You’re repeating yourself…

Recently, I’ve been reading a fascinating book published by a university press. I’ve enjoyed the read, except for one annoying thing: the text is riddled with typos.

I’ve done a lot of proofreading in my time: first, of my own work; second, of my students’ dissertations and theses; and third, of my colleagues’ work. I still remember the days before personal computers, when I wrote papers on a typewriter (gasp!) — and correcting mistakes sometimes meant having to retype the entire paper. Now, I take computerized word processing for granted. Of course, there are days when I yell at my computer and threaten to throw it out the window. But I would never go back to a typewriter.

There is one unique drawback to word processors, though. The ability to cut and paste blocks of text and move them around also makes it possible to lose track of where you’ve put things. I’ve found entire paragraphs repeated verbatim in different parts of a book. That violates a cardinal rule of writing: you should never repeat yourself unnecessarily.

And you should never repeat yourself unnecessarily.

So why then does Luke seem to repeat such a large block of narrative in Acts 11:1-18? Read it for yourself. He just told the story in Acts 10. Why does he need to tell it again in the very next chapter? Surely not even the greenest of writers would make such a mistake.

The answer, of course, is that it’s not a mistake, but an intentional storytelling decision on Luke’s part. The so-called Gentile Pentecost is a dramatic pivotal event in the story of Acts. It was probably of keen interest to Luke’s anticipated audience — Theophilus first, then others who were similarly curious about how the gospel of a Jewish Messiah ended up embracing Gentiles. By telling the story a second time, from Peter’s point of view, Luke emphasizes its importance.

Just as importantly: for those who, like Peter’s opponents, were inclined to resist the message that God had enfolded the Gentiles into his plan of salvation, Luke shows how the story speaks for itself.

Luke 11, of course, is not a verbatim repeat of the story in chapter 10. As Peter recounts his version of the events, we get a few new details. He adds “beasts of prey” (vs. 6, NRSV) to the list of animals that appeared in his rooftop vision in Joppa. The wording of his response to the vision is different, in a way that makes it parallel to similar words from the prophet Ezekiel (vs. 8; Ezek 4:14). He adds the detail that there were six men who went with him from Joppa to Caesarea (vs. 12); I imagine him gesturing toward the men as they stood nearby as corroborative witnesses. And he mentions that the angel told Cornelius (who is not named) that Peter would not just bring a word from God, but one that would save his whole household (vs. 14).

What Peter stresses, however, is the giving of the Holy Spirit: “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). Peter is the one to draw the parallel between what happened to the Gentiles in Caesarea and what happened to the disciples in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Moreover, with a nice bit of rhetorical exaggeration, Peter paints a vivid picture of a sudden and sovereign act of God. The preaching of the word was still part of the process, but Peter was nowhere close to finished when the Spirit fell. 

Peter suggests that all of this was in fulfillment of what Jesus had predicted beforehand: the disciples would be baptized by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; 11:16), a prophecy that now included the Gentiles. “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter concludes, “who was I that I could hinder God?” (Acts 11:17). 

The implication of that rhetorical question is left hanging in the air between them: And who are you to hinder God?

Who indeed. For a moment, the opposition fell silent. Then they praised God.

For now.

God had broken down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. But as the book of Acts and the letters of Paul will show, some believers kept trying to put the barrier back up. Luke’s repetition of the story should sear into our minds the importance of the event, of that decisive moment when God declared Gentiles to be part of the family.

We need that memory, because we have our own barriers to dismantle.