How Does the Spirit of God Change Our Conditioning and Natural Way of Thinking?
“Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. Now while Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean…. While Peter thought on the vision…. And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore came I unto you without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for: I ask therefore for what intent ye have sent for me?” (Acts 10:9-17,19,28-29)
It would be safe to conclude that Peter, by his own thought processes, would never have arrived at the changes that took place in him as a result of this vision and the visit to Cornelius and the Italian band. Peter was not a radical pioneer, an innovator, who naturally introduced new doctrines and ways of thinking, and God knew that. If we were to look to Peter (as many have) to determine what practical Christianity is all about, we would find ourselves limited by his frame of reference. He was a Galilean fisherman who had been with Jesus, and he thought like a Galilean fisherman who had been with Jesus. God is so vastly greater than the earthen vessels that He uses.
“For God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not.” (Job 33:14)
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
It was not just Peter. The entire range of human thought, including ours, dear reader, is limited and out-of-its-depth when it comes to dealing with God—His ways and His thoughts. This is true of genuinely saved people. This is equally true of people filled with the Holy Ghost and led of the Lord.
“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?” (Romans 11:33-34)
Peter little suspected what the Lord had in mind for him and the entire church when he went upon that housetop to pray. He loved the Lord with all his heart, and he was all out for God with an eye single to living for Him and doing His will. He trusted God; he was leaning upon the Lord. As he waited for the food to be prepared, he had an experience—a profound experience. From our enlightened perspective around 2000 years later, it is easy to minimize the upheaval that the Spirit of God introduced to Peter and the entire church of God. We catch a hint of what was involved in Peter’s reply. “Not so, Lord, for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.” There is integrity in Peter’s reply, and there is rigidity—an unwillingness to even consider change, much less to do it, unless solidly and thoroughly convinced that God wills it to be so. Peter was not a novice in spiritual things, by this point, and he was not ignorant of Satan’s devices (2 Corinthians 2:11). Certainly it would be fair to say that Peter was not one of those “given to change.”
And here is a wonderful thing: God knew the brother, just as He knows us. Praise His name! Pure religion is not left to our own thinking and reasoning, any more than it was left to Peter’s. As long as we are led of God, we are safe and can proceed with assurance. “Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.” (Psalm 46:2-3) What God was about to reveal and do was just as spiritually cataclysmic to those brethren as the physical manifestations described by the prophet David, and the Lord knew it. God knew just what to do and how to do it. Glory!
The Lord commanded Peter to do just what God knew he would abhor to do. God knew just how he would react. Then God said these wonderfully significant words to His child: “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” And this was done “thrice,” a significant number to Brother Peter, indeed. (He had denied the Lord three times, just as Jesus had said that he would.) This trance left Peter in a wonderfully confused state of mind. It didn’t change anything with regard to the motives of his heart. It didn’t effect his love for God or his trust in Him. But he “doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean,” and he “thought on the vision.” But again, it was not left to the child of God to guess or conjecture what God meant or if indeed the vision was of God. Praise God for the guidance! Praise God for the clearness that comes with His dealing! Let us offer the highest praise and honor to Him who loves us so much, understands us so thoroughly (better than we could ever know ourselves), and who deals with us so lovingly and kindly, so patiently and effectively.
God had done something, and He told Peter what it was. God had done some cleansing in some other people’s lives, and this was the first hint Peter (and many others) had that God had been doing such a thing among the Gentiles. From our vantage point, centuries later, we can say, “Brethren, didn’t you pay attention when the centurion’s faith was manifested?” (Matthew 8:8-13). Or we might say, “Brethren, how about the Syrophenician woman?” (Matthew 15:27-28). We might also say, “Did not the scriptures speak of the coming of Messiah and the results that would accompany His coming in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, and part of that prophecy was, ‘And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.’ (Isaiah 11:10)?” And we might observe that the context of that prophecy in verses 11-16 plainly shows the salvation of the Gentiles, and that this all involves the same salvation that was set before the Jews. (See also Isaiah 12:1-6; 49:5-6,22.) Mention might also be made of the dividing line between the Old Testament and the New Testament. “The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.” (Luke 16:16) This included Gentiles, for we read, “Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall show judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory. And in his name shall the Gentiles trust.” (Matthew 12:18-21) (But it is also fair to observe that this last scripture was written by Matthew later, after the circumstances of Acts 10 had already occurred.)
All of this and more had been established by the Spirit of God to indicate the direction of God and to reassure God’s children as to that direction, but, just like ours, the minds of the brethren were slow and in need of divine direction and prodding to discover and realize the will of God (Luke 24:25-27). Jesus had told them, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” (John 14:26)
In this experience of Peter’s, we have a wonderful example of how the Holy Ghost teaches us all things and brings all things to our remembrance. We readily observe the great necessity of having ceased from our own labors—of having arrived at and possessing of the stillness and acquiescence before God which is so vital to being led of Him. In Peter’s attempts to make sense of what God had put before him, it was of infinite value to have a subdued heart, a heart that was no longer inclined to blurt out a proposal for the building of three different tabernacles (Mark 9:5-7). Furthermore, God knew that the matter was beyond the ability of His servant to put it together by himself, and God had already scheduled matters for the enlightenment of His children. Even as Peter thought on the matter, the messengers arrived from Brother Cornelius, and the Spirit of God bade Him to go with them and to doubt nothing. And the completely consecrated, completely subdued man and other brethren went with them and soon saw for himself what God had cleansed. Praise God! We have our ideas, but if these ideas are on the altar and we constantly bring them into captivity to the obedience of Christ, how easy it is for the Spirit of God to guide us and show us the way which God wants us to take! God is not hindered at all by how we think or how we perceive His work. What does hinder Him is when the heart is not totally His and when we savor the things of self and of this world (Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33).
It was not hard for Brother Peter to recognize that Cornelius was a just man and one that feared God and was of good report among all the nation of the Jews. It might have been difficult for Brother Peter when he had not been filled with the Holy Ghost. Indeed, when he was unfilled with the Comforter, he may not even have come to a Gentile’s house, for he thought it unlawful to do so. “Not so, Lord; for I have never….” But the conditioning of Jewish pride and bigotry had been humbled before the mighty gospel bulldozer, and the Spirit of God was able to mold and shape the brother in a way that was not possible before the upper room experience. This humble pliableness in the hands of God is readily seen in Brother Peter’s reaction to Brother Cornelius. “Therefore came I unto you without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for: I ask therefore for what intent ye have sent for me?” (Acts 10:29) Then Brother Cornelius told how God had dealt with him. “Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Acts 10:34-35) We see that Peter recognized Cornelius as a man that feared God and worked righteousness; a man that was accepted of God; a man that God had cleansed; an “uncommon” man, possessing a regenerated heart and living a saved life.
Brother Peter knew there was more to God’s salvation than just being regenerated and living a saved life—marvelous as that experience is, even being a new creature in Christ Jesus. The brother had tarried at Jerusalem until he was endued with power from the infilling of the Holy Ghost. When the people of Samaria were born again under the labors of Brother Phillip, brethren Peter and John came that these newly-saved creatures in Christ Jesus might have a second benefit. “Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 8:14-17)
Being himself full of the Holy Ghost did not automatically free Brother Peter and others from their prejudices and misconceptions. We are all mixtures of what God has taught us and what we have learned on our own, and we are unable to distinguish between the two to any great extent, except the Lord help us. This is why we are given the Comforter; this is why we need His guidance. “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13) And the narrative before us is very instructive in just how this divine guidance works.
We have the words of Peter’s reaction after Brother Cornelius and the others were filled with the Holy Ghost. From his newly-enlightened perspective, in Acts 11 he relates what happened: “Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved. And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:14-17)
Some have gotten confused by Peter’s characterization of what happened to Cornelius by the words, “whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved.” And by the reaction of the other Jews to whom Peter was speaking: “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:18) To many, it appears that somehow “repentance unto life” and “shall be saved” involve the infilling of the Holy Ghost. But when we remember that the entire process of God’s salvation involves three distinctive changes to a human being, all begins to make sense and perfectly harmonize. There is forgiveness and deliverance from sinful acts that we have done; there is a purification of the soul that follows being born again (such as we read of in Acts 8), and there is the translation from a corruptible, earthly body into an incorruptible, immortal body that we read of in Philippians 3:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-54. The complete process is mentioned in Matthew 24:13, “He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” In this sense, salvation is in the future. In another sense, it is right now. “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.” Note that deliverance from sin is a present reality if your faith be not in vain. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be…. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” (1 John 3:9-10) “(For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.)” (2 Corinthians 6:2)
Others have wrested Peter’s words, “the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning,” and attempted to believe that Peter and the others were not saved until the day of Pentecost. But a careful reading of John 17:8,14 establishes plainly that the disciples were saved at the time Jesus prayed, except for Judas (who had been saved—Acts 1:17,25). “For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me…. I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”
Why did Peter use the words, “at the beginning”? It can be plainly seen that this was the beginning of a new era of service and dedication. But to contend that there was no beginning of following Christ before Pentecost flies in the face of plain statements in the Bible to the contrary. The scripture in Acts 1:17 (as they were seeking to be filled with the Holy Ghost) shows that they had begun and were in the process of a ministry, that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10:19-20), that they had received power to live for God and be His children (John 1:12-13). The additional power with which they were endued after the upper room experience and the wonderful comforting, guiding presence within of the Holy Ghost was a new beginning that dwarfed their previous clearness and effectiveness for God—clear and definite and effective as the “before” had been. Furthermore, Peter does not hint in any way that he was not saved before Pentecost. What surprised him and amazed him was that the Gentiles had access to all the privileges of salvation, just as the Jews had. This is what the Jewish brethren had not realized at all before the sanctification of Brother Cornelius and the Italian band. “Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?” That was the outstanding thing—the crucial understanding. To put it in Brother Paul’s words, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
All of this reveals the enormous weight behind the words of God: “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” (Acts 10:15) Here is the divine pattern. God does what He does, and we need to react to His doings with acceptance and appreciation. “That call not thou common.” It can easily be seen that I can misunderstand what God is doing. I can undervalue it or overvalue it. I can make less of it or more of it than it actually is. None of my perceptions change the reality of what God has done and is doing. But the danger is that I will drift away from the Almighty. The danger is that I can end up in the ranks of “the ignorant” and “them that are out of the way.” (Hebrews 5:2)
“Had I the choosing of my pathway,
In blindness I should go astray,
And wander far away in darkness,
Nor reach that land of endless day.”*
It is that dangerous and serious: I can actually miss heaven by attempting to choose without divine guidance, by just doing the best that I can, by being as sincere and well-meaning as it is possible for me to be. The same poet said,
“God’s way is best; if human wisdom
A fairer way may seem to show,
’Tis only that our earth-dimmed vision
The truth can never clearly know.”
In applying this principle, we would direct the reader to two other articles in this issue:
See also: Part 2