When it comes to the book of Acts, a lot of attention has been given to the so-called conversion stories. There are good reasons for this, as these conversion stories not only give us an account of the gospel being preached to unbelievers but also how people responded to the gospel message. One of those conversion stories tells of the first Gentile conversion to Christ when a centurion soldier named Cornelius and his household were baptized. But there’s another “conversion story” (if you will) within this story that seems overlooked, the conversion of the Apostle Peter told in Acts 10:9-23.
Conversion might seem an odd way of describing what happens to Peter on the roof but conversion is repentance, a change involving a person’s entire self to the will of God. What happens to Peter is a conversion towards the impartiality of God (Witherup, Conversion In The New Testament, 69) and it demands our attention, especially if we’re interested being led by the Spirit as I have heard different churches express.
When Heaven Opens…
When Peter went up on to the roof to pray, he was a God-fearing follower of Jesus. His devotion to God as a follower of Jesus has already led to him proclaiming Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36) and it has resulted in even being arrested (Acts 4:3). So there isn’t any question about the sincerity of Peter’s faith. Peter is a God-fearing follower of Jesus but he’s still lacks some understanding he will need to repent of in order to believe in the full gospel and live fully as a participant in the mission of God.
The repentance Peter is in need of has to do with what he regards as unclean. In a dream of sorts, Peter receives a vision of all different kinds of four-footed animals telling him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter’s response is an immediate and emphatic rejection of such a suggestion. And who can blame Peter. Like Jesus and the other apostles, Peter knew the scriptures and he knew that the Law clearly forbids eating anything unclean (Lev 11:47). But the voice in the dream tells him to stop calling unclean what God has made clean (Acts 10:13) and Peter will later say that this voice was God teaching him that he should not speak of anyone or anything as unclean (Acts 10:28). Consequently, despite his conviction about what he thought was the biblical teaching regarding clean and unclean, Peter had to recognize that he was wrong in his belief on this issue and repent.
Is there a lesson for churches today? I believe so. The churches I am familiar with have a very high view of scripture and are devout God-fearing followers of Jesus. Like Peter, we know that we must “obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29). But like Peter, could we ever be wrong about what we believe is God’s will according to scripture? I certainly hope so because it takes an abundance of hubris to think otherwise. Although everyone of us believes we are right in the different views we hold, we must open ourselves to the possibility that God may be trying to show us we are in fact wrong. That requires humility, which most of the churches I encounter seem to possess. This openness is important because without it, we risk the danger of one day become so dogmatic and self-righteous that we end up looking more like the religious authorities who opposed Jesus and the apostles.
The conversion of Peter in this story is not a result of a different Bible teaching, a point that should not go unnoticed. It is a vision that initially challenges Peter’s understanding of scripture which has taught him to reject what is unclean and that is only the beginning point. So how is it that Peter will regard what he has previously believed, with good biblical reasoning, and open himself new understanding of God’s will? While Peter is aided by the voice of the Spirit, it is the unfolding events that help him make sense of the vision and conclude that the vision is the revealing of God’s will. In fact, he unfolding events to come will stretch Peter’s understanding of what it means to be a member of the people of God (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 187).
The openness of Peter is a mindset that churches must embrace if they are to participate in the mission of God. It is an openness that’s willing to say that the way we have understood scripture on any particular issue is wrong and requires us to change (repentance). But it is also requires a willingness to relinquish control and I’m talking about the control that keeps everything safe, comfortable and within our “dogma” box. Of course, we can become dogmatic and double-down with our biblical proof-texts, insisting that the scripture says… But imagine if Peter would have taken that approach. Sometimes our understanding of scripture is wrong and if we’re open to seeing how God is at work in the unfolding events rather than defining how God must work with our predetermined conclusions about the teaching of scripture, we might see our need for conversion as did Peter.
Peter doesn’t turn to scripture but allows his experience in the events that unfold to redefine for him the boundaries of God’s people and in whom God is at work. I’m not suggesting that scripture is without authority or has a diminished importance but we must learn to discern what God might be saying though events, experiences, and voices other than scripture. For example, I grew up believing that only those who understood scripture exactly as I did were true Christians but this sort of sectarianism began to crumble when I began to take notice of the Spirit dwelling among other believers in Jesus, evidenced by the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. I realized that God is not partial in offering his grace to only those who think they understand all the teachings of scripture correctly. The same might also apply to the way we view women serving in ministry. Regardless of what we think certain passages teach regarding women serving in ministry, when we see how God has gifted some women as incredible teachers and leaders might it suggest that maybe our understanding of certain biblical passages is wrong?
A Final Thought…
Peter underwent a conversion because he was open enough to know he could be wrong and needed to reconsider what he believed about what God is up to. We know the results, the gospel expanded to the Gentiles and Christianity began to differentiate itself as an entirely new movement rather than just another Jewish sect. Right now any local churches find themselves at a pivotal point, facing decline and wondering where God is leading them next. The real question is whether or not we are open enough to be surprised as to where God is leading or will we simply insist on not eating anything unclean?