One of the things Jesus told Peter when he made his great confession of faith in Jesus as the Christ was that He was going to give Peter the keys of the kingdom. Did this mean that Peter somehow had a right—as the first of the apostles or, as he was later called by some sectors of the church, as the first pope—to say whether a man or a woman should be allowed into heaven? Or did it refer rather to a right given to all ministers to say on the basis of the Word of God that sin has been forgiven when it has been confessed to Christ and that it has not been forgiven when it has not been confessed? The first of these interpretations is the Roman Catholic interpretation. The second, generally speaking, has been Protestant.
I would like to suggest an alternate interpretation. It is that when Jesus gave the keys to Peter, He appointed him to open the door of the Gospel to two distinct bodies of people: Jews and Gentiles.
I suggest that Peter was given two keys. He used the first key to open the door of the Gospel to the Jewish people at Pentecost, when he preached the first of all Christian sermons. He used the second key to open the door of the Gospel to the Gentiles, when he preached before the Roman centurion Cornelius on the occasion recorded in Acts 10. Peter was the apostle to the Jews, so he preached to the Jews first. But although he was the apostle to the Jews, Peter was also the first to bring the Gospel to a strictly Gentile audience.1
However we interpret the keys, it is evident that this great event—this bringing of the Gospel to Cornelius—was very important.
In one way or another this story is told twice and perhaps even three times. First, the Lord gives Peter a vision meant to show him that the Gospel is not to be restricted to Jews but is for Gentiles too—Gentiles who may come to Christ not as Jews first, but as Gentiles. Second, Peter repeats the lesson he had received to Cornelius, perhaps even telling the vision of the sheet, though Luke does not include that specifically. Finally in chapter 11, when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, he explained what had happened to that audience (vv. 4-17). Obviously, Luke is saying that this event is pivotal.
It is also pivotal in the structure of the book. Up to this point, Peter has been prominent. Paul has been introduced, but Peter has been prominent. With this incident, Peter begins to fade out in terms of the flow of the narrative, and Paul (who in fact carries on the mission to the Gentiles now inaugurated by Peter), becomes dominant. So what is happening here is significant from the perspective of Luke’s theology, and also from the perspective of the place of this event in the narrative.
The story of Peter’s preaching to Cornelius and his household is a long story, occurring in six sections.
1. The introduction of Cornelius (vv. 1-8). He is introduced as a devout and godly man.
2. The preparation of Peter (vv. 9-16). Peter’s preparation and the changes that take place in him are the important part of the story.
3. Peter’s meeting with the messengers (vv. 17-23). This occurs in Joppa where Peter had been staying.
4. Peter’s journey to and arrival in Caesarea (vv. 24-33). Peter must have been greatly surprised at the waiting reception.
5. Peter’s sermon (vv. 34-43). This is the last of Peter’s sermons in the book of Acts.
6. The results of this encounter (vv. 44-48). We see this at the very end of the story. It was a Spirit-baptism, conversion, and then baptism by water of Cornelius’ entire Gentile household. We will look at the first four of these points in this week’s study and the last two in the next.
1John R. W. Stott also takes this position. “We have already watched [Peter] use these keys effectively, opening the kingdom to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost and then to the Sanhedrin soon afterwards. Now he is to use them again to open the kingdom to Gentiles; by evangelizing and baptizing Cornelius, the first Gentile convert” (The Acts of the Apostles: To the Ends of the Earth [Leicester, England: InterVarsity, 1990], 184).