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Even On the Gentiles

Date: 4 Jun 2023

Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong

Sermon Text: Acts 10:1–11:18

4Jun23 Herald
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When I was a teenager, the romantic comedy “sliding doors” came out. In movie opens with a woman Helen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, heading to the London Underground to catch her train, but just as she approaches, the train door closes, and she misses her train. Then the movie rewinds, and it plays out the same scene of her running to the train, but this time, she gets in before the door slides close.

And then the movie alternates between the two scenarios. In the version where she misses the train, her life goes one way. But in the version where she gets onto the train, Helen meets a man called James, who goes on to become the love of her life.

Now what’s interesting about the movie is that it opens up the possibility that the two main characters in a romantic movie, never actually meet during the course of the show.

Can you imagine going to theatres to watch the film “When Harry Met Sally”. And you’re in the audience, going, “I wonder if Harry is going to meet Sally!” I mean 8 billion people in the world, what are the odds of Harry meeting Sally?

Well, in Hollywood, the odds are 100%. In movies, we never have to wonder. The two stars in a rom com will surely meet, because there’s a director behind the scenes, pulling the strings, calling the shots, driving the plot, ensuring that the stars meet and fall in love.

Our text this morning tells us that with every conversion story, there is someone, a missions director, behind the scenes, calling the shots, pulling the strings, ensuring that the gospel will reach those whom God has chosen, even the unlikeliest of persons.

Let’s have a look.

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.”

God appears to a Roman Centurion, calling him by name. This call is intentional, it is personal, and it is divinely initiated. What we know of Cornelius is that a God-fearer. This means that he worships the Jewish God, but does not belong to the Jewish community. He is does not bear the mark of the Abrahamic covenant, which is circumcision. For all his worshipping and alms giving, he remains separate, as far as the old covenant is concerned, from the people of God.

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. 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.

Nonetheless, God hears the prayers of Cornelius, and sets in motion a plan to draw Cornelius to himself. Cornelius is given instructions to find Peter, the apostle.

At the same time, God appears to Peter.

9 And the next day, as they 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.
17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean..

Before we carry on, let’s ask the question, “why was Peter perplexed?” What was perplexing about the vision he had just seen?

To answer the question, what I want us to do is to put on the mindset of Peter, to inhabit his worldview at that point in time. Now Peter was a first century Jew. When we bring up our children today, we want them to conform to social norms: you wear the same bata shoes, you shop at the same malls, you carry the same smiggle bag, eat the same canteen food, you get the standard haircut, that sort of thing, and so on. The aim is conformity. You don’t really want your kid to be different or to stand out from their peers.

But Jews raise their kids differently. They raise them intentionally to be different from the rest. You wear different clothes, you eat different foods, you spend your weekends differently – you keep the Sabbath, you attend the synagogue. Why? Because the Jews are different, they are chosen, they are set apart, set apart from the rest of the nations.

Which meant that Peter would have seen himself as different too. He is set apart from the world because his God is set apart. God is holy. And as a Jew he saw the world in religious categories, as an outworking of God’s holiness.

He would have seen the world like this:

There is a sphere of holiness. There are things and places and people who are holy or sacred.

Further out from that, there are is a sphere of what is clean, or pure.

And finally there is a sphere of things which are profane, or common. The opposite of holy.

Now like we mentioned, there are places and people and things in each of these concentric circles.

In the sphere of Holiness, there is the Jerusalem Temple, where God dwells, and it’s holy. And the priests attending the temple are likewise holy, such that only the high priest, and not any other Israelite is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple. Similarly, not simply any goat and bull can be used as temple sacrifice. The sacrificial animal, in addition to being a clean animal, has to be unblemished, without spots.

And then there is circle of the clean. And the promised land where Israel dwells falls into that category. The Israelites, by virtue of being God’s covenant people, are by default clean. And then are clean animals as well – the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, to name a few – which the Israelites are permitted to eat.

And then there is the profane. And the rest of the world, the rest of the nations, the Gentiles, and the rest of the animals fall into that category. They are separate from what is holy and clean.

But overlaying these categories, there is what is known as the unclean.

What is holy is always clean, it cannot be made unclean.

But what is clean, can become unclean. For example, if an Israelite touches a carcass, he becomes unclean until evening, or if he develops leprosy, he becomes unclean until he is cured. An goat is a clean animal, an Israelite is allowed to rear a goat and slaughter it and eat it. But if you find a goat lying dead from natural causes or torn apart by a predator, that goat is unclean, you can’t eat it.

So what is holy cannot become unclean. What is clean can become unclean.

But what is profane, is always unclean, it cannot be clean.

So, an Israelite, clean by default, can enter into the holy temple. But a Gentile who is always unclean can never enter the temple.

So in the Jerusalem temple, there warning written for the Gentiles. It’s known as the Temple Warning Inscription, and it reads, “Foreigners must not pass this point to enter the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.”

There is a very real and defined barrier which separates the Jew from the Gentile. That is how Peter would have understood how things worked.

What the voice was claiming is that the line separating the categories of clean and common, of pure and profane, is now dissolved, erased.

In Peter’s vision, everything falls into the category of clean, which means that everyone, Gentile included, can have access to that which is holy, the presence of God.

That runs counter to everything Peter was brought up to believe. A clean pig? Is such an oxymoron plausible? A clean Gentile? Is such a thing conceivable? You can see why Peter is perplexed. This changes how he saw everything, from food, to places, to people.

But he didn’t have the luxury of time to process everything there and then, because while he was still perplexed,

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. 19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”

God was speaking to Cornelius and to Peter, initiating a radical reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, initiating a whole new way of understanding who can and cannot be part of God’s people.

Here we see the divine initiative of reconciliation. God is doing something new in salvation history, he is reconciling the world to himself, without Jewish privilege, without racial distinction.

God is writing a new chapter of the salvation story, the divinely initiated reconciliation of Jew and Gentile to himself.

That’s our first point.

Now, what we see in this chapter is that accompanying the divine initiative, there is the human response of obedience. Our second point.

Pay attention to how Luke portrays the narrative.

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?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So he invited them in to be his guests.

Peter was instructed by the Spirit to go down to the men, and Peter went down to the men.

Cornelius was directed by a holy angel to send for Peter, so Cornelius sent his men, and Peter received them.

24 And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends… 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.

God showed Peter in the vision that he should not call any person common which God has made clean, so when he was sent for by the Gentile Cornelius, he came without objection.

30 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come.
Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”

Again, the angel commanded Cornelius to send for Peter, so he sent for him at once, and Peter came, also because he was instructed to.

Do you see, in this divine reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, God is instructing, and man is obeying.

The entire interchange, that which weaved Peter and Cornelius together, are the twin threads of divine initiative and human obedience.

Now what should we make of this, two points? How do we apply it? What does it mean for us today?

It means at least three things:

  1. We, like Peter, are called to evangelise the lost. You may not have seen a vision, you have may not have heard an angel, but as William Booth said, “put your ears to the bible, and you will hear the call to pull sinners out of the fire of sin”. There is a call to obey. There is a great commission to be fulfilled. The divine initiative to save the lost begun with Christ coming onto earth, it continued with the apostles, and carries on in believers like you and I today. Will we obey? Will we enact the human response of obedience to the divine initiative to save. That is the question we face.

  2. We are not alone in our evangelism. God is at work too. Everytime you share the gospel with somebody, it is not by chance, not be accident, not simply an operation of human will; it is the outworking of the divine plan. God is behind the scenes, working his will, seeking the lost, reconciling the world in Christ. So we are not alone, God is in it too. As he promised, when he gave us the Great Commission – surely I am with you always, to the end of the age. So do not be afraid. Take heart, evangelism is not easy, but you are not alone, God is with you. He is at work too. This ought to motivate us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, to end of the age.

  3. Like Peter, we too must take care to not call unclean what God has made clean. That is, we must be willing to surrender any social prejudices, and remove any non-biblical barriers to the gospel of Christ. Perhaps, because of our religious traditions, because of our particular upbringing, we have sub-consciously “ruled out” some people from the community of Christ. Regarded them as unclean. It could be the LGBT community. It could be those with full sleeve tattoos. It could be ex-convicts. It could be a particular race. A hairstyle or dress code. Whatever it may be, resolve to eradicate from our worldview, and any non-biblical markers that distinguishes between clean and unclean. Do not call unclean what God has made clean.

So, three applications so far: obey the call to evangelise the lost, recognise that you are not alone in evangelism, and do not call unclean what God has made clean.

Now, if our first two points, the divine initiative and the human response of obedience has shown us why we must evangelise, our next point shows us how to evangelise.

The Gospel Proclamation of Salvation.

34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

There are three essential points to any gospel presentation.

1. Point 1: Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all),

In Christ, God’s promise of salvation for all people has been revealed. He did not come for a particular nation, or specific race, he came for the whole world. The hope of salvation in Christ is offered to everyone without distinction.

2. Point 2: Jesus Christ died and rose again.

They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

The atoning death and vindicating resurrection of Jesus Christ are essential elements of the gospel. It reveals that the wages of sin has paid, and power of sin has been defeated by the Lord Jesus Christ. So in Christ, there is salvation from sin.

3. Point 3: There is forgiveness in Jesus’ name.

42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

There will be a judgment day for all mankind, but there also the promise of forgiveness in Christ, so that we can be counted righteous by the judge himself and escape the judgment. Forgiveness for our sins, is granted through faith in Jesus’ name.

Jesus Christ is Lord of all, He died and rose again, and one can receive forgiveness of sins in his name. These three elements are essential in any gospel proclamation. They are not merely essential, they are also sufficient to save. We know this because as Peter preached the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, and as Cornelius and his household believed in what they heard, this happened.

And here we come to our final point: The Spiritual Authentication of Conversion

44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

The Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. Peter did not see the Holy Spirit falling on Cornelius and his relatives. But he witnessed its effects.

For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

As a church, we been journeying through the book of Acts, so I am certain that you have witnessed the causal relationship between the gift of the Spirit and the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Indeed that appears to be the primary reason for which the Spirit was given.

Extoling God in Cornelius’ house, proclaiming the mighty deeds of God at Pentecost, is evidence that gift of the Spirit was received by believers. In other words, authentic, biblical conversion although spiritual, is visible.

In fact, this is the basis for the theological defense that Peter gave before the leaders in Jerusalem to vouch for the reality of Gentile conversion. It is the key evidence for the fact God has granted repentance that leads to life, even to the Gentiles.

15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent.
And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

In other words, there is tangible, visible, audible evidence that one has received the gift of the Spirit. It is not speaking in tongues, that is merely a means to an end – the end which is the exaltation, the proclamation of God’s mighty work in Christ Jesus.

Simply put, your transmission of the gospel is the evidence of your reception of the gospel. Proclamation of Christ is the authentication of conversion to Christ.

Evangelism is one evidence that the Holy Spirit dwells within you.

This is what we see consistently and repeatedly in the book of Acts.

Acts 1:8, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

And that is precisely what we see. From the disciples at Pentecost, to Peter’s gospel presentation before the Sanhedrin, to Stephen’s speech to the religious leaders, to the household of Cornelius. The Spirit fell and the result is proclamation, the Spirit filled and the result is evangelism.

You will receive power when the Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses.

Friends, this remains true today. The same Holy Spirit that filled the early church then, fills the church of Mt Hermon today.

Our text today has told us why we must evangelise, to whom we must evangelise, how we should evangelise and it concludes not by telling, but asking, “Have we evangelised, if we are truly the Spirit-filled disciples of Christ?”

The power of the Spirit and the ministry of the Word goes hand in hand. Evangelism is not merely our duty, it is our nature as those who have been baptised in the Spirit.

Gospel proclamation to the unlikeliest of people. That what the church does, that’s how the kingdom grows, that’s the way God’s plan of salvation is effected in the world.

So let’s obey the call, submit to the Spirit and proclaim the gospel of the Son to the ends of the earth, to the glory of God the Father.

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