"God's Freedom to Rattle our Definitions"

May 16, 2010 Acts 11:1-18


For a while now, if you'd have asked me, I suppose I would have figured I'm pretty unprejudiced when it comes to race. After all, I spent 2 years working in Africa; at the end, on the way home it was a real culture shock to see so many white people all at once on the airplane! I'd gotten very used to being surrounded by dark-skinned folks all the time.

We imagine we're not very biased about a lot of things. But then your daughter starts going with a young man who doesn't fit the usual categories you'd subconsciously hoped for, and all of a sudden, your hidden prejudices jump up and pinch you. For a while now our youngest girl has been dating a man from Zambia. From all accounts he seems like a godly hard-working honourable fellow; how bad could a pastor studying at a seminary be? They look extremely happy together in the photos they've shared - but I'm still adjusting to the fact his colour is so different from hers. Part of me (the unregenerate part, I'm sure) wistfully wants to ask, "Can it really be that the supply of nice young white Christian men in western Canada has actually dried up?" Our hidden definitions of what's 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' betray our deep-seated fears and groundless mistrust.

Back in first century Palestine, the clash wasn't so much over skin colour as the huge divide between Jew and Gentile. For centuries faithful Jews had carefully distinguished between themselves and others who were not circumcised or did not follow the laws of Moses, including all the dietary and ritual traditions added by the elders over the years. In Acts 11, we find God was teaching the early Christians to go beyond their anti-Gentile prejudice. The Lord was leading them to a fuller understanding of what's really important, beyond the surface factors and external rituals that formerly spelled the difference between clean and unclean.


For first-century Jews, the Law of Moses and the traditions of the elders were a BIG DEAL: these things defined who they were religiously, and gave them a sense of racial identity, even pride. Gentiles were avoided; intermarriage with them would degrade a Jewish family to the status of the hated half-breed Samaritans. A proselyte could possibly become accepted as a 'Jew' but only if the practice of circumcision and dietary laws were totally adopted. So it was a major issue when people in the early church found out that Peter had gone into the house of a Roman centurion in Caesarea and eaten with them; that was to defile oneself, make oneself unclean. In Acts 11 v2 note "the circumcised believers" (more accurate translation might be, 'those of the circumcision party') criticized him and said, 'YOU went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.'" A strong, sharp accusation; 'This is unthinkable, Peter - how could you do such a thing?!' They're pinning it on him, implying it's HIS guilty initiative, his responsibility.

Peter defends his actions by listing at least 7 factors which demonstrate this was clearly God's doing, not Peter's own idea. 1) The vision, v5 - God showing Peter in a trance this large sheet full of unclean animals let down from heaven to right where he was. 2) The voice, vv7&9 - telling Peter to kill and eat, and not to call impure what God has made clean. 3) The timing, v11, "Right then" or, "Behold, at that instant" the 3 messengers from Cornelius stopped at the house where Peter was staying. God was clearly co-ordinating events to coincide with the vision Peter had just witnessed. Three times the vision came, three men arrived; perhaps Peter was also recalling Jesus asking him three times, "Do you love Me?" when reinstating Peter after his denial (Jn 21:17). This had to be God orchestrating things to get a message across.

4) The Spirit speaks, v12, "The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us." (NRSV) Here's the Holy Spirit communicating directly with Peter's spirit - go along without being judgmental or having any qualms. 5) The angel's appearance and message to Cornelius beforehand, v13: so marvelously specific, "send to Joppa..." - gives the name, and if you look back in 10:6 you'll see the angel supplies the address, too: "He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea." Who needs Google Maps when you've got Gabriel Positioning System?!

6) The Holy Spirit's coming on the gathered Gentiles listening to Peter preach, just the same way as the Spirit had come on the disciples at Pentecost, v15. That too had to be a 'God-thing', it was nothing Peter had control over - in fact God more or less interrupted Peter while he was speaking (10:44). "God gave them the same gift as He gave us," Peter insists in v17.

7) Peter had brought to mind what the Lord had said, v16, literally the 'rhema' or word Jesus had said: "John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." Note the structure there - second half of the sentence is a polite passive way of putting it, 'you will be baptized': compare the more direct way of phrasing it by John the Baptist in Mark 1:8, "I baptize you with water, but HE will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Jesus is reminding Peter, this is the way I baptize - not with water on the outside, not just on the surface and temporarily, but with the Holy Spirit, thoroughly and internally.

So by retelling these 7 factors involved in his going to see these Gentiles, Peter's making it clear he was just an obedient participant; it was all God's doing, a further chapter in God's great plan to save sinners, anchored in divine revelation through a word or saying of Jesus Himself. Peter concludes his defence, "Who was I to think that I could oppose God?" He humbles himself before God's unfolding salvation. All these things together showed that it clearly wasn't Peter's initiative but God's.

Would those of the circumcision party buy it? V18 tells us, "When they heard this, they had no further objections" - they were silenced - and praised God for granting 'even the Gentiles' repentance unto life. Peter's explanation shut them up, at least for the time being. But it gets raised again many times in the New Testament: Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council; Galatians 2, when Peter was visiting Antioch, some men came from James in Jerusalem, and Peter slid back to excluding himself from table fellowship to the point Paul confronted his hypocrisy; the Judaizers who 'bewitched' the Galatian church later (Gal 3:1, 4:9f, 5:7, 6:12)...this proved to be the issue that just would not go away. Even when Paul was way out on the mission field, for example at Lystra in Acts 14(19), he and Barnabas were received enthusiastically, nearly worshipped by the locals, but when Jews came and won the crowd over, they stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, supposing he was dead. This issue was HUGE for the early church - much the same as Pharisaism was a problem before Jesus' time, or legalism creates bondage in Christianity today. In the early church, false teachers found it easy to call attention to external factors (circumcision, dietary laws and customs) to draw away disciples after them - even as Paul warned the Ephesian elders would happen in Acts 20:30.


Why won't this issue go away? Why do legalism and judgmentalism still plague our churches? Why do we cling so hard to external standards or definitions of righteousness that may not reflect at all the true condition of the heart?

On a simply human level, religion is a lot like the Stanley Cup playoffs, or the upcoming World Cup if you're a soccer fan. We like to keep score. When we sit down next to someone, at church, at school, at work, we're always comparing ourselves. Our bruised human ego wants to know it's measuring up satisfactorily compared to the next person - maybe even a little bit better!

So man-made religions, broadly speaking, are based on our efforts to appease and earn standing before the spiritual powers beyond us. Who can present the best offering? Who can make the pilgrimage to Mecca? Who can climb the steps of St.Peter's on their knees, or ransom all their relatives through the sale of indulgences? Who can make their quota in distributing their religious magazines door-to-door? Those at the top of the system protect it, because their position and privilege depends on those at the bottom buying into it. We're all busy trying to build a ladder high enough or strong enough, with enough religious rungs, to span the gaping moral chasm between us and God. But with earthly religion, you're never sure if it's going to be enough. Yet if you try hard enough, at least you can pride yourself on being ahead of that poor slob next to you!

It's all about keeping score - who's ahead in this round? So we get extremely uneasy when suddenly someone moves the goalposts. Or a better analogy would be, takes the net away altogether. Christianity is fundamentally different from man-made religion in that it's not about what we can do, as if our efforts could ever be 'good enough' to achieve blessing from a perfectly holy Almighty God. Grace means it's about what God has done for us through Christ. Total gift. God's eliminated the net and the scoreboard, there is no more altar because God's Son became the all-sufficient sacrifice we could never afford, make, or come up with. We can't even repent well enough on our own to be saved, apart from God's help -- 11:18 notes that God is the One who grants 'repentance unto life'. Our part is receiving that gift, to believe God's promise as Paul puts it in Romans 10(9ff): "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved...As the Scripture says, 'Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.' For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile-- the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'"

If we understand Biblical religion has something to do with obeying God's commands - as Paul saw he was to 'call people from among all the Gentiles to the OBEDIENCE that comes from faith' (Rom 1:5) - Peter's approach in justifying his eating with Gentiles can make us a bit nervous. After all, did not the 1988 General Council claim spiritual experience as endorsement for defining homosexuality as no longer being sinful practice?

How do we decide what's 'clean' or permissible or allowed if not strictly the law of Moses and the traditions added later? As we've seen, Peter still anchors salvation in God's historic revelation, referring to Jesus' word from beforehand, His 'rhema'. Similarly, Paul still finds reference points for obedience when he writes to the Galatians, probably the most closely-linked passage to the Judaizer/circumcision question in the rest of the canon. What counts if not what's kosher?

Galatians 6:15 says, "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation." Jesus called it 'being born again' when speaking with Nicodemus. What do we do with this new life that is ours in Christ? Just whatever we desire? 5:13, "You, my brothers, were called to be free.But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love." Instead of serving fleshly appetites, we are 'born over again' to serve others in love. 5:16, "So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." If we're truly alive in the Holy Spirit, we won't yield to base appetites or pride or jealousy.

There's still a long list of things to guard against, as Paul shows in the 'works of the flesh' in vv19-21: "sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.[Paul adds emphatically] I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." See how those things have more to do with internal behaviour than outward ritual and show? 6:8 cautions, "The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life." Take your pick!

What counts is a new creation - living by the Spirit, keeping step with God rather than gut. There's another similar verse in Galatians 5:6, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." Again, it's not about the law - bean counting your rule-keeping - but living for God, living in Christ, letting His love guide you. Love is the first 'fruit of the Spirit' mentioned in 5:22-23, along with joy, peace, goodness, kindness, self-control, and other desirables. When faith is expressing itself through love, law is hardly needed. Paul wrote to the Romans, "...he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."


When the miracle of God's grace and beauty shown in the face of Jesus truly gets ahold of us, we are transformed, new creatures. The old ways of 'keeping score' sort of melt away. The differences between us and others don't seem very big any more compared to the huge gulf God has bridged through the cross of His Son in order to make forgiveness and relationship possible.

Genuine Christian love helps us make allowance for our sister or brother in Christ. Outer distinctions don't matter the way they used to. Paul wrote to the Colossians (3:11), "Here [speaking of those who are regenerate in the church] there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all."

Tony Campolo tells the story of a gruff and burly gunfighter with craggy facial features who lived in a frontier town. He never smiled, and he always seemed ready to kill anybody who crossed him. But one day the old gunfighter met a woman who took his fancy, and he began to date her. Standing in front of her house one evening, when he was saying goodnight, he blurted out, "Mary, I love you." The words just seemed to pop out. There was no attempt to make those words soft or dramatic. They were simply declared as a fact of life.

Mary stood there for a while, then slowly smiled and kissed the old gunfighter on the cheek, and said, "Joe! I love you too!"

Joe turned and walked slowly home. He went up the steps of the boarding house where he lived, closed the door of his room, got down on his knees at his bedside and prayed, "Dear God! I ain't got nothin' against nobody."

Love does that to people--especially God's love. Let's pray.