Peter’s Sheet and Jesus’ Skin
Two Stories lie at the heart of the Gospel of Christ.
Understanding just how revolutionary the Gospel of Christ really is–this is my life-long pursuit. It is accurate but an immense understatement to say that God’s Kingdom is radically different from the kingdoms of men. The cultures and governments of men rely on hierarchy. There is always a ruling class governing lower classes and profiting from them. The Kingdom of God is really, really different from that. We are all on the same level before the Lord Jesus: before His cross as sinners who need saving, before His Throne as worshipers in Spirit and Truth, and before His Judgment Seat as servants who must give an account. He is the only King; we are ALL His servants. His is a Kingdom of Servant-leaders whose primary power is that of humility.
Two stories tell us how to get from here to there. It is painful to see those who seek to present Christ to the world, operating by worldly standards and philosophies. My work has been and continues to be one of seeking out His Kingdom principles and presenting them to the church and her leaders.
When it comes to race, I have had my own dark dungeon out of which to climb if I wish to see the brilliant light of the Lord’s Kingdom. I am an American from the Old South. As a child, I was steeped in racism. Step by step the Lord is leading me out of this bondage by the truth of the Gospel. In this essay I want to relate two of these liberating Gospel narratives to hopefully reveal the brilliant colors of a colorblind Kingdom.
Assemble a Panel of Witnesses
For a great drama of passion and human progress, an author must assemble a sizable cast. This amazing story is found in the Book of Acts, Chapters 10 and 11. In this narrative to demonstrate the end of racism, God Himself sends angels to two seaport cities, Caesarea of Palestine and Joppa, to bring together
- a Roman Centurion,
- two of his servants in the company of another soldier,
- an apostle of Jesus accompanied by a squad of Jewish witnesses,
- and a crowd gathered in the Centurion’s home. (This is too big of a show for the average church to produce.)
- Then the drama shifts to Jerusalem on appeal.
Two coastal cities, a capitol, and a cast of hundreds make this a story of great significance.
What is the theme? What was the seismic shift beneath the surface of the earth announced by such an epic? It was nothing less than a New Covenant of God with all of mankind, not just the nation of Israel. The prophecies were clear:
- “The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (the prophet Isaiah)
- “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (angels to shepherds)
- “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…” (John the Baptist)
- “God so loved the world…” (Jesus Himself!)
The Old Covenant with the nation of Israel was bowing before a New Covenant with all of mankind.
Two Leaders Being Led
The two leaders at the heart of this story stand apart from each other in dynamic contrast:
- Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, an officer over 100 men who lived in the new seaport city of Ceasarea built by Herod about 40 years before and named for Augustus Caesar.
- Simon Peter, a former fisherman from Galilee, was the leader of the Apostles chosen by Jesus to take His message to the whole world. At the time of their meeting, Peter was staying in the city of Joppa, also an important coastal city.
Outwardly, these two were decidedly different from each other but inwardly, in ways that neither of them could see, their hearts beat to the same rhythm. Soon they would be singing together in perfect ensemble.
To be a Roman officer who worshiped Jehovah proves that Cornelius was a brave man who thought for Himself. He managed to serve Jehovah despite the inherent racism of the Jewish system. The Lord had demanded that His people remain isolated from the surrounding pagan cultures until His Messiah could come and reshape the covenant. This necessity produced the great fear and the great attraction of Jews for foreigners and their gods. This soldier had breached that ethnic line and had become a man of both political authority and prayer.
His daily prayers were interrupted by a shining, holy angel, obviously a soldier in a greater army. The angel told the officer about Peter staying in Joppa and instructed him to send for him. Cornelius knew how to give orders and he knew how to follow them; he sent a trusted officer who was also a worshiper of Jehovah and two faithful servants to find the Apostle in Joppa.
They arrived the next morning. While they were locating Peter, the Apostle was having his prayertime on the rooftop of Simon the Tanner’s house and he had grown hungry. Before he could get anything to eat, he saw a vision of a sheet lowered down from heaven containing all manner of beasts and birds. He recognized the voice of Jesus, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter, as he often did when he was following Jesus, took issue with the Lord, protesting his innocence of such a sin. The Lord answered his protest, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” The sheet lifted back into heaven only to return and repeat the scene two more times. Still hungry, Peter tried to understand the meaning of this vision as the delegation from Cornelius arrived. Explanations ensued and Peter invited the men to stay the night so the next day they could obey the commands of the Lord. A delegation from Joppa accompanied them to the home of Cornelius.
When they arrived, the Roman officer fell at the feet of Peter but was quickly instructed not to worship him, “Stand up; I myself am also a man.” Peter had learned there was no hierarchy in the Lord’s Kingdom. The Gospel had equalized an officer of the Roman Empire with a Galilean fisherman. Cornelius and a group of friends invited Peter to tell them the story of Jesus. As Peter was building to a climax in the Gospel story, the Holy Spirit fell on the whole assembly as they all prayed in the Spirit just as Peter and the other Jewish followers of Jesus had done on the Day of Pentecost. God was doing something new, something bigger and race had nothing to do with it.
They reported this to the officials in Jerusalem and this experience gelled with other reports of God accepting Gentiles in full partnership and brotherhood in His Kingdom. Here is the summation of Peter’s report:
Acts 12:15-18 NKJV
And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
Now that’s a big story and it is still our story today. There is no provision for racial prejudice
The other story is the story of Jesus’ skin, He was God in human flesh. Jesus laid aside the majesty of heaven to take up the squalor of earth.
- He walked this earth in humility of heart not in pride of position.
- Repeatedly, He taught and demonstrated servant leadership.
- The One who deserved all the honor, honored others above Himself, washing their feet and drying them with a towel.
Paul, that proud, professional pharisee who became a humble worker who made tents to support himself while he told his world about Jesus, relates the truth so well. What is this story? It is the wonder of the incarnation. Leaving the details to the Gospel writers, Paul explains the meaning of the story and invites us into it.
Philippians 2:5-11 NKJV
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Why would such a One do such a thing? The anonymous writer to the Hebrews tells us the motive for such an amazing condescension. The motivation of the Lord was and is the joy of fellowship with human beings. The Lord remembers walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day of the Garden of Eden. Through the incarnation, by taking on human skin and conquering sin in human flesh, He enables us to walk with Him again in the cool of this Day of Grace. Here’s the reason why:
Hebrews 12:1-2 NKJV
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
The incarnation is the story that made the account of Peter’s Sheet and Cornelius’ Spirit-baptism possible. The Son of God put on human skin and it does not matter the color of it. What matters is the nature of it. As John said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us!” Jesus’ skin belongs to us all; no one can claim exclusivity and certainly no one can seek advantage through its color.
The equality of all people as we stand before God is not an afterthought; this equality is at the heart of God’s heart for all of us, all of us! There are no exceptions. No details of pigmentation advantage anyone. No skin tones or facial features eliminate anyone. We all stand in a devasting equality before the One who made us. No secrets can be harbored; all details of our hearts and heads are clearly revealed. We all lie as naked as newborns before the God who loves and has made a way for us to be saved.
Irony of Ironies
The “new and living way” of salvation is seen in another naked new-born, struggling against swaddling cloths in a barn-cave in Bethlehem while angels sing, shepherds weep, kings kneel, and a young couple watches in wonder. Yes, the Word was made flesh, He clothed Himself in skin, human skin so that He could dwell among us, anonymous and holy, in the humility of human flesh, the color of which did not and does not matter.
- His heavenly throne stood vacant.
- His infantile mind knew only what a new-born knows.
- The Creator of all things lay awash in the colors and sounds and temperatures of earth, all unfamiliar to Him.
In the fullness of time, the Second Person of the Godhead stepped down from Zion to earth, laying aside omniscience and omnipresence to enter into ignorance and time.
- Soon He would walk, every baby-step a step toward Calvary.
- In time He would learn to speak, every word collected for future use to hold crowds spellbound with liberating truth and confound those who used words for evil purposes.
- Soon He would learn to walk, His steps would lead Him away from peaceful Nazareth to trod a path of peace amid a world at war with itself.
- Temptations like no other man has ever known could not stay His progress and thereafter demons trembled at the thought of Him and fled at his command.
- No sinful thoughts took root in his mind, so no evil words ever proceeded from His mouth.
- No charge against Him in the courts of men could be proved; His innocence was a profound holiness no one could challenge.
- Still, He yielded Himself to His captors and suffered beneath the Roman lash.
- He endured the “justice” of Rome and the unbelief of Jerusalem and took up His cross.
- When enough was enough, He yielded up the human spirit He had borrowed and the flesh He had inhabited collapsed lifeless, fit only for a tomb.
Still, His story was not finished. The Babe of Bethlehem, this Carpenter of Nazareth, this Man of this earth, on the third day of His sojourn in the tomb, was stirred by the Holy Spirit of God.
- Glorified flesh, the color of which did not and does not matter, filled the now unneeded burial shroud which became a shining robe of righteousness.
- The stone rolled away, and angels danced on the tomb, singing even louder than they did to the shepherds.
- When the women came, first the announcement was, “He is not here!”
- Then the reality, “He is risen!” The women wept as angels sang again.
Still, His story is not finished; each of us adds our own chapter and soon He will come again with all His saints to make things right at last.
A Curtain Torn
At some unknown point in time, His followers learned that at that awful moment when Jesus spoke His last words with a human voice, the heavy veil in the Temple had ripped from top to bottom. The way to God was now opened for all.
- No most-favored nation status belongs to anyone.
- No race can claim exclusive rights.
- No hierarchy can exercise authority.
- No one but the angels of heaven, guided by the Spirit of God, guards this Gate.
- We are all priests unto the Lord.
- We are all a holy nation.
- There is no slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male or female, rich or poor, all dwell in unity for Jesus has torn down the walls of hostility between the cultures of men.
- As a foretaste of heaven, the Church of the Redeemed of every tribe and tongue and nation shines as one holy race celebrating a sparkling diversity with a beautiful unity, the face of Jesus, at the center.
Who can go back to the hierarchy of one race over another? Who would dare undo the victory of the cross?
Remember your history.
The Gospel of Christ has proven to be good news for those of any skin color in all the nations of earth. This defines the difference between colonialism and the true missionary spirit. True missionaries seek to follow the command of Jesus to go into all the world to spread His Gospel. They are not political and seek no personal advantage from the people they lead. Their calling is to see a people not their own find this equalizing relationship with God and they do! Jesus is so real and present, it is natural for His followers to see Him in their own skin tones. This is not fallacy; it is proof that this New Covenant is with all peoples everywhere. Each icon is a window opening from the natural world to the world of the Spirit. Look through your chosen window and see the face of your Savior.
These two stories make it clear: “What God has cleansed we must not call unclean.” In light of the Gospel, any hierarchy based on pigmentation seems downright foolish. Retool your machinery. Redesign your action plan. Rethink your flow chart. Things are different now. Shake off the old ways of advantage and disadvantage, of “haves and have-nots.” Open your eyes to see the human potential all around you. Shake your mind and massage your heart. Color of skin is not a factor in His mind, it would be foolish to retain it in ours.
© 2020 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved