A gospel for all

Acts 10:1-48

28 December 2003

Greyfriars Church


It's my guess that not many of us here this evening are jewish by heritage. So why are we here, celebrating a jewish man, worshipping the jewish God, following a book written entirely by Jews?

The reason is Acts chapter 10. If it weren't for Acts chapter 10 then Christianity might have remained simply a minority sect of the Jewish religion: a small fraction of a relatively small nation. But because of Acts chapter 10 Christianity is now a worldwide faith of people of every race under the sun, numbering literally in the billions of followers. That's the significance of the events we have before us this evening.

You see, right from the beginning it was God's intention that the whole world should know him. So in Genesis chapter 12, at the dawn of history, God says to Abraham I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you... and all peoples on earth will be blessed through youref.

Again, at the beginning of the book of Acts we see God's recommitment to this promise when the last thing Jesus says to the disciples before he ascends to heaven is you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earthref. The gospel, initially thoroughly jewish, was to be proclaimed in ever widening circles starting at Jerusalem and moving out towards the very ends of the earth. And that's exactly what was happening. The apostles first preached the gospel in Jerusalem, starting at the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. Then in chapter 8 we see the the church scattered under persection throughout Judea and Samaria, preaching as they went.

However, up to this point in the book of Acts Christianity has still been an entirely jewish phenomenon. Jesus, jewish himself, had spoken pretty much exclusively to Jews. All the apostles were jewish, and all the converts so far in the story of the early church have been jewish by race or jewish by conversion. Not a single gentile—that is, a non-Jew—has been converted. Not a single disciple is preaching to them.

It seems that the gospel has got stuck in the jewish world. The problem was a deep racial intolerance: the Jews hated the gentiles. They despised the gentiles as 'Dogs'. Jewish culture forbade the Jew even to enter the home of a gentile, and all their traditions kept them apart. If even the apostles couldn't see past this block then it was going to take a miracle for God to achieve his promise to bless the whole world through Abraham's descendant, Jesus Christ.

Acts chapter 10 is the story of that miracle. It recounts the story not only of the conversion of the first gentile, but in some sense the conversion of Peter as well.

There was no way God was going to let his gospel get stuck. So in this chapter, like a master stage-director, he unsticks the gospel in three perfectly timed scenes.

Let's look at it together. It will be a great help if you can follow the action in your Bibles as I want to look at it fairly closely. It's on page 1103 of the church Bibles: Acts chapter 10.

Scene 1

Scene one is in verses 1 to 8. It is set in a house in Caesarea where we find a man called Cornelius praying at three in the afternoon.

Now, Cornelius is clearly a gentile. He's a relatively senior man in the Roman army, who were the occupying force in Israel at the time. His name is a common Roman name and he's clearly not ethnically jewish, nor is he a jewish convert, as is made plain later.

Nevertheless, Cornelius and his whole family, are described as devout and God-fearingref, and we're told what that means in verse two. He gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularlyref. Here is a man outside the community of God's people, but ready and prepared to be part of God's work.

While Cornelius was praying an angel appears to him with a message from God. Although Cornelius is terrified I love the way the angel begins his message in verse 4, Cornelius... your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.ref God has observed Cornelius's faithfulness in these small matters and knows that here is a man he can entrust with his work. God entrusted Cornelius with a spectacular role in the unsticking of his gospel so that his Kingdom could spread to the very ends of the earth.

Although just a gentile—neither jewish nor yet christian—Cornelius's faithfulness is a challenge to us, isn't it? I hope that we all yearn to do great things for God. I hope that we long to be part of bringing God's Kingdom to Reading. That we are passionate about bringing the gospel to our friends and families, colleagues an neighbours.

But what we learn from Cornelius is that it is those who are faithful in the small things whom God will entrust with the big things. Conversely, if we Christians are not even faithful prayers and faithful givers then what earthly use will we be to God? If only we were as faithful as Cornelius in our praying and our giving then imagine what God could do with us! As we seek to do the great things for God, let's first focus on our daily faithfulness to his word; our daily walk with him.

Cornelius, then, shows his faith in action by obeying the angel and sending a party of three to Joppa to fetch Simon Peter as he was told to do.

End of scene one.

Scene 2

Scene two is set at the house of Simon the Tanner by the sea in Joppa, about 30 miles away from Caeserea. Verses 9 to 23.

It's midday, and Peter, the apostle, is doing some sunbathing and praying while lunch is being prepared. We're told that he is hungry and perhaps that influences the nature of the vision that he is about to have.

We read in verse 10 that,

He fell into a trance, and he saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."ref

I once visited a church where the Sunday School had made a huge poster a la Noah's ark. They'd cut out pictures of all sorts of animals to stick on it. Everything was there. There were cats, dogs, owls, pandas, koalas, lizards, crocodiles, snakes, sparrows, worms, ladybirds, spiders and all the rest. But there was no brightly coloured rainbow over the top of this poster; this poster had written in large letters, "Go, Peter. Kill and eat" !

If you find that slightly revolting then you have a small sense of what Peter must have been feeling as a result of the vision.

As a good Jew, all his life Peter has maintained a strict division between clean and unclean foods as outlined in Leviticus chapter 11ref. Many animals were declared unclean and the good Jew was to detest them. Even to touch the carcasses of unclean animals was to become unclean oneself. This will have been drummed into Peter every single day since childhood.

So Peter, with his years of ingrained teaching, is appalled by the command in the vision. "Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean"ref.

It's as if the Prime Minister called up Tony Banks and invited him to go fox hunting!

It's as if George Bush suggested to Donald Rumsfeld that he ought to invite Saddam Hussein over for tea one day.

Perhaps if Iain Paisley saw a vision telling him to sit down and work with Gerry Adams it would not be more extraordinary than the vision Peter had.

What God was asking Peter seemed to be literally against his religion.

Peter really should have known better. Hadn't Jesus already made the point back in Mark chapter 7 that the coming of God's kingdom abolishes all the old clean-unclean distinctions?

"Are you so dull?" Jesus asked the disciples, "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean').ref

Yet despite this, and the extraordinary nature of the vision, it took three enactments—and three commands from God Do not call anything impure that God has made cleanref—before Peter came to a point where he began to re-evaluate his old prejudices, so deeply did they run.

In verses 17 and 19 we see that Peter is still wrestling with the meaning of the vision when the messengers from Cornelius arrive with perfect timing, and suddenly he understands what it was all about. God is not so much concerned that Peter considers no animals unclean as that he considers no people unclean. In particular, in the light of the extraordinary arrival of gentile visitors, and the further promptings of the Holy Spirit, he comes to understand that he must overcome his deeply, deeply rooted prejudices and no longer consider the gentiles to be beyond the pale. That, in humility, he does so is delightfully shown in verse 23 where Peter invited the men into his house to be his guestsref. An act which would have been unthinkable for him just a few hours before.

This, then was the beginning of the end for spiritual apartheid. With the apostles' prejudices broken down they are now free to obey the call to take the gospel to the very ends of the earth.

Who in the world would you least like to have sitting next to you in church this evening? Whose arrival at church would make you get up and walk out, or at least cause you to get up and sit on the other side?

Well, the message Peter came to understand here, and the other apostles accepted later on, is that there is not a single person in the world whom God would not welcome into his church if he or she came in sincere faith and repentance. No nationality or race or class is beyond God's call. No terrorist or murderer or paedophile or drug addict is beyond his grace. And who's going to tell them if not us? Like Peter, are we prepared to go to those others consider beyond the pale?

End of scene two.

Scene 3

For scene three we return to Cornelius's house in Caeserea: verses 24 to 48. A couple of days have passed since scene two: Peter and some other Christians have made the long journey from Joppa.

Now we have a few extras on the scene: look at verse 24. Cornelius, again showing his terrific faith, has gathered not only his family, but his more distant relatives and even some friends to hear what Peter has to say. In verse 27 we read that it was a large gathering of peopleref. I wonder what they thought was about to happen!

Peter begins by confirming the new understanding he has come to, in verse 28, He said to them: "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 came without raising any objection."ref

That it was God's divine hand at work in these miraculous events is confirmed to Peter by Cornelius's account of his angelic visitation. Reassured by this Peter goes on to explain to all the assembled gentiles for the first time the good news of Jesus Christ.

Peter's gospel presentation to them is essentially similar to other gospel presentations he gives in the book of Acts and it is a fine model for us as we seek to tell people the good news about Jesus ourselves. Peter's message is all about Jesus: he describes Jesus' life and its perfection in verse 38; he talks of Jesus' undeserved death under the curse of being hung on a tree in verse 39; he describes Jesus' triumph in his miraculous resurrection from the dead in verses 40 and 41. All the time Peter is keen to point out that he and his companions were witnesses of all these things. They were not made up stories or allegories: who would suffer persecation and martyrdom for that? No, all these events had really happened.

In verses 42 and 43 Peter finishes by saying that not only will this Jesus be returning to judge his hearers for their sins one day, but there is just one way for them to escape condemnation: by knowing and believing in the name of the judge, Jesus himself.

When Peter gets to this point, in verse 44 we're told that he is interrupted as the Holy Spirit came on his hearers: they began speaking in tongues and praising God. God sent a dramatic sign to confirm a dramatic event.

It's worth noting that conversions today are rarely as outwardly dramatic, are they? And nor do they need to be. This was a one-off extraordinary occasion: a kind of opening ceremony like there might be at the Olympic games. It would be odd if every 100m sprint started with fireworks and acrobatics, wouldn't it?

But, just as the apostles had dramatically received the Holy Spirit at the first jewish Pentecost to confirm the founding of the church, so this was a kind of Gentile Pentecost to confirm the breaking out of the church from the bounds of Judaism. The gentiles were accepted on the same grounds and with the same signs as the apostles themselves had been, as Peter observes in verse 47, They have received the Holy Spirit just as we haveref.

That God had so clearly confirmed the true conversion and acceptance of these gentiles would be crucial to later convincing the other apostles of the validity of what had happened. In chapter 11 verse 17 Peter explains to the other apostles, if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think I could oppose God?ref Could there be any more doubt?

So, scene three ends with the baptism into the church of the new believers, and Peter agreeing to stay for a few days to disciple and instruct them. He's come a long way in 48 hours, hasn't he?


What are we to make of all this for ourselves, these three divinely directed scenes?

Well, I just want to have another quick review of Peter's message in verses 34 to 43. I mentioned earlier that it is pretty typical of Peter's gospel presentations in the book of Acts: it's the same message for both Jews and gentiles. But it's important to notice that he gives the message a certain emphasis in view of the events going on.

On this occasion Peter is extremely keen to emphasise the universal applicability of the gospel message: the good news about Jesus.

So, have a look at verses 34 and 35 where he states that God does not show favouritism but accepts men [and, obviously, women] from every nation who fear him and do what is right.ref In verse 36 he acknowledges the jewish origin of the gospel message, but he goes on to describe Jesus as Lord of allref.

Then, at his climax, he says first in verse 42 that Jesus is the one whom God has appointed as judge of the living and the deadref—which is totally comprehensive, isn't it? No-one is excluded from the categories of living and dead. And he says second in verse 43 that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.ref

So you see that Jesus' lordship is universal. He is Lord of all, he is judge of all, and he offers forgiveness to all. There is no-one outside Jesus' authority. He is not Lord only of the Jews; he is not even Lord only of the Christians. Jesus is Lord of all.

And that means he is Lord of me and he is Lord of you, doesn't it? Therefore, you and I have a choice.

One option is to reject his Lordship. We can continue to live our own lives our own way, being our own masters. But Peter is clear: one day every one of us will have to come up before him as our judge, and we will have to answer for all that we've done.

The other option is to acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and to invite him to be King in our lives. Peter's promise is that anyone who does this will be forgiven by God. So, on the Day of Judgement the judge will not be a fearsome stranger, but he will be a friend whose name you know. Peter is clear: everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness through his name.

There are two particular mistakes addressed by this chapter that I want to make sure that everyone here this evening avoids.

The first mistake to avoid is imagining that you might be too bad for God: that there's no way he could accept you. But Peter is clear, everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name. No sin is beyond the infinite forgiveness of Christ, except the sin of unbelief itself.

If the first mistake is to imagine that you could be too bad for God, the second is to imagine that you are too good for him.

Cornelius is an interesting example, isn't he? He was patently a good person. He was a righteous and God-fearing man who was respected by all the jewish people. His charitable giving and regular prayers were exemplary, commended even by God himself.

Yet, Cornelius still needed to make Jesus his Lord. There's no doubt that had he rejected Peter's message that day he would have faced only God's wrath at the Day of Judgement.

Perhaps you are a bit like Cornelius. You are a good person; perhaps even a God-fearer. But, as in the case of Cornelius, an exemplary and even religious life is not what it will take to save you from judgement. When the judge comes it is only those who know his name—who have made him their Lord; whose sins have been taken away by his death—who will receive his forgiveness.

Peter's message is that Judgement is guaranteed, but forgiveness is not automatic. Jesus is Lord of All. Will you make him your Lord?

If you want to know more about this Jesus, Lord of all, then please don't leave tonight without talking to someone. I'll be hanging around at the end, and there will be lovely people at the front on my left here who would be thrilled to talk to you as well. Please don't miss the opportunity.