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Life of Peter

First Contact

Acts 10:24-48

Lesson audio

In an unusual bit of news the National Geographic Society has conducted a political poll (contact the Naval Observatory; sun to rise in the west tomorrow morning) and discovered[1] that the American people think that Barak Obama would do a better job of handling an alien invasion than Mitt Romney. That's "alien" as in "extraterrestrial." I will leave to the politically astute to explain why this undoubtedly makes Mister Obama the candidate of choice in the upcoming election. But it serves as a good parallel for today's lesson; the only real difference is that here Peter is invading the aliens, rather than the other way around. Here's the story:

Acts 10:24-48 NASB  On the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them and had called together his relatives and close friends.  (25)  When Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him.  (26)  But Peter raised him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am just a man."  (27)  As he talked with him, he entered and *found many people assembled.  (28)  And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.  (29)  "That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me."  (30)  Cornelius said, "Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments,  (31)  and he *said, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God.  (32)  'Therefore send to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.'  (33)  "So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord."  (34)  Opening his mouth, Peter said: "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality,  (35)  but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.  (36)  "The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)--  (37)  you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed.  (38)  "You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.  (39)  "We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging , Peter explains that Jesus is Lord of all. You may take us two ways. One focuses on the fact that he is Lord; Him on a cross.  (40)  "God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible,  (41)  not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead.  (42)  "And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead.  (43)  "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins."  (44)  While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.  (45)  All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.  (46)  For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered,  (47)  "Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?"  (48)  And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

 

No Favorites

My wife has a theory about grandchildren. Whenever she has asked which one is your favorite, she'll tell you that it's always the one who is on her lap at the moment. As of this writing, we have three favorite grandchildren. God, it seems, has much the same philosophy about the human race.

God-No Favorites

Perhaps there is no stronger feeling in the human race than this: the world is divided into "them" and "us." Human beings are storytellers; a good story requires conflict. Much of human conflict involves "them." So it's not surprising that Peter has grown up accepting this as part of the normal universe. But now he gets a different message; God plays no favorites. It's an interesting fact about the Scriptures that much of what is obvious to human beings is omitted from the Bible. Most of arithmetic is covered elsewhere. God uses revelation to tell us that which we would not ordinarily discover by ourselves. The radical political message of God is the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God — and this is its day of first contact. Until this episode Peter would've told you that only the Jews were favored by God. But by direct revelation God has told him the truth. It's interesting to see the criteria by which God accepts human beings, particularly those outside his fellowship:

·         First, God accepts the righteous. It is a universal fact that mankind recognizes the existence of right and wrong. Some of us pursue what is right; some pursue what is wrong but seems profitable. It is not difficult to determine which of the two God prefers.

·         He accepts those who fear him. It is one thing to recognize righteousness; it is entirely another to recognize the God of righteousness and realized that he will act in your life — whether for blessing or for cursing. It is still true that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Barriers

The construction of "us" and "them" is so firmly entrenched in the human race largely because of the way we view each other. There are a number of barriers to the unity of the church, in this regard. You might consider these:

·         History — as in, "we've always done it this way." In the church this includes the establishment of any number of denominations and sects as well as the formalities of worship. The major divisions of Christendom are fairly obvious to us all; we forget sometimes that they started out as minor points of debate.

·         Social class — although we like to deny this one in America, it is fairly obvious that this is a barrier to the unity of the church. What might interest you is this thought: it's not just the top social class that has the problem. If you are running a motorcycle church, just how welcome does the little old lady from Pasadena feel?

·         Ethnic and language difficulties are also prominent.

Barrier Busting People

The existence of such barriers in the church is so common that many "church growth" experts simply taken for granted and say that we have to work around them. But as Peter shows us here, we can break down these barriers. We need to know what kind of people we need to be if this is going to happen. May I suggest the following attributes?

·         If you're going to break down barriers, you need to be humble — but not wishy-washy. A change of this magnitude is something which is not for the faint hearted. Peter is not a particularly wishy-washy person, but the revelation of God has put him into a humble state which allows him to break down such a barrier.

·         Such a person should also be rather unconventional, but obedient. That you need to be unconventional is fairly obvious; but it doesn't help to be a rebel without a cause. If you want to do good things, it usually helps to know what you are doing. If you are doing things in the church, you need to be obedient to God.

·         Of course, God honors those whose character is a living praise of him. Simply put, such a person should be a man of prayer, and also of good works.

If such a person rises to prominence, he is often called a Saint. To cite the most obvious example, aren't these the characteristics you would want to have in a foreign missionary?

The Message That Unites

Peter, in this instance, is faced with the challenge of preaching his first sermon to a bunch of people who are not Jews. It's not the kind of thing that you can practice very well. In fact, the entire situation is quite new. But it seems that Peter produces the same message for the Gentile as for the Jew — but with some variations suited to the difference in knowledge.

Jesus, the Christ

The central message of Christianity is Jesus, the Christ, himself. Every other religion in the world essentially has the same message: I, the prophet (or guru), have received a message for you. Christ tells you that he is the message. Here's what Peter says about him:

·         First, Jesus of Nazareth is the Word which God sent to the world. The ultimate message of God to mankind is not a series of pages written in Greek, but the divine man himself, Jesus of Nazareth.

·         Next, Peter tells us that Jesus is Lord of all. You may take this in two ways. First, it means that Jesus is Lord — the rightful ruler over all things in the universe. That is the proper focus on his power and authority. But you also may understand it as being Lord of all. He is not just God for the Jews or the people in Western Europe— but for all people.

·         Peter gives us than a brief life history of the ministry of Jesus here on Earth.

·         Finally, Peter tells us that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is returning to judge the living and the dead. Just as he is Lord of all, he will be judge of all.

Death, Burial and Resurrection

Peter tells us here the central message of Christ: his death, his burial and his resurrection. Look at it this way: every other religion tells you that the guru has a message. That intrinsically limits your ability to investigate whether or not that message is true or false. For example, how do you know that Joseph Smith saw those golden plates with Egyptian hieroglyphs on them as displayed by the angel? This is a particularly important question since an identical series of hieroglyphs have been found in a book which was in the Rochester Public Library at the time Smith was living in Rochester. It's even more interesting in that when Smith's hieroglyphs first appeared, the Rosetta Stone had yet to be discovered. Since then, we know how to translate hieroglyphs. Smith's translation of those hieroglyphs is greatly at variance with what Egyptologists would consider the correct translation. That's rather unusual in world religions; usually there is no ability what ever to test whether or not the guru actually saw what he says he saw.

But the core fact of Christianity is the resurrection. Peter here makes the assertion — which to this particular audience was simply a review of the facts as they knew them — the Christ was crucified on a cross. He died and was buried, and God raised him up on the third day. That is an extraordinary assertion. It's either true, or it's not. We need not get into apologetics too far to recognize this fact. I submit to you that, as a test, you can learn a great deal about the church's beliefs and the strength of faith they have by how often they proclaim the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

Witnesses

To buttress his argument, Peter cites three witnesses:

·         First, he goes into some detail about the prophets of the Old Testament. It is the contention of Christianity that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of the Jews, in his first advent. His first coming is prophesied in the Old Testament, and Peter makes it clear that these prophecies are evidence of the truth of Christ.

·         Next, he cites the then living witnesses of the apostles and other disciples. It is interesting to note that despite all the death and torture applied to the original apostles, not one of them ever announced that Christianity was some sort of a fake. Of the 12 apostles, 11 died gruesome, horrible deaths — which they could have avoided simply by announcing that the whole thing was a fake concocted by these apostles.

·         Finally, Peter cites to them the evidence of the Holy Spirit. We might make this argument today more along these lines: if something is evil, evil comes from it. We see this in some of the televangelists today. If they're in it just for the money, you eventually see a lifestyle of gaudy consumption. A fruitful comparison may be made with Billy Graham, who was a salaried employee throughout his career. Well paid? Yes he was. But no one ever thought him to be a gaudy consumer. So if from evil you get evil, what is the fruit of the Holy Spirit? And do you see it in the Christians around you? If you do, there's something to it.

What Does God Require of Us?

So what does it take to be a man who can make these kinds of changes in the church?

Ready Defense

We should note that Peter was not specifically prepared to talk to this audience. He did not have a scroll in his back pocket marked, "open in case of Gentiles." But he was prepared. He used the same message that he used for Jewish audiences, with a different emphasis on certain parts.

One thing we should note: if you're going to have a ready defense of the faith, you need to be prepared before hand. Many Christians rely on the idea that the Holy Spirit will give you the words necessary for your testimony in all occasions. There is a difference, however, between the fact that the Holy Spirit will help you select the right words and the possibility that he will suddenly insert into your mind the preparation you should have been making before. We are told we need to have a ready defense of the faith. To this God will add the help of the Holy Spirit — but we have to do our part first.

Accepting Lordship

It is not sufficient for the Christian to be honest; he must also be believable. The only known way to do this is to have a consistent walk in Christ. You do this by accepting his Lordship in your life and committing yourself to him. (I apologize to the experienced reader for restating what is blisteringly obvious.) If you do not walk the talk you will talk in vain.

The second reason for accepting the Lordship of Christ is that you're going to be placed in uncomfortable situations with uncomfortable people. Most of us are the same general opinion: if you give us the choice, we will sit on the couch and watch TV. We have to be told to get up off our rear ends and get moving. That's not going to happen unless you accept the Lordship of Christ.

So, just how does one determine that our Lord has given you the command to get up off your rear end and do something? I recently had the experience of someone asking me how you know when you have been called to something. Roughly speaking, here's what I told him:

·         You listen for the call. In some way, God is going to speak to you directly if he is going to give you a call. This has happened to me precisely once in my life.

·         You watch for God to open the door in front of you. Often enough, you suddenly discover something that was completely impossible for you has opened up – and God is beckoning you to walk through the door. The key to knowing that it is God's purpose, not your own, is that it's something you were sure just couldn't be done.

Courage

We have saved the most difficult point until last. There are many things which human beings fear; looking like a complete idiot is near the top of the list. We sometimes do not follow the call of God because we cannot have the courage to do so. But it is something we must have; for courage is the foundation of all virtue. Pontius Pilate was a merciful man — until it got risky. If you're going to step through God's open door, it will require courage.

That last sentence started with the word, "if." It sounds as if you're going to have a choice about whether or not you wish to develop the courage to be a living Christian. But you don't. Our Lord has made it quite clear that if you live the Christian life, you will face persecution. If the world hated him, the world will hate you. So you're going to need the courage whether you want it or not. You might as well get started on practicing the courage of the Christian.



[1] See http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/06/28/obama-vs-romney-who-would-handle-an-alien-invasion-better/.

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