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A Timeless Solution to an Ageless Problem

Acts 10

Jim Davis

Lincoln Steffens once wrote, "Nothing is done, everything in the world remains to be done--or done over. The greatest picture is not yet painted. The greatest play isn't written. The greatest poem is unsung." Nothing is perfect, we can add. There's no perfect airline. There's no perfect government. There's no perfect church. Faucets still drip, as one did years ago in the Steffens household. As he and his seven-year-old son tried to fix it, Steffens had to admit that his generation could not make a fit faucet. "But," said Steffens, referring to his son, "He may. There's a job for him and his generation in the plumbing business, and in every other business. Teach your children that nothing is done, finally and right; that nothing is known, positively and completely; that the world is theirs--all of it. (Bits and Pieces, April 1990, p. 7)

What would the world be if everyone thought otherwise?

I wish that Christians could develop this attitude about knowing and doing God's will. I wish we could see the challenge of knowing God for ourselves rather than just quoting the great theologians of the past. Sometimes we are like people of the world, we become satisfied with what we know and we stop seeking. Living for God becomes tiring and boring because we fail to recognize the problems that could actually challenge us to greater heights. I think that this attitude also causes people with real problems to hide them.

A group of doctors was having lunch together. One of them quietly got up from the table and left the room without saying anything. Moments later he was dead. Some food had stuck in his windpipe, causing him to choke to death in a matter of minutes. Probably any one of the other doctors in the room that day could have used to Heimlich maneuver or even performed a tracheotomy to allow him to breathe. The problem was nobody knew the man was having a problem. He just got up and left. And he died.

Sometimes the same thing happens in the church. A Christian has a deep problem with marriage, finances, children, or with alcohol or depression. Feeling embarrassed over the struggle, the person puts up a good front or else just gradually stops coming to church without letting brothers and sisters in Christ know that the trouble. Sometimes the person is crushed beneath the weight of problems--and no one else knows until it is too late. ("Pulpit Helps," Nov 1991. Page 20.)

Too often we are afraid to face real problems of living for God because we are afraid of the ramifications, but it is only our fears that hold us back it's not the impossibilities; for with God all things are possible. Do you know what makes God's Word challenging to me? It is no fairy tail to be learned and forgotten. It continually challenges the problems of real people in every generation. God's Word challenges us to discover the solutions for the problems of every generation. The Bible reveals to us that every problem is an opportunity to prove God's power anew in each generation. The Bible challenges us in that no problem God asks us to face is insurmountable.

Hearts Out of Focus

The book of Acts is a marvelous book because it leads first century Christians through the challenge of beginning anew in Christ new spiritual kingdom as they face the old problems of an outdated belief system. On every page of the book of Acts God is challenging the world with a new faith in Him as the old religious orders are challenged.

In Acts 10 Luke deals with the ageless problem of religious bigotry and hatred. God offers a timeless solution. Here we see God leading both Jew and Gentile to face the problem of religious bigotry and hatred. It is an eye opening experience for Peter and Cornelius and for the Christian and non-Christian alike. The dividing line between them was that one was circumcised and the other was uncircumcised, one was a Jew and the other was a Gentile and one ate pork and the other one didn't. Those things that defined the line of demarcation between them seem so small today but the problems to them seemed insurmountable.

Amazingly though, the line of demarcation is usually always drawn over such small matters, especially in religion. It is not that little things are not important, but often we focus on the little things so intently that we fail to see the bigger picture that may very well offer a solution to the problem.

In the Jewish mind it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation. When Peter came into Cornelius' home he said, "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him . . ." (Acts 10:28a NIV) It was this perverted fact that had kept Jew and Gentile apart. God led both Jew and Gentile to face the problem so that salvation could be enjoyed by both.

Often religious folks are good at "straining at gnats and swallowing camels." We strain so hard at the gnats that we lose sight of reality. The Jews understood their need to separate themselves from the world, but their efforts at being separate resulted in exclusionary bigotry. God never meant for it to be that way. Moses had commanded, "Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9 NIV) He further stated, "When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him." (Leviticus 19:33 NIV) Moses even uses the treatment of an alien as an example of how they should treat their own brethren. "If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you." (Leviticus 25:35 NIV)

Jeremiah 22:3
This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (NIV)

Malachi 3:5
"So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the LORD Almighty. (NIV)

Although Jesus said, "Love your enemies . . . love your neighbor as yourself", sadly, the love of self becomes the compelling force in many religious lives. If our desire to be separate is so strong that we begin to exclude others, we will become blinded to the obvious. The exclusionary practices of the Jews had blinded Peter to the obvious truths taught by the prophets and Jesus Christ.

As Peter spoke to Cornelius he reminded him of the message God had sent to Israel about Jesus Christ. But notice that Peter had been blinded to the obvious truths that the prophets had taught in the Old Testament. He was also blinded to the full message of the gospel.

Acts 10:34-43
Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached--how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen-- by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (NIV)

Peter acknowledges that he had personally received the message. Jesus was Lord of all. He went around healing all that were under the power of the devil. Peter recognized that the prophets had foretold that all that would believe on Christ would be forgiven. Peter had even quoted Joel's prophecy on the day of Pentecost, "And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved." (Acts 2:21 KJV) Peter acknowledges that the gospel message received first by the Jews included "whosoever" but the prejudice of the culture focus his preaching on the Jews only.

When we only look at our differences our hearts lose focus and we will overlook the real issues. Peter had been preaching the truth while his heart was closed to the Gentiles. The beauty of Acts 10 is that two honest hearts meet under God's direction.

We Need Hungry Hearts

If we will place a high priority on seeking God our problems will be solved.  It takes more than God's power to remove bigotry. It takes a hungry heart. God has a healthy respect for a person who fears him and seeks to do what is right even if he/she is wrong. It doesn't matter whether the person is a Christian or a non-Christian. Of course, just desiring to do what is right doesn't save anyone, but it creates a heart that is conducive to being led into Jesus Christ; while religious bigotry closes our minds to being led. Cornelius was a man open to God's leading.

Acts 10:1-5
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 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 send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. (NIV)

Acts 10:34-35
Then Peter opened his mouth and said: "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. "But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. (NKJ)


Sadly, for years the only thing I saw in this verse was that since God is impartial, He requires all men to meet the same conditions for salvation. Although this is true, I believe the primary meaning of the verse is that God respects all people who fear him and strive to do what is right. We must recognize that God expects us to treat them with the utmost respect. It is only through mutual respect that we have any hope of instructing.

Anyone, in any circumstance, who comes to God with an honest heart, will find an open door to the truth about Jesus Christ. That person will discover God's solution of their problems. It takes more than fear of God and a respect for what is right to be saved, but it is the only valid beginning point. Keeping your heart open is dependent on a respect for God and a desire to do what is right. These are the only things that will keep a heart open to know God.

This story impresses me in that God hears the prayers of non-Christian's who desire to acknowledge Him and do what is right. We should never leave unbelievers with the impression that God will not hear their prayers, for it is through their prayers that they may be brought to God. In fact, God hears the prayers of all who are in error and are seeking his solution to their problems.

Though in error, God speaks to Peter.

Acts 10:9-16
About noon the following day as they 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." The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. (NIV)

Acts 10:17-23
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. The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. (NIV)


Most of us have discovered that it takes more than a vision from God or biblical teaching to remove religious bigotry. It takes hearts that fear and respect God. It is when we fear men that we lose our respect for God. When Peter came to Cornelius he said, "God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean and so I've come. What do you want of me?" You can see the openness of Peter's heart for God's instruction in his acceptance of this uncircumcised Gentile.

Peter was sent to give the instruction needed, but he was also sent to receive the instruction he needed. When Peter came into Cornelius house he ask him "What do you want of me?" It is amazing what two honest hearts can learn when both are seeking to discover the will of God together, even if each is from different sides of the tracks.

It is easy to begin to think that we have a special insight or knowledge that makes us a little better than others. The beauty of a person that fears God and respects what is right is that he/she doesn't think that they are better than others are.

Acts 10:24-26
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." (NIV)


It is each person's respect for God that offers a possible solution to religious bigotry. Without that mutual respect there is no power in God's arsenal that will resolve the differences. Focusing intently on the little things often breeds such contempt that we often fail to recognize the other person's respect for God.

Then Cornelius tells his side of the story.

Acts 10:30-33
Cornelius answered: "Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, 'Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.' 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." (NIV)


Do you see the openness of Cornelius to God and what is right? Do you see how easy it is for God to speak to hearts that fear him and desire to do what is right? This is the answer to religious bigotry.

The Heart Must Be Instructed

It doesn't matter how honest and sincere a person is, he/she cannot discover the regenerating power of God without proper instruction from God. Cornelius is a good man in a worldly sense, but he needed redemption, he needed salvation, he needed Christ. His open heart was ready for instruction.

Acts 10:34-43
Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached--how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen-- by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (NIV)


The amazing thing about hungry honest hearts is that they eventually focus on the same thing--God. When you focus on God and seek him, you find solutions to your problems.

Honest hearts will refuse to oppose God.

Acts 10:44-48
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have."


So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. (NIV)

The Challenge of Keeping Our Hearts Open

The challenging thing about the Bible is that it is written for those with an open heart and who are willing to keep it open for instruction for a lifetime. The easiest thing in the world to do is to learn a few facts and close our hearts to the rest of God's instruction.

Even when you comprehend the obvious, it isn't always easy to practice. Fear can close our hearts to the truth. Too often, our actions have difficulty embracing the truth we know. Most religious people have little trouble embracing the fact that God loves all, but we have difficulty living out the facts in our daily experiences. Too often, we allow fear of what others will say or do to dominate our minds. Peter knew the message Jesus brought and he had had a vision where he understood exactly what God was telling him. However, when Paul came to Antioch a few years later he found Peter practicing hypocrisy concerning religious division.

Galatians 2:11-21
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. "If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (NIV)


When it comes to religious differences sometimes hypocrisy seems to be the easiest thing to practice, but it sets aside the grace of God. Keeping our hearts open is the biggest challenge of life.

Conclusion:

I ran across a prayer offered at West Point. "Make us choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be contented with half truth when whole truth can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when right and truth are in jeopardy."

Hardening of the attitudes is the most deadly disease on the face of this earth. - Zig Ziglar

We discover God's truth for our lives when we are willing die to ourselves and we do this spiritually at baptism. When we fear God enough to die daily to our old way of living then He can give us a new life in Christ as we follow his instructions.

The Christian life begins with God fearing hearts being instructed by God. The Bible challenges you to face your old self and come alive to Jesus Christ. It is the greatest challenge that life has to offer. It will make Bible study exciting.
 
 

 

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