In Acts 10, we have a beautiful picture of God’s redemptive plan unfolding. The story begins when Peter has a startling vision that defies everything he, as a Jew, had grown to believe.
The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and 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 10:9-16)
The culture he was raised in took the dietary laws provided for the protection and distinctiveness of the Jewish people and made it sacred, and that God would ask him to eat the unclean animals was not only an uncomfortable thought, but it was considered blasphemy! How could he do such a thing?
He thought a lot about that vision, wondering what it could mean and the implications it would have on his life when some men came to the city and called for him to visit Cornelius, a well thought of Gentile (non Jew.) Peter obliged and went to Cornelius’ house as a guest. When he got there, his revelation about the animals made sense to him, he said:
“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35)
And after that, he began to preach the Gospel to everyone there. The Jewish people were supposed to associate with those outside their ways of life. As a Jew, Peter would be expected to follow suit and stay away. Many factions in the early church believed the gospel was only for them, and no one else.
Interestingly enough, all throughout the four gospels, Jesus is consistently being scorned by the religious people for doing the very thing Peter did here in Acts–spending time with the unclean, the Gentiles, the dirty prostitutes and the greedy tax collectors who worked for the very people who oppressed the Jews–the Romans. Christ never seemed to worry about the rigidity of Jewish law in regards to the time he spent with people. On one occasion, the Pharisees approached him and ridiculed him for spending time with those people. He responded by telling them that he came to save them, that the healthy don’t need a doctor, the sick do!
When Peter applied the vision he saw to the people his culture viewed as unclean and boldly declared the glorious news of Christ crucified and resurrected (39-40), God did incredible things. Scripture says that at that moment, the Holy Spirit came down on the people who were listening and they began to praise God. Peter then said:
“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)
And then they were baptized. And God won that day. His perfect and beautiful will was accomplished through Peter by tearing down the giant wall that had been built around Peter’s entire worldview. He later went back and reported everything–the vision, Cornelius, the people, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit–to the Church in Jerusalem. He spoke to them in a powerful way with all the authority of Jesus, saying:
As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:16-18)
Who am I, that I can stand in God’s way?
As a believer, it is important that I not let my prejudices and preconceived notions about people keep me from sharing the life giving Gospel of Christ with them. It is nonsense to keep it inside because of the walls we build up around our perfect little Christian culture.
Most notably, I remember what it feels like to see God work beyond cultural boundaries to accomplish his purposes in the lives of others. I remember standing in the walls of that prison chapel once a month, surrounded by about 20-30 inmates who were singing amazing grace at the top of their lungs.I saw several young and old men with tear drops tattooed on the corners of their eye, signifying that, at some point in their life, they either killed somebody or, at the very least, were in a gang.
I remember being terrified the first time I went. Thinking someone was going to shank me or something. As unfounded as that belief is, that was my perception and my fear at the time. I had so many stigmas of people in prison. Don’t get me wrong, bad people exist, and in the walls of the prison we went to, it was a heavy realization. But I experienced in my four years in that ministry an astounding number of people who were genuinely seeking the face of God. I’ve been able to stare into the face of former killers, drug addicts, and drunks and see God’s redemptive work. I’ve had the beautiful opportunity to speak about the cross, to proclaim the good news of Jesus to a room full of people who face a broken past every day, and yet still have the resolve and assurance to sing:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see!
I believe with everything in me that it is Christ and Christ alone that changes hearts, that gives them ears to hear and eyes to see. It is Jesus that saves us from sin, from Hell. I am convinced.
I’ll never forget Ray. He walked up to me that night in prison and told me that God was speaking to me. He looked at me with a warm smile and called me his little brother. An incredibly tall, built, African-american prisoner who was probably in his late 40’s whom I believed I had nothing in common with approached me and spoke God’s truth into my life? With all of my preconceived notions about prison, I had no room in my cultural paradigm for that. My Christian society didn’t teach me what to do in a situation like that.
But hey, who am I that I could stand in God’s way?