Sunday February 24th
People are always trying out new kinds of diets. One diet I heard about recently has really proven to be quite successful. It’s called the Naked Diet. The idea is that before you start eating your meal you take off all of your clothes. It works really well because usually you can only eat a few bites of food before they throw you out of the restaurant.
In Acts chapter 10 God makes a change to Peter’s diet too.
You see, Peter knew that God had called the people of Israel to have a special relationship with Him. The Jewish people were set apart to be His chosen people. God had entrusted them with His Word so that they could tell the rest of the world about Him, and through them all of the nations of the world would be blessed. But somewhere along the way the Jewish people had forgotten their original purpose. Instead of proclaiming God to the rest of the world they had actually created barriers between themselves and the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, they had come to believe that salvation was not just “of the Jews”, but also just “for the Jews.”
The Apostle Peter, as a devout Jewish believer, had been taught not to have anything to do with Gentiles.
He had been told that if he even touched one accidentally on the street he would have to go home and wash, because contact with Gentiles made him “unclean”. It’s easy to see that this attitude would hinder the spread of the gospel. Large areas of the world would have been written off as being beyond the grace of God.
But at the end of chapter 9 Peter had been drawn by the Holy Spirit to the city of Joppa and to the house of Simon the tanner. God had begun to lead Peter away from this man-made legalist attitude. While God was drawing Peter away from this cultural prejudice, He was drawing another man, a gentile, toward Peter and ultimately toward Jesus.
Let’s read verses 1-8:
“There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, (2) a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. (3) About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!” (4) And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” (5) So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. (5) Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. (6) He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.” (7) And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. (8) So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.”
Cornelius was a military man. He was a centurion, an officer who commanded a group of about 100 soldiers.
Cornelius is portrayed as a godly man. We are told that he is “devout”. He knows that there is a god and he is seeking him. We are also told that he “fears God” – meaning that he lived his life as if he was answerable to God. And we are also told that he was a generous man, one who gave to those in need. And we also see that he is a praying man.
Here is a man that is religious and sincere, but yet he isn’t saved because he doesn’t yet know about Jesus.
That’s going to be Peter’s job.
The angel who appears to Cornelius tells him to send down to Joppa for a man named Peter who is staying in the house of Simon the tanner. God wanted to accomplish two things here at the same time:
1. Get Cornelius saved.
2. Correct Peter’s attitudes about the gentiles.
So watch what God does in verses 9-16:
“The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. (10)Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance (11) and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. (12) In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. (13) And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”(14) But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” (15) And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” (16) This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.”
Peter’s vision was of a sheet lowered from heaven, containing various kinds of animals, some clean and unclean, according to the law of Moses. You might wonder why, if Peter was so horrified at the thought of killing and eating an “unclean” animal that he didn’t just pick a “clean” animal from among the ones on the sheet! Because, to Peter the mixing of the “clean” with the “unclean” animals would have made all of the animals “unclean”. Therefore Peter refuses to kill or eat any of them.
Peter’s response to God’s command to kill and eat these animals was, “Not, so Lord; for I have never eaten anything that was common or unclean” (v. 14). Peter is proud of the fact that he had never done certain things that he considered wrong. As Christians we sometimes define ourselves by the things that we don’t do. It isn’t wrong that there are things that we don’t do. But it’s wrong to define our faith based on what we refrain from doing. And the truth is that the world isn’t impressed by people who live LESS of life, who are all about what NOT to do. People are drawn to us as Christians because we are able to DO things, that is, to live a life that reflects the joy and abundance that Jesus brings.
The Lord’s response to Peter in this vision is, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (v. 15). It will soon become obvious to Peter that these words had a far greater meaning than simply what he was and was not allowed to eat.
What God was showing Peter was to no longer regard certain people as unclean. God was revealing to him that all forgiven sinners are to be accepted into the church, including Gentiles. The four corners of the sheet correspond to the four points of the compass – north, south, east and west; indicating all of the people who make up the world.
Peter had believed up to this point that it was unlawful for him to associate with Gentiles. Actually it wasn’t Old Testament law that prohibited such association, it was only unlawful according to Jewish customs and practice.
Cornelius was ready to be saved. He was seeking God.
All God had to do was find someone to share the gospel with him. It seems like it was harder to get Peter ready to witness than it was to get Cornelius ready to listen. I wonder if that’s still true in our world today. Are there more people ready to listen than there are people ready to tell them about God?
While Peter was wondering what in the world God was trying to tell him, the three men sent by Cornelius came up to the gate to see if Peter was there. (verses 17-22)
“Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate. (18) And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. (19) While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are seeking you. (20) Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.” (21) Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, “Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?” (22) And they said, “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.” (23) Then he invited them in and lodged them. On the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him.”
While Peter was praying and receiving his vision, the men from Cornelius were approaching his house. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit told him that the men were looking for him and that he must not hesitate to go with to go with them.
Now let’s see what happens in verses 24-33
“And the following day they entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. (25) As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. (26) But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I myself am also a man.” (27) And as he talked with him, he went in and found many who had come together. (28) Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (29) Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. I ask, then, for what reason have you sent for me?” (30) So Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, (31) and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. (32) Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.’ (33) So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.”
God waited until Peter and his friends actually got to Cornelius’ house before He revealed what He was going to do there. Let’s look at verses 34-43
34Opening his mouth, Peter said: "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality,
35but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.
36"The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)--
37you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed.
38"You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.
39"We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross.
40"God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible,
41not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.
42"And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead.
43"Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins."
When Peter got to Cornelius’ house he preached to these Gentiles about how Jesus had lived and died, and risen from the dead. But I don’t think that Peter and his Jewish companions had any idea what God was about to do. Peter was simply teaching these Gentiles about Jesus because he knew God had sent him there. If he was expecting some kind of a response, it was possibly that these Gentiles would decide to convert to Judaism and then they would be able to accept the Jewish Messiah, Jesus.
But before Peter even finished speaking, God moved!
44While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.
45All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
46For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered,
47"Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?"
48And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
The Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius’ whole family, just as they were - Gentiles!
They were speaking in tongues and praising God – as Gentiles!
Peter and his Jewish companions were amazed.
Because God wasn’t doing things the way that they expected Him to!
But Peter finally gets it! He recognizes that God has truly touched these people and poured out His Spirit on them. God wasn’t keeping salvation for only the Jews – He wanted the Gentiles to get saved too!
Peter’s vision changed the world. But it began by changing just one man. Peter’s attitude was changed. God had put him on a new diet.
God changed how Peter thought about unbelievers, and maybe he wants to change us too.
Because the problem is that we can be just as selective about those with whom we are willing to share the gospel as Peter was. Do we see those around us as potential believers or do we view them as unreachable? Are there co-workers and neighbors, and family members that we have written off as impossible to reach for the kingdom of Christ?
Do we think of alcoholics, drug addicts, ex-cons and homeless people as “unclean”?
Do we see homosexuals and transgender people as worthy of God’s judgment but not His mercy?
Keep this in mind – If Peter couldn’t get over his preconceived ideas about Gentiles being unclean –
People to be avoided rather than embraced – then Cornelius and his whole family would have never known about Jesus!
Who is depending on you to get out of your comfort zone and reach into their world to let them know about the good news of forgiveness through faith in Jesus?
That’s what Peter had to do in order to reach Cornelius. He left his comfortable place in Joppa, AND his comfortable set of beliefs, in order to enter into another person’s world with the love of God.
And that choice changed everything!
According to a legend, when Jesus returned to heaven following resurrection, the angels gathered around Him. Finally Gabriel spoke: “Master, you suffered so terribly down there. Does the world know you now, and understand the reason for your sacrifice?” “No,” Jesus answered, “Right now only a small handful of people from Galilee know what I did for them.” “Then how will everyone else know?” Gabriel asked. “Peter, James, John, and a few others will spread the Good News. They’ll tell others, who will tell others, who will tell others, until the whole world knows.” “Master,” Gabriel asked, “What’s Plan B?” Jesus replied, “There is no Plan B!”
The first time we heard the name Saul was the last scripture in Acts 7 where his name is referred to as one of those present when Stephen is martyred. Then, the beginning of chapter 8 where it says Saul was not just present but consented of Stephen's death and then went forth and made havoc of the church, going from house to house dragging men and women to prison. He was the leader of the great persecution that caused the scattering of the church throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. Here in chapter 9, the focus is primarily on the transformation of Saul the Terrorizer to Paul the Apostle.
Saul was born in Tarsus, modern-day Turkey, but he was raised in the strict order of Hebraic Judaism, similar to Hasidic Jews in New York City. He was taught by a well known Pharisee named Gamaliel in the strictness of the law and was zealous towards God. Paul was a fanatic Pharisee and believed one must become a jew and obey the law to be accepted by God. So with his understanding, those of the WAY was teaching heresy, therefore were enemies of God and it was his duty to silence them.
As Saul journeyed to Damascus suddenly a great light brighter than the noonday Sun shone on him and he fell from his horse and he heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me."
We see here that there is no brighter light than that of Jesus Christ and that He knows us by name and wants to speak to us personally. It doesn't matter how deep of darkness someone is in even those in religious deception the Lord is able to open blind eyes. Our righteousness is as filthy rags even what we do in the name of God is wicked if we don't do it in the power of the person of God.
Today, it is being reported that Saul like encounters are being experienced by the thousands, especially in the Middle East amongst Muslims, even former terrorists, who are coming out of the darkness and into the light. Turning from persecuting Christians to preaching Jesus Christ.
Saul responds to God speaking to him by asking, "Lord, what do You want me to do?" This is the key to receiving guidance from the Lord, not just telling God what we want Him to do, but asking Him what He wants us to do? Our American independence is something we celebrate but it can also be what hinders our faith. Prayer should be much more about listening than speaking. Faith is an action word so prayer should lead to work more than just dumping our problems on God.
Saul was told to go to the city and that is what he did, being still blind he was led by his companions by hand. Instead of Saul going to Damascus as a captain of soldiers to imprison Christians, he is led to Damascus as a prisoner of the Lord. Paul was blinded for three days just as Jesus was in the grave for three days, that is why Paul is able to write, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." (Gal. 2:20)
How was Saul going to be accepted by the church considering his history? Well, first of all, the Lord revealed to his disciple Ananias by a vision that he was to meet Saul at a street called Straight, and likewise, Saul had the vision that he would meet Ananias who would help him see. Ananias knew about Saul and questioned what he saw but the Lord told him to go.
The street called Straight was significant. The only way we can walk right (straight) with God is through step by step obedience to His voice. We see that Saul was not just healed physically but was filled with the Spirit. The spiritual is more important than the physical, healing is not enough, transformation takes a spiritual awakening. We should use opportunities to pray for healing to also open ones spiritual eyes as well. Our goal should always be to lead people from the wide path of destruction to the narrow road of walking in obedience.
Here in Acts 6, we have our first cultural conflict with the early church. The Greek-speaking Jews felt their needs were being ignored by the Hebrew speaking Jews. Two different cultures often don't mix much and sometimes the issue isn't a blatant disregard of the other it is just done through ignorance. The dispersed older Jewish widows, who were mainly in Greek-speaking territories, would often return to Jerusalem so they would die in the holy city and not in a foreign land. So here it was all the early believers were taking care of each other but there was a food distribution issue with the Hellenist widows.
The Hebrew Jews only knew the needs of the people they were accustomed too for the Greek Jews often live in different neighborhoods. Just like in New York City you have people from the Caribbean living in Brooklyn but Jamaicans will live in one area while Dominicans will live in another.
So things got heated and the Apostles reasoned together how to deal with the matter. They knew their primary purpose was to teach the Word of God so they needed to devote themselves to that and appoint what they would call deacons which means servant to help the widows.
So deacons were the first appointed service role in the early church outside of the Apostles. The qualification of being a deacon was, they were greatly respected, full of the Holy Spirit and had wisdom. Today deacons are often chosen because they make themselves available and are willing to do the physical work around the facility where they fellowship. The qualifications of Elders and Deacons as described in Timothy and Titus are very similar. So the church overall today has gotten the role of Deacon wrong.
The Deacons chosen first of all were fellow Hellenists so they could identify with the needs of those they were serving. Secondly, while they may not be teaching as often as the Apostles, they still needed to be filled with the Holy Spirit and walk in wisdom. That means they needed to be ready to do power ministry and give counsel.
The Apostles at this time were the ones who had been with Jesus the longest so they had a special grace regarding teaching but the appointed Deacons who were younger in the faith still had Jesus through the Holy Spirit and they were not to limit what God could do through them.
These seven men that were chosen had hands laid on them, how often do we lay hands on deacons that they would be empowered spiritually to serve in their role. Too often only a select few are expected to be the ones walking in God's power. But, the bible says "these signs will follow those who believe......," it doesn't say, Apostles, Evangelists, Prophets, no, it says those who believe.
Deacons are closely involved with people they see the needs often before the Apostles they are not to drag a person to an Apostle to meet their need, no they are called to meet the needs of others through the power of the Holy Spirit themselves.
This early church dilemma was solved and it says many more jews believed as well as priests. These issues can halt the move of God, leaders need to quickly seek the Lord how to resolve it so that Kingdom growth doesn't stop.
The challenge: If you have limited how the Lord can use you because you have not been given a significant role such as an Elder or Pastor, repent! Then receive or re-receive the infilling of the Holy Spirit for it is for all who believe.
As we see at the end of this chapter and into chapter seven the Lord uses the deacon Stephen just like He was using the Apostles to do mighty wonders. Initially, it was the Apostles because of their extensive time spent with Jesus they had great faith but it wasn't long before faith increased in the early believers and they began to do the same works.
Acts 7 is a continuation of Acts 6 the focus being now entirely on the deacon Stephen. The leadership of the early church was no longer just designated to the Hebrew Apostles but now the Hellenistic Jews where seven deacons were appointed and out of those seven, Stephen stood out as it says in Acts 6:5 that he was "a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit." His measure of grace was further along than the other deacons at this point and therefore the one whom the Lord used in tremendous ways.
Hellenistic Jews were raised in the Greek culture and were typically more intelligent than the Hebrews and therefore able to debate and possibly lead the high-class Jews to accept the Gospel message. Peter and John were let go but these religious elites had to do everything in their power to stop Stephen for their livelihood was being threatened as the crowds continued to grow becoming more and more diverse.
In Acts 6:8 it says "Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people." So we see here again the work of deacons is not just to do manual labor. We are all vessels of the Holy Spirit and capable of releasing miracles, all it takes is faith. It then says in the following verses that Stephen was approached by unbelieving Hellenistic Jews from the synagogue of the Freedmen. They tried to debate with him as those from the Greek culture often do but since they were outwitted they responded by spreading lies that Stephen was speaking blasphemous words against Moses and YHWH. The shakeup was now way beyond just the performance of miracles it was beginning to win over the sophisticated Hellenists. So they persuaded men to be false witnesses and to approach the high priest so that Stephen could be silenced.
Every attempt of the enemy to silence His church is an opportunity to spread the Lord's message to even a wider audience. We are not to back off but rather, seize the moment, not trying to defend ourselves but just simply speak the Words of Truth as Holy Spirit gives utterance.
Stephen shining with the face like an angel does exactly that in Acts 7. See the High Priests twisted and deceived believed that YHWH was only for the Jews and that the temple was the only place where one could hear from YHWH. The only way Gentiles could worship YHWH was by becoming Jewish proselytes, which meant they had to repudiate their native culture and practice the Jewish rituals including being circumcised.
Stephen answers the High Priest revealing through the History of the Jews the real truth to counter these lies. He reminds them that YHWH spoke to Abraham in a far off country. He revealed how YHWH was with him in the land of the Chaldeans and gave him the covenant of circumcision. Also, the Lord was with Joseph while in Egypt, and Moses from a burning bush on Mt. Sinai received a message from the Lord to deliver the children of Israel from Egypt through His help. He told him to remove his sandals for he was walking on holy ground.
He reminds them that offerings and sacrifices were given in the wilderness to the Lord. David asked that He could build a house for the Lord and his son Solomon was given the favor to do so. Stephen declared that YHWH does not dwell in man-made structures quoting Isaiah 66:1-2 "Heaven is My throne, and earth is my footstool."
He is saying to these leaders who do you think you are? How can you box YHWH into a designated place? He is the Lord of the universe! He is not just the God of the Jews limited to the temple in Jerusalem.
Stephen now takes it further and calls them "stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears!" Those responsible for persecuting and killing the prophets who had announced the coming Righteous one! Hearing this, they forgot all about Roman law and took matters in their own hands unlike what they did with Jesus. Stephen kept his eyes on heaven and said to his murderers "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of YHWH!" They responded by covering their ears and rushing towards him, throwing him out of the city and stoning him, and like Jesus, he said "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" and "do not charge them with this sin!"
We learn here how to deal with persecution; we are to keep our eyes on Jesus, hopefully revealing Him to those who are against us, while holding no evil in our heart against them.
Martyrdom often leads to a greater move of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 1:8 it says that the Holy Spirit was given for the purpose of the church to be empowered as witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. So far it was limited to Jerusalem, Judea, but after the death of Stephen, we are going to see in Acts 8, Saul was later known as Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles comes on the scene and the first evangelist also a deacon Philip was sent out by the Holy Spirit to Samaria and then supernaturally to spread the witness of Christ to an Ethiopian Eunuch.
The charge is to not limit our Christian service to a place or a certain group of people. Let's repent for our lack of witness and fear of persecution and ask Holy Spirit to take us to whom He desires; going wherever He wants us to go, doing whatever He wants us to do.