It is all too common to hear Protestant-minded Christians contrast the New Testament with the Old on the grounds that now God lives with us—directly—while in the old days people had to go to God through priests and other intermediaries. It is not difficult to find biblical support for such a notion, as Hebrews especially contrasts the old covenant with the new on the grounds that “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant” speaks and acts directly on our behalf (Heb 12:24; cf. 12:14-29; 9:11-10:25). But for all the influence such passages have had, they risk obscuring the fact that across scripture, not only in the Old Testament but also in the New, God most often chooses to speak and act through others.
Acts 10 is a case-study in indirection. This story of how a Roman Centurion named Cornelius came to accept the gospel serves as a paradigm for the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God. The curious thing about the story, however, is how indirect God is about bringing Cornelius to faith. When we first meet him, he and all his family are already “devout and God-fearing,” characterized by generosity and prayer (10:2; all quotations from the NIV). But however good and pious Cornelius is, God is apparently not satisfied to leave him there. Cornelius has a vision, in which an angel appears and praises his piety: “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God” (10:4). God is pleased with Cornelius’ faithfulness, but God responds by sending a messenger, an angel, to speak for him.
And even the angel does not actually reveal anything to Cornelius directly—instead he tells Cornelius to “send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter” (10:5). Meanwhile, Peter himself is also praying when he too has a vision, in which “a voice” directs him to kill and eat an unclean animal, something forbidden to him as a Jew (10:9-16). Is this the voice of God himself, or another angel? We are not told, but after awaking from the dream, Peter then hears from “the Spirit,” who instructs him to go with the men who have come from Cornelius (10:19-20).
Obeying, Peter follows these men to Cornelius’ house and tells him about his vision, while Cornelius retells his own. Peter then replies with a long speech that is all about how God acts through others:
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preaches—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (10:34-43)
Read that again and note all the different intermediaries God uses to speak to Cornelius. Though Jesus himself—his life and death and resurrection—stand at the center of everything here, God is claimed to speak and act through numerous others:
- The people of Israel, to whom God sent the message of “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (10:36),
- John the Baptist, who preached baptism before the coming of Christ (10:37),
- “All the prophets,” who testified on Christ’s behalf (10:43), and finally
- Peter himself and the other apostles, who saw the risen Christ and were commanded to preach (10:39-42).
In fact, Peter makes a point of stressing the limited nature of this final group of eye-witnesses: “He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen” (10:41). In other words, while God in Christ could have revealed himself to all people directly, he chose not to do so. In Cornelius’ case, it is only when Peter came and spoke that he and his family—people already praised as God-fearing before they ever met Peter—are filled with the Spirit: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (10:44). Only through Peter’s mediation does God finally make himself fully present to Cornelius, through the Holy Spirit.
For many, this is an uncomfortable idea. Isn’t the whole point of the incarnation that God is with us, directly and unmediated? Why should God go to all the trouble to take on human flesh, die and rise again on our behalf, only to fall right back to the same old indirect means of speaking and acting—through prophets, angels and human witnesses? Yet according to the author of Acts, that is exactly what God did. God did not speak to Cornelius directly; he first sent the people of Israel, who brought the words of the prophets. Then, even when Cornelius responded with faith and prayer and generosity, God still did not speak directly, but sent an angel. And even that angel did not reveal God’s word directly, except to send him to Peter. It wasn’t even that God sent Peter to Cornelius—though God did that as well—God made Cornelius take the first step by sending messengers to Peter, then made Peter follow the messengers back to Cornelius. Wouldn’t it have been easier if God had just appeared to Cornelius in person?
Why all this indirection?
After all, the author of Acts had just finished telling us about the conversion of Paul, who unlike Cornelius was met by the risen Christ directly, on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Yet even there—even with the Apostle Paul—God insisted on using others, as Jesus appeared to Paul only in order to send him to Ananias, a man otherwise unknown to us (9:4-6). Jesus then also appears to Ananias, and directs him to go to Paul (still named Saul at that point), and it is only when Ananias obeys and goes and speaks to Saul that he too is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and baptized (9:17-18). The pattern is clear: Whether for an obscure Roman soldier or the Apostle Paul himself, God makes a point of using others to carry his message, and even requires those who would come to him—those who would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” and know God more intimately and directly—to first go to one of those who already knows God.
According to Acts, it doesn’t matter whether we are violent persecutors or generous God-fearers, God calls us through others, and sends us to others ourselves. These are the patterns Acts establishes at the founding of the church, and they are the paradigms that all of us have followed since: Every one of us who has come to Christ has done so thanks to the words and deeds of others. Every one of us who has been reached through others is called to reach out to others ourselves. There is no other way to God. Christ is the mediator, and we are the body of Christ.
So before we lament the indirection of God’s use of intermediaries—before we contrast those “old” ways with the “new” thing God has done in Christ—it is worth pausing to see what we gain from God’s choice to act indirectly. Instead of a bunch of isolated individuals, each provided a direct uplink to heaven, God has ensured that our faith is and must be defined by relationships, by mutual dependency, by community. If God had simply appeared to Cornelius directly and left it at that, Cornelius would never have had reason to reach out to Peter, and Peter would never have had reason to visit him. Cornelius, the Gentile, would have remained in the confines of his own family and context. Peter, the Jew, would have remained confined by the narrow view he sums up in 10:28-29,
“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I went without raising any objection.”
It is only because God chose to act indirectly that the wall dividing Peter the Jew from Cornelius the Gentile was brought down, and a new possibility for community was opened up.
But even here we must be careful not to let what is new blind us to what was old, nor let us too strongly contrast “the law” with “the gospel.” This indirection, this insistence of God to act through others, was no new thing, and did not only become good with the coming of Christ. Peter’s words in 10:28-29 are too strong, and if taken in isolation they threaten to obscure Cornelius’ own history with God, which did not begin when Peter walked through his door.
Long before Cornelius ever met Peter, he had already met any number of those Jews Peter claims were forbidden to associate with Gentiles, and they apparently not only respected him, but associated with him enough to lead him to become a God-fearer in the first place (10:22). Not just the apostles, but all “the people of Israel” were sent by God the message of “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (10:36), joining in the larger pattern of intermediation stretching back to the prophets and continuing to the present, as Peter describes it. It was first and foremost through those others that God became known to Cornelius and his family, and after Peter left, it was these who remained as the context for his new life in Christ. The coming of Peter may have been the turning point in Cornelius’ relation to God, but it was neither the beginning nor the end of it. Both before and after this God was speaking and acting through others, indirectly but transformationally.
So it remains. Through Christ and the Holy Spirit, God makes himself directly available to people “from every nation” (10:34). But God has always done so through others—through us. The good news of the gospel is that God so much values human community that he even became human himself. The challenge of the gospel is that God so much values human community that he even sent us to carry his word for him. For through this indirect means, God calls us not just closer to him, but closer to our fellow human beings, no matter how different from us they may seem.