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"Two Visions, One Aim!"

MESSAGE FOR SEPETEMBER 19, 2010 FROM ACTS 10:1 - 23

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          This week as we continue our series of messages from Acts, we move into the event Luke gives more space to than any other event in the book.  That is—the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church of Christ.  This may seem like a small thing to us because the only church we have known, not only includes Gentiles, but in many instances has been made up entirely of Gentiles.  On the plain of salvation history however, this is an enormous, epic development.  Our Gentile-dominated church context would have been unimaginable for the apostles early in Acts.  For the previous 2000 years leading up to Acts 10, the people of God, with few exceptions had been limited--only to those people who shared the DNA of one man--Abraham.  Now, for the first time in any amount—non-Jews would be part of God’s people. 

Today, we want to focus on the events leading up to this seismic shift in salvation history.  The salvation of the Gentiles had many times been prophesied in the Old Testament, but the way it worked itself out was very different than any Jew could have imagined.  The Jews, as they read those Old Testament prophecies about the God of Israel drawing all the Gentile nations to worship him, would have, without question, assumed that God would accomplish this by somehow converting all these Gentile nations into Jews.  The only way you could know God was within the covenant God made with the Jews.  Therefore, they reasoned--in order to know God you must become a Jew.  The Gentiles would adopt their Laws, undergo their circumcision and worship at their Jerusalem temple.  That was surely the way the Jews would have expected these prophecies to be fulfilled.  As we know, that wasn’t the way it happened at all.  And because this happened in a way that would have been so completely unexpected, God in his sovereign grace powerfully works to prepare Peter, the Jewish apostle and Cornelius, the Gentile for this amazing and unexpected lurch forward in salvation history.

What Cornelius and even Peter didn’t fully understand was that God was not going to unite Jews and Gentiles through the Law or circumcision or the temple, but through the One who fulfilled the Law, the circumcision and the temple.  They would be united through their mutual faith in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.  Christ would make them one people of God—Jew and Gentile together.  This is what Paul talks about in texts like Ephesians 2:13.  Speaking of the Gentiles he says, “13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.  Christ alone unites Jew and Gentile.  It takes a while for that truth to gain widespread understanding in the book of Acts, and Paul was still laboring to hammer that truth home when he wrote the letter to the Galatians.  This morning, let’s look at a truth in this text about God’s work in these two men as he prepares them for this. 

The question is—of what relevance to us is God’s work of preparation in these two men?  After all, this shift occurred in the first century.  How could we profit from knowing what God did to prepare these two men?  The reason this is still relevant is because the wind of the Spirit, just as he did in the first century, does not always blow in the same direction in our lives.  There are moments when God desires to move us in a completely different direction than we had expected or even imagined.  Those are some of the scariest times in our lives as believers and they require faith.  Most people—as much as they might protest to the contrary, crave routine, sameness—we want to stay on the same paths we have been walking for years.  Same church, same friends, same ministries, same house, same town, same, same, same.  We try to find our legitimate need for security met in those things when as believers, we should be finding that need met in our attachment to the Rock who will never move—Jesus and what he has done through us in the gospel. That’s security!  Years of sameness in our circumstances, instead of being security or stability, may at times indicate a calloused insensitivity to the changing winds of the Holy Spirit.  Most believers God has greatly used were people whose lives he first had to violently shake up—sometimes repeatedly.  He put them in places or positions very different than what they were used to and they would have never imagined that God would call them to do what he has them doing now.  Believers are called to incarnate Christ wherever we are and if we take the original incarnation of Christ as a pattern, it’s clear that incarnation often involves relocation—new city--new job—new role—new responsibilities—new relationships—new lifestyle.

Abraham was minding his own pagan business and his own pagan livestock in Southern Babylonia when God called him to be the father of a new nation.  God told him to go to a destination…to be revealed later.  Joseph was a Jew rotting in an Egyptian prison when God called him to be Prime Minister of Egypt.  Moses was a sheepherder on the backside of Midian when God called him to lead his people out of bondage.  David, an adolescent shepherd, the youngest of eight brothers when God anointed him king of Israel.  You can go on and on through the prophets and see the same dynamic in so many cases.  In the New Testament, we see the apostles, most of who were small business owners or ordinary blue collar Joes when Jesus called them to be the foundation of his church.  Lastly, we saw that God took a Pharisaic Christ-hater named Saul and, in a moment, violently spun him around 180 degrees and turned him into the apostle of grace to the Gentiles.  None of these people were acquainted with the life-long stability our lazy flesh craves.  God pulled them up by the roots and transplanted them in a very different place or role than they had ever anticipated.  The wind of the Spirit blew them in some very unexpected directions.

God hasn’t changed the way he works with his people.  He still calls people to uproot themselves and follow him to new people or places or ministries—even if that uprooting takes them just across town.  Many of us here know a one-time snow mobile addict and heavy equipment salesman from Northern Minnesota who is now working to plant churches among Muslims in a spiritually destitute place in Northern India.  Or, perhaps you know a Federal Express Manager who was on his way to a lucrative Vice Presidency who sold everything and is now in the Middle East needing money as he works to bring Muslims to Christ.  Many of you could tell stories of God’s very unexpected works in your life because God does this kind of thing all the time.  He calls us to relationships and ministries and places and contexts to represent him.  And they are completely uncomfortable and seem so far in over-our-head because as he accomplishes his mission through us, we’ll know HE deserves all the credit. So this text provides crucial truths to those of us who want to be prepared the next time God decides to do a new and scary thing in our lives or in our church.  19 Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Are you ready for God’s next new thing?

The main truth we see here is:  God is faithful to exert his sovereign grace to prepare us for whatever he has in store for us.  This text highlights two men for whom God did some extraordinary things in order to prepare them for the radical change that awaited them.  First, let’s look at Cornelius and three ways in which God prepared him for hearing the gospel.  Look at verse one.  1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”

One way God prepared Cornelius is: he was a centurion.   A centurion had some level of authority over 100 men in the Roman army and was like a non-commissioned officer today who, as then, are the backbone of the army. The historian Polybius says this about Roman centurions, “Centurions are required to be …good leaders, able when hard-pressed to stand fast and die at their post.”  Centurions were promoted to that position because they were judged loyal to their commanders and they followed orders to the letter, even when it meant their certain death.  That’s the kind of person Cornelius had been trained to be.  With those expressions of the common grace of God in centurions, it’s no wonder that at least three of them are mentioned in the New Testament in a very positive light.  The best known is in Matthew eight where a centurion displays such great faith to Jesus that “…he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.   The centurion explained this grace by relating it to his role in the Roman army.  For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this’ and he does it. 

The centurion clearly was given God’s grace by means of his training as a soldier who knew that when someone has authority, there is real power to accomplish things and for someone with the demonstrated authority of Jesus, that meant the power to heal his servant--long distance.  This is not to say that all soldiers make better followers of Christ, but when the centurions mentioned in the New Testament are portrayed in a positive light with regard to spiritual things—even more positively than the Jews—that’s no accident.  When an authority over Cornelius told him to do something, even something that seemed bizarre to him, he was conditioned to obey without question or hesitation and that’s just what Cornelius does here.  God had been preparing him for years, he just didn’t know it.  A second way God prepared Cornelius is he put a hunger in his heart for the God of Israel.  Luke labors this point when, in verse two he refers to Cornelius as “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”

 Cornelius was like many Gentiles in the Roman Empire.  They could not accept the fairy-tale like religion of the pagan gods of Rome and were attracted to the simplicity of a faith with one God whose wisdom was far above the deities of Rome.  These Gentiles often went to the Jewish synagogues to hear the Word of God and pray and were in many ways better  “Jews” than most of the Jews of their era.  They just didn’t “go all the way” and become proselytes, which would have required circumcision.  They called these Gentiles “God-fearers” and if you look at the description of Cornelius given to Peter in verse 22 it says, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man.”  To “fear God” was to rightly relate to him in Biblical language.  We see the fruit of Cornelius’ faith in his generosity to the poor and his continual prayers to God.  Of how many of us could it be said, “He/she prayed continually?”  This man hungered after God and Luke wants us to see God’s grace in him.

Cornelius was familiar with God—so much so that when, in his vision, an angel of God came and said to him “Cornelius,” Cornelius says (after a moment of terror), “What is it, Lord?”  Not, “What is it Zeus?” or, “What is it Diana” or any of the other Roman pantheon of gods. He knows God well enough from hearing the word of God in the synagogue and his countless hours in prayer that he knows who is addressing him.  Contrast his response with Saul’s on the road to Damascus.  He responded to God’s appearance, not with “What is it Lord?” but with “Who are you, Lord?”  God recognizes and accepts Cornelius’ worship as pleasing to him.  In verse four the angel says to Cornelius, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial offering before God.  This is a remarkable statement for this angel to make to a Gentile.

Gentiles were not allowed into the part of the temple where the sacrifices and offerings were given to God—that was for Jews only. Yet this angel refers to this Gentile worship of God using the worship language of the Jewish priesthood.  We know that when the Jews with right hearts offered sacrificial animals to God, the smoke ascended as a pleasing aroma to him.  But there are also Old Testament texts that use this priestly language for other expressions of worship.  In Psalm 141:2, the Psalmist says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”  David, after his sin with Bathsheba says in Psalm 51:16, “You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite hear, O God, you will not despise.” David implies what the prophets later explicitly pronounce.  That is—the smell of burning animal flesh is meaningless to God—even an abomination to him—if it is not accompanied by the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart of worship.  We see this language in the New Testament where, in Philippians Paul refers to monetary gifts given by a brother as, “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”  Paul expands this understanding of priestly offerings to the point where he says to a church with many Gentiles in it at Rome that they are to offer their bodies as “living sacrifices.” 

What’s remarkable here is that the angel is using this priestly language of worship to describe a Gentile’s prayer and gifts to the poor.  This man hungered for God.  Another part of Cornelius’ preparation was this vision he had about 3 o’clock that afternoon.  Again, we see God’s sovereign grace here because the vast majority of Roman centurions would have been completely confused by such a vision.  But God had prepared Cornelius as a devout man who would recognize this as a vision from God.  The angel instructs Cornelius what to do. “5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.”   As soon as the angel leaves, Cornelius acts—first, he related what had happened to him in this vision.  Then he sends his men 35 miles up the coast to Joppa.  Luke wants us to see that this act of instant obedience did not occur in a vacuum.  Cornelius was one of the very few Gentiles alive at the time who would have been able respond this way and the reason is because God had sovereignly prepared him to do just that.

Now let’s look at what God did to prepare Peter to obey what would have been an even more difficult command than what God commanded Cornelius.  As we saw last week, Peter had been in Samaria preaching the gospel and healing the sick and is staying with a tanner named Simon in Joppa.  Let’s read what God did for Peter to prepare him beginning with verse nine, “9 The next day, as they [the men representing Cornelius] were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.”

 Look at what God did in his sovereign grace to prepare Peter for this amazing shift in the wind headed his way.  First, in preparation for this vision Peter was hungry.  This is obviously important to Luke or he wouldn’t have included it.  There is no reason to record something as mundane as Peter’s appetite unless it’s important to the story.  God waits until Peter is hungry to give him a vision of animals that he has never eaten before and had never thought he could eat, but is told to “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”  God knows the relationship between the body and the soul and Peter’s hunger makes him more open to what follows.  You are much more willing to try to eat something you have never eaten before when you are hungry.  Second, the vision itself sets the table for Peter as we see in verses 11-16.

This sheet—or something like a sheet, comes down from heaven filled with animals both clean and unclean and Peter hears a voice, who he recognizes as the Lord say, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”  Peter protested when God told him to eat something ceremonially unclean.  This is not Peter being impetuous—it’s Peter responding like a man who had carefully observed God’s food laws all his life and who was now being told by the Author of those laws to break them by eating ceremonially unclean animals.  This hits a brick wall with Peter—much like if God appeared to you in a dream and told you to marry another spouse in addition to the one you have. God would never do because that is a MORAL law, not a ceremonial law, but this command would have felt that repulsive to Peter.  Peter didn’t yet understand something about the ceremonial Law—in this case, the food laws.  This Law is found in Leviticus 20.  God says to his people, “…I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. 25 You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. 26 You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.

Do you hear God’s rationale for these food laws?  It’s not because there is anything inherently evil about the food.  No, the entire point of this law and most of the ceremonial laws was to culturally separate the Jews as God’s distinct people from the pagan nations.  Even today, one of the distinct differences between cultures is the food.  God had the Jews abstain from certain foods as a way to express that they were separated from other nations and belonged to him.  Now, as God prepares to make BOTH Jews and Gentiles his people, is that separation of the Jews any longer necessary?  No.  Even more importantly, Jesus Christ came and perfectly obeyed all those food laws and died for the sins of those who didn’t—along with everyone else he died for.  Jesus fulfilled all these ceremonial laws within himself.  The Law’s major function was to point to Jesus and when Jesus had accomplished his redemptive mission, he fulfilled those laws—they weren’t in force any longer.  Peter didn’t yet understand all this, so God gives him this amazing vision three times.  The Law says truth is established out of the mouths of two or three witnesses.  God gives it three times to emphasize its authority.

Third, Peter is prepared through God’s sovereign grace that is manifest in the precise orchestration of everything in this incident.  The timing of all this is phenomenal.  Verse nine tells us that just as Peter is beginning to witness this vision, these men sent from Cornelius were “approaching the city.  God has them on this perfectly coordinated collision course.  Immediately after Peter had the vision, Luke records in verse 17, “17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there.”  How’s that for timing!  Just as this is fresh in his mind and before Satan or Peter’s prejudices have a chance to try to explain this vision away, these men knock on Simon’s door and in that moment, the Spirit says to Peter, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”  Do you hear the precise sequencing of all that?!  God not only gives Peter the vision, but immediately—with no delay—and, having been commanded by the Spirit , in the next moment, God uses others he had never met to begin to show him what it meant.  And so verse 21 says, “21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?”  

Peter had the vision, the Spirit speaks to him and the men come at just the right time.  He was obviously compelled by all this because the account concludes with, “So he invited them in to be his guests.  The next day he rose and went away with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him.”  At this point, Peter is absolutely prepared to do something that 30 minutes earlier he would have found completely repulsive.  He is now ready to offer the gospel of Jesus Christ…to Gentiles.  The table is now set for this seismic event in salvation history. In the remaining few moments, let’s think about some specific application from this text for us, who God may right now be preparing for a new thing.  First, as we think about Peter’s case, we see what is, from a human perspective, a series of coincidences. Peter’s hunger accompanies the vision; the men arrive at the same time as the Spirit commands Peter.  We know God carefully orchestrated all of that and that tells us something about one way God prepares us for a new change in direction.  That is—frequently, when God calls us to “a new thing,” he will confirm it in multiple ways, often through these kinds of “coincidences.”

You begin to sense God may want you to quit your job and go into something else that will serve his purposes better.  If that is from God, you may very well find several people or emails or books or articles all referencing that option when, before this time you have seldom if ever been confronted by it.  Those can be cues from God and we shouldn’t miss them.  Second, expect the Holy Spirit to confirm any divine revelation you receive.  Divine revelation in this case meant a vision, but for most of us the divine revelation will come from God’s word.  You begin to be burdened for the homeless when that burden did not exist in you before.  You have been reading some of the great social justice texts in the Bible and your heart is stirred in a new way.  If that is from God, the Holy Spirit will continue to press on you after you’ve put the Bible down.  He will deeply and sometimes relentlessly impress on your heart, or in some way confirm to you what you have been hearing from God through the Scriptures.

In the case of Cornelius, we see the most frequent means God uses to prepare his people for radical shifts in the direction of their life and ministry.  That is—we are often best prepared for a new thing from God by simply being faithful in day-to-day obedience to his word and practicing spiritual disciplines.   It’s no coincidence that God just happened to speak to Cornelius…who prayed continually.  Peter also had his vision while in prayer.  Many of us could bear witness to the fact that--it’s when we are closeted in with God in prayer that we become burdened or impressed by things or people or ministries that even hours before meant little or nothing to us.  This is even more powerful when you pray after you have renewed your mind through a good time of Bible study and meditation.  What prepared Cornelius for this radical change of direction was the long hours he had spent in the synagogues under the ministry of the word and his countless hours communing with God in prayer.  Also, the potential personal sacrifices that might have been implicit in his upcoming meeting with Peter were not daunting to Cornelius, because his lifestyle was already sacrificial through the giving of all those alms.  He didn’t need to die a new death to meet with Peter—he was dying daily to his selfish desires.

Many believers wonder why these kind of dramatic shifts in direction never happen to them.  If you’ve ever wondered that, ask yourself these questions—how’s your prayer life?  Do you even provide a venue through prayer for God to communicate with you?  Are you in the Word of God regularly—meditating on it so it can sink deeply into your mind and change your thinking in certain areas necessary for you to move in a different direction?  One reason many people stay in the same place spiritually and never seem to feel any burden for any ministry beyond the sometimes paltry level they are doing, is because they are serving their idols more than they are serving God.  Maybe your friends or family have become idols and you could never relocate because that would take you away from them.  Maybe your job is an idol. If so, it will be hard for you to loosen your white knuckle grip on it to make room for anything new. 

Maybe it’s your lifestyle—there are other things or ministries you could do for God, but they don’t come with a three-car garage—a shift would mean a smaller house and lower paycheck.  Maybe your personal security is your idol and you are just plain too scared of getting hurt or sick or dying to move out for God—your unbelief paralyzes you.  Maybe it’s your self-image.  You get your identity from your current role or your job—your sense of who you are is tightly wound up in it.  If that’s the case, you’ll be deaf to any voice from God calling you to do anything else.  It would feel like he is calling you to be someone you are not and he would never do that! Maybe it’s your church—though that is rare these days.  The point is—if we walk closely with Jesus every day, the idols are confessed and repented of before they become strongholds and we can hear God much more clearly.  Praise God for his sovereign grace and may we by his grace be in a place of such liberty and love for him that his wind can at any moment, blow us anywhere he wants us.

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