Acts 10. Church Growing Pains.
The New Testament church had problems with bringing new converts from different races into their fellowship. Prejudices that build up over many years do not disappear immediately. Even if a variety of people are converted and do join the church that still does not resolve these issues. Acts 6vs1 reveals groups within the one church, powerful lobbies representing one party's interests against the others. It happens everywhere even today.
I was at a church recently where a group of visitors came to join the morning service, stay for lunch and attend the afternoon workshop. There were about fifteen visitors and approximately twenty in the regular congregation. Everyone was white and English, coming from two towns about five miles apart. Over lunch there were two camps sitting on either side of the hall! With just a couple of exceptions people preferred the folk they knew to the ones they did not - although they could not make a real judgement because they had never actually tried to relate to the others. Brenda and I only knew a couple of people in both groups and we had quite a quiet lunch except when we made the effort to go and mix with others.
Perhaps there is a key. It takes an effort to break down the "I don't know you" barrier. It runs the risk of rejection. It runs the risk of being misconstrued - "I wonder what he is after?" We do all prefer to remain comfortably with our known friends, but where does that put newcomers, especially those whose culture and lifestyle is quite different from ours?
In Acts 10, and especially verses 9-20, Peter learns a valuable lesson that we must learn too. Peter was an experienced church leader. He was there in Acts 1vs8 when the disciples were told they would be witnesses for Jesus Christ. He knew the promise Jesus had given. He experienced the power of the Holy Spirit on his life and ministry. He had brought his own life into line with the purpose of God, to win the lost world back into a saving relationship with the living God. Over a few years he had been in the forefront of witnessing: he was the spokesman on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2vs14, he took the initiative when the lame beggar was healed by the temple, Acts 3vs16, he testified boldly before the Sanhedrin, Acts 4vs10, and there were many other times the church followed Peter's lead. Yet he still did not know all about evangelism and God used this time when he was drawn aside to teach him the next step of obedience.
Peter was always a man of prayer. That helped in keeping him open to what God wanted for him. He prayed before Pentecost, Acts 1vs14, he regularly prayed at the temple, Acts 3vs1, he prayed when the church was persecuted, Acts 4vs31, he prayed as leadership was delegated, Acts 6vs4, he prayed with the dead body of Dorcas before she arose, Acts 9vs40. Now, in Acts 10vs9 he is having a pre-lunch prayer time on the roof of Simon the tanner's house by the sea. God was going to show him that there were people outside of his own Jewish background who were open to the movement of God's Spirit and that Peter would have a God-given opportunity to get in amongst them.
I like Acts 10vs10 because it gives me biblical warrant for feeling hungry and wanting something to eat! Peter's appetite was a key part in this lesson too. In the trance he fell into, (the Greek EKSTASIS being a condition in which ordinary consciousness and the perception of natural circumstances were withheld, making the soul susceptible only to the vision implanted by God), God used his hunger to test his resolve in keeping to the strict Jewish eating laws. A sheet was lowered from heaven with "all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat." Acts 10vs12, 13. Peter refused. All his upbringing, his knowledge, the way God had used him to date, told him that he could not eat these 'unclean' meats, those prohibited in the Jewish Levitical laws.
Notice Peter knew his Bible, Acts 10vs14. He called these creatures 'unclean' on the basis of Leviticus 11vs4-8 etc. Peter also knew his Lord's voice, Acts 10vs14 he says "surely not, Lord!" He knew himself too. He was plunged into deep thought and meditation by this whole incident. Why would God tell him to do things God's own law had proscribed? Was he mistaking God's voice? Had he misunderstood the Scripture? Was God testing him to see if his human appetite would overcome his Jewish principles?
I have mentioned earlier in this book that God guides us in different ways but never in contradiction to His own word. Here is an example of God leading a man from a specifically Jewish interpretation of God's law into a specifically Christian understanding. Peter had brought with him into his Christianity a great deal of non-Christian, pre-Christian, understanding. He was now having to unlearn that before he could make any further progress.
With all his experience in being used by God Peter was still teachable. That is a big mark in his favour. So many of us when we have been used in particular ways gradually become entrenched in those ways. We do the same things again and again, with less and less effectiveness if we are honest, but we keep going because God has blessed this way in the past.
Many Christians I know find their church systems and structures a real hindrance to modern evangelism and discipleship. More recently we have been encouraging Christians with evangelistic hearts to reach out to the lost in parallel with their church. We suggest they do not work in competition with a church whose meetings and methods are unhelpful, but rather work as a complement to it. Several have started homegroups to pray for the area, midweek, and on a different night to the meeting of the church (if there is one). Then by using homes, meals, fun evenings, children's clubs or whatever they have won friends and neighbours to Christ. Others in the church who have the vision to join in do so, those that don't, don't! Once there are some new believers nurture must take place. Again this can happen in homes or in the church if it is suitable. Sunday after church or midweek evenings are good times. If the new believers pray, worship, learn from the Bible and occasionally break bread in their nurture groups, who is to say they are not in church, whether they actually go to a traditional Sunday church or not? According to the New Testament church is people not premises, church is a body not a building, and church is helpful towards Christian growth, not a hindrance.
After Peter's pondering of the vision, God the Holy Spirit gave him a word of knowledge, Acts 10vs19, 20. "While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them." These were the men from Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion, a non-commissioned officer in charge of one hundred men, members of the Roman occupying forces. The barracks where he was based in Caesarea were a noted trouble spot because of frequent hostilities between Jews and Gentiles.
Cornelius was notable for four characteristics:
1. He was a responsible man, in his work and his family, 10vs1, 2.
2. He was respected by those around him, 10vs22.
3. He was religious, 10vs2.
4. He was ready to do anything to know God better, 10vs7, 8.
We could add that he would have been rejected by the early Jewish Christians from a close intimate fellowship, because he was an 'unclean Gentile'.
So God prepared Peter for a complete change of direction in his ministry. The last four words of the Spirit must have been ringing in Peter's ears as he went to meet the men from Cornelius. "I have sent them." They requested Peter go with them to the Roman soldier's home. Peter knew he would get severe criticism from many of his own people for going (and he was right, Acts 11vs2). But the Holy Spirit had said "I have sent them." Peter had to choose whether to go along with God or to go along with the traditional crowd in the church. That is a very hard choice when you face it in practice. One hundred times more difficult than when you face it in simple theory.
Full credit to Peter that he went forward.
1. He made himself available for God to use, Acts 10vs23 "...the next day Peter started out with them and some of the brothers from Joppa went along."
2. He was aware he was nobody special. When Cornelius fell at his feet he instantly, Acts 10vs26, "Made him get up. 'Stand up', he said, 'I am only a man myself." He did not let being God's leader doing a new thing go to his head.
3. He was an ambassador for Jesus Christ. When you read Peter's sermon to Cornelius' household from Acts 10vs34-43, notice how he centred in on Jesus Christ. 'God was with Jesus. We are witnesses of everything he did. People killed him on a cross. But God raised him from the dead. He commanded us to preach.' Peter had every confidence that before all these Gentiles he could preach the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.
4. Peter was amazed at what God did, Acts 10vs44, "While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message." The Christian Jews were astounded that God could bless these now Christian Gentiles in exactly the same way as He had blessed them. That showed their initial prejudice. It also showed their instant partnership from then on. They were going to work together, Jews, Gentiles and God, to bear witness that in the Christian church there are no racial distinctions.
As Paul was to later write "For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body - whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free - and we were all given the one Spirit to drink" 1 Corinthians 12vs13.
A friend of mine was in a church where I was preaching. I used the words of Jesus to Paul in Acts 9vs6. "Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do." God lodged those words into his heart in such a way that he went on to become a London City Missionary. It was not the only step in his call, but it was a very real step. Maybe God will use this chapter to help make clear to you His next step for your life?
Is it possible to walk into your fellowship and out again without being welcomed?
Are you self-centred as a fellowship?
If everyone in your fellowship reached out in their street, in the school, in their job - share how many different parts of the community would be reached?
List them out.
How can you grow in your Christian faith and reach out to people who don't know Jesus?
Do you think you would be seen by other Christians as too different and forsaking the meeting?