He had always been more comfortable than me around the outsiders. I remember Samaria. We returned from the town where we’d found some food, and there He was, speaking with that woman. It was awkward seeing Him interact with her, but it was good and right. There was something challenging about His freedom and His love.
I remember the four thousand. I know I was one of those who wanted to send the Gentile crowds away. They may have been curious about the God of Israel, but I wasn’t ready to show them compassion just yet. He was. There was an emotion in Him I just didn’t possess. Lovingly, He nourished that crowd.
I remember the tax collectors and the sinners. They were Jewish, but they didn’t behave like it. God’s covenant people should be consecrated, separate. Everyone knows that, yet He seemed willing to speak with them, to challenge them. He saw something in them we couldn’t see. He spoke of forgiveness for their sins.
I remember the Sydonian mother. Full Gentile, I tried to push her away, but He wanted to speak with her. When He told her the bread isn’t for the dogs, I could not have agreed more. But then she humbly asked for the crumbs from the table. And He commended her faith.
The tax collectors. The sinners. Over and over again, Jesus would go places and speak to people I was uncomfortable with. We went to the other side of the Galilee to reach those demoniacs. He rebuked Simon the Pharisee while forgiving the sinful woman who wept in his house. Constantly, His comfort level was higher than mine.
I’ll never forget the teaching He gave the Pharisees (and us) that day. They were pestering us about the hand-washing ceremonies before eating. We had abandoned them long ago, along with other Sabbatarian traditions He had set us free from. He rebuked them so strongly. It was almost embarrassing how forceful He was. But it was right and true. They had made their traditions tantamount to Scripture; above it, actually.
That was rebuke enough, but then he went further. He explained to them how uncleanness works. It isn’t from the outside in, but the inside out. Our sin doesn’t come from outside us, but from within us, from the heart. It is the heart that makes a man unclean. I didn’t understand it yet, but my misconceptions about sin began disintegrating then.
Years later, there I was, in Joppa of all places. I was present when Jesus ascended. Now, a decade later, I found myself in this little coastal town, praying on a rooftop at lunchtime.
God’s hand was clearly with me at that moment. My travels had brought me to Lydda. There, I found a paralyzed man. Aeneas, they called him, had been bedridden for eight years. The same type of feeling I had years earlier outside the Beautiful Gate at the temple area, when the crippled man was healed, that same feeling came upon me in Lydda. I just knew Aeneas would be healed. I had faith for it. Like in Jerusalem years earlier, this healing led to a preaching opportunity. So many new believers.
Then the call came from Joppa. Tabitha had died. I didn’t know her myself, but she was beloved by the saints there. She was like a mother to many, such an encourager. The believers there sent for me. I think they wanted me to pray with them, to comfort them in this time of trial. They showed me some tunics and garments she had made while with us, tokens of memorial. Their love for her was palpable.
Then something new began happening in me. I remembered those moments when Jesus revived the dead. I remembered the funeral healing at Nain and Lazarus’ raising. But I really began thinking about Jairus’ twelve year old daughter. Lying there in that upper room, beloved by the people, I thought of the love Jairus’ synagogue community had for his daughter. She was loved like Tabitha was loved. I began thinking God would raise Tabitha like He'd raised Jairus' girl. I had seen many die over the years, but this sense was new.
Putting them all out, I sat there in prayer. Sensing God’s power to heal and raise, I spoke. “Tabitha, arise.” Her eyes began to stir, then blink. She opened her eyes, looking right at me. The presence of God’s power was so thick at that moment. She sat up and we joined hands. She stood. What a joy to present her alive to everyone gathered to mourn her death.
All this showed me the obvious hand of God upon me at this moment. So I sat there on that rooftop that day, praying. “What are you doing right now, Lord? What is this power all about? Why are you manifesting yourself so?”
That’s when the vision came, like a trance. There were all sorts of animals inside something like a great sheet. They were unclean, forbidden. As a Jew, I could never eat of them. But I heard His voice: “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” All that uncleanness, I was to kill and eat. This was repulsive to me, totally out of bounds. Some of the same feelings during Jesus’ time on earth returned. I was, again, uncomfortable.
“No, Lord. I’ve never eaten anything common or unclean,” I explained. He told me, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Could it be? Was it really true that uncleanness came from within? Was this food acceptable in God’s sight? What was he trying to tell me? I couldn't help but think of the day the Pharisees had asked about our neglect of the hand-washing ceremonies. Was uncleanness really from within, not without?
All this happened three times, which was unmistakable to me. I had denied Him three times, He had restored me three times, and now three times I had told him I wouldn’t eat. His preparation was so thorough.
I sat there thinking about this vision. I was perplexed, but the Spirit wasn’t. I sensed Him speaking, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Get up and go with them. Don’t delay.” So I headed downstairs, and there were three men, one soldier and two servants of a man named Cornelius. They said a holy angel had directed Cornelius to ask for me, in Joppa, at this specific house. Incredible.
All this told me God was up to something massive, something beyond me. Aeneus’ healing. Tabitha’s comeback from death. The visions on the rooftop. The voice of the Spirit. These men sent from this man. God was turning the knobs and pushing the buttons, getting us to something incredible. So I went. Knowing God was doing something special, I brought six men with me, triple the number needed for an eyewitness accounting. These were Gentiles we were going to. This was new for us. I needed as many witnesses as possible.
The rest, as they say, is history. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about that day at Cornelius’ home in Caesarea. I’m sure he’s been asked a million times as well. I walked in and began, at their request, explaining the gospel. By then I had become persuaded God was willing to reach Gentiles, but I think I was still teetering on whether or not they needed Judaism first or not. But as I preached and explained belief welled up in their hearts. They received the forgiveness of Christ from His cross and, simultaneously, right there in the room, the Spirit came upon them. It was like Pentecost all over again. They spoke in tongues. But they had not become Jewish. They were all Gentile.
I knew then and there the gospel was for the whole world, no Judaism required. I remembered the words Jesus had spoken to me in Caesarea Philippi years earlier: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” I felt as if I’d used those keys right there in that moment. The door to the kingdom was now wide open for the Gentile world.
Obviously, Paul would end up being the apostle to the Gentile world. The Lord would systematically reach the Gentiles through Paul. I would continue to minister — mostly — to my Jewish brothers and sisters. But it was electric to be used by God to open the door to the Gentiles. I will never forget Cornelius or the others in that room that day. It was an honor.
Christ has spoken to me of my death. I am to glorify God in it when they carry me where I do not want to go, as Jesus said. I’m not looking forward to that day, but I do look forward to seeing my Lord again.
My wish for the church when I am gone is for them to continue on in this great open door Christ gave to us, especially on that special day at Cornelius’ home. The unclean and common still need Him. Clearly, the issue isn’t about what is on the outside, like the Pharisees mistakenly thought. The issue is internal, the heart. Christ wants to deal with it.
People, Jew and Gentile alike, are so broken. In all their brokenness and depravity there is, as with Cornelius, some kind of thirst for God. At least in some. There is a knowledge things aren’t as they ought to be. I know not everyone will believe — they certainly didn’t in my day — but many will.
I hope the church continues to think of the far off people, the new horizons and frontiers, the next generations. I hope they think of countries closed off to the gospel. I hope they think of regions where the gospel has not yet gained traction. I hope they get a vision of Christ making the unclean clean. I hope they get past saying, “Not so, Lord,” and eventually go where He sends them.
I know it was one of the greatest joys of my life to do so. And I sensed, through all of it, it was one of God’s greatest joys as well.