed to live, and what a new righteousness and what the new definition of righteousness means in a world that exists after cross and the “completion” of the old law.

  • Dopderbeck

    Great post Pete! A quibble – well maybe a major point: “ceased” being Israel’s story? Is Acts 10 an apologia for supercessionism? I don’t think so, not in light of the Jerusalem Council, and I don’t think that’s what Paul works out either (certainly not in Romans 8-10). So I would say, in Acts 10 the Gentiles are decisively grafted in to Israel’s story.

    Now – what does Acts 10 mean for the role of the Spirit in the community’s ongoing encounter with scripture… Hmmm…

    • peteenns

      A fine point, Dave. Perhaps better would be to say “ceased being exclusively…” (although I trust the post as a whole supports that).

  • Theophile

    Hi Peter,
    The most important thing most people miss about Acts10, is the fact that it records Peter as being the “First actual Apostle to the Gentiles”, Um… not Paul, even though Paul claims that title.
    Since Paul’s letters are usually given as proof of Sunday being the “new Christian Sabbath”, I like to point out Acts 13:42-44 where we find Paul on the Sabbath insisting the Gentiles return to the synagogue, with Jews on the next Sabbath, to hear more. Why didn’t Paul say “come back tomorrow, on the new Christian Sabbath”, hadn’t Paul got the memo that it had been moved? Wasn’t Paul being legalistic insisting the Gentiles return on the next Sabbath with Jews at the synagogue?

    • peteenns

      Good point about Paul vis-a-vis Peter. Hadn’t thought of that. You make a good point about Paul;’s behavior (add to it having Timothy circumcised immediately after the Jerusalem Council that rendered it null and void). But, as I understand it, Paul’s more “Jewish” behaviors (hate putting it that way) are missionally (another terms I’d rather avoid) driven–becoming all things to all, that sort of thing.

      • Theophile: Are you assuming that Paul’s churches gathered *0nly* once per week? The tradition of gathering on Sunday does not preclude gathering on other days also, and the practical needs of a new church should quickly explain why they most likely did gather more often, especially in the beginning. That said, Peter is probably correct to suggest Paul inviting them to Saturday was more missionally strategic.

      • Parasum

        That is a bother – because he does, in essence, exactly what he rebukes St. Peter for doing. Why is it fine, & not being “clearly in the wrong” for St. Paul to circumcise Timothy ? Why did not St. Paul say “Forget that circumcision stuff – we are saved by faith in Christ, not by the dead ceremonies of the Law, for it has been ended on the Cross” ? Why is St. Paul not to be “blamed”, as he himself had blamed St. Peter ? (I admire St. Paul’s theology, but I far prefer a warmly human character like St. Peter; he can never be accused of hypocrisy, whereas St. Paul is liable to exactly to this charge . Which is regrettable. He has a hard streak that is rather off-putting. )

        • peteenns

          Paul seemed to have circumcised Timothy in Acts 16 for the same reason he took part in the purification rites in Jerusalem to makes sure no one thought he was teaching Jews not to circumcise their children in Acts 21 (vv. 17-26)–to be all things to all people (1 Cor 9) and bear with the weaker brother (Rom 14-15).

    • There was no “new Sabbath day” until hundreds of years after Paul was long gone. Constantine changed it to Sunday in 325…to make the Christians worship on the same day Constantine was already worshiping his false god. Until then, all believers-Jew or Gentile, worshiped on the Sabbath time they believed God ordained- Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.

  • Steve Meidahl

    Does this mean that all we Gentiles now need to speak in tongues as well…geesh! :-))…”there’s your sign!”

    • peteenns

      Uh oh. I seem to be backed into a logical corner. How ever will I extricate myself? 🙂

    • I don’t know that you *need* to, but if you find yourself doing it … don’t worry, it’s a good thing …

  • In regards to Acts 15… Where is the Jerusalem counsel mandate in the letter to 1 Corinthians? I would say 1 Corinthians is great a great example of Paul letting go of some of his “more Jewish” behaviors and using Gospel saturated discernment. 1 Corinthians seems to be a church somewhat unhinged from Jerusalem and Acts 15.

  • This is an excellent point. But more important than the chapter is the actual event (having occurred long before the chapter was penned). I think it is significant that it is Peter to whom the vision is given as well as the response of the Jerusalem leadership to Peter’s description of the events.

    To be fair to the ‘most important chapter’ lead in, the vision of Peter could also read more like a kick in the pants from the Holy Spirit after Christ has already given them the commission ‘to the ends of the earth.’

  • My friend tbat is fine…thanks for asking.

  • davey

    I find it more problematic (strange, even) that first God chose the Jews out of the ‘Gentiles’, rather than that later God brought the Gentiles back in!

    • peteenns

      Good point.

    • Why do you find that problematic?

      • What I mean is that with the Bible we’re reading Israel’s history; so why wouldn’t Jews be central before Gentiles?

  • Bev Mitchell

    Great observation Pete. A parallel observation can easily be made comparing Romans 5, 6 & 7 with Romans 8. Bet you all saw this one coming. Just like Peter’s ministry to the Jews is a prologue to Paul’s to the gentiles (after the startling realization of Acts 10), Romans 5-7 really works best as a prologue to Romans 8. Interestingly, The Spirit is mentioned once in Romans 5-7 and a whopping 19 times in Romans 8. Something’s definitely going on here. The batteries are included after all.  🙂

    • peteenns

      I would say that the issues dealt with in Romans is an implication of Acts 10.

  • Bev Mitchell

    As a result of a discussion a few days ago on another blog I pulled Clark Pinnock’s “A Wideness in God’s Mercy” for a re-read. Though published exactly 20 years ago, it is still fresh and very helpful. And, much of it is so apropos to your comments on Acts 10. Here’s what Pinnock says in his Chapter 3 entitled “Religions Now”.

    “What I and other theologians confront is a restrictivist control belief so common in our communities that effectively denies the universal salvific will of God. It seeks to suppress biblical evidence that God has such a will, along with any evidence that he is working broadly in history. This opposition comes at every stage. There is objection to appealing to a Logos Christology; to appreciation of the positive value of general revelation; to the concept of the Spirit at work in the wider world; and to a view of the significance  of individuals like Melchizedek and Cornelius. The reader will have to decide who is right, and who is listening to the Bible most carefully. Let us heed Paul’s advice in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22. ‘Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.’ ”

    Or, as Peter heard to his great astonishment on that roof top, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

    Now I will go and cheer on the Red Sox – there is still hope, even for them. Hope this doesn’t get me black listed on your blog. 🙂

  • Don Johnson

    I agree about Acts 10 being important and it is also important to understand what it says and does not say. What is does say is what Peter says the vision means, that he should not call profane what God has made clean, namely that gentiles are not to be regarded as second class believers (profane), but are instead also holy like Jewish believers.

    What is does NOT say is that the food laws for Jews have gone away.

  • …go to church on Sunday, have summer youth missions trips, hymnals, cathedrals, Vacation Bible School, or Contemporary Christian Music…‘ I’d have put them all down as unfortunate side effects.

  • Craig Wright

    It seems to me that Galatians is the most revolutionary book in the Bible. It predates the writing of the Acts account. Paul seems to have got the idea that Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised, but he does’t mention getting it from Peter. Paul goes out of his way to say he was not influenced by the leaders in Jerusalem. Even men from James came up to the new church to try to reinstate circumcision. Where did Paul get this idea so early? He doesn’t really say, except for mentioning a revelation from Jesus. Paul seems to present his views as unique to himself.

  • Bryan Belting

    I still question how Peter could have made his case before fellow Jews that the purity laws were no longer in effect. It is interesting how much of a modern perspective we have on the scriptures-e.g. “you can’t pick and choose what you will and will not follow in the bible; its either all of it or none of it.” However, Acts 10 provides quite a different hermeneutical perspective on the law of Moses which seems to be abrogated.

    • Progressive revelation (if that’s the right term): ‘God, who at various times and in various ways spoke to the fathers by the prophets has, in these last days, spoken to us by his son.’

    • I don’t see it as “pick and choose” since at that point (Acts 10) they were still coming to grips with the fact that the Mosaic Law was obsolete, old, and had been replaced with the New Covenant. That’s a major sift in theology to grapple with. And Acts records history at a major transition in human history with the coming of the Messiah and the start of the church age.

  • j. t. campbell

    It’s somewhat astonishing (in light of the current debate) that the book of Acts suddenly (it would appear) takes on the character of actual historical event – Peter really and truly had a “vision from God (!) of a giant sheet coming down out of heaven filled with unclean animals – and then heard God speaking to him! Unless I’ve seriously misunderstood something the historical trustworthiness of Acts has been fairly well shredded to pieces via the historical-critical method throughout the past 60 to 70 years. How is it that these critical insights appear to be all but ignored???

    Was not the NT also written within a surrounding cultural context (Greco-Roman) in somewhat the same manner as the OT and its surrounding ANE influences? Have not critical scholars not only fairly dismantled the historical integrity of Acts but also the Gospels? Is there not more than sufficient historical-critical material available indicating the Gospels reflect little of actual history and almost nothing in the way of eyewitness testimony – what with being essentially the wholesale creation of the early church? Why isn’t all of this valid for consideration when looking at Acts chapter 10 – or when reflecting on the seemingly incoherent resurrection accounts?

    It seems to me that progressive evangelicals (I trust it’s ok to use this term) appear altogether “highly selective” in what they wish to embrace from the historical-critical method. (Why, indeed, ought one to continue to believe in the traditional understanding of the resurrection…or the incarnation in light of numerous critical writings strongly suggesting their mythological -and/or bogus – origin?) Both Kenton Sparks and Thom Stark (in their recent offerings) all too frequently display the same sort of uncritical enthusiasm (and narrow-minded bigotry) about their own interpretive views as one frequently enough finds in the writings of modern day fundamentalists.

    Progressive evangelicals (Sparks, Stark, Enns, etc) often appeal in their writings for charity and tolerance from their fellow evangelicals who don’t entirely share their basic understanding…and yet (in reading their writings) they seldom demonstrate such “charity” themselves…or true critical thinking. Very likely Acts chapter 10 is every bit as bogus (in terms of actual event) as was the crossing of the Red Sea – or Elijah sailing off to heaven in a fiery chariot!

  • I’ve toyed with this concept peripherally, but never stopped to engage it directly as you have. Thanks for doing so!

  • Peter, if you want to talk about “before” and “wouldn’t have”, then we must note the events of Acts 11:19-21 chronologically predates the entirety of ‘Acts 10’, historically speaking. In that light, the question is whether the Antioch [and later Pauline] mission would have been able to thrive as it did without Jerusalem’s support.

    More importantly, I think the author of Acts includes chapter 10 for political purposes, more than historical effect. Without Acts 10, the Greeks were still free to invent Sunday School, but without Acts 10, and 15, Gentile believers might not have had as much of a claim to the Hebrew traditions.

    If things had been different, then things would have been different, but I suspect not entirely so.

  • toddh

    As long as we are throwing out most important Bible chapters, sign me up for Genesis 15 instead 🙂

  • Hilary Major

    Wait a minute – you’re missing something here. Prior to JC there was a way for non-Jews to be accepted by G-d converting: Hello, Noahide laws? They provide a basic ethical structure for non-Jews to be counted as rightous Gentiles, without circumsition or kashrut.

    Other then that, I think you’re right: by ditching the ritual elements of the developing post-Temple Rabbinic Judaism to make the new Jesus faith more open to Gentiles, that pretty much created the clear split between Christianity and Judaism. There was (and still is) no way that any believing, observent Jew would accept a Messiah who told them to break the Law, so that would prohibit most Jews from joining, while welcoming non-Jews created a population that started their belief in monotheism completely from a Christian perspective with no Jewish background.

    FYI, yes I’m Jewish. I friend of mine thought I would find it intersting. I do, I just had to remind you about the Noahide laws.


    • Hilary Major

      And I know my spelling is crap – sorry about that.

  • Hilary is right to point out that the Noahide Laws already made it possible for a gentile to be accepted within a Jewish community – and this is what James essentially reinforces in Acts 15. Peter says that it is against the law to associate with gentiles, but it is clear that the Torah has no such law. I think it should be clear is that Peter’s vision is meant to further much of Jesus’ work – tearing down the counter-productive fences built around the Law.