I did a talk in January about Peter’s vision in Acts 10. You know the one where he’s on a roof at lunchtime and he’s hungry, so God sends down a sheet full of animals and tells him to eat them? Yeah, that one. I love that story – poor old Peter doesn’t want to eat the animals because, according to the Jewish food laws, they’re unclean. So he tells God that he dare not – he won’t obey God’s spoken command to obey his written command. And then God tells him off for calling something that he has made unclean. Three times. Poor Peter can’t win.
The reason why God is showing the food to Peter is because he knows Peter is going to say “No”. God wants to make it clear to him that just as there are no unclean foods, there are no unclean people. Why is this top of God’s lunchtime vision agenda? Well, there are some Gentile (non-Jewish) men on their way to fetch Peter right at the moment he is having his vision. Jews and Gentiles generally wouldn’t associate much with each other. They definitely wouldn’t hang out at each other’s houses to watch the footy and drink beer (I think that’s what normal people do with their friends). But these Gentiles want to take Peter (a Jew) back to the house of their master, Cornelius (a Gentile). They have been sent because Cornelius had his own vision, not of animals in sheet, but of an angel telling him to go get Peter because Peter has a message to tell him. Peter has to go back to tell him the good news about Jesus. The only way Peter will go is if he doesn’t think that Cornelius and his household are unclean, hence the vision and the unclean-but-actually-clean animals. Realising what’s going on Peter goes with the men and God brings Cornelius and his household to faith in Jesus.
What strikes me as strange in this story is how inefficient this whole thing is. Have a look at the timeline:
- Angel visits Cornelius tells him to send men to get Peter
- Peter has his vision of animals to symbolise the acceptability of Gentiles
- Men arrive to get Peter
- Peter visits Cornelius and tells him about Jesus
- Before Peter finishes talking, the Holy Spirit turns up and everyone starts speaking in tongues.
- Mission accomplished. The end.
You know what would be a quicker timeline? This one:
- Angel visits Cornelius and brings him to faith in Jesus. The end.
Why all this messing around with extra visions? “Oh”, you might say “Peter needed to know that Gentiles could receive the good news so that the Gospel might go out”. This is true, but Peter could have just had his own angel turn up and give him the message. It’d be clearer than a bunch of animals falling out of the sky in a giant toga.
Come to think of it, why doesn’t God just send angels to do all his evangelising? Look, Ev-angel-ism even has the word angel in it, and that’s not even a coincidence! As far as I know angels don’t actually have a lot to do. When was the last time you saw one of God’s millions of angels doing anything? God should put them to work telling people about Jesus. They should earn their wings. Why is God so inefficient in his messaging strategy? We’re not exactly the best messengers available.
I have heard many stories over the years of Muslims having dreams of Jesus. When this happens they go in search of Christians who can tell them all about who Jesus is and what it means to trust in him. Once again, if Jesus is going to go to the trouble of turning up in a dream, why doesn’t he just get the job done then and there? He could run an 11 night Alpha course with people while they’re asleep. Alpha with the Alpha and Omega, that would be pretty cool. But he seems to give people just enough for them go looking for other Christians so they can get the rest of the story.
Christians Need Christians
I think the answer is this: Coming to faith is not just about the transmission of information or the assent to certain theological concepts. Faith is about coming into a saving relationship with Jesus, and it’s about staying in that relationship with Jesus. Jesus has given us each other so that together we can work out our faith and continue in it. We’re here to help each other along. There aren’t many people who manage to maintain a vibrant faith in Jesus outside of maintaining strong relationships with the people of Jesus. So when it comes to evangelism, God wants us the start our journey in the same way we will continue the journey, not alone, but together. We’re not saved by ourselves, we’re saved into community, we’re saved into the body of Christ. Evangelism is about people helping people to meet Jesus. And every now and again, God might intervene and send an angel or two to jumpstart the connection. In general, though, he seems to let us do the talking with people because it’s us who also do the walking with people.
I wouldn’t have chosen to do things this way, but I guess he is God and all, he probably knows best. And as things are the way they are, and all the work of telling people about Jesus isn’t in the hands of seemingly supremely more qualified beings, I’m glad I get to be part of the fun.