The New Testament tells the story of a man named Cornelius. He was neither Christian nor Jewish, but was a Gentile. Despite this, everyone was very fond of him. He was honest and caring, giving a great deal in both time and goods to the poor.
Much to his surprise, an angel appeared to him one day. The angel said that God was pleased with Cornelius’ goodness and that He wanted Cornelius to hear a message from a man named Peter. Peter had been Jesus’ apostle and now headed the church. Cornelius promptly responded to this request by sending three men to speak to Peter.
While this was happening, God began to prepare Peter. Peter was a prophet and received revelation in a somewhat unusual way. He was staying in a crowded and busy home and so he had gone onto a rooftop in order to be alone and to pray. While he prayed, he received a vision in which he was given a tray of food. This vision occurred just before dinner and Peter was hungry. However, the tray contained a variety of meats, some from animals considered unclean, which Jews were forbidden to eat. The early Christians still obeyed the Jewish laws, including the Law of Moses. Peter rejected the food, saying he had never eaten unclean or common food because it was against God’s law. No doubt he initially thought he was being tested.
God’s response was prompt: “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” Peter was confused. What did God mean him to do as a result of this vision? What was the teaching he was supposed to understand? What was he supposed to change?
His pondering was interrupted by the arrival of the three men sent by Cornelius. They asked Peter to come with them to speak with Cornelius, which Peter did. He found the home filled with people because an excited Cornelius had invited his friends and family to join him.
Perhaps because Cornelius had been instructed to hold this meeting by an angel, he mistakenly bowed down before Peter, who quickly told him he must only worship God. Cornelius did not know the gospel of Jesus Christ because it had only been taken to the Jews at that point. But now, he told Peter of the angel’s visit and asked what message he was supposed to hear.
Peter understood that God wanted Cornelius to be taught the gospel, even though he was a Gentile. “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” Later, Peter said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.”
Jesus was no longer on the earth, but everything that needed to be done in order to run the church had not been done while Jesus was alive. This is because, although eternal truths don’t change, God continues to give us increased light and to alter practices to meet the needs of the specific times. Throughout the Bible, we see God adds to our knowledge and makes changes to the ways the church is run. For instance, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, not Adam. Later in the New Testament, the apostles debated the subject of circumcision. However, final gospel decisions are not made by debating in councils. They are made by finding out the will of the Lord for the entire church, and this is what happened here. Peter allowed everyone to voice opinions and even to debate, but then he, as head of the church on earth, explained what the Holy Ghost had taught him was the will of the Lord, and that ended any debate.
Cornelius was able to receive personal revelation for his own life—a revelation to receive the message of the Lord from Peter—but only Peter was able to pronounce a formal change in church doctrine and practices. In order to avoid confusion, God has always sent His official guidance on the administration and doctrines of the church to the prophet, not to each person individually. Then the individuals pray to receive confirmation of the teaching.
Just as the death of Jesus did not put an end to the need for continuing revelation, the end of the New Testament did not put an end to the need for revelation.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.