Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
In other versions, this is translated as “God is no respecter of persons”, but that is quite old-fashioned English.
What does this verse mean?
Exactly what it says: that God does not show any favouritism towards any particular ethnicity. It also includes things like gender and age.
What this means in practice is that just because you happen to be born to a certain ethnicity that does not automatically make you superior in the eyes of God. It does not automatically catapult you into a position of spiritual leadership over people who are from different ethnicities. It also means in practice, when read with other Bible verses that no matter what your background may be, whether you are from a rich background or poor background, educated or uneducated, it makes no difference to your potential with God. It also extends to whatever you may or may not have done already in your life – things that you may be extremely proud of, or things that you may be extremely ashamed of, and regret bitterly. None of those things either qualify you or disqualify you in the sight of God. But God accepts everybody who is willing to forsake their old ways of living, give Him their hearts, obey Him completely and live according to His commands.
The ethnicity that Peter was referring to in this verse who might (legitimately) have considered themselves God’s favourites, was the Jewish people – Peter himself was Jewish. Peter was expressing the fact that God can and does accept people who are not Jewish, that is, Gentiles.
However, a lot of time has passed since Peter spoke those words, and since they were recorded in the Bible. In practical terms, in many of the churches that I have attended, I have come across many people who apparently believe that God does show favouritism, that their ethnicity (or their gender, or their background, or their wealth, or their education) does automatically catapult them into a position of spiritual superiority over people of other ethnicities or over women or other people who they do not consider as “privileged” as themselves. And this is actually very very standard thinking. To anyone who thinks like that, I would encourage them to get a hold of a Bible, read it, and start to truly understand and relate with the heart of God. Throughout the Bible, it demonstrates that God has a heart for all people, and He opens the door for everyone to come to know Him. Spiritual intimacy is something that is available to each one of us, and we all develop intimacy with God and with His word in exactly the same way: by reading the Bible, by crying out to God, by immersing ourselves in everything to do with God and His Spirit.
There are no shortcuts. You do not receive automatic credits with God just because you speak English, for instance. Some people apparently do not even realise that the Bible was not originallly written in English. I can’t help thinking (or rather, I’m perfectly aware) that many people don’t actually read the Bible critically, that is, with a truly open mind, to see what it truly says, rather than what they expect to see or what they assume it says. And then equally many people apparently do not understand that they are supposed to change their thinking to fit what the Bible actually says.
If God is “not a respecter of persons” or “He does not show favouritism”, then there is absolutely no space for racism in the church. None whatsoever. There is no space for thinking that one ethnicity is inherently superior to another, or one ethnicity inherently understands God more than any other. So Church, if you want to genuinely reflect who God is, please strip out that erroneous way of thinking. And don’t think it is OK to change it piece by piece, but rip out that old way of thinking and be done with it at once.
I say that this verse has changed my life; it would probably be fairer to say that it has been a bedrock of my life from the very beginning. It is and always has been utterly central to my understanding of God that we can all pursue God, we can all know God, and we all have to pay exactly the same price for intimacy with Him.
What this means for anyone reading this is that the door to intimacy with God and knowledge of Him is as open to you as anyone else! It is not reserved for special people “over there” – no matter what those people “over there” who think that they are special might tell you or suggest by their everyday actions. As a Christian, you will probably learn, very quickly, that many things that are said by fellow Christians do not actually correspond to true Bible teaching at all. You need to learn to read the Bible for yourself and understand what it says and be confident in it, so that you can move forward and grow in what God thinks, rather than what anyone else may think – trust me, for all their shouting and posturing about God, they don’t truly read the Bible and/or submit their hearts to it.