There were a lot of exciting things happening in the early church. The Spirit was at work. People were getting saved. And God was doing new things. Peter was in the city of Joppa staying with a man called Simon. Just before lunch he goes up on the roof to pray. Now that seems an odd kind of place to go and pray, but the roofs were flat in those days and people often retired there if they needed some peace and quiet. While he is praying his stomach begins to rumble (as it does at this time of the day) and he starts thinking about food. It’s at this very time God steps in and puts Peter to sleep – sort of. He’s awake but not awake. The Bible calls it a trance (not to be confused with modern hypnotism).
“and [he] saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.” (Acts 10:11–16)
Well Peter is quite perplexed about all this. He has no idea what is going on. But don’t worry, God has it all sorted. He always does.
The next minute some men turn up at the door asking for him. They’ve been sent by a guy called Cornelius – a Roman Centurion who the day before during his quiet time had a visitation from an angel telling him his prayers had been heard (that’s an encouragement!) and he must send men to Joppa to go and fetch Peter. Like Peter, he has no idea what is going on but does as he is told. The Spirit says to Peter while he is still on the roof, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them” (Acts 10:20).
So off the four of them go to see Cornelius in Caesarea. You can image the conversation along the way.
Peter: “So why did you guys come?”
The men: “Cornelius sent us.”
Peter: “Who’s Cornelius?”
Men: “He’s a Centurion in Caesarea. But you won’t know him.”
Peter: “Does he know me?”
Peter: “What does he want from me?”
Men: “We don’t know. Something about God sending for you. Did God say anything to you?”
Peter: “Yes… but I have no idea what it means.”
If this wasn’t unsettling enough for Peter there was something else thrown in the mix: these men were Gentiles, and they were taking him to see a leading Gentile. Jews never mixed with Gentiles. Gentiles were not considered to be included in God’s covenant (Eph. 2:11-12). God had a relationship with those of Jewish descent. The Gentiles, or anyone not of Jewish descent, did not share God’s history, did not follow God’s laws, and were (to put it bluntly) downright dirty and repulsive. They didn’t eat the right food. They didn’t worship the right God. They didn’t follow Mosaic Law. They were uncircumcised and unclean. But Peter still goes, even though he doesn’t understand.
When Peter arrives he finds the house full of Gentiles – friends, relatives, and neighbours of Cornelius. They are all waiting. They are all expectant to hear what Peter has to say. It become pertinently obvious to Peter that the Holy Spirit had got there ahead of him. So he preaches the Good News of Jesus – his death and resurrection. The Gentiles believe, they are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin speaking in tongues (evidence of the Spirit’s saving presence and power). Peter baptizes the whole lot of them and then stays for the party.
When his friends in Jerusalem hear about all this they are not at all impressed. “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:3). So Peter has to tell them the whole story – his vision, the men coming to fetch him, the response of Cornelius’ household and the Spirit’s manifesting signs. At the end of it he makes this statement,
“Who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)
Peter now understood the meaning of his vision. God doesn’t draw lines in the sand like we do. God welcomes all people no matter whether they look, or act, or think like us. God doesn’t care about our genealogy or about whether we follow the strictest of dietary laws. What God has made clean, do not call common, God says to Peter. And so Peter gets out of God’s way, the Gentiles are included (which was part of God’s redemptive plan), and Christianity explodes into a worldwide movement.
It could have been otherwise, though (humanly speaking). It could have been otherwise if Peter had hesitated, refused to go with the men, made things difficult and got in God’s way.
God often surprises us doesn’t he? He surprises us when opportunities suddenly and expectantly present themselves. He surprises us when we get that phone call informing us of a change in plans. He surprises us when people in our church suddenly step forward to do something new. He surprises us when that hard-hearted atheist at your workplace suddenly starts asking good questions. God surprises us all the time. That’s because God is doing new things every day. That’s why it’s important we remain open. When you have to be certain about everything all the time, when you have to remain in control, and when you think you know all that there is to know, faith and flexibility dies. You resist change and end up inadvertently, standing in God’s way.
When God led Peter to the Gentiles God was doing a new thing. These people were not among “the chosen ones.” These people were not the descendants of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. These people weren’t included, until now. So Peter had to be open to a new understanding of God and of how God works. Peter had to be open to being surprised by God. And so my friend, do we.
I love the ending of this story. After Peter explained everything, after he told them he had to get out of God’s way we are told, “they fell silent” (verse 18). Don’t you love that? And then they glorified God saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Yes, praise God. He has.