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"The Gentile Pentecost"

MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 3, 2010 FROM ACTS 10:23 - 48

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          This week we want to continue thinking about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentiles in Acts chapter ten.  Before this event, the people of God, except for a few exceptions, were limited to Jews only.  We will look at Luke’s actual record of the event of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring on the gentiles next time.  This morning, I believe the Lord would have us spend some time considering the magnitude of this event.  The idea of non-Jews receiving the Holy Spirit would have been seen as absolutely unthinkable to the Jews.  Like dry rain or dark light—in their eyes, these gentiles were unclean dogs!  Last week, we only really mentioned the incredible weightiness of this event.  This week, we want to place this event within the larger framework of biblical history so that we can see just how earth-shattering the inclusion of the gentiles into the people of God really is.   My hope is that then we will be able to more greatly appreciate this stunning development when we read of this gentile, Cornelius and those with him receiving the Holy Spirit and became part of God’s people—his church.  The glory of this event is best seen as we seek after what this event reveals about God.  This morning we’ll see that the salvation of the gentiles powerfully reveals God’s invincible faithfulness to his promises.   When God makes a promise, he is invincibly faithful to keep it.

            When Cornelius and his friends receive the Holy Spirit, we must remember that event represents the beginning of the fulfillment of a promise God made over 2000 years earlier.  Way back in Genesis, a man named Abram (later Abraham) was wandering around in southern Babylonia when God spoke to him.  His words are recorded in Genesis 12. “1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.  That’s an astonishing promise to make.  We find out in other texts that God promises Abram that it’s through his offspring—through one of his descendants this blessing will come.  It will come to all the “families” which means all the various peoples with distinct cultures and ethnicities and languages—(we call them “people groups”) in the world.  There are about 17,000[1] of these and all of them will be blessed through Abraham. The vast majority of those people groups are non-Jews or, gentiles and the first gentile saved was Cornelius here in Acts chapter ten.

          We know that this blessing to all the peoples comes through Jesus Christ—who was a Jew descended from Abraham and who died on the cross to forgive people of their sins and bring them out of spiritual darkness into a relationship with the living God.  That is surely the best possible blessing and it came as promised through a child of Abraham, Jesus!  There are today about 7000 people groups where less than one percent of those groups have yet to trust in Christ and have never had the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit.  The time lapse between the promise and its fulfillment tells us that God is not in any hurry.  He waits about 2000 after the fall of Adam to choose Abram as the head of his new people.  Then, he waits about another 2000 years to begin to fulfill the promise he made to Abraham—a thousand years are as a day to him according to Peter [2 Pet 3:8].  Not only is God’s faithfulness seen in this fulfillment after 2000 years of waiting, the invincibility of his faithfulness is also found in the obstacles that had to be overcome in order for this promise to be fulfilled over these two millennia between God’s promise to Abraham and the salvation of Cornelius and his gentile friends. 

God faced two powerful forces opposing him at every moment, at every turn during those two millennia.  First, is human sinfulness, which always opposes God’s plans and the second is the adversary, Satan who furiously worked to prevent this promise from being fulfilled.  The fulfillment of this promise to Abraham would greatly expand the kingdom of God on earth through Christ.  God would establish a new people of God where his reign would be manifest globally. The salvation of the gentiles meant that there would be a new, Holy Spirit-empowered and greatly expanded army of believers who would be able, through Christ’s victory over Satan on the cross, to successfully wage war against Satan in every part of the globe.  When you think over the 2000 years between the promise and Cornelius, there are millions of times on a human level that this whole thing could have been completely derailed.  One reason for that is that God had to work through a group of people—the Jews, through whom Christ would come.  And they are consistently portrayed in the Old Testament as rebellious, stiff-necked and arrogant.  Only a small percentage of his chosen people at any one time actually cared about God and his promise to Abraham. 

Many people tend to think of the history of Israel as a mixture of good and bad with the bad ultimately winning out over the good after a long struggle.  There really wasn’t much of a struggle.  Texts like Ezekiel 16 tell us that from almost the very beginning, the history of Israel is largely as story of spiritual adultery.  That is Israel is God’s bride who serially cheats on her heavenly husband by going after other gods.  Ezekiel metaphorically tells us that Israel was like a naked and bloody newborn girl in the wilderness rescued by God.  He cleaned her up and protected her as she grew.  She reached young adulthood and God began to richly bless her as his wife, but his blessings to her only caused her to trust in herself and her beauty.  She sought out other husbands whom she preferred to God.  Israel’s history is a record of continual rebellion with a few bright stars in the midst who loved God and pursued an intimate relationship with him.

 We can start this chronicling of unfaithfulness with Abram himself.  God has promise that Abram’s wife Sarai would be the mother of the second generation of God’s people.  The problem is—she is barren.  So, Sarai and Abram put their heads together and “solved” this problem by having Abraham make a baby with his Egyptian servant girl named Hagar.  God could have stopped things right there over this breach of faith and been perfectly justified.  Christ was not going to come through an Egyptian, but--through the child of promise, Isaac.  God overcomes this sin by making Abram the father of the Arabs through Hagar.  Then he miraculously allows Sarai to conceive and bear Isaac, the child of promise when she is very old—the Jewish line through which Jesus would come is preserved.

          Another major obstacle to the fulfillment of this promise to Abraham is found in his great-grandchildren--the 12 sons of Jacob—who for much of his life was a cheat and manipulator of the highest order.  These twelve, whose offspring became the twelve tribes of Israel, are according to the Genesis account not really ready for prime time.  The one with the most potential is Joseph, but his brothers sell him into slavery. As it turns out, the brother whose tribe Jesus came out of is Judah, who marries an unnamed Canaanite idolater and later unknowingly sleeps with his daughter-in-law, Tamar thinking she was a prostitute.  How do you bring a Savior out of that family line?  Yet, in the amazing grace of God, the child of Judah through whom Jesus would come is one of the twins that Judah fathered with his daughter-in-law—a man named Perez.  You get the idea from the outset that this promise—if it is going to be fulfilled, is going to involve a very messy process.

          The 12 brothers and their families end up relocating to Egypt where the Jews eventually spend 400 years in slavery.  Throughout these centuries, the Jews live within this foreign land, surrounded by foreign people and are drawn to the pagan gods of Egypt.  Yet in spite of that, the blood line of Abraham, through which will come his blessing, remains untainted. The Jews miraculously maintain their distinct national identity even though they were enslaved by foreigners for 400 years.  Compare that to the African American slaves who were taken from their native land in the early 1600’s.  They completely lost their African identity and were almost totally enveloped by American culture and our way of life in less than 250 years.  Think of all the other people groups from Asia and Europe who have immigrated to America.  Within two generations, they are speaking English, marrying Americans and eating at McDonalds.  They live far more like Americans than the people their parents came from.  But in Egypt, God kept his people distinct and he later gave them his law by which they would live.  The problem was--before Moses has even descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, God’s people are cavorting around a pagan golden calf Moses’ brother Aaron had made.  God had physically delivered the Jews out of the enslavement of Egypt, but their hearts still belonged to the pagan gods of the nations.  This is the people God would use to bless all the families of the earth?

          Then there’s the conquest of the Canaanites as the Jews enter the Promised Land.  The conquest begins well, but in the end, the Jews don’t have the perseverance to drive out all the Canaanites and their pagan gods from the land.  The result is--for about the next 1500 years, Satan used these Canaanites who lived among the Jews and their sexualized idol worship to draw away all but a few faithful Jews.  Many of them intermarried with the pagans, threatening the cultural and genetic distinctiveness of Israel.  Only the miraculous, preserving grace of God, given to fulfill his promise to Abram, kept the Jews from many times blending in with all the other pagan nations.  Sadly this sinful mixing of peoples was often instigated by the leaders of Israel.  The Jewish priests became corrupt, mixing Jewish religious practices with pagan religion. The Jewish kings, with a few notable exceptions, not only permitted this intermingling of the peoples, they blazed the trail.  One of the best kings, David was attacked by Satan at the height of his power and in his weakness committed adultery with Bathsheba, killing her husband.  How could the One who would bring this blessing of Abraham to all the families of the earth—when David had done such a wretched thing?  But again, in the amazing grace of God we know that it was in fact, a son from this adulterous union, Solomon who became the genetic ink in Abraham’s line that led to Jesus.  In addition to the Jewish priests and kings, their prophets, who were supposed to warn them about their idolatry, were killed by the Jews if they were faithful.  Most of them lied to the Jews, encouraging them to sin with the neighboring pagan nations.  In the midst of the mostly rotten priests and prophets and kings, there remained a faithful remnant, a very small percentage of Jews kept by God and who he used to keep the pilot light of Abraham’s line burning—sometimes by a flicker.

          This doesn’t mean that God didn’t discipline his people—his justice demanded it.   He exiled his people from the Promised Land for their incessant idolatry—the northern Kingdom to Assyria in 721 B.C and later, the southern kingdom Judah, to Babylon in 586 B.C.  Judah spent 70 years living among these pagan people.  Again, the cultural, linguistic and ethnic lines necessary to fulfill God’s Abraham’s promise were miraculously preserved as they lived in the midst of these idol-worshipping aliens.  As a people, they did not become part of the Assyrian or Babylonian culture even though that would have been the natural thing for them to do.  By God’s grace, they remained distinct as a nation and the promise to Abraham was kept alive.  After the exile, God returned his people to the Promised Land.  Not long after the Jews had been returned from exile however, they went back to their idolatrous ways and again began intermarrying with the surrounding nations.  Yet another satanic assault was launched against Israel to destroy the line of Abraham and therefore God’s promise to him.  This time, by God’s grace it was thwarted by one of the good leaders, Nehemiah.  The Jews were never again an autonomous nation in Bible times.  They were always under the rule of some pagan nation.  Yet in spite of this foreign rule and the pressures that came with that to blend in with their ruling culture, God’s grace kept the Jews as they maintained their cultural, ethnic and linguistic distinctiveness even though God stopped talking to them in the 400 years leading up to the birth of Christ. 

          This is only a very brief sketch of the Old Testament history of God’s people where again and again and again the Jews—either through their own sin or the Satanic assaults against them, come within inches of nullifying God’s promise to Abraham.  Perhaps most remarkable is that, in the midst of these centuries of rebellion by his people, God did not in his wrath wipe them out—though they deserved it times without number.  He kept his people—even if only by a thread at times in part, because of his promise to Abraham.  Finally, Jesus is born—the One God had selected to fulfill the promise to Abram to bless all the nations.  But as we see in the gospels, he was violently opposed even from his birth.  Satan incited King Herod tried to kill him while he was still a toddler.  In Revelation chapter 12, John uses vivid, apocalyptic language to describe Satan’s furious attempts to kill Jesus early.  1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne...”

          Satan pulls out all the stops to destroy this baby, but God sovereignly overcomes him.  Jesus grows up and at about age 30 he begins his ministry.  During his three-year long, miracle-laden ministry he was threatened with death numerous times—a death that would have kept him from completing his mission and therefore rendering God’s promise to Abraham worthless.  Yet he managed to repeatedly escape—even if by inches at times.  Finally, the enemy penetrates Jesus’ inner circle of disciples and Judas ends up betraying him.  He betrays the Lord Jesus and a lethal fatal network of circumstances finally converge and he is sentenced to death—death on a cross.  Yet, that is precisely where God had decided he would defeat Satan.  In the infinite wisdom of God, it was through Jesus’ bloody sacrifice on the cross that the work was done to fulfill the promise of Abraham.  Jesus paid for the sins of ALL God’s people—Jew and gentile.  He therefore enabled them to come to know and love God—he established a New Covenant through his shed blood. 

          This covenant relationship would give his people new hearts so they could now follow him much more faithfully than the Jews under the Old Covenant of Law.  For 2000 years, this army has been on the march to tell those 17,000 people groups about Jesus and as never before, gentile people groups from all over the world are trusting in Christ and receiving the blessing of Abraham through Christ promised over 4000 years ago.  Let me clarify something important now.  That is—God was never in danger of losing his people or being frustrated in his promise!  The point of the history lesson is to magnify God by showing the opposition that only highlights his supremacy.  You don’t know the invincibility of God’s faithfulness until you see what he had to defeat to deliver on his promise.

          Through 2000 years of Old Testament history, in the midst of rebellious sin and idolatry--and countless satanic assaults, God preserved the people of Abraham who seemed hell-bent on destroying themselves.  The reason is: because his faithfulness is invincible to fulfill his promises.  It’s hard to get a handle on all of this so let me illustrate the remarkable protection God gave to Israel through the remarkable protection he gave to a man--George Washington.  You may know that George Washington was known in some circles as “the bullet proof general.”  One story about an early battle with the British and Indians outside of Pittsburgh vividly makes the point.  There were 86 British and American officers involved in that battle; at the end of the battle, George Washington was the only officer who had not been shot off his horse -- he was the only officer left on horseback… The next day, Washington wrote a letter to his family explaining that after the battle was over, he had taken off his jacket and had found four bullet holes through it, yet not a single bullet had touched him; several horses had been shot from under him, but he had not been harmed.   [In the letter]…Washington openly acknowledged that God's hand was upon him, that God had protected him and kept him through that battle. However, the story does not stop here. Fifteen years later, in 1770…George Washington… returned to those same Pennsylvania woods.  An old Indian chief from far away, having heard that Washington had come back to those woods, traveled a long way just to meet with him. He sat down with Washington, …[and told him] that he had been a leader in that battle fifteen years earlier, and that he had instructed his braves to single out all the officers and shoot them down.  Washington had been singled out, and the chief explained that he personally had shot at Washington seventeen different times, but without effect.  Believing Washington to be under the care of the Great Spirit, the chief instructed his braves to cease firing at him.  He then told Washington: I have come to pay homage to the man who is the particular favorite of Heaven, and who can never die in battle.”[2]

          As dramatic as that is as an example of God’s providential protection of one man, it pales in comparison to the 2000 year-long story of God’s protection of his own people, who seemed intent on destroying themselves and rendering useless God’s promise to Abraham.  In Acts chapter ten, when Cornelius and his gentile friends received the Holy Spirit, the angels in heaven surely rejoiced at the invincibility of God’s faithfulness to keep his promise through two millennia of fierce opposition.  The application for us today is simply this—If God is able to invincibly keep a promise for 2000 years in the midst of continual opposition to it, his faithfulness is just as invincible to keep his promises to us.  We hear of this account and are perhaps impressed by it.  But we need to close the loop and apply it to us today.  As it relates to God’s promises to you in the Bible, you may think, “Yes, there are many promises in there, but I’ve sinned so much, I must be disqualified from receiving anything God has promised me.” That’s a lie that flies in the face of what we’ve just seen from biblical history.  In the case of Judah’s sleeping with his daughter in law and David’s wretched sins surrounding Bathsheba, God not only wasn’t prevented from being faithful, he actually used those sins redemptively to help fulfill his promise.   He takes what the enemy intends for evil and uses it for good!  Paul says in Second Timothy, “13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” 

          God’s faithfulness is not dependent on our performance.  If it were, none of us would receive anything from God. Its grace—the kind of grace we saw repeatedly in our brief survey of Old Testament history. I hope this has stoked your faith in the promises of God and in that hope, I want to give some promises you can take to the bank based on God’s invincible faithfulness to keep his promises.  Isaiah 43:1-2 1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  Some of you feel like you are under water right now and the raging river and the fires are all around you.  God promises that he is with you in the midst of those—protecting you--believe that! 

Here’s a promise we all need to claim both individually and as a church.  Isaiah 43:19 says, “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. Do you believe that?  Do you believe he is making a way in the spiritual wilderness and rivers in the spiritual desert of this church?  He is faithful!  Jesus makes a promise in Matthew six that is especially appropriate in these tough economic times.  He says “28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? God will provide for our needs—we have his promise on that!  Are you feeling exhausted by life?  Jesus says in Matthew 11:28, “28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  If we will lay our burdens at the feet of Jesus, he will give us rest in the midst of the hurricanes of life.  James 1:2-4 says, “2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  God’s faithfulness assures us that the trials that come into our lives are there for the purpose of making us steadfast in our faith, perfect and complete, lacking nothing. That’s why we can “count it all joy.”  Do you believe that about the trials you are experiencing?  Finally, First John says, “9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  After you sin, do you confess it as grievous sin and believe that you are forgiven?  Do you believe God?  Or, do you doubt this promise and condemn yourself for what seems a suitable length of time until you finally feel forgiven?   There are hundreds more—positive, life-giving promises, all rooted in the invincible faithfulness of God.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
              There are other promises of a different sort in the Bible and they are just as reliable as any other in Scripture.  Paul says in Galatians 5:19-21,”19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  That’s a promise in the form of a warning.  We can just as surely bank on that one as any of the others because they all have the same ground—God’s faithfulness.  He is faithful to provide for those in need and he is faithful to judge those who live a lifestyle of sin, no matter how much they claim to be a Christian.  Paul says in First Corinthians chapter six, “9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”  If you die in unrepentant sin like these, you will taste, not the grace of God, but his judgment.  God’s faithfulness guarantees it!             
          One final promise is in Romans 10:13, “13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. If you are here today and you practice those sins Paul lists or any other sin and you are grieved by your sin—convinced that you are guilty before a holy God who demands perfection—if you now know that you are deserving of his eternal wrath, God has promised a way out of that darkness.  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Cry out to God—call on him to save you and base your cry on what Jesus did on the cross to forgive you and cleanse you of your sin.  Jesus Christ died to pay the eternal penalty for your sin, to give you a new heart to love and obey God and to give you a new standing with God.  He will not only forgive your sin, he will give you the power to overcome it through Christ.  If you believe that promise and need to repent of your sin—whether you are new to church, or whether you claim to be a Christian, but find yourself living just like the world, trust in Christ by turning from your sin and God will cleanse you and give you joy in Christ.  May God give us the grace to believe all God’s promises so that we may delight in his promises of blessing and take heed at his promises of judgment for our joy and his glory.


[1] http://www.joshuaproject.net/

[2] http://www.garymcleod.org/bullet.htm

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