By Simon ManchesterSunday 15 Jan 2017Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 17 minutes
As we think about Acts today, I want you to mentally imagine the Lord Jesus on the throne of Heaven, with two hands, taking two wires and bringing them together for a connection which is going to be a huge development. It’s almost as though, like an electrician, He takes a wire called Peter and a wire called Cornelius, and He brings them together, and a whole new day starts. It’s like bringing two halves of a bridge together. The preparation for Peter is that he needs a serious lesson in the compassion of Jesus. And the preparation of Cornelius is that he needs a serious lesson in the compassion of Jesus. We will see that in this wonderful scene today.
I am sure you are aware that the roots of Christianity are being attacked and therefore, the fruits of things like compassion are being diminished. You see this in the schools, you see it in the hospitals, you see it in the shops, and you see it in most of life. In my worst moments, I wish that people were more compassionate. In my best moments, I wish that I was more compassionate. And in my very best moments, I realise that Jesus Christ, who is the source of compassion, is still able to make me and you compassionate.
The life that He gives us, the brand new eternal life, the spiritual life, can produce fruit and compassion in ways which His resources are beyond what we would ask or imagine. I don’t mean that Jesus exists in Heaven just to make us compassionate so we would be happy. But it is true that He sits on the throne of Heaven, He is the Lord of the universe, He is the Saviour of the world, and He makes His people compassionate.
Now we have seen in the Book of Acts so far – the spread of the Gospel out, through Jerusalem, Judea, Sumeria – but it has been fairly local evangelism.
Last week, we saw the conversion of the Apostle Paul, the instrument of God for the Gentiles, for the pagans, for the nations – world evangelism. What we are going to see in our section today is how God cuts the ribbon of the opening of the door, and the person that he chooses to cut the ribbon of this new phase of the mission is Peter. You may remember, the Lord Jesus said, ‘I will give you the keys of the Kingdom’. Many Protestants, of course, have got upset about that particular phase and thought that it sounds sort of Pope-ish, but actually, Peter is there on the Day of Pentecost, turning the key, cutting the ribbon, as the Gospel goes to the Jews.
And today, we are going to see that Peter is present, unlocking the door, cutting the ribbon, as the Gospel goes to the non-Jews, that is, the Gentiles. I want you to see how the Lord prepares Peter. We are going to spend a few minutes on the preparation of Peter, to make him ready. He is not keen on it. He’s not very cooperative at this stage. He’s not very comfortable with the idea of the Gospel going to the non-Jews. We are going to see how the Lord prepares him.
So the preparation, by the Lord, of Peter. That’s the first point.
The Lord Prepares Peter
Chapter 9, Verse 32-43 tells us two miracles, or two stories, that the Lord does through Peter. Luke, however, gives us two stories of miracles done by the Lord through Peter. One to a paralytic called Aeneas and one to a lady who has died, called Tabitha. And Luke does this because he is first a brilliant historian and the second is he is moved or prompted by God to write the Scriptures. So why does he tell us these two stories? Because they will tell us a lot about Peter. They will tell us what Peter is like and what Peter is needing. And the first thing we discover from these two stories is that he is walking in the footsteps of Jesus. You see, in Chapter 9 Verse 32, that he turns up in this place called Lydda, he sees a man called Aeneas who is a paralytic. Interestingly, the word ‘paralytic’ in the original language, means ‘loosed from the side’. His side has dropped. It’s the stroke language, which of course Luke the doctor would be familiar with. And Peter, as you know, speaks to Aeneas and asks him to stand up. And then he goes to another part of the country which is in Joppa (Verse 36), and there is a woman called Tabitha, and she has recently died. And Peter calls her to get up.
So Peter is walking in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus, his Master. These two miracles could not be more similar to the miracles done by Jesus in the Gospels. For example, in Mark 2, there is a paralytic and Jesus says to the paralytic, ‘Get up. Take up your mat and walk’. Here in Acts 9, Peter says to the paralytic – get up… take your mat.
In Mark Chapter 5, there is a girl who has died, and Jesus says to her – little girl, get up (in the original language, ‘Talitha koum!’) and here in Acts Chapter 9, there is a woman who died has and Peter says to her (changing one letter), ‘Tabitha, koum!’ So he is very much in the footsteps of Jesus.
But I want you also to notice that Peter is also very dependent on Jesus. Did you notice the difference between the miracle Jesus does and the miracle that Peter does? Look at Verse 34? What does Peter say to the paralytic? Jesus Christ heals you. Now Jesus quoted nobody when He said to the paralytic, ‘Get up’. But here, Peter has to say – Jesus Christ heals you. Jesus simply said, ‘I tell you, get up’. Peter says, ‘Jesus Christ heals you’.
And look at Peter’s method with the dead woman – Chapter 9 Verse 40. He puts them out, and then it says, he got down on his knees and prayed. Well, Jesus did not get down on His knees and pray to raise the little girl. He said to the little girl – I am the source of this life… get up. But Peter has to get down on his knees and speak to the Lord so that life might be given. So Peter is in the steps of Jesus, but he is very dependent on Jesus. We also need to notice that Peter is going to the Saints. Do you see that in Verse 32 – he goes to the Jewish Christians? And Verse 36 – he goes to the disciples. He is not yet ready for the nations.
So let’s string this together. He’s in the footsteps of Jesus – great. He is dependent on Jesus – great. But he is, at this stage, having a ministry to the Christians. Even though the Lord Himself is obviously using the miracles to cause many people to turn to the Lord.
Now how do we know that Peter, therefore, lacks something? Well, because of Chapter 10 and 11. Peter lacks the clarity and the compassion of the Lord Jesus. And we know this, because in Acts Chapter 10 and Chapter 11, he has to be taught more of the clarity and the compassion of the Lord Jesus. Peter didn’t mind cutting the ribbon for the Gospel to go the Jews and the Samaritans, but he is not quite ready to cut the ribbon for the world. And so in Acts Chapter 10, Verse 9, the Lord Jesus confronts him with a vision and a command. And this vision and this command are going to change Peter profoundly.
Peter is in Joppa, and Joppa is the place where the Lord told Jonah to go to the Ninevites, the pagan nation, and Jonah refused, and he ran in the opposite direction. And here is Peter, and he is about to be told to go to the pagan nations. And he is unwilling, but the Lord is going to make him willing. And He makes him willing, by lowering this sheet, full of all kinds of animals, and then the command comes – ‘Rise, Peter. Kill and eat’. And Peter does not want to do this, and he says – No, Lord, that would be absolutely out of the question. And the Lord speaks back, ‘Do not call unclean, what God made clean’. And this happens three times, because if you know anything about Peter, to get through to Peter, you have to say things three times. And when it is done three times, he is now willing at least to get up and go to Cornelius, the centurion.
Incidentally, the soldiers, under the Roman rule, were the most obnoxious people of all to the Jews, because they were the ones who enforced the authority of the Romans. So, telling Peter to go to a Roman centurion, and take him the Gospel, is a little bit like me saying to you, ‘Would you please get up and talk to that parking policeman, who just outside the door there, is putting a $350-ticket under your windscreen’. And you have to, as it were, get up and overcome a special prejudice to go and speak the Gospel to this particular person.
Now, why does Peter need the crash-course in clean and unclean? You need to understand the background and I will give it to you very briefly. The Jews were chosen by God to be His distinctive people. They were to be a light to the nations, light to the Gentiles. They were to be, as they lived in the land, a demonstration of God, His greatness, His faithfulness, and His holiness. As one writer says, in the Old Testament, ‘They were to be people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations’. The food laws that were given to the Jews were not given for hygienic reasons. Jesus later repealed them. They were given to remind the Jews continually that they were chosen by God and they were to be a holy and clean people. Every time one of them went to the shops to choose food, they had to choose from the clean foods. Every time they sat down at the meal table, they were eating of the clean foods. And this was a reminder to them that they were chosen by God to be a clean people… by God and for God. Now, of course, He didn’t choose them because He was rewarding them for being great. He chose them for no other reason than His own kindness (Deuteronomy Chapter 7, Verse 7: the Lord didn’t choose you because you were special or great or wonderful or big… the Lord chose you because the Lord loves you’). And the Jews failed in their mission. They were not holy, and they were not faithful among the nations. They disobeyed God in the land, and they were punished, and they were humbled. When the Lord Jesus came to create a holy people, an inwardly transformed holy people, He cancelled the food laws. He said, in Mark Chapter 7, Verse 5: there is no food that can make you unclean. The food only affects your stomach. It doesn’t pollute your heart at all. And he effectively said the food laws are over.
Now the food laws had been a help for the Jewish distinctiveness and the Jewish holiness. Jesus, however, turned the whole system into something now redundant. The Jews had turned the system into something to boast about. They saw it as a mark of favouritism. Jesus exposed this and made the Jewish food laws redundant. Then, supremely, when He died on the cross, he broke down any barrier. In Mark Chapter 15, it’s recorded. You remember He sacrificed Himself on the cross and He was separated from God. He became unholy with our sin on Him. And He called out, ‘Why have You abandoned Me?’ And as He did that, the curtain in the temple split down the middle. The curtain would symbolise separation from God and God’s people. It was split down the middle. And now, you see, it is possible for anybody to have access to God and His people. That’s why Paul says, in Ephesians 2, that Jesus has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing, in His flesh, the law with its commandments and regulations, to reconcile two – Jew and Gentile – to God. And so the wall went down as the cross went up. But the wall had not gone down in Peter’s mind. He was still prejudiced. He still saw something ‘favourite’ about the Jews (even though, of course, Jesus had taught him specifically that the food laws were over and even though Jesus had died to remove that barrier and though even He had commissioned them to take the Gospel to all the nations, and even though Peter had observed, through the miracles, that many people in many places were turning to the Lord. Still, Peter was not prepared to drop his prejudice.
We need to know, on the basis of this survey, that the cross, where Jesus died, is the end of Judaism. It is the end of the Jews as the chosen instrument in the world. And, for all that Peter has seen, and for all that Peter has heard, he still does not absorb it. He is a short-sighted, in some ways small-hearted, believer. And, like the wire in the electrician’s hand, Jesus takes drastic steps to make him fit for a task.
John Stott says in his commentary that the principal subject of this Chapter 10 is not so much the conversion of Cornelius, as the conversion of Peter. It is not strictly the conversion of Peter so that he becomes a Christian, but it is the conversion of prejudiced Christian Peter.
The Preparation of Cornelius
Here he is in Chapter 10. Now we are told about Cornelius in Verse 2 and Verse 22, that he is a very fine man. Are we told that he is a very fine man because he deserves to be saved? No. We are not being told that he is a good man because he deserves to be saved, but we are told that God has begun to work in a Gentile, to promote in the Gentile a desire to seek and to pray and to find and to be saved. So God has turned this Gentile into a seeker, not yet a Christian. And you see, in Chapter 10 Verse 2 that Cornelius is a very devout, God-fearing man. He is generous, and he prays, but he is not yet a Christian. He needs to know what Jesus has done, and he will discover, next week as we look at it, what Jesus has done.
Now friends, let me say this again to you, because there may just be one or two people who need to hear this – there are always one or two people who need to hear this. Christianity is not based on your performance. If you want to make yourself proud, think of your performance. If you want to make yourself depressed, think of your performance. Just look back over your life and collect together all the things you’ve done and all the things you’ve not done and collect them altogether and turn them into a ticket, and the Bible says it’s a ticket that will open the door of hell. We are not saved by performance. It is impossible. But we are wonderfully saved by the performance of the Lord Jesus. And when you put your mind on the life of the Lord Jesus and the death of the Lord Jesus, and the resurrection and you collect all the details of the performance of the Lord Jesus, it is held out to you, in His hand, a ticket which opens the door of God’s family and one day, Heaven itself. We are saved by the performance of Jesus. And Cornelius needs to hear about the performance of Jesus, for him to be saved. So he’s not about to be rewarded for being pious and godly and praying and giving money away, and all that sort of thing. God has produced a seeker. Now this is the other wire in the divine electrician’s hand, called Cornelius – being prepared to hear the Gospel. What a wonderful thing it is, when somebody is ripe for the Gospel. I remember coming here, many years ago, I think maybe the first or second sermon, and there was a girl sitting in the congregation, and she had heard many things, but she had never heard that Jesus was God come down. Isn’t that amazing? That was the piece of the jigsaw that she had not absorbed, and, sitting in the pew, on one of those first Sunday mornings, that was ‘lights on’ for her. She was ripe, she was ready, she was open, she was keen, she was seeking, and she needed to hear one piece of information. And Jesus is going to send Peter, with the information, to Cornelius. And that’s why he tells him, in Verse 20 – don’t hesitate to go (literally, don’t ‘discriminate’ to go). Don’t discriminate any more with your Gospel offer.
Now in our last two minutes, I just want to raise this question, this issue with you. There is a world mission which is being organised on a cosmic and eternal scale by the Lord Jesus. Sometimes, it doesn’t look very impressive to us, because it is not easy to photograph or film, and even when you do photograph or film, the Gospel, the preacher, the congregation are not often impressive in secular terms. But the implication of this story, here in Acts 10, is very wonderful because you are here because the Lord Jesus took a wire called Peter and a wire called Cornelius, and brought them together… and the ribbon was cut, and the door was opened, and Paul and others went out with the Gospel for the non-Jews. And that’s why the bulk of us are here today. This incident, in Acts 10, although it is just a piece of history, is the beginning of God’s compassion and Gospel care for me and you. There may be one or two converted Jews here this morning, but most of us are converted Gentiles and Acts 10 tells us where that great process of compassion began.
I want you to notice that neither Peter nor Cornelius understood the cross properly. Peter did not understand it properly to preach it to the nations, and Cornelius did not understand it properly to believe it. Even though the cross was a fait accompli and was done, Peter was not clear enough to preach it, and Cornelius was not clear enough to believe it. Peter represents, you see, the believers, who fail to appreciate the significance and the generosity of the cross. And that, sadly but truly, is always going to be the mark of the believers. We are never going to have the clarity and the compassion which the Lord Jesus on His throne has. So Peter doesn’t share the understanding and the compassion of Christ because he has not quite seen its significance. Cornelius represents the unbelievers. He fails to appreciate the basics of the cross. He fails to appreciate the wonder of the cross. Nobody has yet communicated to this person, the implications of Jesus’ death and the solution that he needs. And we are always going to have, in the world, people who just do not understand (either because they don’t want to, or because nobody has explained it to them).
Now we who are Christians, we make a lot of the cross, don’t we. We have already celebrated this morning the communion. We have remembered the cross, we sing about the cross, we speak of the cross, we value the cross. But we still fail to appreciate the depths, the height and the breadth of the cross. I certainly do, and you do as well.
We fail to appreciate the riches of the cross and the implications for people. That’s why we continue to get excited about secondary things. We continue to get excited about expanding a business, and awards and we continue to get excited about medals and things for our kids that the world is excited about instead of getting excited about things that have to do with eternity. We are slow learners. We haven’t quite grasped the wonder, the generosity, the significance of the cross. And we, therefore, need progress. We need progress to be stretched, to understand more of the height and more of the depth and more of the width, and more of the length. I certainly do. I hope you feel you do.
And there are those all around us, who are not Christians, who understand little of the cross, as I say, because they have rejected Christ, or they have refused Christ, or because nobody has ever told them of the beauty of Christ, and the wonder of Christ, and the love of Christ, and the importance of the cross. Do you see that the cross in the Church can stagnate in our brain and our heart and the cross in the world can be a meaningless concept? Who is going to warm-up the Church? Who is going to prepare the unbeliever? And Acts 10 says, that Jesus Christ, full of compassion, the Lord on the throne, continues to work through His people, to teach us something of the dimensions of the cross, to build us up in clarity and compassion, and He continues to work in the unbelievers to prepare them so that they are ripe or white for harvest. This is a very wonderful thing, you see. World mission is completely beyond us. It’s not beyond Him. The compassion that He showed on the cross, the compassion that He applied, on this day, of bringing Peter to Cornelius, the compassion that He continues to show, as He changes the hearts and the minds of the believers, and as He prepares the hearts and the minds of the unbelievers is very, very wonderful.
I want to finish today by simply asking you – keep asking Him to increase in your mind and your heart, the significance and the wonder and the beauty of the cross. Because if you stop being excited about the dimensions of the cross, and you have started to get excited about things which will perish, you know that prayer needs to go up. And keep praying, that the Lord, in His compassion, would prepare the unbeliever, and make them seek, ripe, ready. Pray for the Good News.
I hope that you are not satisfied with just natural plans for your life. I hope you are not satisfied with the fruitfulness of your life over the last decade. I don’t want you to despair, but it would be good, wouldn’t it, to pray, ‘Lord, if I have got another decade, may it be marked by more supernatural clarity and more supernatural compassion and more fruitfulness’.
Let’s bow our heads and pray. Our gracious God, we thank You for Your compassion, seen in the sending of the Lord Jesus and the dying of the Lord Jesus, seen here in the preparing of Peter, the transforming of Peter, seen in the preparing of Cornelius and the preparation that went on, to make him soft and teachable, receptive. We pray that You would have mercy on the Church, especially when we harden. We pray that, for Your great Name’s sake, You would soften our hearts and clear our minds. We pray that You would have mercy on the world that has rejected the Lord Jesus and that You would cause people to despair and to look for hope in Him. And then we pray that You would help us to connect with the Good News. And we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.