November 29, 2006
To the Ends of the Earth
First Church Jerusalem
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now, if you have your Bibles with you, turn with me if you would once again to The Acts of the Apostles, and we come tonight to the eleventh chapter. We’re going to read together in a few minutes the first eighteen verses.
But before I do that, I want you — if you have your Bible — to turn back to the previous section, Acts 10:35. Peter is speaking to Cornelius in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, and in the course of which he says to him:
“In every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.”
Now, I spent so much time last week telling you what it doesn't mean that I think I left driving up I-55 saying, “I don't think I told you what it does mean!” It is a very crucial verse. Many have made much of this verse, suggesting for example that the heathen who have never heard of Christ or of the gospel may through their good works come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. And I suggested to you last week with some force that that is wholly unacceptable; that nowhere in the Bible is that view taught, however popular it may be.
So what is Peter saying? I think that what he is saying is simply that God recognizes and honors good works and righteous deeds wherever they are done, and by whomever they are done. And I think we need to take a look at the word acceptable, not in the sense that the person is saved, but that God sees them and recognizes them. And then, Peter launches into a gospel presentation to Cornelius, which otherwise would make no sense if Cornelius were already acceptable in the saving sense in the sight of God.
Well, with that preliminary we now come to Acts 11, and the visit that Peter now makes to Jerusalem. Before we read the passage, let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You again for all of Your graciousness to us in the midst of terrible events and circumstances that surround us, some of which impinge on our own lives in a very personal way. You are a Rock, and You never change. Your promises are the same tonight as they've always been. Nothing can diminish Your redemptive purpose in our lives to bring us to glory through faith alone in Christ alone. Now bless us as we read Your word together. Come, Holy Spirit, and grant us illumination for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Hear now the word of God:
“Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, and when I had fixed my gaze on it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ This happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky. And behold, at that moment three men appeared at the house in which we were staying, having been sent to me from Caesarea. The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings. These six brethren also went with me, and we entered the man's house. And he reported to us how he had seen an angel standing in his house saying, ‘Send to Joppa, and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore, if God gave to them the same gift as he gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?’ When they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.’”
Amen. And may God add His blessing.
By the end of this section that we just read together, in chapter 10 and this section in chapter 11, Luke has told us this story of Peter and Cornelius four times - just as he will also tell us the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus three times in The Acts of the Apostles. And I think, as we've been discovering together in these last few weeks, that alone provides us with evidence of the importance of both this particular event in Caesarea in the household of Cornelius and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Both, of course, are deeply significant in the redemptive mission and purpose of God in bringing into the church not just Jews, but Gentiles also. It is a signal event in the life of the church where the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile is broken down. No longer is the church to be considered a Jewish church, or even a Jewish Christian church based at First Church Jerusalem, but it is to be a church that spreads to the ends of the earth.
I have told you now the last couple of weeks, there's a sense in which these two chapters are among the most important chapters in the entire New Testament in an understanding of what the nature of God's purpose in this world is and in our understanding of what the church is, and of what the mission of the church ought to be.
Now there's trouble brewing at First Church in Jerusalem. We've been, you remember, in Joppa and Caesarea. Peter was in Joppa having a whale of a time, reading his Bible and praying on the roof of the house of Simon the tanner, and all of a sudden he saw that trance, that dream/vision-like experience with the animals and creatures–that he was no longer to call anything clean and unclean. The distinction — the Old Testament distinction, the Jewish distinction that taught the way of holiness and the way of separation from the world — that distinction is now eradicated. He was to call these creatures unclean no longer. And as he emerges out of this trance, three men are at the door. They've come down from Caesarea, thirty miles north along the Mediterranean coast. They've come, of course, from the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. And the Roman centurion has been also given a vision, and told that he is to send for Simon, who is also called Peter. And it would be a day and a half journey by foot; these three men have made the journey south to Joppa, and now the three men, accompanied by Peter and five others, make their way back now to Caesarea; and Peter has preached the gospel to him, and great blessing has come down upon Cornelius and his household.
Several lessons emerge in what we read now in Acts 11.
The first is the contrast between the way Luke describes these events and the way the church in Jerusalem understood these events.
For Luke, in verse 1 of chapter 11, “The apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.” That's how Luke understood it. That's how the apostles understood it. The Gentiles have come to faith in Jesus Christ. They have been brought into the fold, into the kingdom of God. They, too, are part and parcel of what God's redemptive purpose is all about. No questions asked. It is in fact language that is identical to the way Luke has described the reception of the gospel back in chapter 8 amongst the Samaritans. He uses exactly the same language, and exactly the same language has been used back in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost when Peter preached the significance of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. It is, of course, part of that fulfillment that we've seen of the purpose of the risen Jesus: that the gospel spread from Jerusalem to Samaria to Judea, to the ends of the earth. And as the gospel breaks these barriers, God pours forth His Holy Spirit in great blessing.
For Luke, this is a story about promises kept; but for First Church Jerusalem it is entirely different.
Luke refers to them in verse 2 as “those who were circumcised.” Now, technically that is an accurate rendition of what Luke has written, but of course presumably all of the believers in the Jerusalem church (they were all Jews)...all the believers were circumcised; and I don't think we're meant to infer that every single individual in the church in Jerusalem was of the same view as being expressed here. These...in some translations this is rendered perhaps more clearly as “the circumcision party”...what eventually will emerge as “the Judaisers”...those who will insist that in order to come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, in order to be reckoned amongst the covenant community or God's church, you must be circumcised. And they’re offended that Peter has gone to the home of an uncircumcised Gentile, and what's more, has eaten pork sandwiches or whatever it was in his home.
Peter himself had once held these views. The way he tells the story to the Jerusalem church tells you that he himself fully understood the prejudices of his brethren in the Jerusalem church. He once had held to these views. God had to persuade him otherwise, and so as he tells the story of the unfolding of the providence of God, he says ‘Who am I to stand in the way of what is so self-evidently the purpose of Almighty God?’
Now what we're facing here, of course, is traditionalism. Jerusalem was aware that things were changing. The center of church life would no longer be in Jerusalem. In fact, very soon it will be in Antioch, and very soon it will be somewhere else. They understood that...that if they expanded, if they became evangelistic, if they were mission minded, things would change. Some things would have to disappear, and Peter is saying absolutely some things have to disappear. Not things that God has commanded, you understand, but things now which God has abrogated and annulled, and to continue in [them] would be mere traditionalism.
Now, it's a powerful thing. I have to tell you — don't ask me what, but I have to tell you that in the ten years I've been here I've changed my mind on a few things. Not many, but a few things! I have to tell you, when I made my visit back to my former brothers and colleagues and friends in Belfast last week in my three-day whistle-stop tour, the baptism was delightful!, I spoke with one of my colleagues. I'd spent eighteen years as a colleague of his in ministry, and as I listened to him I heard myself saying internally, “You know, I once thought like that. I understand you fully, because I once argued just like you; but I've now come to realize that it was merely a convention of tradition and culture, and had absolutely nothing whatever to do with a biblical principle.” But you know how hard that is to confess? And I have to tell you, I didn't confess it. I nodded gravely, and thought inside, “If you only knew!”
Do you understand the power of tradition that lies behind the culture of suspicion that now resides at First Pr.... ? I was going to say Presbyterian! We’re all Presbyterians here! First Presbyterian Church in Jerusalem! They were deeply suspicious of what was going on. They wanted Peter to come back and reinforce their prejudices, and from now on that's all that it would be. It's a powerful thing, because when you begin to let go of things that are merely prejudices and that are standing in the way of gospel advance, your friends will think you accommodating and liberal, and having moved away from the soundness and firmness of the faith. It's a deeply significant moment and a deeply troubling one for the church in Jerusalem.
The second thing I want us to see is that it provides us with an answer to “What is a Christian?” And three things emerge in verses 17 and 18 in particular — that being a Christian according to the Apostle Peter...and you need to see what it is and what it isn't...you need to listen for the positive things, but you also need to listen to the thing that Peter does not say. What he does not say, of course, is that being a Christian means that you have to be circumcised. That was the biggest issue in Jerusalem: Do the Gentiles have to conform to the practices of the Jews? And Peter makes no mention of it. What he does say is that there must be a recognition of Jesus as God's Messiah and Lord of my life; that there must be a trust in Jesus as Savior, which involves a turning away from a former way of life in repentance; that there must be a receiving of the power of the Holy Spirit, enabling me to do so to the glory of God...[a recognition of Jesus as Messiah and Lord; a trusting in Jesus involving repentance from a former way of life; and a receiving of the Holy Spirit that enables me so to do.]
Of course, it's a solitary lesson. How central repentance was in the apostolic understanding of what a Christian is! When John the Baptist emerges — and do you note that John the Baptist is on Peter's mind here, and he quotes him? — the first words out of John the Baptist's mouth were “Repent.” The first word out of the mouth of our Lord Jesus Christ was “Repent.” And if we had ten or fifteen minutes tonight, we could do a Bible study on The Acts of the Apostles and examine every single reference to repent or repentance. And you may look it up in your concordance, and you’ll find that there are many such references in The Acts of the Apostles, because for the New Testament apostles you cannot be a Christian, you cannot be a true believer in Jesus Christ, unless there is first of all genuine repentance — turning away from sin, and a turning towards our Lord Jesus Christ and embracing Him as He is offered to us in the gospel.
It would, I think, benefit us a great deal tonight if I were to give you a little quiz. I've been giving quizzes all day! If I were to give you a quiz tonight —“You have two minutes to write down in 50 words or less what is a Christian...one that will stand the test of Bible examination.” That's no small task. That would be no small task for seminarians to perform; it would be no small task for ministers of the gospel to perform. But do note in Peter's preaching and teaching the absolute central role of repentance.
The third thing that it teaches is that it gives us an illustration of how God guides. It gives us an illustration of how God guides on both the macro level and the micro level. In one sense, God is guiding the church in Jerusalem. They are not going to heed that guidance, but God is guiding them. On the micro level, God is guiding the Apostle Peter, and that's the one I want to focus on for a minute because it provides us, despite aspects of the story and narrative that differ from our circumstances.... Peter, for example, saw a vision or a trance; God spoke to him directly; he didn't have the New Testament as we have it. There are differences here, but there are also abiding principles here of how God guides us.
Notice that God reveals His word to him. God disclosed His word to him, and God has given to us His word; that word is contained in the Scriptures, in the 66 books of the Bible. And I think it's part of the fact of our unfamiliarity with Scripture and with what Scripture teaches, and with what Scripture negates, that gives something of the obsession about guidance that marks, I think, the church in the twentieth century as opposed to the church in previous centuries. God gave Peter His word.
Secondly, providence unfolded in such a way as to help Peter see how that word should be fulfilled. There was not only the word, there was the accompanying providence as God moved in circumstances and in people, and in events all around him, so that that word that he had received could now be implemented.
And, thirdly, there was a deep conviction of the Holy Spirit of what God wanted him to do.
And, fourthly, there was Peter's obedience; that once he knew what God's word was and once he saw how providence unfolded to provide him a clue as to how that word was to be fulfilled, and how the Spirit had convicted him, Peter obeyed. “Who am I to stand in the way of Almighty God?”
And, fifthly, there's confirmation, because as Peter pushed that door, the door opened and God poured out His blessing — blessing that was in perfect keeping and harmony with everything that the Bible teaches. That would be a wonderful avenue to pursue tonight. You’re looking for guidance, you’re looking for direction, you want to know what God's will is for you — then employ these principles: God's word; God's providence; the conviction of the Holy Spirit; the obedience that He demands; the confirmation that He gives.
But fourthly, think this story provides for us a challenge corporately as a church. And I think it's the one point of this story that has troubled me the most, because I think this story provides for us a challenge corporately as a church. It provides for us a challenge of what the church's vision ought to be.
God is expanding the geography of His church. It's going to move beyond Jerusalem, and it's going to move beyond Judea, and it's going to move beyond Samaria, and it's going to move to the ends of the earth to places that folk in Jerusalem had never been to nor were ever likely to go to. The focus of attention, the central point of the church, would no longer be Jerusalem. For over a thousand years Jerusalem had been the center of all things religious. It was the place people would want to go to. It was the place people wanted to retire to. It was the place people wanted to be buried in. They wanted to go back there to die. They’d make annual treks there. It was a pilgrimage to go to Jerusalem. No longer would that be the case, and there's resistance in Jerusalem, as I think we can trace in all of church history that whenever God has shown clearly the way of expansion and growth, the resistance has often come from within the church itself just as it did here.
It has reminded me once again of that story of William Carey when he announced his intentions to go as a missionary to India to his mission board, a group of dour individuals to be sure, who said to him, “Sit down, young man. If God intends to save the heathen, He’ll do it without your help or mine.” On one level, you see, it was a defense of the sovereignty of God. It was a defense of orthodoxy. It was a defense of traditional belief in God's power. And yet, on the other hand it revealed a blindness to the demands that God makes of us in expanding His church and in winning lost and perishing souls to Jesus Christ.
I don't share much in common with D.L. Moody's theology, I have to say; but I'm often troubled by a remark that he once made when he was criticized for his methodology — and in my opinion, rightly criticized — “I prefer the way I do it to the way you don't,” he said. And I wonder tonight as we read this passage...I wonder if that challenge comes across to you as it has come across to me this past week: that as a church we can get so set in our ways and so defensive of ourselves and of our traditions that we lose sight of what God may be calling upon us to do. I wonder tonight as we ponder this passage, can we put ourselves in the place of some of those men (and presumably, women) in the Jerusalem church and identify with them? They will send Barnabas, you remember; and Barnabas will go north, and he’ll come to Antioch, and what will he see? “That the grace of God has come upon the Gentiles also.” And some in the church in Jerusalem will accept that, but some will not. Some will always be suspicious. And I wonder tonight if there's any part of that that lies within our own hearts as we consider what we ought to do in terms of evangelism and in terms of mission, and in terms of expanding the kingdom of God to the end of the earth.
Now may God bless His word to us.
Let's stand. Let's sing the Doxology together.
Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.