Acts 10-11 God breaks through the wall - 19th May 2013 - Dave Walker

Bible Reading: Acts 10

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Do you ever find yourself in a situation where you don’t know what to say? It happens doesn’t it? 

We know as Christians that God has given us a mission to bring the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. And that means to all kinds of people. But imagine you’re walking around Finchley orLondonor whatever and you see people around you who need Jesus. They’re not hard to spot are they? They’re everywhere. The confident looking business woman; the guy sat on the bench drinking; the young lad in the car with the loud music playing and the sunglasses on; the lonely old lady; the guy with the beard walking back from the Mosque – whoever. You know that they need Jesus. Because everyone does. But when you imagine yourself speaking to them about him, well you clam up. They’re just too different from you. It’s a wall you can’t cross. You just wouldn’t know what to say. 

Everybody has a point at which their tolerance ends and they start to feel very uncomfortable. You learn that when you travel somewhere new, don’t you? You can cope with all the different customs up to a point but then all of a sudden - yuk. Something just clashes with you, it’s so outside your experience, it just doesn’t fit with the way that you were brought up. It’s like you hit a wall. For me and Sarah when we were living inBoliviaten years ago, that wall was eating sheep’s head. Roast face, as they called it over there. You were supposed to share one as a special treat for a first wedding anniversary, so Sarah and I went to some lengths to make sure that we weren’t in town on that day. Roast face was a step too far. It was a wall we couldn’t cross. 

As we’ve been studying the book of Acts over the last few weeks we’ve been learning about God’s great mission to bring the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, and we’ve been hearing that God has been breaking barriers that stood in the way of that mission. Today we’re hearing how God’s mission to the ends of the earth smashes through an enormous wall. In the New Testament it’s the big one. It the barrier that has to break if the gospel is going to reach the ends of the earth. It’s the barrier to the gentiles, to non-Jewish people. That’s not something we think about often; we’ve got used to the idea that you don’t have to be Jewish to be a Christian. But for the first disciples this was earth shattering.

How does it happen? In some ways it’s dramatic – God comes to visit two people – Peter and Cornelius – in visions and tells them what to do. That’s pretty spectacular. In other ways it’s not so dramatic. It’s about two men meeting up in a house, and one of them tells the other the good news of Jesus. That’s pretty ordinary. But that’s the stuff that God uses to do his momentous work. That’s how he is establishing his Kingdom to the ends of the earth. He uses people who meet each other and talk about the good news of Jesus.

So what happens with these two men, then?

What’s the issue with Cornelius? Why is it such a big deal for Peter to meet with Cornelius anyway? Who is this Cornelius?

Well verse 1 and 2 make it clear: “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”

He’s a good, religious man. He prays, to the God of Israel. In many ways he’s very Jewish. But the problem is he’s a non-Jew, a gentile. In fact he’s very, very gentile. He’s in the Italian regiment. Most of the Roman army was made up of mercenaries from all over the place, but not this lot. These are the pure bred Romans. Don’t forget, that’s the enemy, the occupiers. If we imagine the Second World War, if Peter is Polish then Cornelius is an Aryan SS captain. An unusually upright and moral one, but still the enemy. So for Peter he’s way outside the comfort zone. The two are not able to eat together. They can’t be in the same house together.

But then God, the great missionary, confronts them. And when God confronts you there’s always a challenge. Very rarely does God say “just stay as you are.” God demands change.

The challenge to religious Cornelius – you need to be converted and saved (v4-5, cf. 11:14).

So God sends his angel to Cornelius with a surprising challenge. Have you noticed how odd the angel’s challenge is? Look at verse 4: “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.” Do you see that? The angel says that God recognises how genuinely religious Cornelius is. So, he needs to be converted. He needs to be saved. That gets made clear over the page in chapter 11 verse 14 where Peter fleshes out what the angel told Cornelius – “Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.” Cornelius, the deeply religious man, needs to hear the gospel and be saved.

You see religious, moral people need to be saved too. That might come as a surprise to you. You see when most people think of someone being converted or being saved, they think of someone whose life is a bit of a mess becoming religious, and becoming moral. That’s what you think of isn’t it? Becoming religious, becoming moral. But here is a man who has it all together, he’s as religious as they come, and he needs to be saved. Without the message of Jesus he is not saved. No matter how religious he is.

Sometimes moral, religious people can be the hardest to reach. Because the danger is that they think they’re ok as they are. Maybe that's you. This talk of being born again, of becoming a full on disciple of Jesus Christ, you think it’s not really for you. You look at your life and you think it’s not so bad, your morals are good, you even do the religious stuff, you come to church for goodness sake. God must be pleased with that. Religious people need to be saved too. It’s only when religious people come to Jesus Christ and become his disciples that they are saved.

We live in a culture that tells us that we have to respect someone else’s beliefs. Maybe you’ve swallowed that, and so even though you know that God saves people through the message of Jesus, you wouldn’t think of trying to talk to someone who’s a devout Jew, or a devout Muslim. Because they seem so religious already. Yes, maybe they’re not followers of Jesus, but it must be the next best thing. They pray. They do good works and give to the poor. They seem more Christian than you are in some ways. They must be saved already, surely. Don’t fall for it. Look at Cornelius. Religious people need to be saved too. Moral people need to be saved too. They are only saved when they hear the gospel of Jesus and believe.

That’s the challenge to religious Cornelius then. You need to be converted. What about the challenge to Peter?

The challenge to missionary Peter – don’t stand in the way of God’s mission. (v9-16, v19-20, 11:17)

So here’s Peter the great missionary, at the spearhead of God’s mission to take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth. But Peter has his limits. Everyone has their limits. He cannot mix with gentiles. It’s against everything he’s been brought up with. Separateness from the other nations is what gave the Jewish people their identity, and Peter is a proud Jew. And Peter’s reservations have a really good basis. He could argue them from the Bible. Look at what he said to Cornelius in verse 28: “you are well aware that it is against for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him.” But God the Holy Spirit speaks to him. When God speaks, there is a challenge.

You’ve heard what happened. Peter sees a vision with all the unclean foods coming down on a sheet. He’s told to eat them, and he says “surely not Lord! I keep God’s law. I don’t eat things like that.” And the Holy Spirit says “do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” And then the Spirit tells him to go and visit Cornelius. It’s against Peter’s better judgment, humanly speaking, but he knows that it is clearly what God wants him to do. God wants him to mix with gentiles. So he goes.

Just a quick question by way of an aside – why did God give those laws in the first place – the ones that told Jews to be separate from gentiles, and eat different foods? Why did God give them, if he was later going to change them?

Well I think the best way to understand this is through something that the apostle Paul says in Galatians where he says that those laws, the food laws and so on, they were a bit like instructions that you would give to a child. They belonged to an earlier stage in the development of God’s people, when they were growing up. As they matured, further down the line the laws changed in a way that fitted that different stage of maturity. So imagine I’m at home with Tom, my 2 year old son, and the stove is on. And he looks interested. “Don’t touch the stove!” I say. I have to tell him lots of times. It’s a good command. It stops him getting burned. But then imagine we fast forward 16 years and Tom and I are in the kitchen and I say “Tom will you give me a hand? I’m just doing the washing up – will you heat up that soup for me?” And Tom says “but you told me never to touch the stove.” What would I say? I’d say “Tom, you’re not 2 any more. You can use the stove to heat up soup.” But then imagine Tom as he’s heating the soup rests his hand on the heat and it burns him. “OW!” He says. “Tom, you know that the stove is dangerous!” “You never told me it was dangerous.” “Yes I did, every time I said not to touch the stove when you were young. Now you’re older you don’t obey those old rules in the same way any more, but neither should you ignore the wisdom that is contained within those rules.”

Peter needs to discover that while he must stay away from the defilement of the world he can’t stay away from the people of the world. Because if he stays away from the people of the world then he is standing in the way of God’s mission. Look at what Peter concludes over in chapter 11 verse 17: “who was I to think that I could oppose God?” Peter realises what God is saying. He hears the challenge. So he stops standing in the way. He gets with the agenda. He joins in with what God is doing.

So the Holy Spirit plunges Peter into a situation where he is deeply uncomfortable, with people that he doesn’t know or understand. It’s one of those situations which you might dread because you wouldn’t know what to say. So what does Peter say? Well, handily for us, God tells us. He tells us in verse 36. “You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached--  38 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.  39 "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,  40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.”

Peter tells them a story. What story is it? It’s the simple story of Jesus, isn’t it? It’s the gospel. Peter tells them that Jesus is Lord, he tells them about Jesus’ amazing life. He tells them about Jesus dying a cursed death – a death on a tree. Cornelius would have got that reference to ‘dying on a tree’. He would have known that this meant that Jesus died under God’s curse, under God’s judgment. And Peter tells them that Jesus rose again, and that now sins can be forgiven through Jesus. That’s it. The gospel. The story of Jesus, plain and simple. And it’s then that God’s Holy Spirit acts; it’s then that God saves Cornelius and his family. Verse 44: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.”  

The Holy Spirit uses the simple gospel message of Jesus. (v36-43)

This is so important. You see, you’d think that in a situation as difficult as this you’d need somebody who was an expert in cross cultural work. Peter doesn’t have that expertise. He has no experience working among Italians; he doesn’t know how to deal with the specifics of their culture. All he has is the simple gospel message of Jesus. And that is what the Holy Spirit uses.

Last week I was listening to Stephen Pacht, who is a Jewish believer in Jesus, and he was talking about sharing the gospel with Jewish people. Most of us in the room were not Jewish, and he asked us a very simple question which was this: why don’t most Jewish people believe in Jesus? We came up with all sorts of good reasons, like perhaps it’s because of the history of Jewish persecution, or anxiety about the holocaust and things like that. But his answer was no. Those things are factors, they are real issues, but for the majority it’s because they don’t know the gospel of Jesus. They haven’t heard about the real Jesus and what he did and why he is good news. They’ve heard of a version of Jesus but not the real one. All too often we can think up all sorts of complicated difficulties, hard questions that we think people might ask that we don’t know the answer to or whatever, and we can use those things to make us shy of speaking the gospel to them. Or to give us an excuse not to tell them, because we think it probably wouldn’t work anyway.

The Holy Spirit uses the simple gospel message of Jesus. Maybe you’d like something more complicated, but there it is. The thing that God uses to cross these massive barriers between cultures is the simple story of Jesus. That’s the secret of the success of Christianity. That’s why it’s gone worldwide. Not because of clever tactics or clever people. Just the simple story of Jesus. That’s not too difficult is it? You may not be able to debate Richard Dawkins, but you can tell someone the simple story of Jesus can’t you? You could even tell that to someone who’s really different to you. Couldn’t you?

Why is that enough? Because…

The Holy Spirit uses the simple gospel message of Jesus. (v44-48 cf. 11:15-18)

The effectiveness of the gospel depends entirely on the fact that God the Holy Spirit uses it. It’s his power, and only his power, which makes his mission succeed.

That’s what seals it with Peter and Cornelius, isn’t it? Look at verse 44: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.” It’s as Peter was speaking the words of the gospel that the Holy Spirit did his work. He, the Holy Spirit, totally transforms the situation. At every step along the way, God the Holy Spirit has taken the initiative hasn’t he? The message to Cornelius, the vision to Peter, and now this. This is the Holy Spirit’s mission, carried out in the Holy Spirit’s power, using people who tell the simple gospel message of Jesus.

I’m increasingly impressed by this fact that the Holy Spirit saves people. It’s the thing that gives me confidence – success in the mission isn’t down to you or me. Whenever I’ve seen people turning to Jesus, it’s been because God has worked in their heart by his Spirit to draw them towards him, and then someone has explained the gospel to them. If you’re a believer here, you know that too. I’ve seen some pretty amazing examples of that – I just think of Ali who became a believer here just over a year ago while visiting fromIran. He came here not quite sure why, just knowing that God had done something in his life and that he had to know about Jesus. It was the easiest piece of evangelism I’ve ever been asked to do. I just told him about Jesus – he already wanted to know. And God worked deeply in him, he transformed him by his Holy Spirit, he turned him into a follower of Jesus and a brother to us who believe.

That’s when Peter gets it. When he sees the evidence of the Spirit’s work in Cornelius and his family – when they praise God and speak in tongues. The Holy Spirit on this occasion gives them the same sign that had happened to Peter and the other disciples at the beginning, so that Peter can recognise it. They speak in tongues – remember that, just like in Acts chapter 2, speaking in tongues here isn’t special heavenly languages, it’s praising God in different earthly languages. Peter sees that and he gets it. He sees that the Holy Spirit’s mission had always been to people of all kinds of races and cultures and languages. That’s why the tongues matter – unlike in say Islam, where the true language and culture is Arabic, in Christianity no culture or language is privileged over any other. God’s mission had always been to the ends of the earth. Peter gets it now. So do the otherJerusalemdisciples in chapter 11. There is one church. One family. Peter and Cornelius are brothers. The barrier, the wall, has been crossed.

The challenge to us: Do we believe in the Holy Spirit?

Do we believe that he is using the simple gospel of Jesus to build the church out of all different kinds of people? Do we believe in the Holy Spirit?

Think about that situation I mentioned at the start – people who need Jesus but who seem so different to you, so different that you wouldn’t know what to say to them. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

Even just look around you here – there are people here who are pretty different to you. Maybe you’ve never even spoken to them. Nobody would think you are brothers and sisters. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?