I am sure you know the feeling.
You are standing on the edge of a mountaintop, overlooking a vast plain. Perhaps Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa; or Mount Nebo, overlooking the Jordan River and the hills of Judah; or the foothills of the Rocky Mountains; or any other mountaintop. It is a beautiful day, and you have a great view. You can see people, houses, land, lakes, perhaps the sea—but definitely space, lots and lots of space. There is an air of excitement, new possibilities; new beginnings are just around the corner. A new job. A new opportunity to serve. A new country to live in. A new language to learn. A new year.
Mountaintops (or Temples)
If you step down, for a moment, from your imagined mountaintop and look into the post-Ascension Christian church, you can almost feel the throb of excitement. Yes, prior to Pentecost, the disciples were afraid, scared, concerned—and waiting. They meet for 40 days to pray and parse the happenings of the past weeks. They go back to Scripture in their search to make sense of what happened.
And then it happens. Not on a mountaintop—but the effects of this epic experience are still being felt today. The promised Spirit uses a simple Scripture-laced sermon of Peter to move on hearts. Three thousand are baptized in one day. Can you imagine the excitement of the moment? A revival of monumental proportions. A powerful demonstration of the authority of the Spirit. A wonderful reminder that Jesus’ words are to be trusted—without hesitation (John 14:16-18). The faith of the nascent church grows in leaps and bounds. It’s all systems go—they are on fire for Jesus. They have the Spirit, and they have faith. This is all they need—or is it?
Spirit and Faith
Spirit and faith are big concepts in Scripture and closely linked to God and humanity.
The Spirit is not only part of the Trinity but has been given to us, this world, to guide us into all truth (John 14:15-26). He is our counselor. He is our advocate. He is our guide. He is God’s way of transforming us.
The role of the Spirit seems to be pretty clear and straightforward. But what about “faith”? Faith seems to cover less clear territory. Abraham, the father of faith, seems to be (at times, at least) faithless. Habakkuk (2:4) and later Paul in Romans and Galatians tell us that the righteous shall live by faith. Not by sight and definitely not by their own efforts. We live by faith, not depending on our own wisdom and strength (Gal. 2:20).
Following Pentecost life is not all rosy for the early Christian church. Church growth is remarkable, but so are the challenges. Persecution raises its ugly head and some have to flee the familiar places called home. But still the work of the Spirit is clearly manifested, and prospects look promising. Numerical and geographical growth seem to go hand in hand. And then God does the unthinkable. He throws a wrench into the works. He lifts the veil (a little) and shocks the church with a whole new dimension.
God is still in the business of opening up new vistas to His church. History can (and often does) repeat itself. Acts 10 takes place in this exciting time for the early Christian church. The darkness and disappointment of the death of Jesus have been transformed into joy, hope—and an energy and mission thrust that we can barely imagine. The disciples preach the resurrected Jesus, the Messiah, fearlessly. In Acts 10 we find Peter, one of the key disciples, figuring out the connection between Spirit guidance and faith-based crossing of borders.
Yes, this is the same Peter who denied Jesus publicly. Not once, not twice, but three times, and in no uncertain terms. It is also the Peter who, following the resurrection of Jesus, answers the Master’s penetrating questions: “Lord, you know all things” (John 21:17)—you know also my failures and weaknesses.
The Story Begins
Actually, the story does not begin with Peter, but with a Roman centurion named Cornelius. A man who is described as “devout and God-fearing” (Acts 10:2). Cornelius is praying—and is shown a vision. In that vision an angel speaks to him and tells him to get a man, Simon, who is called Peter, from Joppa, another town down the coast. Cornelius, having overcome his initial shock, does not idle around. He sends two servants and a soldier to get this Peter. The distance between Caesarea and Joppa is about 30 miles (50 kilometers)—depending on transport means and speed, probably a one- to two-day journey.
In Acts 10:9-16 we immediately recognize the second scene of the narrative. Another prayer. Another vision. But this time it is Peter praying on the roof. Compared to Cornelius’ vision, the vision Peter is shown appears to be odd, even bizarre, and less straightforward. He sees something like a large sheet being lowered from heaven. As he peeps inside the sheet all kinds of animals appear, including some creepy-crawly types. A voice tells him: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat” (verse 13). Peter is completely floored. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (verse 14).Peter knows his Scriptures. Peter stands solidly upon the Word—and yet, he seems to miss the message. Three times the message is repeated, insisting that Peter is not to call impure anything that God has made clean.
Peter is confused and wonders about this strange vision. Twice the biblical text describes his bewilderment (verses 17, 19). But the Spirit who had so perplexed the disciple had things lined up—in just the right way.
The soldier and the two servants, sent by Cornelius, are knocking at the door of the tanner’s house. Most likely, Jews were generally not too thrilled to see a Roman soldier knocking at the door—especially when that soldier was asking for someone by name. After they explain their business Peter invites them into the house and treats them as guests, a miracle in itself apart from the visions.
What may have gone through Peter’s mind on the way to Caesarea? By now the group has grown, as some brothers from Joppa decided to come along. As they travel along the Mediterranean coast Peter must have spoken repeatedly to the Master. “What’s going on, Lord? Why am I going to a stranger—a Gentile and Roman? This does not make sense—and what will the brethren think?”
I would have wondered. I would have questioned.
As they arrive at Cornelius’ luxurious villa Peter is flustered by the unexpected reception. Cornelius, the Roman centurion, falls to the ground.
The conqueror greets the conquered. A large crowd is expectantly waiting in the house (or most likely, the inner courtyard). Peter, straight-talking Peter, wants to know what he was sent for—especially, considering the well-known fact that Jews were not to visit or associate with Gentiles.
Breaking Down Walls
Cornelius recounts his vision, and in that moment it seems to “click” in Peter’s mind. We may not fully understand the huge mental leap that Peter had to take. God has no favorites. God accepts people from every nation. Race, gender, social status, and bloodlines do not determine acceptance in God’s sight.
I still remember vividly the time South Africa celebrated its first all-race election in 1994. Matter of fact, even though I was not a citizen but only a permanent resident, I was able to stand in line to vote in that first election. At that moment South Africans from all races, willingly or unwillingly, had to take a great mental leap. How difficult was it for them to look beyond color and race and embrace a rainbow nation. How difficult is it still today, nearly two decades later.
Suddenly Peter cannot keep quiet. He understands that God’s plan is inclusive—not exclusive. And then he begins to preach, lifting up Jesus, the Messiah, the crucified and resurrected Master.
As he preaches there is a stir in his (mostly Gentile) congregation. The Holy Spirit moves in their hearts, and they have to confess and praise. The Jewish Christians that had accompanied Peter are astonished—a reaction similar to that of the women reaching the empty tomb (Luke 24:22) or the crowds that accompanied Jesus and witnessed His teaching and His miracles (Matt. 12:23). They recognize this gift of speaking in different languages as exactly the same phenomenon they had seen and experienced during Pentecost. This must be God’s work. This must be genuine.
Acts 10 in 2011
Acts 10 is a key narrative of the early Christian church. While some have used it to prove a point about food laws, it clearly does not speak about food. Rather it is a story that highlights the link between the Spirit and (nascent) faith.
In a church focusing upon revival and reformation, understanding the message of Acts 10 is essential. We cannot hope to move into revival and reformation—even if we want to do it with Spirit and faith—without the willingness to step out of our comfort zones.
Remember, Peter had seen the Master himself. He had witnessed the powerful work of the Spirit firsthand. His faith had grown during his time with Jesus and following his denial. He had made great strides toward becoming the man God wanted him to be—and yet, there was still so much space for growth, so many prejudices to overcome, so many traditions to unlearn, so many times to say to someone, “Please forgive me.”
As we ask God for the outpouring of His Spirit we should remember these important lessons from Peter’s story in Acts 10.
1. Keep on searching for God’s will in your life. Revival and reformation begins not with we but with me. I need to take time for prayer. I need to make room to listen to God’s guidance through His Word. Just imagine if Peter had been too busy to pray—he should have been, with a dynamic growing movement on his hands. Time cannot be found easily. At times we may even struggle to find these moments of becoming quiet and listening.
2. Allow God’s Word and His Spirit to not only refresh you but also surprise you. Be ready to step out in faith—even if it sounds strange and unbelievable. Childless 75-year-old Abraham and his aging wife were told that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven—unbelievable. And yet he was ready to leave culture, family, and familiar places behind. Would you and I?
3. Once you have understood your divine marching orders, move ahead in harmony with Scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Step out in faith. I must confess that I am always amazed to see young adults excited for the Lord. That enthusiasm of young adults is something to be treasured. Just watch the dynamics of a Generation of Youth for Christ convention.
4. Step back and see God’s Spirit at work. When Peter recognized God’s leading in this strange sequence of events, he preached the message wholeheartedly, but then stepped back and allowed God’s Spirit to do what he always does: convict, convert, and transform.
5. Finally, embrace an Adventist worldview that puts God first. In a world full of tribalism, nationalism, materialism, secularism, and many other heartfelt political convictions, let’s make sure that our worldview is not shaped by these isms but rather by God’s Word and Spirit. Peter could have said (and he did), “Surely not,” when he saw that strange vision—and then either rationalized his way out of this unthinkable dilemma or simply walked away. He did not. Rather, he allowed God’s Spirit to reshape his mental framework and then acted on this—even though he had plenty of questions.
Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone
A week after I defended my doctoral dissertation my wife and I packed our bags. We were on our way to Peru, where I was to teach theology at Peruvian Union University. Thousands of miles away from home, with very limited knowledge of Spanish, living in a very different and strange culture, my wife and I struggled to keep the vision alive. We felt alone and isolated. Strangely, though, every other day somebody would knock on our door and would ask us if their daughter (or son) could live with us. Once we understood the question, we always said no. This was just too much “incarnational ministry,” somebody living in our home, no privacy, somebody who would share, from food to worship, basically everything with us—a family member.
After a couple of months someone (who spoke English!) took us aside and asked us why we would not have a student living with us. People thought we were stuck-up, that we lacked compassion, that we did not want to share God’s blessings freely. “You have no children, you have an extra room, you can make a difference in the life of one student.” I was shocked. We had come to Peru because we wanted to share freely. We had come to Peru to show compassion and serve.
We realized that our cultural background impinged on our mission. So we decided to step out of our comfort zone. We prayed about the right student, and the next time the door bell rang we found a mother and her 15-year-old daughter at the door. They were trying to raise the tui
tion fees, but had no money for the dorm or any other accommodation. Chantal and I looked at each other—and welcomed a new member into our family. Her name was Elizabeth, and she wanted to be a teacher. She was hardworking, a great language consultant—and quickly became a member of our family. She not only taught us about Peruvian culture and cuisine but, as a teenager in a difficult time of her life, helped us to learn as future parents. She stayed five years with us. She was the first university graduate in her family. She married a theology student and today has two wonderful girls. She still is our Peruvian daughter.
With Spirit and faith you don’t just move on with business as usual (even if it is revival and reformation). Acts 10 is a call to step out of our comfort zone and allow God’s Spirit to lift the veil on the great plans He has for us—individually and as a church.
This is the moment to invite the same Spirit that spoke to Peter and numerous of the saints thereafter to take hold of our life. This is the time to call out to God and ask Him to strengthen our faith, to make us resilient Adventists who are willing to stand out and cross the line for the sake of Jesus.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article is based on a baccalaureate address given during the graduation exercises of Helderberg College, South Africa, on November 27, 2010. This article was published February 10, 2011.