The Spirit of Change

Here’s an edited manuscript of the sermon I delivered at Word of Life Baptist Church on July 5th, 2020. I have removed the introduction and a few other parts here and there as they didn’t lend themselves to this blog format.

If you’d rather listen to this sermon than read it, you can find the link to the YouTube recording here: https://youtu.be/5f_UiGd2N2w (It starts at 42:02).

The Spirit of Change (Acts 10:1-23)

Let’s try a bit of a mental exercise here for a moment.

But imagine if you will, that you are a Jewish male or female living in Jerusalem during the first century A.D.

In fact, you are a recent convert to the Way, or what some people had begun to call Christianity. And originally, you were introduced to what you believed to be a newer sect of Judaism that followed the teachings of a man named Jesus, but you discovered that this Jesus everyone had been talking about was the Messiah! He was YHWH in the flesh.

But, some of Jesus’ teaching make you a bit uncomfortable, admittedly…  

You’d heard that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t just for Israelites, but for the whole world? What was up with that? You’d also heard that Jesus commissioned his disciples to and preach the gospel to all nations? And that kind of angered you a bit. Because wasn’t Israel God’s special nation? And weren’t Gentiles unclean? It’s kind of harsh, but let’s face the facts here. How could they even worship God properly in the first place? They’re not circumcised. They eat things like shrimp and pork. They don’t have Abraham’s blood flowing through their veins. I mean, Pharisees don’t even walk on the same side of the road as Gentiles. And Jesus said that we’re supposed to love our neighbors, but isn’t it the loving thing to show them their proper place in society? We wouldn’t want them to get any ideas.

And yes, ok, maybe they could find salvation in Jesus in a similar way to those God-fearing pagans that are let into the outer sanctuary of the Temple. But they have to stay in the court of the Gentiles. They can’t go further than that. And their acceptance into the faith is a lesser degree than those who can go fully into God’s holy Temple.

Maybe that’s what Jesus meant?

If you were a Christian in the early church, that’s likely how you would have thought about Gentiles, or those who weren’t Israelites but were from other nations. In the first century church, the church of Acts, things like prejudice, racism, discrimination, and ethnocentrism ran rampant.

And even the Apostle Peter struggled with this.

You would think that spending three years with Jesus himself would help. You would think that seeing Jesus heal the servant of a Roman military official would help. You might even think that Jesus’ many many remarks about bringing salvation to the entire world would have done it. But, ultimately, God has to do something rather drastic to get Peter’s full attention in this regard. The Holy Spirit had to stop Peter in his tracks to properly recalibrate him away from his prejudice, and to redirect him toward God’s original mission.

That drastic moment is recorded here in Acts chapter 10.

God gives a Gentile named Cornelius a vision (Acts 10:1-8)

Cornelius was a Roman centurion, a high-ranking military leader from the Italian Regiment. He was also living in a town called Caesarea.

And that was three strikes against him right there.

He was a Gentile. Strike one.

He worked as a soldier in the Roman army. And Rome had a death grip over Israel at this time. In fact, in Acts chapter 1, when the disciples ask Jesus if he was going to restore the kingdom at this time, they were talking about Jesus rising up to overthrow Rome. Rome was enemy number one. So, strike two.

But Cornelius also lived in Caesarea, which was the newly appointed capital of the Roman providence of Judea. Rome had redrawn the map and Jerusalem wasn’t the capital any longer. Caesarea Marittima was. And that’s where Cornelius lived. Strike three. Here was a man who would have been a natural enemy of anyone Jewish in the first century.

But notice how Luke, the author of Acts, describes him.

Luke says that Cornelius gave generously to the poor. He prayed to YHWH regularly. And he, alongside the rest of his family, was a “God fearer.” And that meant that he was a person who had proselytized himself to the Israelite faith. He would have worshipped in synagogues. He would have honored the Torah by following certain Old Testament laws. And he would have made frequent trips to Jerusalem to make sacrifices in the court of the Gentiles at the Temple.

Both Jews and early Christians would not likely have accepted him into their fellowship, or at least completely, but it seems that prejudice didn’t dissuade this centurion from pious religious practice.

And prejudice didn’t stop God from granting this Gentile a vision either.

And within it, he was told by an angel to send his servants to find the Apostle Peter. And once they found him, they were to bring Peter over to his location. To Caesarea. To Gentile territory. But, of course, Cornelius immediately realizes that this vision is from God Himself. And he boldly complies.

However, the text does not pick up with Cornelius’ servants arriving at Peter’s location.

No, God has to first do a little bit more work in Peter’s life to get him ready to accept such an invitation.

The Apostle Peter also receives a vision from God urging him to “never call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:9-16)

This vision that Peter received here might seem pretty weird, and maybe even a bit underwhelming, to us now. That’s because we are pretty far removed socially and culturally from 1st century Jews and Christians. Because, and if we weren’t, we would immediately recognize the absolutely upsetting, finger in an open wound-like nature of what Peter saw on that roof of that house in Joppa.

Biblical symbolism is never neural.

In fact, to the original readers or hearers of a certain text, particular symbols would evoke powerful emotions. They’d be that which reminded them of painful past memories or joyous triumphs. But when we read through scripture, and because we don’t share these memories, we often read the symbolism that evokes them as somewhat stale. Or, and maybe this is more often the case, when we come across a symbol, we might recognize what it’s referring to, but we only recognize one facet of its multifaceted relevance.

For example, do you know what a barber pole is?  

Barber poles are those small red and white poles that are often found hanging on the outside of barber shops. Of course, they’re now used at more places than the barber shop. Salons display barber poles too. But if I were to guess, this symbol might currently invoke a few feelings in us because of our recent history. Many of us have gone without haircuts since March. And the barber pole is a symbol of excitement: that is, our hair will soon be tamed by our hairstylist’s scissors! However, and if we were to go back a few hundred years, barber poles symbolically meant more than what we might currently feel about them now.

The white stripe on the pole represented bandages. The red stripes represented blood. And that’s because, originally, barber poles were used to signify that a person within a shop was trained in the art of bloodletting. That is, they could use their sharp instruments to drain infections out of your blood pint by pint. And if the barber had a blue stripe on their pole, that meant that they could do other doctor-like things too like dental surgery or routine checkups. So, the barber pole, in our current time, might be a symbol of happiness. But in the 1700’s, the barber pole was often a symbol of fear.

But back to Peter’s vision.

What emotions did this tarp of animals invoke? What was Peter feeling when he saw this symbol? And why did the Apostle initially respond so strongly when asked that question in verse 13?

Well, I think that many of us know that the Jewish people were prohibited to eat certain animals. And this prohibition wasn’t supposed to be a legalistic thing. In Deuteronomy, the restriction of certain foods was a part of the Mosaic covenant. It was boundary law. It was something put into place to make sure the Israelites looked very different than the Canaanites when they entered and occupied the Promised Land.

Check out Deuteronomy 14:1-20.   

Notice that the animals which the Israelites were prohibited from eating were animals that were divided in some way?

Jews couldn’t eat pork because the hooves of pigs were divided but they didn’t eat cud. It hadn’t made up its mind like other animals that did both. And amphibious animals, those who lived in water and on land; or animals that lived both in the air and on the land, those were off the table too. Vultures, salamanders, eagles, stuff like that they couldn’t eat. That’s because they held allegiance to the land and the air, or the air and the water. They were divided.

And God’s people were never to be divided in their loyalty to Him. They were to never bow down to both YHWH and Ba’al. And not eating certain foods both gave the nation a dietary reminder of this and proclaimed to their neighbors their strong stance on monotheism.

Israel only worshipped one God. Or, that was the original symbolism behind food law. That’s what it first conveyed. 

But the phrase “unclean foods” didn’t take long to change into unclean people.

And this was especially the case after Israel’s return from exile and that timespan between the Old and the New Testament. That’s because, during their Babylonian exile, much of that which identified Israel as Israel was stripped away. They weren’t in the land. They didn’t have the Temple. They couldn’t follow the Torah boundary laws all of the way. And when Persia allowed them to return, those were the things they clung to.

But they also clung onto severe animosity and resentment towards the Gentile nations that had been subjugating them too. And then in the 160’s B.C., when the Greeks rolled into town and tried to force Israel to eat pork or else, they obviously did not give in. They were not about to lose their identity again. And Jews were tortured and killed because of it. Mothers were ripped from children. Synagogues were burned. Priests were executed. It was a terribly brutal experience.[1]

And it also an experience that cemented these food and diet laws into the very core of Israelite identity. No longer were they completely about staying firm to God as one’s sole allegiance. They were now symbolic as that which divided them from the unclean and brutal pagans of other nations. They were that which made them righteous and all others unrighteous. They were that which fueled prejudice and racism, but in a way that was cloaked in nationalism and bad but widely accepted biblical interpretation.

So, do you see why this was so hard for Peter to grasp?

What was God asking him to do within this vision? Was God asking him to deny his very identity? Was God asking him to just overlook years and years of subjugation? Was He asking him to let go of Israelite pride? That’s why Peter first answered by saying: “Surely not!” He thought it was a test.

But God repeats himself two more times. He makes sure that Peter understands that He’s serious about this: “What God has made clean you must not call unclean.” And it’s more than just the food laws He was talking about.

What God has made clean you must not call unclean. Through Jesus, all peoples of all nations can come before the throne of God. All people can be fully saved. Jew and Greek. Israelite and Roman.

Peter is visited by Cornelius’ men. He accepts them, invites them in, and commits to sharing the gospel with Gentiles (Acts 10:17-23)

This is somewhat of a side note but remember that Peter is currently in Joppa.

In Acts 9, Peter was prompted by the Spirit and some other believers, to go and meet a woman named Dorcas who had recently died. And the Apostle ended up staying there in Joppa for some time with a man named Simon. But this location is significant. That because there’s another book in scripture that places a servant of God in the city of Joppa. And that Old Testament book is all about breaking down the walls of prejudice and bringing an opportunity for repentance to an enemy of Israel.

Joppa was where the prophet Jonah had initially run too when he didn’t want the Lord to offer mercy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah was distracted by ethnocentrism and had adopted a posture of piety beyond the will of the Lord. He had allowed social custom and cultural sentiment to cloud his judgment. In doing so, he did not want to see Nineveh saved. And there’s a lot of parallels between that story and Peter’s story here in Acts 10. But instead of a few pious and god-fearing boatman as we find in Jonah chapter 1, we now get a few devoted servants of a Gentile centurion that come to intercept.

It says in verse 19 that while Peter was still puzzled about the meaning of the vision he received, God’s Spirit came to him and told him that three men were looking for him. He was also not to hesitate in accepting their request. So, and because of this prompting, the Apostle leaves Simon’s roof, and heads down to meet Cornelius’ servants.

And it must have been startlingly clear that these men were not Jewish. In fact, they immediately announce that they were not and try to paint Cornelius in the best light that they could. It’s almost like they were trying to sell Peter onto an idea, hoping that he’d accept.

And I’d imagine that, internally, lots of alarms must have been going off in Peter’s mind.

As a Jew, it was a part of their current national pride and identity to not associate with those who were Gentile. It would have been social suicide to break this boundary and he’d pushed the envelope so much already!  But Peter knew what he heard. As that voice in his vision stated: “What God has made clean you must not call unclean.”

So, and giving in to the Spirit’s prompting, Peter invites these men in. But more so, he prepares himself for his journey to share the gospel with Gentiles.  

Modern Application

Let us transition into briefly thinking about how this text might apply to our lives here and now, I think that there’s two valid moves that we could make. Both are important.

That is, we could derive our application through the character of Cornelius. He is a Gentile, and we are Gentiles. He was accepted into the faith despite who he was, and the same goes for us. Through Cornelius, we learn that salvation in Jesus is for all. Anyone who confesses their sins and professes allegiance to Jesus as Lord will be saved. So, if you are not a Christian right now, this is the application you should take away from this chapter of Acts. No matter how bad, or how different you might feel from the rest of us church-y folk, salvation is for you.

Jesus is for you.

But I think the second way we could find application from this passage might be more important for those of us who’ve already professed Christ as Lord. That is, we should be deriving our application through the character of Peter.

And it might be tempting for us to look at this story, and then quickly condemn the Apostle for his overly exclusive actions. It might be tempting to judge Peter, and really the early church itself, for not being open to sharing the love of God with those who God wanted to bless.

But we shouldn’t judge him so quickly. Because don’t we still do the same today? Aren’t there certain people, or certain kinds of people, that are less welcome than others? Don’t we subtly pressure others to adjust to our specific cultural or social demands before we fully accept them within our communities of faith?

And to that end, here’s the first point that I’d like to make:  

Allow God to break down the barriers within your own heart that might be distracting you from seeing others as fully worthy of Christ.

Two quick stories…

A couple years back, and at a previous ministry, I hired an intern to help me out during the summer season. He needed credits for a college class. I needed some help as I was both doing youth ministry full time and filling in at the pulpit every Sunday morning. And my intern was a good guy. He was a strong Christian. He loved the Lord and he loved youth ministry. In fact, in my particular youth group, he was a great fit! He had been a manager at a Hot Topic, a clothing store in the local mall, and most of the kids in my youth group at that time shopped exclusively there. He could relate to these teens on a level that I could not. He knew their language.

But he also had a lot of ear piercings. And he had some visible tattoos too.

And on the Sunday that the Elders introduced our new intern to the church body, someone within the congregation raised their hand and asked him this question: “Do you feel ashamed of yourself for being so irresponsible? Or will you get rid of your tattoos and piercings so you can properly show young people Jesus?”

And that question had two effects.

First, it brought my intern’s self-confidence way down. He began to question whether God had actually called him into ministry in the first place. But second, it solidified the decision of most of the kids in my youth group to never return to Sunday morning church ever again. That’s how they dressed too. And that must mean that they weren’t welcome there either.

Second story.

I had a Sunday School teacher tell the class that because of passages like Deuteronomy 7:1-3, people with white skin should not be dating or especially marrying people with black skin. Actually, the exact phrase she used was: “Sparrows should marry sparrows and robins should marry robins.”

And this wasn’t something that happed in an exclusively white church, as if that would even justify such a comment. No, it happened in the context of a multiethnic congregation.   

But I tell those stories say this: the sin that Peter was forced to confront within his own heart is a sin that’s still very much active and alive today.

And just like Peter did, we often use scripture to justify our prejudice. Or, we use past history to normalize that which was never supposed to be in the first place.

What is keeping us from fully accepting others into our communities of faith?

What is stopping us from openly sharing the gospel with those for whom Christ died? Why are we still falling into the trappings of prejudice?

Well, this might get us closer to an answer:

Be prepared to follow the Spirits leading into that which makes you uncomfortable.

Like Peter, we sometimes let our culture, societal pressures, overzealous national pride, and our politics disciple us more than we’ve let Jesus disciple us.

Case in point: Within my recent conversations with people about race and racism, as well as within my reluctant viewing of social media, I’ve been seeing a lot of Christians using political rhetoric or speaking the words of their favorite social influencers much more than the words of Jesus. But who’s words are more important? And who’s words are more authoritative?

Said in a different way, I think that it’s become more of our default as Christians, myself included, to rely on knowledge that’s easy to access online, or wisdom that sounds right, instead of asking God’s Spirit to guide us. And that might be because, if we’re honest, we know that the Holy Spirit might make us confront something within ourselves that’s uncomfortable to face. Or it might prompt us to do something that’s outside of our normal. And that scares us a bit.

When Peter confronted Cornelius’ men, he must have been terrified!

Could you imagine the pressure he must have felt? Could you imagine the backlash he would likely face because of this move? Actually, we don’t have to imagine that because much of the rest of the book of Acts, as well as many of the New Testament letters address this very thing.

But could you also imagine if Peter hadn’t been open to the Spirit’s leading before this event?

Because even though he was one of the Apostles, and even though he was going to be an author of one of our Biblical books, he still had prejudices that he was practically blind to. He needed help to see them. And if that was the case with Peter, surely, it’s also the case with us.

We might be blind to our prejudice. We might not be able to see this sin within ourselves without the help of other strong believers and the help of Holy Spirit’s prompting. And if that’s true, we need to do the work to make sure that we aren’t accidently harboring any sin in this regard. We need to get on our knees and desperately ask God to assist us with this, because it is a gospel issue. And we also need to ask ourselves this: when God’s Spirit points to an inconsistency within our own hearts, will we step out in obedience into that which makes us uncomfortable?

Or, will we firmly stand as a barrier between Jesus and those that He wants to save through us.

God’s salvation is for all people. It’s for you. It’s for me. Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, Jew or Gentile. So again, will we firmly stand as a barrier between Jesus and those He wants to save through us?

Or, like Peter, will we step out into what our society might deem socially taboo, and openly take the gospel to and fellowship with those for whom Christ died.


[1] This history is found in 1 Maccabees 1. I’m referring to the Jewish persecution under the Seleucid general Antiochus Epiphanies.

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