To the End of the Earth: First Church Jerusalem

Sermon by Derek Thomas on November 29, 2006

Acts 11:1-18

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Wednesday Evening

November 29,

Acts 11:1-18

To the Ends of


First Church Jerusalem

Dr. Derek W. H.

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

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
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…[
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
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.
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

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

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

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

[Congregation sings]

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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