MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 24, 2010 FROM ACTS 11:1 - 18
This week, we return to our series of messages from the book of Acts. Last time, we looked at one of the most important events in salvation history—the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church. No longer was the gospel of Jesus Christ only for the Jews. As God had promised 2000 years earlier to Abraham, God would bless all the families of the earth through his offspring, which we know to be Jesus Christ, a Jew—a descendent of Abraham. That promise of blessing has now come to the Gentiles through the gospel as they repent of their sins and are forgiven and made righteous in Christ. This week, as we begin chapter 11, you may have noticed something about Luke’s account of this confrontation between Peter and the circumcision party. That is—Luke at many points repeats himself almost verbatim from his initial account in chapter ten on the coming of the Spirit to the Gentiles.
When a lengthy portion of Scripture is repeated in succession almost verbatim, that tells us something. Why would God repeat himself almost exactly with back-to–back accounts of the same event? One reason is of course to emphasize the importance of this event. In the Bible, repetition means emphasis and that is surely part of Luke’s point here. The gospel going to the Gentiles was huge and Luke wants us to see that through his repetition. A second reason is to highlight those very few areas where the two texts differ. In a section where there is so much repetition, the few areas of difference stand out and are important. We will look at one of those as we move on. Another reason relates to the context here. The reason Luke repeats the account is because this account was written because certain Jews confronted Peter about this, accusing him of sin and compromise. Luke wants us to know that not everyone was happy about the ministry to the Gentiles. One clear implication is that we are to learn from how Peter responds to this opposition about something we know from chapter ten is surely a new and glorious work of God. Although I seldom make the human interactions within a text the main issue, the subject matter is so appropriate for where our church is right now that we will spend some time there this morning. Luke’s account also leads us to a greater appreciation of the gospel, as we’ll see later. Today, by God’s grace we will see in Peter’s response to those who confront him: How we in the body of Christ are to respond to those among us who are opposed to God doing a new thing in our midst. Many folks here, including myself see God doing many new things here and we need to know how to respond to it.
To call the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church a “new thing” is a bit like calling Lake Superior a fishin’ hole. This is one of the preeminent “new things” God does in the Bible. Let’s look at three truths within this context that will help us as a church honor God as he does new things here. First, we must recognize that any new movement of God will be opposed by some people. Let me clarify something before we develop this. I am not saying that all the new things suggested by church leadership or members of the body are from God. Just because something is new does not mean it is from God and if a new direction for the church suggested by the leadership is not driven by the truth of Scripture and a desire to see Christ magnified, it should be summarily rejected by the church.
In this case of the Gentiles coming into the church the new thing is obviously from God. When God begins a new thing, opposition should be expected by leadership and they should be praying in advance that they will respond to the criticism with the gentleness, kindness, wisdom and patience of Christ. Sometimes the opposition comes because there is a simple misunderstanding of what is being proposed, or because new things jus scare some people who enjoy the security of the status quo. That may be part of what was happening here with the circumcision folks. They just didn’t understand this new thing about the Gentiles and so they opposed it by criticizing Peter. It is also true however, that they brought some theological and personal prejudices into this, so their criticism of Peter was more than a simple misunderstanding. They had an axe to grind. The circumcision men had heard about this incident somehow and were not happy about it. Rather than give Peter, the leader of the apostles, charitable judgment or--the benefit of the doubt, they instead assume Peter has sinned grievously.
They don’t come to Peter with this demeanor, “Peter, please bear with us, but we heard something that disturbed us and we wanted to ask you about it. We heard that in the course of whatever happened to this Roman centurion and these other Gentiles, that you made yourself unclean by eating with them. We’re not sure what to make of that—could you tell us what happened?” That would have been a godly way to handle this. We are certainly free to question leadership when we are not clear about what is being suggested. Instead, they level a critical accusation at Peter in verse three, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” These men had put Peter on trial, had witnesses testify against him—convicted and sentenced him—GUILTY! AND SENTENCED TO HARSH and perhaps public REBUKE. The problem was of course—Peter never had a chance to take the witness stand. Notice also that their words are almost certainly delivered with some passion because it says that they “criticized him.” They were critical and they were a self-appointed purity-squad whose “ministry” was to police their fellow Jews when they believed one of them had violated Jewish ceremonial purity.
This accusation (the fact that it is an accusation ought to tell us something of its origin as being from the Accuser of the brethren) doubtless came from men who were worked up about this. In their mind, Peter was guilty and they were divinely commissioned to punish the guilty. They were right and Peter was wrong and as we learned a few years ago from Peacemaker ministries, we are never more dangerous than when we are right. It’s when we are absolutely certain we’re right that the powder keg of arrogance we all have just under the surface easily ignites. It’s when we are sure we are right and our opponent is wrong, that we are most in danger of self-righteousness. And based on what Luke tells us about this group later on in Acts, this criticism may very well have been soaked in self-righteous indignation. They are impassioned because they are sure they have got Peter dead to rights on this one and they want him to know about it.
There is also always opposition to a new thing from God because Satan is always against anything God is doing and he often uses God’s people to try to stop what God is doing. He uses the sinful strongholds we have allowed him to build in our lives to blind us to God’s will and oppose it. Here’s how it looks. All of us have idols we struggle with. Some people actively struggle against them and find victory, but many in church aren’t struggling—they have made peace with them—long ago they rationalized their idols into good—even necessary things. This is often wrapped inside a theological or spiritual justification—“God wants this for me—he deems this to be important and it’s his blessing to me.” In truth, they are enslaved to it and don’t know it—they’re deceived. They have an idol they refuse to give up and many times don’t even see. People with those unrecognized idols get very irritated when something happens in a church (or anywhere) to endanger their idols. It may be a ministry program or a church leader or a tradition or a particular room in the church or…it can be almost anything. And whenever God moving in a church, it always means the destruction of some people’s idols—that’s part of why he is doing the new thing.
And Satan knows where our idols are—how they blind us to the truth and how our idolatrous affection for them will cause us to behave irrationally to protect them. So, when a fresh movement of God threatens them, Satan walks right through that open door of idolatry in our heart and he pounces on that area of spiritual darkness. As the Prince of darkness, he has some authority over that darkness, so he doesn’t have to exert much effort at all to influence a blind, deceived believer to oppose God’s work and cause trouble in church when their idol is in danger. In fact, one way to recognize our idols is the presence of this irrational passion and righteous indignation that we show when they are threatened. Often, when we say something like, “That guy really knows how to push my buttons,” what is true is—“That guy really knows how to expose and threaten my idols.”
The negative example of the circumcision men teach us first that--those leaders who suggest God is doing a new thing in church must be met with charitable judgment—the benefit of the doubt--which takes the form of enquiries, not accusations. Second, we must look hard to make sure whether our criticisms are rooted in the infallible Scripture, or are instead based only in a treasured idol. Third, if we become easily angered over a new thing purported to be from God, we should first take the log out of our own eye by looking for the idols that this new thing in some way threatens. God wants to use conflict to sanctify us, but that won’t happen unless we humble ourselves and ask him to seek us and try us, expose our idols so that we can repent of them. Finally, if after that is done—clear evidence indicates that what is being proposed is NOT God doing a new thing, but is a Biblically indefensible proposition coming from leadership—then the church is obligated to speak the truth in love and raise their objections. And if it’s an issue that impinges on the gospel or in any way genuinely diminishes Christ, they should be very tenacious in their opposition.
A second truth we see here is: when someone is critical of us and it is clear from Scripture that we are correct, We must humble ourselves and do our best to lovingly compel those who oppose us to join us in this new thing from God. Contrast the circumcision men with Peter who, by God’s grace shows us how to respond to criticism. First, he gives these men a methodical explanation of the events they were concerned about. He patiently explains to these men what had happened, leaving nothing of importance out of this re-telling of this new thing from God. Notice, what Peter DOESN’T DO. He doesn’t pull rank—he doesn’t say, “You know, I don’t recall Jesus making you an apostle—I’m the leader of the apostles, so back off--who are you to accuse me of sin?” There are no power plays here. Neither does he return fire. “Look, you men know nothing of the grace of God—everything is LAW for you! Well, I’ll tell you something--I was there—I saw the Gentiles receive the Spirit so why don’t you and your self-righteous, legalistic chums take a hike!” When we replay our recent conflicts with others in our minds, that’s often the way we fantasize about them. I recently heard someone say, “You never lose an argument in a rerun.” The reason is because our sinful flesh loves the idea of crushing the opposition—it craves the “gotcha moment” that leaves the opposition humiliated and futilely stammering for words. We love the slam dunk, the check mate where we emotionally incinerate our opponent and then remove ourselves from the presence of their charred remains. That’s so wicked…so loveless.
Peter doesn’t listen to his flesh. Instead of being defensive or lowering himself to the level of these men, he instead humbles himself and carefully explains his actions in the hopes that he might win these brothers over. His main point is to convince these men that these admittedly new and curious developments were not a result of his own initiative, but were from start to finish authored and orchestrated by God. He loves these men and wants them to see that this outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles is from God. Notice the numerous ways in which Peter makes this all about God. He’s so God-centered here. First, in verse five he speaks of a trance he was in and then a vision he receives. He wants these men to see that this unique act was from God because it bore the divine fingerprints of his supernatural involvement in this heavenly vision. Second, in verse seven Peter admits to these men that he was originally as incensed as they were at the notion of any form of Gentile defilement. He works to empathize with these men by stating that at one time, he felt just like they do. It took a powerful personal encounter with God to change his mind on this and he says in verse nine, referring to God, “But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do no call common.” This new thing—this new understanding of what is clean and unclean came from God, not Peter and he reports that this vision happened three times, which means it meets with the Biblical requirement for evidence—two or three witnesses. Peter knows that would have been helpful to these Jews.
Third, in verse 12 he relates that it is the Spirit of God who compelled him to go with the Gentiles, “And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction...” Peter wants these circumcision men to know that it is God himself who is saying--not only--there is no distinction between clean and unclean animals, there’s no distinction between “clean” and “unclean” people. GOD said that!—Peter had no independent desire to go to Cornelius’ house--he was being obedient to the Spirit of God. Fourth, in verse 12, we see a detail in this account that Luke did not include in his original account in chapter ten. He says this about his journey to Cornelius’ house, “These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.” We don’t get this detail in the original telling because it wasn’t important to Luke’s original audience how many men were with Peter. But to these men of the circumcision party, this would have been a sign of God’s intervention because there was a total of seven Jewish witnesses to what God did among the Gentiles. Seven is the number of perfection or completion. Do you hear how Peter is going out of his way to tell this story in such a way as to help these men understand that this new thing and his eating with the Gentiles is from God?
He continues this in verse 15 when he says, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.” Again, Peter stresses that this Gentile Pentecost had nothing to do with him. He hadn’t even finished his sermon—he had barely started. It was manifestly clear the Spirit didn’t fall in response to his preaching or any prayer he prayed. This took Peter completely by surprise. This was God initiating—God acting—God moving in a way so as to completely minimize Peter’s role in this. In verse 16 he again draws attention to the divine component by quoting Jesus himself—“…how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Peter does two things there. First, he emphasizes that this is the baptism of God the Spirit—this was a supernatural act that Jesus had predicted. Second, by claiming that this recent event was a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy, he is once again pointing to the fact that this was of God. In verse 17, he makes his most explicit claim to the divine origin of this event. He says, “If God gave the same gift to them as he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” Peter is saying—“If I had tried to stop this—I would have been in direct opposition to God.”
Again and again and again, Peter labors to help these brothers see that this new work among the Gentiles was from God and in so doing, patiently attempts to diffuse their anger and gently answer their criticism. And by the grace of God, it worked. Verse 18 tells us, “When they heard these things they fell silent...” They had to shut their mouths because Peter had so compellingly made the case that this was of God, that for these men to say anything in opposition to this would have put them in opposition to God as well. Luke concludes the account, “And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” They were convinced this was of God…at least, for the time being and they rejoice. We must hear how God honored the efforts Peter made to lovingly compel these men to believe him. These men went from opposing Peter to supporting him—they went from being critical to being joyful. They went from seeing this as Peter’s compromising sin, to the miraculous work of God.
When I read this account of the grace of God at work in Peter as he responds to criticism, my reaction is—“I want to be that patient and gentle in the face of opposition and criticism.” There are countless possible ways we can respond to criticism. We can return fire—we can become defensive—we can sulk and feel sorry for ourselves—we can slay our opponents by gossiping about them--how unreasonable and uncaring the other person was for sinning against us, portraying ourselves as the abused victim. We can ignore it because we have so little respect for the person criticizing us; we convince ourselves that God couldn’t possibly be using them to speak to us. Even though we know full well God regularly uses carnal, sinful people to accomplish his purposes. Those responses to criticism come very easily to our sinful flesh. The question for us is—how was Peter able to do this very difficult thing without manifesting any of these poor responses? How did he remain so gentle and long-suffering in the midst of conflict? The short answer to the question is—he was under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Only God can do this—so we must crying out to him to help us in these situations.
Ultimately, Luke’s purpose of this story is not primarily to teach us a moral lesson about how to handle criticism. It models that and is helpful that way, but like all other texts in the Bible, this one points to the gospel. At the heart of this conflict was an implied disagreement about the gospel—as even Peter himself is increasingly discovering the implications of the gospel. The men of the circumcision party were convinced that God would never allow the Gentiles to come to faith until they first became Jews. “Peter—you shouldn’t have eaten with them—they weren’t Jews—they were unclean.” If they had converted to Judaism, it would have been fine for Peter to stay with them and eat with them. As it was, these Gentiles were uncircumcised and had not converted to Judaism. The circumcision party saw them as unclean and for Peter to eat with them was a violation of their holiness code which wasn’t the Law, but they equated it with the Law.
They believed that in order to be acceptable to God who said, “Be holy, even as I am holy” you have to be holy. And for them, being holy was about externals—things like what you eat and who you eat with. If you were obedient there and met a boatload of other requirements, then God would accept and love you and here were these Gentiles who hadn’t done any of this and Peter eats with them? God sets his seal of approval on them by causing his Holy Spirit to baptize them in the same way he did the Jews at Pentecost? Peter’s story was very compelling because he proved that this new thing was from God. But we know from later in the New Testament and even later in Acts, nagging questions about Gentile followers of Christ still remained. Even though these Jews ultimately believed God did this with the Gentiles in chapter 11, they still didn’t understand and were wrong on many issues related to the Gentiles. It was men with similar prejudices to these men who opposed Paul at the church in Galatia, claiming that in order to be acceptable to God, you must be circumcised.
In response to that claim, Paul doesn’t say that this is a slight misunderstanding of the gospel, or that these men needed to sharpen their thinking a bit. No, he said to require a person to DO something to be saved was NO gospel—it was a satanic counterfeit to claim that in order to be right with God, you had to DO something for God—like be circumcised or not eat with Gentiles. One reason Paul said these men didn’t have the true gospel is because in the Old Testament God says, “be holy, even as I am holy.” But Jesus comes along in Matthew chapter five and clarifies what that means. He says in Matthew 5:48, “48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That is--must morally be just like God—perfect. Then and only then can we be acceptable to God. That means that everyone in this room who thinks they are good enough to get to heaven—must be perfect—without flaw—like God himself.
I recently heard a theologian say that “one of few universal axioms in our culture is “nobody’s perfect.” Everyone will agree with that… but what’s so strange about that is--no one seems to be all that troubled by their obvious lack of perfection. Some people just plain don’t know that is what God expects. Others make peace with their imperfections by thinking, “I’m not perfect, but I’m better than a whole lot of the people I know and because nobody’s perfect, God must just have to grade on the curve.” They comfort themselves with the notion that God will certainly let a nice guy like them into heaven. The problem is—there is no curve. If you are trusting in your own performance to be good enough to get you to heaven—the standard is…perfection! God will judge you on the basis of whether or not you were perfect.
And the Bible clearly teaches that if you have anything less than absolute perfection—morally without sin, God must punish your sin. God is just and he would never grade on a curve. He says—if you sin, you die and he’s talking about eternal death in hell. How could he—after making that kind of definitive statement, go back on it and say to someone—“Well, you’re not perfect, but because you are better than so and so, come on in?” He could never say that. What he does say in the Bible is that we can absolutely count on his justice--that is---“he will not let the guilty go unpunished.” He is a just Judge and all those who fail to meet his standard of perfection MUST—be punished. Otherwise, he would cease to be perfect.
The reason Paul became so incensed by these Jews in Galatia who claimed that circumcision got you into heaven is because he knew that circumcision didn’t make you perfect. He knew that there was only one thing in the world that can make a rebel sinner perfect in God’s sight—only one thing that could make a sinner acceptable to a holy, perfect God and it wasn’t by keeping some law. Paul knew that the only thing that could get a sinner to heaven is if a morally perfect man were to come to this world and God would allow that man to substitute himself for the sinner and take his punishment for him to satisfy God’s justice. God would also need somehow to transfer that man’s perfection to those who weren’t perfect. But that wouldn’t be enough because a morally perfect man---even if that were possible--could only save one man—an even exchange. That means that this Person would not only have to be human, he would have to be infinite—he would need to have the capacity to substitute himself for and absorb countless people’s just punishment for sin. Only an infinite being can do that and only God is infinite. A God-man would have to come to earth and live a morally perfect life in thought, word and deed. Then, this God-man would have to do the unspeakable. He would, out of his love for sinners--take on himself—their sin upon himself and then receive from God his just punishment. Then, God would need to transfer his infinite and perfect righteousness to all these people so that could not only be forgiven, but acceptable to God.
The good news—the best possible news is that this is precisely what happened in the Person of Jesus Christ. Paul says it this way as he speaks of God, “21 For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” To be righteous in the Bible is to be acceptable to God. So here’s what sinful, imperfect people must do to get to heaven and is in fact the only thing they can do to get to heaven. They must place their faith in the perfect God-man, Jesus Christ and believe that he took the punishment their sin deserves while he was on the cross. God punished Jesus for the sins of fallen humans—he poured out his holy, perfect wrath on His Son who bore our punishment as our substitute so we would not have to bear it ourselves. In order to benefit from that glorious sacrifice, imperfect people like you and me must do NOTHING but believe that truth. They must believe that the death of Jesus purchases their forgiveness and that in exchange for their sin; Jesus gives them his very righteousness, making them, as an imperfect sinner, acceptable to a perfect God. The Bible teaches that if you don’t believe this good news and demonstrate that belief by turning from your sin in repentance, you can’t have eternal life. All of this is a free gift of God—we do nothing. Luke says of these Gentiles in Acts 11:18, “And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Ask God to give you the gift of repentance as you place your trust in Jesus. As you accept by faith his death on the cross as payment for the penalty of sin that you deserve—as you accept by faith that he has given you his righteousness so that you are acceptable to God because you wear Christ’s perfection.
This is what God did for sinners who he calls to be perfect. Will you accept this gift of eternal life found only in Jesus Christ?
Page last modified on 11/14/2010
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