By Simon ManchesterSunday 22 Jan 2017Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 20 minutes
We are following, on these Sunday mornings, the Book of Acts. We have been going for many weeks, and next Sunday is our last in the series of the first half of the Book of Acts. The main messenger in Acts Part 1 is Peter. We have been looking, mostly, at the ministry of the Lord through Peter. And the main messenger, of course, in Acts Part 2 is the Apostle Paul, and that would be a series for another time.
Now we saw last week that Peter has a problem, and the problem is that he doesn’t quite see how good the Gospel is, and this emerges when the Lord asks him to take the Gospel to the complete outsider. We realise that Peter is not quite prepared to say to the complete outsider, ‘I have Good News for you’. We saw, for example, in Acts Chapter 2, that when he preached to the Jews, they were pretty well on his standard, on his level – morally, religiously – and so he was able to say to them, ‘I have Good News for you’. We saw, in Acts Chapter 8, that when he was speaking to the Samaritans, the half Jews, they were sort of on his level, and he was able to say to them – I have Good News for you. But if you went to the Gentiles, Peter, the great disciple, the great Apostle, this was such a shock to his system, as a Jew, raised as a holy people, if he were to go to the Gentiles, he would have to say to them something like this, ‘Look, there are things you have to do. There are things that you have to clean up. There are things you have to improve, and of course, I want to tell you about Jesus.’ And so he had no Gospel. He had no Good News for them. The problem with Peter, you see, is that he couldn’t quite get away from the fact that he saw the Gentiles as unworthy of the Gospel, and therefore he saw himself as slightly worthy.
There was an inferiority in the Gentiles, according to Peter, and therefore there was a slight superiority, according to Peter, about himself. And no wonder he had no Good News for them, because if you don’t have Good News for anybody, you don’t have Good News for yourself. Superiority is a very hard act to keep up: you have to perform just a little better than everyone else, all the time. You have to have just a little more piety in Church. You have to have just a little more impressive work to talk about. You have to have just a little more spiritual success than everyone else. And that is a miserable life – joyless, exhausting, depressing.
And so, as we saw last week, the Lord Jesus had to change Peter’s mind, to understand the dimensions of the Gospel. And we have two points this morning. The first is a transformed messenger – getting the disciple right and then, a transforming message.
Peter is Transformed
First of all, a transformed messenger. We saw last week how the Lord prepared a pagan called Cornelius, and a preacher called Peter to meet. Cornelius, who was the soldier, the Gentile, the outsider, the pagan, but seeking God, and he was told in a vision by God, to get Peter and bring him to his house so that Peter could tell him the Good News. And Peter, the Christian, ex-fisherman, now a disciple, now Apostle, preacher, not yet ready to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, but had to receive, from the Lord Jesus, a triple vision, a vision three times, of animals, a whole range of animals, clean and unclean, in a sheet – a Heavenly vision. And, told to get up and feed on the animals. And three times, he said to the Lord, ‘No, I am not going to feed on the animals. I don’t eat unclean food. I am not going to feed on unclean animals.’ And three times, he was corrected by God and told that he was not to call ‘unclean’ what God called ‘clean’.
I want you to notice that this had a life-changing effect on Peter. He was transformed. I want to ask you to look at the text now, Chapter 10 Verse 23. I want to give you some proofs from the text, which Peter was transformed by this experience. First, Verse 23b, he started out to go to the house of Cornelius. That’s the first proof. He agreed to go to a Gentile house. Something has changed in Peter. Second, Verse 26, he refused to have Cornelius revere him in any way. He refused to have a Gentile, treat him, a Jew, as if he were special. He says in Verse 26, ‘Stand up’, as Cornelius bows down before him. He says, ‘Stand up. I am only a man myself’. And then, look at Verse 28. He specifically says that he’s been corrected by God. He says, in Verse 28, ‘I shouldn’t visit a Gentile house, but God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean’. God has corrected me. God has changed my mind. Fourthly, in Verse 30, he realises that God has prepared Cornelius, the Gentile, for the Gospel. Cornelius answered, ‘Four days ago, I was in my house praying. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, “Cornelius, God has heard your prayer. Send to Joppa for Simon, who is called Peter”. And so I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here, in the presence of God, to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us’. Peter looks at this group – outsiders, Gentiles, pagans – absolutely prepared by God to listen. And the fifth and the last proof that Peter is transformed is in Verses 34 and 35 – two very shocking verses. I hardly dare to read them to you this morning.
But this is what they say. Peter began to speak and says, ‘I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right’. Now, lifted out of context, those two Verses 34-35 are very frightening verses, because they make Jesus irrelevant, don’t they? They say exactly what unbelievers like to hear – which is, just fear God, believe in God, do what is right, and He will accept you. But, in context, those two verses make perfect sense, because what the Apostle Peter says is, ‘Anyone in any nation, not just Jewish, who does the right thing by God, will be acceptable to God’. And what is the right thing to do by God? Answer – follow Cornelius. Be a listener. That’s what God wants you to do. He wants you to listen. He wants you to stop talking. He wants you to stop prevaricating. He wants you to stop changing the subject. He wants you to stop thinking about something else. He wants you to stop giving your opinions on everything… and He wants you to listen. And when you have listened, believe what He says. Do you remember Martin Luther said, ‘The only piece of anatomy that you need to be saved, is an ear’. And when you have listened to the news of Jesus, Chapter 10 Verse 43, believe. Listen to what God says… believe it.
Peter is completely a new man, to talk like this. He has been completely transformed. He has walked into a Gentile home. He sees that the Gospel is ready for the Gentiles, and the Gentiles are ready for the Gospel, and he says to them – I want you to listen… and I want you to believe. I have no rules for you. I have no regulations. I now have no ceremonies. I have no deadlines. I have no expectations of you, of a human kind. I just want you to listen. I want you to believe. If you listen and believe, that is all that matters. And you see, therefore, that his superiority has been completely dealt with. I do not want to be revered, he says. I am not up on a pedestal. I do not want to be worshipped. I have been taught a lesson myself by God. I have been corrected. And you, Cornelius, there is absolutely no way that you are inferior. You have been worked on by God to listen, as I was worked on by God to listen, and you are now about to hear the Good News, as I was told the Good News. As John Stott says, in his commentary, ‘Peter begins to realise that he is not a God, and Cornelius is not a dog’. There is no distinction. They are both men who need Jesus Christ.
Now, friends, I can’t tell you how significant this is for us. It is very, very hard to take Good News to people if you do not think it is Good News. If you continue to think, if I continue to think that Jesus lived, died and rose, but the real issue is my piety, it is my performance, it is my polished life… I do not have anything to say of Good News to my neighbour. I do not have any Gospel, if I think like that, except, ‘Come and join my struggle’… and it is a miserable struggle because I can hardly keep it up. It is an unhappy struggle, isn’t it. No wonder we don’t want to tell people a Gospel which has got to do with ‘match me’, let alone people of course who we consider to be inferior, wrongly consider to be inferior.
I want you this morning to forget about the Gospel which goes like this – perform, and you will be accepted by God. Forget about that Gospel. It is not the Christian Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not say, ‘Perform, and you will be accepted’. The Gospel of Jesus Christ says, ‘Jesus Christ performed. He lived the life, He died the death, He rose from the grave’. If you believe that, you are accepted. You can write on the window of your home. You can write on the mirror of your home. You can write in front of your desk – ACCEPTED. Accepted by God.
I remember reading, many many years ago, a story of a young man who was in agony about witnessing. He very much wanted to witness, so that he could impress the Church and he very much wanted to witness, so that he could win God’s approval. But he did not want to witness because he did not want to lose the approval of his friends. So he was caught in a Catch-22. I must witness, but I can’t witness. If I do witness, I lose everything. And eventually, in agony, he went and asked a very wise pastor, and the wise pastor said something quite shocking to him. The wise pastor said, ‘If you don’t witness, you are still accepted by God’. And the concept for this young man of being accepted full-stop, accepted whatever, accepted without… filled him with such joy that that could be true, that that could happen to him, it spilled over into a brand new appreciation for Christ. And the brand new appreciation for Christ began to spill over into a feeling sorry for people without Christ. And the feeling sorry for people without Christ began to spill over into telling people about Christ. And you see, the pastor did a very risky thing, humanly, didn’t he. He began with just the Gospel. He got the Gospel right with that young man, and the Gospel got that young man’s life right. If the pastor had said, ‘You are going to have to have some religious performance, some religious success, some religious superiority’, then, of course, he would never have given that young man freedom, and he would have no Gospel to tell.
Religious superiority always gets the Gospel wrong. Religious inferiority always gets the Gospel wrong. But the real Gospel says that Jesus did the life, death, resurrection and your believing that means that you are accepted. And there is no acceptance like God’s acceptance. The people of the world who are looking and looking and looking for some acceptance – you know, I look good enough, I’ve worked hard enough, I’ve done enough, I have succeeded, I have made it… please accept me. It’s a tortuous treadmill, isn’t it. It rides on the moods and the feelings and the assessments, and the changes and the fleeting applause of the world. But the acceptance that comes from the Lord Himself, by trusting the Lord Jesus, is total and liberating and secure.
So I want you to notice that this experience totally transformed Peter, the believer. It is as if Peter the believer became Peter the clearer believer. And this transformation is essential if he is going to walk into Cornelius’s house with any Good News called Gospel. But he does get transformed, and he does walk into the house, and he does have something to say which is for every nation, and that is, to be acceptable to God, means that you trust what Jesus did.
Now this correction by God, on Peter, is extremely valuable and important for us this morning. I was writing to a friend this week, and I said to him: look, you are over 40, you have got to pray. I have got to pray on a regular basis that God keeps correcting me because I get locked into my blind-spots and my grids and my systems, and you do to if you are over 40. Well, let me say, if you are over 10, it is very easy to get locked into your grids and your blinds-spots and your systems… and you just don’t hear anything any more. You don’t learn anything. Nothing changes. You just feed everything into the grid. But to have God correct us, to have God expand our understanding of the dimensions of Christ on the cross, there is nothing more necessary and there is nothing more wonderful… and I wonder how many of us here this morning need to ask God to straighten us out? I walked around the block yesterday, thinking about this passage, thinking about how Peter the disciple needed to be straightened out. He needed to be corrected. He had a blind-spot, a massive blind-spot, and the Lord needed to change him. And I thought to myself, how many in the Church have a blind-spot? And then I thought, what sort of blind-spots do I have? How many blind-spots do I have? How Peter-ish is the Church, how Peter-ish is Simon Manchester! And, just as I was about to say to myself, ‘No, Simon Manchester, you are not Peter-ish. You are perfect! You have got the Gospel clear…’ a lady turned to me, at that absolute second, as I was walking past her and she said, ‘Are you, Peter?’ It was a very freakish moment; I tell you… a very freakish moment. I was just defending myself, and she attacked me!
I want to say to you, friends, the Peter-ish tendency to constrict and restrict the Gospel in its goodness lingers. It infects us. It sticks. You will see, in the Book of Acts, that even though Peter grasps this, he then has to be reworked again at the Council. And then later, the Apostle Paul has to correct him again. It lingers. It infects us. We have this weird tendency to keep looking in the mirror for our acceptance, and not out the window to what Jesus did on the cross. And the mirror keeps getting in the way, and the window keeps getting lost. And we need to keep going back to the window of the Gospel, which tells us what Jesus Himself did. The world that thinks that it is accepted before God is only imagining it. But the person who has put their trust in the Lord Jesus has the absolute blood-written Word of God to say that you are accepted by God… a transformed messenger.
Now a transforming message – secondly. I want you to notice, from Verse 36, that when Peter begins to preach, his message is so clean. It does not get infected or polluted with any rules or regulations. It is such a clean message. He takes these Gentiles a glass of Gospel water, without anything floating in it. His subject, Verse 36, is Jesus Christ, who brings peace and is Lord of all.
Cornelius, of course, is longing for peace. He is a soldier. He is a Roman. He is powerful. He is wealthy. He has influence. But, he is obviously not happy, because he is seeking the God of the Jews. And Jesus brings peace, and nobody is outside the offer of Jesus Christ. He is the Lord of all. And so, what does Peter say when he gets to the Gentiles? He preaches this very clean message. It goes like this. I will tell you about Jesus (Verse 38). He was anointed with the Holy Spirit. That is why His life was so effective and so perfect and so pure and so liberating. Verse 39 – they killed Him. They hung Him on a tree. That little phrase, ‘hung on a tree’, incidentally, is a theological minefield, a theological weighty phrase, because he could have just said, they hung Him on a cross; they hung Him on a piece of wood, but he says they hung Him on a tree. And the reason he says they hung Him on a tree is that Cornelius probably knows enough of the Old Testament to know that if you were hung on a tree, according to the Old Testament, you were cursed by God. And if Jesus was hung on a tree, and was cursed by God, He, therefore, carried the curse. And if He carried the curse, there is no curse for the believer.
Verse 40 – God raised Him and caused Him to be seen. There are key eye-witnesses who saw Him alive. Verse 42 – He has now been appointed by God to be the Judge of the living and the dead, so it is important to meet Him. And Verse 43 – everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins and is ready to meet Him with joy. So, there is the message.
Imagine I am speaking to you today, and you are brand new, and you have never been to Church, and you don’t know anything about Christianity… I would tell you this about Jesus. First, He was anointed by God. That’s why His life was so perfect. He was killed and hung on a tree, and bore the curse of sin for you. He was raised – people saw Him alive, and ate with Him and drank with Him. He has been appointed the Judge, and therefore everyone will meet Him. He gives forgiveness of sins, which you can freely receive and be forgiven and washed and clean and secure and accepted… and ready to meet Him with joy. I have no rules for you. I have no regulations. I have no ceremonies. I have no baptisms, communions, confirmations… nothing… just the five facts of Jesus. Peter says we preach this to you. We want you to believe it. We want you to believe the facts about Jesus. And as Peter presented Jesus Christ to them, they obviously did believe, they plainly did believe, because God’s Spirit fell on them. There was not a ceremony done. There was no laying on of hands, as I say. There was no baptism. They were just converted by God. They were made alive. They began to speak in tongues. They began to praise God, just like they had on the Day of Pentecost, and then, later, minutes later, they were baptised.
Please notice that God’s mercy is not provided outside of Jesus Christ. There is room, in Christ’s mercy, for any who believe. But there is no mercy outside of Christ. It’s very important to see and to explain to people that He is God’s firebreak. When you stand in Christ, with Christ, no fire of God’s justice, judgement, can touch you. And we, therefore, love people not by saying to them, ‘Stand anywhere you like’. We love people by telling them to stand in the fire-break called Jesus Christ. That is why pluralism is a false idea, and it is a false charity.
Here is Cornelius. He is a very good man. He is a Roman solider. He has got his gods and his goddesses. He knows that’s not enough. He must seek the God of Israel. He begins to seek the God of Israel. He prays. He gives his money away. He is a good man. Does the Lord say to him, ‘That is fine, all’s well’? Does Peter come and say to him, ‘You are a very sincere man. You are a very kind man. You are fine’. It’s the sort of thing which gets said at funerals, sadly, isn’t it. No. God says you must get Peter to come and tell you the news of Jesus. And when Peter comes, he says, ‘I must tell you the news of Jesus’ and he tells him the news of Jesus, and he wants Cornelius and his family to listen and believe and to put themselves in Christ and to stand in Christ and be secure in Christ, and be accepted in Christ.
So that is the clean news to the nations. God’s Spirit fell on them, and as we read in Chapter 11, Verse 18, God granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life. Now you would think, wouldn’t you, that everybody would be happy at that point. You would think Peter is praising God (and no doubt he is), the Gentiles are praising God (and no doubt they truly are). You would think that everybody would be happy, but unfortunately, grasping the Gospel is a slow process… realising the scope of the cross is a slow process… removing the superior/inferior distinctions is a slow process… guarding the Good News, sticking with grace, fighting off the mirror, staying with the window… it’s a slow process. And Peter has to preach to another group in Chapter 11, and this time, it’s the Church. He has already addressed the Gentiles, and now he must address the converts. And these converts, as you will see at the beginning of Chapter 11, are believers who have a leaning to ritual, to rules, to ceremonies and to additions. But they are believers. And one of the difficulties for the Church, the early Church in the Book of Acts, is that it was hard for many of them to move out of the Jewish background into the Christian new ground. They didn’t know what the Gentiles had to do, now, with Jewish ritual. They weren’t sure whether Gentiles should obey some things or ignore everything. They didn’t know whether it would be a good idea to have two Churches – Gentile and Jewish – or what the connection is between this new covenant and the old covenant. And a lot of it had to be worked out in the Book of Acts, and it surfaces again in Acts Chapter 15, when they have a Council, to work out what to do. But it never leaves the New Testament. The Church needs to be gospelled.
And I wonder, therefore, whether you can see why we are told, in Chapter 11 Verses 1-18, this long telling, again, of what Peter went through. And the reason that we’ve got it again is that the Church needs to be gospelled. We don’t have any hope of Gospel faith unless someone tells us the Gospel clearly again and again and again. I don’t mean our salvation is up for grabs, but I mean our clarity is up for grabs, our joy will be up for grabs. We need to be gospelled. Our fellowship depends on someone telling us the Gospel. Our witness depends on someone reminding us of the Gospel in its purity.
You may remember that Jerry Bridges, the American author when he was here with us at St Thomas’s (about ten years ago now)… he said that he had to gospel to himself every morning because he got up every morning and he said – I am not worthy to pray, and there is no point reading, because I am not good enough. And I am not good enough to serve. And I’m not good as a witness. And he said, ‘I had to gospel myself every morning. I had to remind myself of what Jesus had done, and therefore what I had trusted, and therefore I was accepted, and therefore I could face God because of Jesus, and I could read the Word because of Jesus, and I could be His servant, because of Jesus’. And he gospelled himself every morning.
Now when Peter is criticised by the Church, he has to gospel the Church. And that is what he does in Chapter 11. He gives them a little run-down on the Gospel again. He says – look, I had to have my error changed (you see that in Chapter 11 Verses 4 & 5). He says I was in the city. I saw a vision. I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up. Kill and eat’. I said, ‘Surely not’. And the voice said (Verse 9), ‘Don’t call anything impure that God has made clean’. I had to have myself changed, says Peter, and then I went with the men to the door of this Gentile. I went with six witnesses. I spoke to them about Jesus. The Holy Spirit fell on them. I remembered John the Baptist said the Holy Spirit would come and … he says at the end, ‘Who was I to oppose God?’. Doesn’t the Church need to hear that, every now and again – who are we to oppose God and make the Gospel more hurdled, more complicated, than God Himself.
And the Church, being gospelled by Peter responds exactly as you hope they would (in Verse 18) – it could not be a better response, could it. They praised God and said that God has granted the Gentiles repentance unto life.
I, therefore, finish, by saying to you this morning – do you see how the Lord transformed Peter to be a messenger… and then he took his message to the unbelievers… and then he took his message to the believers. Because the unbelievers need the Gospel, to be saved. And the converts need the Gospel, to be preserved.
God does not show favouritism (Chapter 10 Verse 34) – literally, He does not lay hold of the face. He is not interested in the surface. He is not interested in the externals. We may think the externals are very important. We may treat people by externals. God does not. We may treat ourselves by externals, for good or ill. God does not. We may think it’s a very big issue, the externals. It’s a non-issue for God. And therefore, we are very, very blessed, as Christians, when we are told the Gospel, which we are set free and accepted by God, by what Jesus did.
The unbeliever is very blessed when the unbeliever is told the clean Gospel of what Jesus did, that they might be accepted. And the Church is very blessed, when somebody tells it, again, that what Jesus did, freely and fully, is what brings us acceptance with God, full-stop.
Let’s pray. Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for the truth and the love which You have poured out on this world. We thank You for the way You worked on Peter, the convert. We pray that You will continue to work on us. Please have mercy on us who learn nothing new. Help us, we pray, to see more clearly, love more dearly, follow more nearly. We pray that You would fill us with the grasp of the Gospel, that we might have Good News for the neighbour. We pray that You would fill us with the grasp for the Gospel so that we would praise You and rejoice, as You deserve. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.