A while back, one of our students came to me upset because several other Christians had criticised her for going clubbing with a group of friends who weren’t Christians. She said she was the only Christian who knew them and that clubbing was the only shared activity where she could keep in with them as a witness to Christ. But these other Christians had said clubs were about drunkenness, drugs and the misuse of sex, and that a Christian couldn’t go without compromise.
Now what would you have said to her? What’s the issue there? It’s that our outreach must never be at the expense of holiness – of standing out distinctly as God’s people. Which begs questions. Should Christians go clubbing like that? Should we be more discriminating about the films and parties we go to with friends who aren’t Christians? Can a Christian go to a civil partnership ceremony to keep in as a witness with those involved? Or visit a service in a mosque to get alongside a Muslim friend?
Well that issue – the tension between outreach and holiness – is at the heart of tonight’s passage in Acts, as we look at the apostle Peter under the title ‘The Reluctant Missionary.’ So would you turn with me in the Bibles to Acts 1.8. Remember this verse sums up the big theme of Acts, which is: the spread of the gospel to all people in all places. So, look at Acts 1, v8. The risen Lord Jesus tells his church:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Now the believers who originally heard that were all Jews. But they hadn’t yet really taken on board that the Lord wanted them to take the gospel not just to Jews, but to Gentiles (non-Jews) as well. So far in Acts we’ve seen just one Gentile converted – through Philip sharing the gospel with the Ethiopian in chapter 8. But that was on ‘neutral territory’, on that desert road – so Philip didn’t face the issue, ‘Can I go into a Gentile’s home and even eat his food, in order to share the gospel with him?’
But that’s exactly the issue Peter faced in Acts 10. Because he ends up in a Gentile’s home – even eating his food – in order to share the gospel with him. And to see how unthinkable that was, turn on to Acts 11. This is what happens after Peter has shared the gospel with these Gentiles – Acts 11.1-3:
The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.
Ie, ‘That was outreach at the expense of holiness.’ Because back in the Old Testament (OT) law, there’s a whole chapter (Leviticus 11) about food that God declared unclean for his people – like pork. Now why did God do that? Well, partly, by what he didn’t allow them to eat, he was marking them out as holy – ie, as his people, distinct from those around them. But he was also protecting them, by making it harder for them to mix with those around them. Eg, it made it harder to accept that invitation to a hog-roast from your Canaanite neighbour, at which you might fall in love with his daughter and end up marrying into Baal worship. So those OT food laws are why Peter got it in the neck in Acts 11.
So let’s now look at Acts 10 and ask, ‘Why did Peter do what he did? And what can we learn for our witness today?’ I’ve got three headings,
Firstly, GOD’S PREPARATION OF CORNELIUS (vv1-8)
When a person comes to faith, it’s because God has been preparing them to hear the gospel, and a Christian to share it. So, look at Acts 10.1:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment.
So what do we know about him? He was a Gentile, which is Luke’s main reason for including his story. But he was also pretty high-ranking in the Roman forces and pretty well-off. Which is Luke’s other reason for including him. Because at the start of both his Gospel and Acts, Luke says he was originally writing for someone called Theophilus – probably a well-off, educated Roman. And Luke wanted to reassure him that people just like him had come to faith in Jesus. Because his Roman friends would have been saying, ‘Look, Christianity’s just for the barbarians; it’s not for the likes of us.’ And Luke wanted him to know that wasn’t true.
And it’s important for those just looking into Christianity to discover that people just like them have come to faith in Jesus. So, eg, many a person in their twenties who’s come along here for the first time has said to me, ‘I was really taken aback by the number of people my own age.’ So maybe they came thinking, ‘Christianity’s for the oldies, who are mugging up for life’s finals,’ but went away thinking, ‘Half of them were my age – and most of them looked normal... So I can’t say this isn’t for me.’
And it’s a powerful thing when a church embodies Luke’s theme that the gospel is for all kinds of people. Which is why we don’t just want to be a student church or a professionals’ church or a British church. We want to be an all-kinds-of-people church, so that all kinds of people can come along and realise that Jesus is for them.
What else do we know about Cornelius? Look on to v2:
He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.
Which doesn’t mean he just had some vague faith, like the average Brit who says, ‘I don’t go to church, but I believe there’s Someone up there.’ It means that although he hadn’t converted to Judaism he believed in the God of the OT and would have gone along to the synagogue. And despite his not being circumcised or laying off the sausages, the Lord saw in Cornelius a sincere response – look at vv3-4:
One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, "Cornelius!" Cornelius stared at him in fear. "What is it, Lord?" he asked. The angel answered, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.
Now some people say, ‘Cornelius is like the sincere Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, and shows how they can be saved by responding sincerely to the light of their own religion.’ But that’s not true. Because Cornelius wasn’t saved at this point – only sincere and seeking. What saved him was hearing and responding to the gospel about Jesus, which is why God tells him to send for Peter so he can hear it – vv5-8:
Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea." When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.
So we can’t say from this that sincere Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists are OK without Christ. They’re not; they need to hear the gospel from us. But we can say two things. One is: that God can use even inadequate contact with the Bible, to prepare people to hear the gospel. So, eg, I sat through years of a liberal school chapel, and even though I don’t think I was being told the gospel, God used it to prepare me to hear the gospel through the Christian Union – ie, to get me seeking. The other thing we can say is: that God can use even contact with other religions to prepare people to hear the gospel. So, eg, there are testimonies of missionaries in Islamic countries, where Muslims have come to them saying, ‘For years the Qur’an has made me conscious of my failings and my need for mercy. And the other night, I had a vision of someone called Jesus telling me to come and find you. So here I am.’ And they’ve been converted almost instantly on hearing the gospel. They were never going to find mercy in Islam – there is no salvation in Islam – but God used their experience under Islam to prepare them to hear the gospel.
So that’s God’s preparation of Cornelius. And if it’s reminded you of how God prepared you to hear the gospel, well in your mind, breathe up a quick prayer of thanks, again. Because none of us took the initiative to seek God, did we? He took the initiative to seek us, and to set us seeking him. And if you wouldn’t yet call yourself a Christian here tonight, the fact that you’re here, and maybe the fact that you’re doing Christianity Explored (perhaps slightly to your own surprise) is evidence that God is seeking you, too. OK, onto:
Second, GOD’S PREPARATION OF PETER (vv9-23)
For Cornelius to be converted through Peter, Peter had to be converted to the idea of taking the gospel to Gentiles. So let’s look at how God did that, vv9-15:
About noon the following day as they [Cornelius’ servants] were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained 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." "Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." [Ie, I couldn’t possibly eat unclean food or associate with anyone who does.]The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."
Now what God is saying there is that the OT food laws were temporary and that their time is now over – that all food is clean again for all believers. Bacon is back on the menu, praise God. Which would have been radical stuff to Peter’s ears. So no wonder the Lord had to repeat himself, v16:
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
And no wonder, v17: Peter was [left]
wondering about the meaning of the vision...
‘Can it really be that the OT food laws are no longer binding on me?’ Answer: yes.
Just imagine the OT law as being like a beam of white light, shining from the time of Moses down through history. Now if you think back to physics at school, white light is made up of many individual colours of light, so that if you shine it through a filter, you can cut out some colours and get, eg, just red light coming through, or just orange light or just green light – and, hey presto, you’ve got a traffic light. Now the OT law is like that single beam of white light: it’s made up of many individual laws. And if we’d been OT believers, we’d have stood in that ‘full beam’ – all those laws would have been binding on us, God’s will for us: circumcision, the food laws, the sacrifices, you shall not murder, commit adultery, give false testimony – the lot. The question is: do New Testament (NT) believers stand in that same ‘full beam’? Is the whole Law of Moses still binding on us today, God’s will for us today? Well, v15 is one example of how the NT says, ‘No, it’s not.’
So how do we relate to the OT law? The answer is: we relate to it through the ‘filter’ of Jesus’ first coming. That beam of the law comes shining down through history until it meets the ‘filter’ of Jesus – of his life, death, resurrection and return to heaven as Lord. And the question is: how much of the law is cut out by Jesus’ coming? And how much of it comes through as the will of the Lord Jesus for us today?
Well, in v15, God is saying the food laws are cut out. Why? Because this side of Jesus’ first coming, God is no longer working through a nation, marked out from other nations by things like what they don’t eat. He’s now working through the international body of Christ, which he wants simply to be marked out by moral holiness. So all the laws to do with Israel’s national distinctiveness are cut out.
Another part of the law that’s cut out is everything to do with the temple, sacrifices and priests. Because all that was to point forward to the cross and resurrection – to Jesus as the one sacrifice that can take away the judgement due to our sin and to Jesus as the only priest there is to go to for forgiveness. (Today, there are no sacrifices, priests or holy places for approaching God.) So all the laws to do with how sinners could approach God before the cross are cut out.
So what does come through? Well, what’s often called ‘the moral law’. On the one hand, that includes everything which is rooted in God’s character. Eg, ‘You shall not give false testimony’. Why not? Because God is utterly truthful and wants us to reflect his truthfulness. And that will never change because God’s character will never change. The same goes for ‘You shall not commit adultery’ – God is utterly faithful and wants us to reflect that. But on the other hand, the moral law includes everything rooted in God’s creation-order. Eg, life-long, faithful, heterosexual marriage is God’s creation-order for relationship between the sexes. So another reason why ‘You shall not commit adultery’ will never change is that creation-order will never change this side of Jesus’ second coming.
OK, back to v15 and Peter. God is saying, ‘You’re now allowed to go to the Gentiles – in fact, I now want you to – where they are, on their turf, in their culture.’ And the big application for us is that God wants us to go to all people, where they are, on their turf, in their culture – as far as obedience to him will allow. So read on, vv17-23:
While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon's house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. 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." Peter went down and said to the men, "I'm the one you're looking for. Why have you come?"
The men replied, "We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say." Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.
So Peter is also now prepared, which brings us to my last heading:
Third,GOING AS FAR AS OBEDIENCE ALLOWS (vv23-29)
Let’s read on from midway through vv23-29:
…The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. "Stand up," he said, "I am only a man myself." Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?"
We’ll see next week that the answer was, ‘So you can tell us about Jesus.’ But for this week, the thing to see is that Peter went to these Gentiles where they were, on their turf, in their culture, as far as he now understood obedience allowed him to go.
So how does this help us today, with those questions we began with about clubbing and so on? In our efforts to be a witness to Christ, should we be prepared to go anywhere and do anything? No. Eg, I know a Christian whose sports team went for a social at the lap dancing club in town. Could he go? Absolutely not, because outreach must never be at the expense of holiness. We can only go as far as obedience allows. So, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:21:
To those not having the law [ie, Gentiles] I became like one not having the law(though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law [ie, I’m under the Lordship of Jesus])...
So, eg, I can flex in loads of ways in the direction of folk who aren’t Christian – like going out to the pub with them even if that’s not my thing – but only as far as obedience to Jesus allows. So I can’t get drunk with them – or anywhere near drinking to excess.
So are there situations Christians shouldn’t get into? Yes. On the one hand, we shouldn’t get into situations where being there means participating in something we shouldn’t. So we can’t go to a lap dancing club. I don’t think I should ever go to a civil partnership ceremony. And I don’t think we can go to any (quotes) ‘act of worship’in a Mosque or a temple. And for those of you internationals there are problems waiting for some of you back home, where non-Christian families want you to take part in ancestor worship and things like that. But if Jesus is your Lord, you shouldn’t.
And, on the other hand, we shouldn’t get into situations we can’t handle, which are likely to lead us to sin. So take the student I mentioned at the start. Pressure to drink had never been a problem for her and I had no doubt that she could go clubbing and be obedient to the Lord Jesus. But for many Christians – especially when newly converted out of a very non-Christian lifestyle – that wouldn’t be the case. And if alcohol is still a weak-point for us, there are certain places and parties and pressures it’s simply not wise to get into.
But that’s focussing on the limits of where God allows us to go. The main point of this passage is that we should go as far as obedience allows. So some of us need to tackle the fact that we hardly spend time with people outside Christian circles. Peter had to learn that food laws had to be dropped so that he could go where he ought to go. And for some of us, maybe church commitments need to be dropped so that we can go and be where we ought to be, spending decent time outside Christian circles.
And when we do spend time like that, we should be flexing in the direction of our non-Christian family and friends and neighbours. EG, Rico Tice, who wrote the Christianity Explored course, is an old friend. And I remember him saying,
'There was a time when I wasn’t getting anywhere with witness to my parents, and that’s because I wasn’t really spending time with them or being on their turf and doing what they liked doing.’ And he said, ‘I realised that what they needed was not another invitation to church or another Christian book for Christmas, but for me to take up golf again and get out and play some rounds with my family.’So, what have we seen tonight? Well, that God is preparing people to hear the gospel through us. And through this part of his Word, I trust he’s been preparing us that bit more to play our part in that. And it begs the question: what do you and I need to drop, or to take up, so that we can go and be where the Lord Jesus wants us to be, as his witnesses out there?