There are things we cannot do. Some are physically or mentally beyond us. But others we simply cannot face because of what they stir up within us: they are utterly off-putting. Yet, at times, we may have to do them and Christians find that following Jesus often brings more of those situations along, as he leads us to say or do things that we’d rather avoid. In Acts 10 we have an example of that with Peter. Over his time as a disciple, Peter has done many things with, and for, Jesus which maybe once he would never have even contemplated. But now the Lord is going to take Peter, and indeed the whole church, forward in a way which they’ll find extra hard: Gentiles (non-Jews) are going to be welcomed in. Of course, Peter has known something like this was coming (Ac 1:8) but he’s going to struggle with how it is implemented. So the Lord has to prepare the way.
Why does the Lord make our lives difficult in this way? Didn’t he come to bring us peace? Yes, but that peace requires certain steps. Firstly, faith is required. A properly functioning relationship with God is built on trust. Such trust is built through trying circumstances. Secondly, sin needs to die. It’s painful, however, to remove sin out of our lives since it is so much a part of us. Tough situations are required to achieve this. Thirdly, holiness needs to grow. Christians have to learn to see, think and feel about the world as God does. That requires hard work.
Well, the Lord is doing the last one with Peter, teaching him to look at the world in a new and challenging way. However, he does ease him into it using two steps. Firstly, the Lord arranges for Peter’s first Gentile convert to be straightforward. In the coastal, militarised town of Caesarea (v1) are many Gentiles. One of them is an army commander in a regiment with strong ties to Rome. But Cornelius is also a ‘God-fearer’ who honours the God of Israel. Indeed, he has such a heart for the Lord that he is regular in prayer and generous in giving (v2). What does God make of this? He is delighted by Cornelius’ faith, seeing him as just as sacrificial as Jews at the temple (v3,4). So though Cornelius cannot live as a Jew, the Lord sees him as one of his own and now plans on showing that publicly. Therefore he tells him to send for Peter in nearby Joppa (v5,6). Peter’s first Gentile meeting will be with a man who already has a deep trust in the Lord.
However, Peter also needs to be assured that it’s right to welcome a Gentile into God’s kingdom and so the Lord takes a second step before the men meet. One of the clearest distinctions between Jews and Gentiles are the food laws: Jews only eat ‘clean’ foods (Le 11). As a result they will not visit or eat in a Gentile home (Ac 10:28). But in a moment of prayer and hunger, Peter is given a vision to change all this (v9,10). He sees a sheet containing both clean and unclean food coming down from God (v11,12), and hears a command to eat (v13)! He immediately refuses (v14) but then the Lord speaks to overturn his refusal (v15)! This is shocking for Peter. However, God will use this moment to demolish the barriers existing between a Jew like Peter and the Gentiles he’s about to meet, opening the way to unite them through faith in Christ (Ep 2:12-15).
We might wonder, of course, why God gave these food laws in the first place, if all they serve to do is divide people. The laws were part of a culture the Lord gave to Israel to restrain her sins (Ga 3:22-24). Not that the Jews were unique in being sinners: all of us have hearts of rebellion against God (Ro 3:9-18) and law is impotent to change that (Ga 3:21). But Israel’s law did hold her, until Christ was born to give a new life free from sin’s power (Ga 3:25,26). All this means that whilst Christians must learn from the OT laws (2Ti 3:16,17), we do not keep them in the same way.
Well, God hammers that home to Peter (v16), paving the way for a new attitude to Gentiles, as he’ll explain in the following verses. The Lord does give us circumstances, at times, in which we learn better how to serve him, building on what we’ve already learnt from the Bible. In particular, the Lord will send us situations that help to build up love since that is at the heart of what he desires (Jo 13:35; Ja 2:8). Churches must strive to remove all hindrances to this growth (Ep 2).