The word of the day is “vision.” The turning points of our lives have various causes. They may be life events such as births, graduations, weddings, divorces, or deaths. They may be alternations in one’s situation, such as changes of work or moves to new locations. They may be new interests or new senses of direction.
In today’s reading of Acts 10:1-16, we learn of another turning point in the growth of the church. As often happens in scripture, visions set the change of course in motion. Cornelius, the Gentile and Roman Centurion, “saw clearly in a vision an angel of God” (NKJV vs. 3). Peter, the apostle, “fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth” (NKJV vs. 10-11). Today we learn that God’s will of a change in the course of our lives often requires faith and obedience. We may have that sense that something new is on the horizon. But the Holy Spirit who directs our lives does not reveal the intention or destination of that change.
Not Knowing What the Holy Spirit Has in Mind
If we were reading this story for the first time, we would not know what the Lord had in mind for either Cornelius or Peter. Cornelius only knows that God is responding to his prayers and almsgiving at this point in the narrative. Therefore, the centurion is to send for a man named Simon, who is called Peter. The only information that the angel gives is that Peter is staying with a tanner by the seaside in the port city of Joppa.
Likewise, at the moment, Peter’s vision only instructs him not to call unclean what God “cleansed,” that is, what is essentially or ceremonially “unclean” (Strong’s #2511, 124). Yet Peter does not know what to do with this instruction. Luke, the historian, says that he wondered inwardly what this vision meant (OSB vs. 17).
Later manuscripts add insertions attempting to fill in the gaps of this lack of knowledge of God’s intention. In verse 6, they add that Peter “will tell you what to do” (OSB vs. 6). In verse 21, they report that Peter acknowledged that the men that found him had been sent from Cornelius” (OSB vs. 21). And at 11:13, Peter says that an angel told Cornelius that the apostle would explain how the centurion and his household “will be saved” (OSB 11:13).
However, we should trust the early manuscripts and suppose that these statements are interjections of the copyists of the early manuscripts. They are unnecessary to the narrative and rob the story of its drama. Moreover, they omit the need of both characters for faith and obedience.
Preparations for a Change in Direction
No, when we read these opening visions, we only know that God is preparing the actors in the story for some change of direction. We would say that something of divine importance was “in the offing.”
This is an apt phrase for the way that the Holy Spirit often directs the course of our lives according to his will. The term “in the offing” refers to what is seen on the horizon when you are on a ship. The “offing” is the panorama of what is in sight but is so distant that one cannot make out the details.
It is in this sense that Cornelius and Peter do not know what God has in store for them at this critical moment. Something is “in the offing” that requires faith and obedience: faith that God is in charge and has what is good and beneficial to them in mind; and obedience to God’s instructions as His will unfolds.
From these observations, we get an insight into the way the Holy Spirit often directs our lives. The Spirit rarely sends an e-mail full of instructions about what we should do. It is rare to receive a vision of His plan. Rather, the initial sign of an upcoming change in the course of our lives comes with circumstances, discontent about one’s situation, a chance word of a friend or family member or just an inner conviction that the Lord wants something else from us. We rarely know what the will of the Lord is at once. But the sense of a new direction starts with an unsettled feeling in our hearts that something is in the “offing.” As time goes on, what is on the distant horizon becomes clearer to us. We begin to grasp the will of God as we pray, ponder, test different possibilities, and remain open to surprises.
Waiting for God to Reveal His Will: Faith and Obedience
At these unsettled times, faith and obedience are especially important. The eternal God is not often in a hurry. He typically works slowly but steadily to show us His gracious will so that we might fulfill it. But once we discern that something new has appeared on the horizon, we should prepare ourselves for Him to disclose His good purpose for the next phase of our lives.
Yet, in all the circumstances and stages of our lives, we should remain steadfast in our hope in Christ. Ultimately, we know what is “in the offing” for all believers. We do not know the details of our life beyond death. But on the horizon is the return of the Lord Jesus Christ in glory and our final resurrection to life eternal.