God’s Word for You
Acts 11:4-10 A matter of change
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, April 14, 2020
4 Peter explained these things to them from the beginning in the order they happened, saying: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a vision I saw something, an object descending like a huge sail, let down from heaven by its four corners; and it came to me. 6 When I looked closely and pondered this, I saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky. 7 Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ 9 But the voice came to me again from heaven, ‘What God has made clean you must not call impure.’ 10 This happened three times, and then everything was taken back up again into heaven.
A change had taken place, and Peter relates the account without saying “I declare” or “I insist.” He explains: This is what the Lord himself gave to me. There are only two reasons for making any change to the doctrine of the church; there are many reasons for making a change to the practice of the church. Church practice involves anything not commanded directly by God (adiaphora) and which might be changed from time to time to fit the work and worship of the church with circumstances of the time. For example, whether to use a common cup or individual glasses in the Lord’s Supper is a practice of the church, but having the Lord’s Supper, one of the sacraments, is a doctrine that cannot be changed. Reading and preaching the word of God is a doctrine that cannot be changed, while preaching the word of God in the local language is a practice. As language changes, new translations will need to be made. The oldest English translation I have of the New Testament has these words for the Easter Epistle (1 Corinthians 15:55): “hvar ist gazds þeins, dauþu? hvar ist sigis þein, halja?” There is no doubt but that translations are a work that is always in progress. Languages do not stay the same unless, like Latin, they perish.
When it comes to doctrine, however, the only reasons for making any change are (1) Because God himself commands it in his word, or (2) Because the church discovers, through prayerful study of the word of God, that its practice has been flawed and must be brought into line with God’s will. An example of the second point is illustrated for us in the Lutheran Reformation, when the papacy was shown through Scripture to be a burden on the church that led people away from the word of God and led people away from Christ himself. This was especially the case with the two great pillars of the Roman church, the mass and the monastic orders.
Here in our text, Peter illustrates an example of the first point, where God himself commanded a change. This was not because his holy word had been flawed or was imperfect in any way, but because the former command, the law of Moses, had been in place to lead people to Christ until the Savior came. Now that the Savior had come, the law of Moses no longer has a place of preeminence in the church. The cross of Jesus has accomplished everything that was to be done.
The way that God explained this more clearly was with Peter’s vision of the ship’s sail filled with formerly unclean animals. Peter relates everything that was already presented in chapter 10 without omitting anything. Since that is the content of our passage, we should also remember that the Lord understands our human need to have things repeated. Sometimes we won’t remember a thing until it’s stated at least seven times, and even then, memory can be a challenge for some. By restating certain things in his word, God provides the requirement for his own law, that “A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Leviticus 19:15). The Lord is good to us. He deals gently and patiently with his flock. He is not a harsh master who changes his mind day to day. He made a covenant with his people until the time came for the Messiah to fulfill that covenant, and when the Messiah came, he gently reminded his people of just what that meant, that we are free for service in his kingdom as we carry the gospel out into the world, to Jews, to Gentiles, to people we’ve never met, and to the people we love most dearly—just as Christ loves us most dearly.
Pastor Timothy Smith