Peter and the Gentiles

Stephen Terry


Commentary for the August 29, 2015 Sabbath School Lesson


“For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:14, KJV

When we consider how many, many individuals have pastored churches, served as overseers or bishops of various conferences and dioceses, it is a marvel that so few of those from that caste have faced the challenge of personally taking the message of the gospel to areas still dark and without the light of Jesus. Comfortable in the security of sanctified peerages, they convince themselves that they are doing a great work in the parlors and potlucks of domesticated Christianity. With families to feed and bills to pay, can they be blamed for seeking security of position over penetrating the darkness, perhaps at risk of life, limb and property? While it is true that providing security for these individuals and their families perhaps makes the vocation of church pastor more appealing to some and provides for far more pastors than might otherwise be possible, we might ask, “Of what ilk?” Does said pastor, so well provided for, encourage the spirit of sacrifice and endeavor among their congregants? Or is there instead a comfortable indolence where nothing is wanting,[i] but little is achieved as far as new souls accreted to the kingdom.

Perhaps it is because of this indifferent, spiritual indolence that God seems to choose to frequently go outside of this class of clerics to find those willing to travel across the boundaries created by culture and class to bring the light of the gospel to the lost. For instance, in spite of the many clergymen in England in the first half of the 19th century, it was a foundry man and mechanic, John Williams,[ii] who answered the call to take the gospel to the South Pacific. Not being a cleric, he was not ordained, but only commissioned by the London Missionary Society to begin work in The Society Islands. Working there for seventeen years, he and his family returned to England in 1834, where he published the New Testament he had translated into the Roratongan language.

Returning once again to the mission field, he was eventually slain by cannibals and eaten along with his partner, Mr. James Harris, while trying to establish a mission outreach in the New Hebrides. While his life and work may earn him many stars in his crown one day, there are those who pay effective tribute to such service by doing as he did. Sadly, when a missionary or even a humble, indigenous Christian is brutally murdered as John Williams was, we all too often hear the voices of those who want to call down drones, bombs and missiles on the perpetrators. Sitting securely behind the wall of geography that protects us, we comfortably play church at home, while carelessly sweeping tens of thousands of souls into oblivion instead of the arms of Jesus. When we present what we call church today to Jesus, is it any wonder that He will spew that bad taste from His mouth?[iii]

Fortunately, in spite of our lackluster history as a people, God continues to call those who are untrained and unhonored by the church, but willing. He did so when he called a young woman, Ellen Gould Harmon to be His instrument. And another untrained preacher influenced her. William Miller was not trained as clergy, but after joining the Baptist denomination, he began to preach in 1831 about the imminent return of Jesus as he believed the Lord had called him to do, despite his lack of training or orders.[iv] Teenage Ellen heard his preaching in 1840, and the Holy Spirit began to speak to her heart.[v] While the Harmon family was cast adrift spiritually in 1843 when her father, Robert was disfellowshipped from the Methodist Episcopal Church for believing William Miller’s preaching, Ellen continued to seek a deeper connection to Jesus. Because of this desire, and two dreams she had and a counseling session with a young preacher, Levi Stockman, she developed a profoundly unique picture of the character of God, differing from the angry punisher of sinners frequently presented in the pulpits of the day. The sermon by Jonathan Edwards a century before, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” continued to hold sway with many. Perhaps the sentiment is best expressed in Edward’s statement that we are all like spiders suspended on a fragile thread over the great furnace of God’s wrath. Such terrifying imagery was intended to create a fear of God’s wrath to motivate repentance. It drove men and women apprehensively to God.

Ellen White was heavily burdened spiritually by such thoughts before her dreams and eventual meeting with Stockman. She felt relieved to discover through these events that “God is love.”[vi] Perhaps as a result of the personal spiritual relief it provided her, she spent the rest of her life dedicated to properly portraying the character of this loving God. Although she wrote extensively, perhaps the magnum opus of all of those writings was her “Conflict of the Ages” series consisting of five volumes: “Patriarchs and Prophets,” “Prophets and Kings,” “The Desire of Ages,” “The Acts of the Apostles,” and “The Great Controversy.” These books not only seek to portray God’s loving character without sacrificing his omnipotent majesty, but also offer some answers to theodicy and deism, as well as providing a theological basis for why God’s character was misrepresented in the first place. Her writings are centered in the theme that from the beginning of Earth’s history, there has been an ongoing warfare between God and a fallen angel, Lucifer. In that conflict is found explanations for much of what has gone wrong in this world. Although, as her writings explain, the ultimate outcome of that conflict is never in doubt, the war nonetheless rages on. In all fairness, she does not write to resolve every possibility of doubt about God’s character. Nonetheless, millions have found answers and comfort in her writings.

Ellen may be compared to the writer of the biblical book of Job, which dealt with some similar themes. In that book, the writer never reveals that Job ever had any idea why his suffering came about, and to some degree the reader perhaps is left questioning the fairness of God, but in the end the underlying expression of faith is that we must trust God, as Job did, even without understanding every theological nuance. As Job stated, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.”[vii] Maybe it is this attitude that allows us to stop clinging to possessions and position in order to answer God’s call. What a paradox that often those most ready to do so are not clergy, but common workmen who may have far less to lose materially than those with positions of honor and privilege.

When we consider Peter, the Apostle, we see someone who seems to fit that profile. Although he worshipped in the temple, he was not a priest or a scribe. He was a simple fisherman. When Jesus said “Follow me,”[viii] it wasn’t the clergy who answered that call, but humble fisher folk, shunned tax collectors and other outliers to the temple and society. Perhaps it was this that caused Paul’s initial opposition to Christianity. None of those with power and status were among Jesus’ disciples. These, like Judas, might at times be drawn by what they expected to gain from association with Jesus. But those who were so motivated, also like Judas, departed when they no longer felt Jesus could offer them anything.[ix] However, the disciples who were drawn to Jesus through the Holy Spirit’s influence on their hearts continued to walk with Him. Peter was among those.

Although Peter denied Jesus during Christ’s captivity and trial, the Holy Spirit continued to draw him and repentant and humbled, he found forgiveness and grace. This allowed him to stand before the crowds on Pentecost and offer forgiveness and grace to those who heard him. He had been there. He knew what those terms meant. Peter then, like other outliers, both before and after, found himself taking the message of repentance and forgiving grace to those who stood on the other side of the wall from Judaism, the Gentiles. Preaching Jesus to the Centurion Cornelius and his household, he saw the power of God revealed with these “unclean” Gentiles in the same way it had been revealed among the Jewish believers at Pentecost. Subsequently, he reported back to the rest of the disciples in Jerusalem, and they marveled that God was so evidently working across cultures.

Once this bridgehead had broken down the prejudices against the idea of Gentile believers, God could work another great miracle by calling Paul as His special emissary to the Gentiles. Perhaps an important lesson in that miraculous act is that God can call even clergy if they stop fighting the Holy Spirit and humbly do two things. First, admit that they do not have all the answers. God is inscrutable and mysterious in His workings and may work in ways that are totally outside our previous understanding.

Second, they need to stop what they are doing if it hinders the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of others. Paul felt that the only correct understanding of God and the temple was that offered by those ordained to serve there. This caused him to oppose the ministry of those who were outside that caste. Perhaps because he could not see the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the disciples, he was allowed to suffer three days of actual physical blindness. As he discovered how blind he really was, he became humble, teachable, and willing to go where God needed him. Separately, but committed to cross-cultural mission work, Peter and Paul eventually took the gospel to the heart of the Roman Empire. There, like John Williams, they gave their lives for the Savior they loved so much.


[i] Revelation 3:14-17

[ii] "John Williams (Missionary),

[iii] Revelation 3:16

[iv] William Miller (Preacher),

[v] “Messenger of the Lord, The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White,” Herbert E. Douglass, Pacific Press, 1998, “The Person and Her Times,” pages 44-51.

[vi] 1 John 4:8

[vii] Job 13:15a

[viii] Matthew 14:19

[ix] John 6:66-67




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