As I studied church history in grad school, I learned something that I hadn’t realized before. I suppose it’s pretty obvious, but it had escaped me – the early Church really were learning what God had in mind for the Church as they went along! Now I suppose that continues to be true for us today, but they were really just figuring it out – everything we take for granted today was birthday in that first century (well, at least everything that’s of God). It’s obvious as we read through the book of Acts.

Peter, the White Sheet & Cornelius
Yesterday, while Resting at the River’s Edge, we read about how Peter took the Gospel to the Gentiles for the first time. God gave him a vision of unclean animals being lowered from the sky on a sheet. When told to “Kill and eat,” Peter objected because the animals were those considered unclean by the Jews – they’re the very same animals we’ve read about as we’ve read through Leviticus this month. God’s response would surely have shocked Peter: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15) Peter had learned all his life that these animals were unclean and now God was telling him they were clean!

As he considered what it might mean, three men came to the door asking for Peter to go to the home of a Gentile, something also against the Jewish laws. Peter made the connection between his dream and these visitors and goes to the home of Cornelius. Once there, he began to share the Gospel. Scripture records the result:

44While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Acts 10:44-46

Praise God! As was His plan from the beginning of time, He has now opened the door to Gentiles coming to faith in Christ. Let’s celebrate, right?

Peter & the Jewish Believers
Well, not quite. As we read in Acts 11, Jewish believers who had not been with Peter when the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit became critical of Peter:

1The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Acts 11:1-3

Although it is clear from the beginning of Scripture that it was God’s plan to save the world through Abraham (“and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Genesis 12:3b), the Jews had gone off course a bit and believed that God only intended to be their Messiah, their Savior. God spoke to Peter and then demonstrated His expansion plan through Cornelius’ family…but those who were not present were skeptical. After hearing Peter’s discussion, the responded appropriately:

17So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”

18When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
Acts 11:17-18

Peter & You and Me
If you’re reading along with us, why am I telling you the story? Because I find a couple of things interesting about it.

  1. It is fascinating to see how the Church came into being – it didn’t just spring up fully formed. The early believers were discovering what God intended as they went along. The Scriptural record we have demonstrates that. It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of reading Scripture – both the Old and the New Testaments – from a historical perspective instead of thinking about how it documents what was being lived out. When Acts chapter 10 occurred, Peter was doing a new thing, changing the way forever that the Gospel would be viewed – God had granted even the Gentiles repentance unto eternal life!
  2. These chapters demonstrate that obeying God brings criticism, even from fellow believers. The believers in Jerusalem criticized Peter for associating with Gentiles. We should never fall into the trap of believing that following God’s will brings peace. We forget how radical a God we serve. His desire is that all should come to a knowledge of repentance, and sometimes that requires radical obedience when God lays out a radical game plan. As believers, at least as believers living in the United States, I think it’s often our tendency to talk people out of radical obedience. Lord, forgive us and give us a radical faith!
  3. I love the way that Peter didn’t seem to get defensive when he was criticized by other believers. He simply “began and explained everything to them precisely as it had happened” (Acts 11:4). It is difficult for me not to get defensive when I am criticized. I’m often not successful at it, but I think there are three primary components that help us not to become defensive: Being absolutely confident in God, walking in humility and loving those who are accusing you. Peter was absolutely confident that God had sent him to Cornelius’ home and he simply explained it to the other believers. He didn’t respond in an authoritarian way, although by rights he could have. After all, he was the apostle, they were not. But he chose to explain all that had happened so that they could also see the hand of God moving and shaping the new Church.
  4. Look how quickly the criticizing believers were willing to change their minds. After hearing Peter’s story, they immediately rejoiced. They didn’t feel a need to be right, didn’t raise objection after objection, didn’t seek even the smallest concession to save their own dignity. They celebrated that they were wrong! They celebrated that God had opened the door to the Gentiles.

There are probably other lessons in the story, but these four strike me.

How about you?
Did you get the same things out of reading the two chapters? Which of the above four points is most significant for you?

Points two and three hit me the hardest. I want to obey God radically and I don’t want to ever discourage someone else from doing the same. And I’m still working on losing all my defensiveness when people criticize me.

How about you?

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