Recently we spent one of our Sundays at the Table discussing how to hear God when he speaks. We were in Acts 11, where Peter recounts the story of his visit to Cornelius to the church leaders in Jerusalem. There were a few parts to the story that stood out to us.
Here are the key passages:
‘I was in the town of Joppa’, he said, ‘and I was praying. I was in a trance, and I saw a vision: something like a great sail suspended by its four corners was let down from heaven, and came towards me. I stared at it, then I began to look in, and I saw four-footed land animals, wild beasts, reptiles and birds of the air. I heard a voice, saying to me, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” “Certainly not, Lord,” I replied. “Nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth!” Then the voice came from heaven a second time: “What God made clean, you must not regard as common.” All this happened three times, and then the whole lot was drawn back up into heaven.Acts 11:5-10 – Peter
He told us that he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and fetch Simon called Peter, who will speak to you words by which you and all your house will be saved.”Acts 11:13-14 – Cornelius
Who Can Hear God?
There are (not counting God, of course) two main characters in this story. First, you have Peter, a leader in the church and one of the 12 who spent three years living with Jesus. Secondly, Cornelius, a Roman Centurion who, as far as we know, did not know Jesus and required Peter to come to his home to explain the Christian faith to him.
And in this account, both experienced God speaking.
Cornelius had an angel appear and give him instructions. Peter had a strange kind of dream/vision where he saw a sheet with a lot of animals on it lowered from heaven. That was followed by a voice instructing Peter to “Arise, kill and eat”. Peter interacts with the voice, and further instructions follow.
One thing that jumped out to us was how God communicated to these two people. Cornelius was a seemly good person who was generous and a seeker of God. Peter, although we know a lot more of the ups and downs of his life, likewise seemed to be a genuinely good person, a seeker of God and a follower and personal friend of Jesus.
I believe most of us have a bias that states that those more mature in the faith hear God more clearly…or those who have been practising this longer will be better at hearing. Part of what this bias reveals about us is that we generally believe we earn stuff from God. Once I do this, or once I have dealt with this, then I’ll be able to hear God…or experience his presence more regularly. But just like salvation, we don’t earn this. It is all grace.
If you look at these two stories, it is the person who knew next to nothing about Jesus who hears something clear and specific. Peter’s encounter was more of a puzzle that needed to be pondered before it could be understood.
Peter received a vision that he could clearly see, hear and recount. What he could not do was immediately understand what it meant. That took time. That required other events to unfold before he could grasp what it meant.
Cornelius, on the other hand, received a specific word. Send people to Joppa. Bring back, Peter. He will tell you and your house how to be saved.
Perhaps he could have wondered what it meant for his house to be saved, but the instruction of what he was to do is relatively unambiguous.
So, here are some lessons we took from that story:
- God speaks to different people in different ways at different times.
- Just because you have followed Jesus for years doesn’t give you special favour or access. God blesses and speaks how he wants.
- And just because he speaks doesn’t mean you will immediately understand and comprehend. You may hear something that you need to sit with for extended periods before it begins to make sense.
- Both men took time to be quiet and to be with God when they heard. Obviously, God can and has (think Paul on the road to Damascus) interrupted people while they are off doing their own thing. A regular time to stop, be still and be with him doesn’t require him to show up but does make it more likely you will hear.
How about you? Does anything about this passage stand out to you?
[If you are interested, I shared a video about learning to hear God’s voice. It’s a bit long, but you can feel free to speed it up.]