Be Ready to Discern God’s Plan

Bible Study with Jairus – Acts 10

Are visions important?

In Acts 10, the Lord gave Peter a fascinating vision. God showed Peter all kinds of unclean animals and asked him to kill and eat them. He refused, saying that he had never eaten anything unclean. Nevertheless, God gave him permission to eat, saying he should not call anything unclean which God has made clean. God’s words were not merely referring to unclean animals; God was guiding Peter to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, whom the Jews deemed impure.

I was saved in a church that emphasizes the life and teachings of Christ much more than it emphasizes visions or similar topics. However, as the Lord has led me into learning more about the Charismatics, I have come to understand that Charismatics place great emphasis on visions.

How should we resolve this discrepancy?

There are dangers on both extremes of the spectrum. We should avoid being overly cautious with visions and emphasizing the Bible alone, and we should also avoid an over-acceptance of visions that dismisses and neglects the written word of God.

First of all, let’s look at Peter’s experience. We must acknowledge the fact that it was not easy for Peter to evangelize to the Gentiles. His mind was filled with preconceptions and prejudices. However, we must revisit this question: why didn’t God grant this vision to John, James, or others? We do not know the answer to this question, but we can speculate that Peter was probably more flexible. Compared to those who more strictly adhered to Jewish traditions (such as James), perhaps it would have been easier for Peter to make a concept shift.

We know that Peter had a high spiritual intellect. He understood and acknowledged Jesus as the Son of the living God. He also committed frequent mistakes, saying that God would not let the Lord be crucified. Peter was criticized by the Lord frequently, but he also rectified his wrongdoings. Possibly Peter’s personality was more receptive to changes and corrections.

Despite this flexibility, however, it was still difficult to instill in Peter the idea that God had cleansed the Gentiles and was determined to preach the gospel to them. Because Peter found it hard to believe that this vision was really from God, the Lord had to send the vision to Peter three times in a row.

Traditional churches put aside visions, mainly for fear that if the visions are not from God but from the enemy, they would cause mistakes or harm to the church. This is a valid concern. Throughout church history there have been many who have seen so-called visions that turned out to cause a lot of damage to the church or even endanger the lives of innocent believers. These concerns are real.

However, if Peter had then dismissed the vision, saying, “I’m not going, let me take a year’s time to scrutinize whether this vision is coming from God or Satan,” then God’s plan to evangelize to the Gentiles would have been compromised.

Imagine Peter as a present-day believer. As a new believer, he was taught and instructed in the Christian faith. He believes the truths he’s learned are in perfect alignment to biblical truth. Nevertheless, one day somebody challenges him and tells him that the truth is outdated, and that God has updated this truth. What was not permitted before is now permissible; what was considered wrong before is now correct. Facing this major change, do you think a church member nowadays would be easily persuaded to change his mindset? Based on my personal experience and observations, this would be very difficult.

I recall hearing a preacher explaining why God needs to speak to us through dreams and visions, and I think his explanation makes sense. He said, “God also speaks to us during the daytime through our mind or other channels. However, if there is a concept which does not align with our pre-existing conceptions, our minds would become a barrier to God’s conversation with us, thus hindering God’s words from penetrating our souls. Therefore, when God speaks to us through dreams and visions, He is using a pictorial language to bypass or get around our minds.” At night, when our souls are relatively restful with a lower activity level, speaking directly to our spirits would achieve God’s aim to communicate with us.

For instance, the Lord might use a dream to remind us that a certain action might cause us danger, especially if the action is directly related to our personal interest. In our souls we might have various excuses telling us that it is okay to move forward with a dangerous activity, and that it would be beneficial to us or even to God. God might have warned us several times, but we have not received the message. However, if in a dream at night we do the action and encounter sudden danger, such as a dog jumping out to bite and startle us, we might start wondering if we are really justified in doing the action. We might give the dream some consideration, reflecting on whether the Lord is warning us about the decision we are about to make, which might bring us danger or a predicament.  

Job 33:14-18 gives us the following insight:

“For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, while they slumber on their beds, then he opens the ears of men and terrifies them with warnings, that he may turn man aside from his deed and conceal pride from a man; he keeps back his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword.” (ESV)

This passage is frequently quoted by teachers in Charismatic churches to illustrate the importance of God speaking through dreams. That is, God does speak to people in many different ways, and yet oftentimes people ignore his communication or do not understand what He means. Hence, God speaks in dreams and visions at night. He speaks in their ears and imprints the messages directly onto their hearts. In this way the spirit’s hindrance is bypassed and the objective of communication is achieved.

This passage says that dreams take place at night, while visions occur mostly during daytime. Some people say that, compared to visions, dreams contain more pictorial language that is more difficult to comprehend than visions. I think this belief makes sense. If you compare this vision seen by Peter and the dream Daniel had, you will easily reach this conclusion. Nevertheless, in principle, their methods and aims are the same: to give you a pictorial depiction of ideas that are not easily expressed by words.

Why does God send a message that is beyond words? Hasn’t God asked Peter to preach the gospel to the Gentiles through other means, such as through the leading of the Holy Spirit? Yes, God has probably communicated this multiple times. Peter may have felt inspired by what he learned, but he wasn’t motivated to carry it out because the idea was too radical for his Jewish ideology. In order to break through this ideology, God had to speak to Peter through visions, even multiple repetitions of the same vision. Finally, Peter is forced to pray to God and ask him about this message. God once again revealed that He had already purified the Gentiles and that it was the right time to preach the gospel to them.

God uses our weaknesses for his glory.

I once heard a Charismatic preacher give the following insight: “Paul was committed to preaching the gospel to the Jews until death. He was even willing to die eternally for his Israelite brothers and sisters. In Romans 9-11, he swore that it if his own eternal damnation could bring his people to salvation, he would not hesitate to accept eternal death. Nevertheless, once he had been saved, God did not allow him to preach the gospel to the Jews; instead, God sent him to a faraway place as an apostle to the Gentiles.

“Paul would have been a powerful preacher to Jews. He had studied under Gamaliel and was a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin. As a highly qualified Jew, he would have been a powerful tool to bring Jews to Christ. His testimony was a convincing and effective message for the Israelites. He could have been an excellent apostle to the Jews. However, God did not make him an apostle to the Jews.

“On the other hand, Peter was a fisherman. We don’t know for sure whether the Gentiles despised him, but the Jewish rabbis, teachers of the law, and Pharisees must have looked down on him. He was raised in the Galilee region where Jews mingled with Gentiles. How fitting it would have been to make him the apostle to the Gentiles! Nevertheless, God chose him as the apostle to the Jews and had him preach the gospel to Israelites!”

This preacher believed that in our work for him, God sometimes uses our innate weaknesses instead of our innate strengths. In this way, we are forced to rely on God’s power instead of our natural gifts. Paul is an example of this concept: When Paul went out to preach the gospel, people’s first reaction was to recoil. They knew that he had been a persecutor of Christians, so they rejected him. When God sent Ananias to speak to Paul, Ananias raised this objection. However, through God’s wisdom and sovereignty, Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles, while Peter became the apostle to the Jews.

This concept gives important insight into Peter’s apostleship to the Jews. If people like James had seen the same vision, it might have been more difficult for him to understand what God was trying to convey. This is because James and the others were deeply immersed in the sense of Jewish privilege. A breakthrough to reach the Gentiles might have been more difficult if God had used James or other disciples. Peter seemed to be the most malleable one and the weakest link among these apostles. He lacked the higher education in Jewish religion, and at the same time he had a more flexible character. Because of his flexibility, Peter sprang into action as soon as God spoke to him in a vision. In other words, in order to pass on to the Gentiles the salvation He had prepared through the Israelites, God seemingly chose the most vulnerable and open individual, Peter. He placed the most open individual when placing the “water line” of salvation to the Gentiles, so that His grace of salvation could flow out most easily.

God’s perfect plan

To substantiate these ideas I’ve been sharing, compare Peter’s story with the story of God’s choice of Cornelius. God truly has sophisticated plans.

After I was saved, I used my salvation testimony to evangelize my parents. Nevertheless, my mother constantly argued that someone in the village who had be baptized as Christian was constantly stealing from others. She asked, “Are you Christians more moral than others?” She refused to accept Jesus Christ because she saw the hypocrisy of some Christians.  Christians commonly encounter this objection to their beliefs. Living out our Christian values really does matter.

In other words, if God were to choose a flawed and imperfect Gentile to be the first to accept his gift of the living water of salvation, his plans would have been severely hindered. I’m not saying that God couldn’t have accomplished his plan through a flawed vessel (with God all things are possible). I am just saying that this would have caused significant challenges to God’s plan.

Now let’s look at how the Bible describes Cornelius:

“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. Cornelius your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.” (ESV)

This passage shows us that Cornelius was probably affiliated with Judaism. In modern church vocabulary, he was a “friend of the gospel” or “seeker of the truth.” He was a Gentile, but he prayed continuously to God. His whole family feared God, he was generous with the common people, and he was respected by all, even among the Israelites. The Israelites did not have complaints or even false testimonies against him. The angel also praised him. He was such a blameless person that he seemed perfect.

Can you see how amazing God’s plan and provision was? If Cornelius had had any moral issues, or if his family had had any flaws, the Jews who were against evangelizing the Gentiles would have caused quite a stir. God’s plan to bring the gospel to the Gentiles was perfectly orchestrated. With redneck Peter as the spigot and the perfect Cornelius as the water hose, God’s plan was executed in perfection.

Discerning attentiveness to God’s plan

When we serve the Lord, we should not block, neglect, or completely deny God’s revelations through dreams and visions just because of previous incidences of fake visions, fake dreams, and fake prophecies that were used to harm the church. We must be discerning and cautious, but not overly cautious. Being overly cautious is a lack of faith, and lacking faith in God is a sin. This is a concept which we must grasp properly.

Let me say this again: Imagine that God had devised this perfect plan of how the gospel would be transmitted to the Gentiles. Each part was in place. Imagine that Cornelius was standing by for a seamless transition, but Peter dropped the ball at the critical moment, saying, “What I saw was only a vision which might have come from God, or from Satan, or I just had too many cheese pizzas (this is a popular joke among Charismatics about dreams). Let me spend some time to check it out and see.” In that case, wouldn’t Peter be saying that God’s plan was unreliable? God is not an unreliable God; He does everything according to plan.

When Peter had seen the vision and heard God’s words, he took a bold step of faith. We need to acknowledge that this was not easy for Peter. Today if we face the same scenario and a difficult choice, we must take the risk in faith. If you slip, people will be eager to call you a “false prophet” or even attack you with stones.

In the end, we must stress the other side of the coin. If we are overly cautious, we lack faith. It is not right to be doubtful. However, it is also not right to be too trusting and believe everything without scrutiny. I’ve been learning about Charismatic beliefs for about three years, and I’ve seen many fake dreams, fake visions, and fake miracles. I’ve become acquainted with many Christian brothers and sisters attending Charismatic churches. Most of them are true Christians who have been saved. However, many of them tend to focus on the exercise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and not on the discipline of reading the Bible. These two need to be balanced.