What God Has Made Clean

The biggest missions problem that the early church faced was that they knew that they were to be sent to the ends of the earth, but on a practical level they couldn’t get past the problem that there was a giant wall separating them from the nations, a wall made out of customs, traditions, and even commands from God that hindered them from spreading the gospel.

In Acts 10, we encounter one of the most doctrinally significant events in the life of the Church, as God opens the door for the gospel to spread not just to Jews who might be living at the ends of the earth, but to Gentiles also. The first Gentile to walk through that door is the Roman Centurion Cornelius, a devout man who feared Yahweh and discipled his whole household to do the same, but who did not identify himself as a Jew.

Having received an angelic vision, Cornelius sent two servants and a devout soldier to Joppa to find Peter. Several little details should help us to see these events as a reversal of Jonah’s reluctance to take God’s mercy to the Gentiles in his day. God retells the story in a new and better way as Simon, the son of Jonah, while staying in the same city that Jonah boarded a ship from to dodge God’s call, is asked to take on the same mission. Jonah failed to heed God’s call to spread the gospel to the nations, but Jonah’s son had been spending time with God’s son, and that changed everything!

While Cornelius’ messengers were on the way, Peter also went before God in prayer, and he too had a vision, in which God commanded him to eat unclean animals. Peter is shocked, and refuses, and the response from heaven is critically important: “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Peter is very confused as to what this means, but while he tries to figure things out, the messengers from Cornelius come knocking at the door. The Holy Spirit speaks to Peter directly, telling him that he should go with these men without hesitation, or without making a distinction. There will be something about these men, the Spirit implies, that would normally cause Peter to think twice about going with them, but God commands him to go anyway.

So Peter went down and introduced himself, asking the men why they came looking for him. They answer with four strong reasons why Peter should come with them: one, Cornelius is a centurion, an important man. Two, Cornelius is devout and fears God. Three, Cornelius is a friend of the Jews. Four, and most important, Cornelius was sending for Peter in response to an angelic message, for the purpose of hearing the gospel. In light of the divine instructions and an abundance of good practical arguments, Peter welcomes them into the house to spend the night before making the journey the following day. He now has an idea of what the vision was talking about, but he still has no idea why this has come about, or how to handle the situation.

Peter’s problem centered on the fact that the vision from God was apparently contrary to the commands of God. Peter knows that God does not contradict Himself, lie, or change His mind. Because Peter believes that God is consistent, he struggles to make sense of what he has just seen. Interesting, his confusion isn’t resolved in Acts 10. He doesn’t receive an explanation as to how the vision fits with the Jewish purity laws or how God can simply change them. What Peter concludes is that the vision really does mean what he thought it meant: that the gospel is for everyone. He doesn’t stop everything until he figures it out. He obeys God, even though he doesn’t fully understand.

However, God in His kindness does bring the church to a point of understanding, even though this issue takes months and years to figure out. This is because the death and resurrection of Jesus isn’t just a minor adjustment to the way the world works. The cleanliness laws are like an old wineskin, filled to bursting with the new wine of the Holy Spirit. The old rules are simply not big enough, because God is making the whole world clean through Jesus Christ.

Posted on Thursday, May 22, 2014 by CJ Bowen