As I have been reading through the New Testament, on my way through the Bible chronologically from start to finish, I have come to the Book of Acts. I wrote most recently about the prominence and importance of testimonial evidence for Christ. I continue to be struck by the key importance of this eyewitness testimony and the highly relational way in which God reveals Himself to people in Acts – and continues to reveal Himself to people today .
Jesus, of course, attracted people who gathered to him, joined him and followed him. Literally, they lived with him, ate with him, traveled with him, and followed him where he went. Thus, they became witnesses to everything he said and did.
As I continue reading in Acts, I have come today to the story of Peter, the apostle, and Cornelius, the Roman Centurion who lived in Caesarea. I wrote about this story not long ago, in Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius, but today I see a different twist that runs with the theme of eyewitnesses and God revealing Himself to people.
The story of Peter and Cornelius plays out in Acts 10. By this time, the crucifixion of Jesus was old news, and news of his resurrection had spread through the region. Thousands of people had become believers in Jesus Christ, but a swell of opposition was mounting. The followers of Jesus were beginning to leave the area and branch out under the pressure of persecution.
In that timing and context, Peter and the Centurion each have encounters that are described separately. Cornelius was praying one day when he had a striking vision in which an “angel of God” came to him acknowledging his prayers and directing him to “send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter” back to his home. (Acts 10:1-6)
It seems clear from this description of the experience, that the Roman Centurion didn’t know who it was he was directed to summon.
Separately, Peter was staying in Joppa (about 60 miles south) and was praying one day on the roof of a house when he “fell into a trance” (Acts 10:11). He had a vision that was repeated three times. In the dreams the heavens opened, a great sheet descended with “all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds”, and a voice instructed Peter to “kill and eat” the animals. (Acts 10:12)
It’s hard for modern, western Christians to understand how troubling this would have been to Peter. Some of us might be repulsed by the instruction to “kill and eat” the animals, but First Century people were no vegetarians. Peter had a different problem.
For many centuries – for over a millennium – Hebrew people incorporated into their worship of God the practice of not eating certain animals. They were forbidden to eat certain animals, but the voice told him to eat what was forbidden to eat.
Peter was “inwardly perplexed”. (Acts 10:17 ESV) In the Greek, this phrase means more than what the English translation Suggests. He was “thoroughly” or “totally” or “deeply” perplexed. We might say he was “at a loss”. He was completely shaken, full of doubt and uncertainty, and was troubled by the conflicting message presented to him in such dramatic fashion.
Peter was still wrestling with the vision (Acts 10:19), when he “hears” the Holy Spirit say to him that three men are looking for him and to go with them “without hesitation”. (Acts 10:20) It’s interesting that Peter distinguishes between the voice in the vision and the Holy Spirit. We might spend some time reflecting on that distinction, but I want to get to the point.
In response to the Holy Spirit, Peter went downstairs to find the men at the door. The men explained that their boss, Cornelius, was worshiping God when “an angel” appeared to him and directed him to send for Peter. The Holy Spirit was clear that Peter should go with them “without hesitation” (without questioning), so he did.
This is a divine appointment if there ever was one. These men independently received clear visions with very specific instructions that brought them together, but for what purpose?
When Peter arrives, Cornelius is tempted to worship him, but Peter quickly corrects him. (Acts 10:25-26) Perhaps, the Centurion recognized or realized who it was who stood them before him. Perhaps, the clear divine hand in the meeting overwhelmed him.
Peter prefaced the conversation with the comment that it’s unlawful for Jews to associate with Gentiles before asking why the Roman Centurion sent for him. (Acts 10:27-28) Cornelius explained the vision he had and the voice instructing him to send someone to Joppa to “ask for Simon who is called Peter”. (Acts 10:30-33)
Peter couldn’t deny the significance of these experiences woven together in tight symmetry. It was certainly no coincidence. Despite the words he had just spoken about the unlawfulness of Jews to associate with Gentiles, Peter realized in that moment, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality….” (Acts 10:34)
Peter affirmed to the Centurion what the Centurion already knew about the life of Jesus, summarizing the message he preached: “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” who is “Lord of all”. Peter recounted the good things Jesus did, the healings he performed, and the power with which Jesus spoke, saying, “And we are witnesses of all that he did ….” (Acts 10:39)
Then, Peter described how Jesus appeared to him and his companions “as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead”. (Acts 10:36-41) These were things the Centurion had only heard about, but Peter was there, standing in front of him, telling Cornelius what he and his companions had seen and heard firsthand.
Peter explained how Jesus “commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42), something which they were uniquely qualified to do, having lived with Jesus for three years. Peter added for the benefit of the Centurion that “all the prophets bear witness [to Jesus] that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”. (Acts 10:43)
I have highlighted all the references to witnesses and their testimony, which just underscores the importance of first hand accounts and personal experience. The two visions experienced by two men who didn’t know each other with highly specific instructions that brought them together is the way God works, sometimes, to provide key revelation at the right time.
In this instance, Peter realized through the encounter that his understanding of what God desired was not accurate – even if his people had practiced that understanding for a 1000 years. The Centurion, on the other hand, was about to have his prayers answered:
“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”
This was the “testimony” of the Holy Spirit. By a demonstration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Roman Centurion and his household, Peter and his companions knew that God was offering the same good news to the Gentiles that Jesus preached to the Jews.
The Holy Spirit bore witness to it by the display of His outpouring. There was nothing for Peter to do but affirm it. “Then Peter declared, ‘Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’” Acts 10: 47
This story is an example of the way in which God works to reveal Himself to people. This one story illustrates how the case for Jesus Christ rests on the evidence of eyewitnesses, and the spread of the Gospel (the good news) is driven by “testimony” from various sources, including direct outpouring by the Holy Spirit on those who are eager to receive God.
The “proof” is rarely (if ever) one dimensional. It’s almost always a multi-dimensional combination of various testimony and evidence that adds up to a personally compelling case. The evidence for God is more often a string of improbable circumstances, maybe with an experience like a vision or dream, happening in the context of a message that is timely delivered with intimate, personal meaning.
In this one story, we see visions, angels and voices. The voices of angels are distinct from the voice of the Holy Spirit. We see the testimony of Peter, who was eyewitness to the life, miracles, sayings, suffering, and resurrection of Jesus. The testimony of the Prophets who foretold the coming of the Christ (Messiah), and the testimony (outpouring) of the Holy Spirit sealing and confirming the import of the message of God are all part of the package.
This final witness, the witness of the Holy Spirit, is what sealed the deal for Peter. If God is willing to give the Gentiles what He had given to the Jews, then no more evidence of God’s intention was needed to convince Peter to baptize them and welcome than into the family. Again, though, is hard to overestimate how categorically radical such a thought would have been in that day – Jews didn’t even associate with Gentiles. The Holy Spirit sealed the deal for Cornelius and his household.
We might tend to compartmentalize the proof that we rely on or want to hear that we think will convince us that God is real or that Jesus is the Lord and Savior he claimed to be. Some people want “rational” proof with mathematical precision or scientific certainty. Some people want to be hit over the head with a message written in the sky for all to see.
In Scripture and in personal experience, God doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t overwhelm us to make us obedient to Him. God woos us in hope that we might choose to love Him.
Scripture shows that God reveals Himself to those who are open and are willing to receive Him. The proof is often very intimate and personal, and it’s usually corroborated in various ways that include various types of “testimony” to the existence, revelation and presence of God in our lives, including, but in no way least, the experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit.