God Isn’t Prejudiced
Summary: God saves people of all ages and stages of life, people of all ranks and roles, they all need the gospel.
One of the reasons we have the book of Acts is to show us the early history of the Christian Church. Acts shows us where we’ve come from and how we got here. If the book of Genesis tells us how the world began, the book of Acts tells us how the Church began. And in order to tell that story, it has to tell us how the gospel went from something believed by a cluster of people around Jesus to a global faith held by billions. Epidemiologists are tracking the spread of the Coronavirus right now; Luke tracks the spread of the gospel driven by the Holy Spirit.
And here, in Acts 10, we come to an important inflection point – a Roman centurion comes to faith as the apostle Peter learns that God doesn’t show partiality but is willing to accept anyone from any nation who fears Him and does what is right in His sight. This also has huge implications for us, because there is so much we can learn from a man whose whole identity is tied up in the fact that he serves the government, and yet he also loves the Lord. So read with me:
Acts 10:1 There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, 2 a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!”
4 And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?”
So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. 6 He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.” 7 And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. 8 So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa.
So, we meet this man Cornelius, and you need to know that he was a real man, with a real job.
He was a military officer who commanded somewhere between 60 and 100 soldiers, the equivalent of a modern captain or company commander. Centurions were responsible for the training and discipline of their men, and because centurions often led their troops into battle from the front, they had a disproportionately high death rate compared to other soldiers.
It was possible to work your way up the ranks and earn a commissioning on the basis of good performance and conduct as a soldier. But in general, to become a centurion you had to be a Roman citizen, at least 30 years old, with letters of recommendation from officials in the government, and at least enough education to be able to read written orders sent from superiors. And, as a benefit, you were often allowed to have your family live with you while in garrison, which is why we see Cornelius’ family here.
We also see that he’s a centurion of the Italian Cohort – that was a special regiment of about 1000 troops used to protect and police the area of Israel. If you put six cohorts together you have a legion – like a modern division.
He’s based out of Caesarea, a real city where you can visit the real ruins today. It was a port city and the military and administrative capital of the Romans who ruled the region. You may remember that Pilate came to Jerusalem from Caesarea for Passover when Jesus was killed.
I tell you all of that so that you can appreciate this next part even more.
Cornelius lived in this influential city, where he was an influential leader – he had servants, soldiers, friends and family who came when he called; he was the Pater Familias, the center of Roman society, but he was also a man of God who used his influence to impact the lives of others toward godliness.
We’re told here that Cornelius was a God-fearer. That was an official category in ancient Judaism. It meant he recognized the God of Creation, Yahweh, but stopped just short of circumcision and full conversion. And you need to know: this was at a time when the Romans had a state religion with different gods – in other words, his faith and trust in the God of Abraham, the God of a people his empire had conquered, could have been considered an obstacle to a successful career.
As a congregation of people living right outside the capital of our nation, and knowing that many of you are connected to the government or the military in some way, you might be interested to know that all the centurions in the Bible are spoken highly of. There’s the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant by just giving an order for the man to be healed; the centurion who witnessed the death of Jesus; the centurion who rescued Paul from a mob at the Temple which we’ll see later in Acts and then there is Julius, the centurion who guarded Paul on his way back to Rome for trial. All of these men are presented in a positive light.
But Cornelius, especially, is someone that we see found a way to do his job and worship God, and to do both well without breaking the law of the land or the law of God. Let me give you two other examples that should challenge us as we live out our professional and spiritual lives today in the shadow of DC.
First, think of Daniel – if you grew up in church you know the famous story of Daniel in the lion’s den, and if you don’t, we’ll be studying Daniel in the Men’s and Women’s Bible Studies after Easter.
But basically, Daniel is thrown into a den of lions as the result of a conspiracy because some people resented him and the good work he was doing in the service of the government. But when he was miraculously saved from the lions, look at how he explained what happened. The king shows up and wants to know how Daniel is still alive:
Dan 6:21 Then Daniel said to the king, “O king, live forever! 22My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.”
I want you to really, really, think about that claim: I was found blameless before God, and also before you O king. Daniel says I’ve done well in the sight of God and served the nation well.
He’s not the only one; later in Acts we’ll see Paul – that’s the Greek name of Saul who we saw last week in chapter 9 – we’ll see Paul/Saul make a bold claim before another ruler. He’s been arrested but the Romans don’t really understand the charges the Jews are bringing against him. So, he stands before the local governor and:
Acts 25:8 Paul argued in his defense, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.”
Again, you have someone who is able say. I am blameless before God and in the eyes of the state. In other words, I’m a good Christian and a good citizen.
But that can be challenging at times, can’t it? It’s not always easy to serve two kingdoms at once. It’s not always easy to fit in on your team, at your school, at your job, without compromising your walk with God. We all tend to trend in one or the other direction – toward God and away from the culture around us, or toward the culture and away from God.
So how were men like Daniel, Cornelius, and Saul able to maintain their witness in a cultural setting like this? I want to suggest to you that it was through continual prayer, selfless actions, and the grace of God. All three of those of things.
We’re told, note this in verse 2, Cornelius was a devout man, who feared God, and prayed to God continually. Later, in verse 30, we’ll see that the vision to send for Peter actually came while Cornelius was praying.
Daniel was so faithful in prayer that his conspirators uses it against him, in fact, it was the only thing they could think of – he was thrown into the lion’s den for praying to God instead of praying to the king. People who were jealous of him set a trap, the got the king to sign a decree prohibiting prayer to anyone but him.
Dan 6:10 Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days.
I think that last part there is really important – I think it’s the way Daniel was able to figure out how to serve God AND the country so well – he spent time in prayer, seeking God, committing himself to God, asking God for direction and strength. And you and I can and should do the same thing.
We receive direction for how to navigate the difficult sections of life or encouragement for enduring them when we pray. So, if you face challenging times and tough decisions, pray. Ask God for guidance, and then, spend time with His people and in His Word and see how He will direct and encourage you. You should expect God to give you practical guidance for daily life, because He cares about daily life – He cares about what we do at work, or at school. God cares about the ordinary parts of life, He cares about all the decisions we make.
And notice how these two things came together for Cornelius. He was
Acts 10:2 a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always.
So think about that – he’s a leader in the occupying army, and he’s giving alms to the occupied people, and not only that, he’s giving generously. The things he believed about God came out in his daily life. The things he believed spiritually affected the people around him. There’s this great big solid line connecting what he believes and what he does as a result.
So let me ask this: how does God want to use the position and the privilege He has given you? Are you as much of a blessing spiritually and materially to the people around you as Cornelius was? We all need to be challenged by the example of this man, we need to be challenged by the fact that he walked with God and made a difference in the lives of others, while holding an important government office.
Don’t miss this the fact that when the angel came to Cornelius, he said something very interesting. He said, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God.
God took notice of his prayers and his deeds. Friends, God knows. He sees and He knows. He sees and knows our compromises, He sees and knows when we’re a different person at work or with our friends than we are at church or at home. But He also sees and knows when we’re trying. When we want to do well. When we want to serve Him and help others and we’re looking for the best way to do that. He sees and knows and if we are willing to receive it, He often guides us into the path of righteousness. He shows us what to do or brings us comfort and encouragement.
So, as Cornelius is praying and giving, he has this vision to send for Peter, a man he’s never met. Meanwhile, Peter is praying himself and is about to have a pretty radical encounter with God.
Acts 10:9 The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance 11 and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
So, this is the verse all of you hunters will want to remember. Grab your gun or your bow and remind your friends – it’s biblical, you’ve got to rise, kill, and eat. Peter had a vision of pigs in a blanket and that’s what he was told to do.
Actually, notice that it’s hard to tell exactly what is going on here, it says Peter say an object “like” a great sheet come down from heaven and has all these different animals and birds in it. And he’s told to eat them. But he’s a Jew and he lives by certain religious rules, including rules about which animals you can and cannot eat. Apparently these animals aren’t Kosher, and he thinks this is a test.
14 But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”
Remember Peter has failed some tests in the past, most notably when he denied Jesus three times, so now, he thinks he’s being tested to deny his Jewish heritage and he says, “No way, I’m sticking with you God. I know what’s right and wrong and I’m willing to stand firm.”
15 And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”
So that’s important right there – God is saying, your old way of doing things was right Peter, but things have changed. Things are being cleansed.
16 This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
Now that should sound familiar to those of you who know your Scripture – you remember the number three plays a big role in Peter’s story. He denied Jesus three times, then after the resurrection, Jesus asked him three times, Peter, do you love me? And now he has this vision repeat three times. God is sending him a very strong message about things being cleansed and received instead of rejected and resisted.
Now you remember Jesus told the disciples they were to take the gospel to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth because the gospel is for all people, in all places to bring us into relationship with God.
But it was hard for the early Christians, with their Jewish backgrounds, to understand this – for some of them it was just mind boggling that God would save other people.
Peter is slowly warming up to the idea though. He, like most of Jesus’ first disciples, was from Galilee, the northern region of Israel. But lately he has seen people from the capital in Jerusalem coming to faith. And then, on Pentecost, he saw Jews from all over the known world come to faith. Then, he saw Samaritans come to faith. He’s slowly learning that the Kingdom of God is breaking out. He’s even staying at the house of Simon, a tanner – we’ve been told that twice already.
That’s actually a big deal, because tanners deal with dead animals to make leather products. And dead animals were unclean according to Jewish law. But Peter is staying with him. He’s moving in a more inclusive direction and God is encouraging that through this vision as we’re about to see – God is cleansing things, people really, and asking Peter to recognize that, which he does, slowly.
So, he’s standing there, trying to process this whole experience when the application comes walking right up to him. Read with me:
Acts 10:17 Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate. 18 And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there.
19 While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are seeking you. 20 Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.”
21 Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, “Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?”
22 And they said, “Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you.” 23 Then he invited them in and lodged them.
On the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him.
So God is instructing Peter, guiding him in a new direction and notice how the baby steps of obedience continue – he invites these men in, and they stay the night. That might not mean much to you, but it was a big deal for him as he’ll explain in just a minute.
They get up the next morning, and the whole group heads off to see Cornelius and discover what God is up to. Now, you Bible nerds might want to take note of the fact that Peter is leaving from Joppa to bring the gospel to a Gentile because a few hundred years earlier another famous Jew had done the same thing – only his name was Jonah and he wasn’t so eager to go where God was sending him. In fact, he was in Joppa to try to escape from the mission, but he wound up in the belly of a giant fish (Jonah 1:1-3).
So this is really important, because Peter doesn’t resist God. He doesn’t fully understand, but he’s willing to trust and learn. He’s willing to see what God is up to.
24 And the following day they entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends.
Remember, Cornelius is an important man, in an important city, but the most important thing to Him is God, and he’s not ashamed of sharing that with other people in his life. You get the idea that everyone who knew Cornelius, knew that God played an important role in his life.
25 As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I myself am also a man.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many who had come together. 28 Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation.
He says, you know it’s a big deal for me to be here, normally, this wouldn’t happen. But God is showing me things, He’s ripping apart distinctions and barriers. Peter says:
But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
This was the point of the vision he had. It wasn’t about the meat, it was about meeting with others.
29 Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. I ask, then, for what reason have you sent for me?”
30 So Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you.’ 33 So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God.”
Notice this – both men were seeking God – Cornelius was in prayer when God spoke to him, and the same is true of Peter. Neither of them fully understood what was happening, but they were willing to take steps of faith based on what they knew.
So, Cornelius says, this is what happened, this is what God said to do. I did it, what do you have for us?
And now things start to really fall into place for Peter.
Acts 10:34 Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. 35 But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. 36 The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all— 37 that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. 39 And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. 40 Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, 41 not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42 And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. 43 To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.”
Peter presents the gospel to Cornelius and everyone he has gathered – he explains who Jesus is and what He has done and he calls Cornelius, the great captain of the Roman Army to surrender to Jesus. To accept that Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead, the one all the prophets, like Jonah, were looking forward to, the savior of everyone who will confess their sins and repent of living for their own independence and ideas and submit to God as King instead.
Jesus died on a cross, but God raised Him up on the third day and showed Him openly to people who ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead.
God has sent Peter to tell Cornelius he needs this Jesus. And that’s super, super important for you to know. Because, Cornelius was already a very spiritual man. He prayed. He did good deeds. He gave money to charity. He was a good man, well-liked, a moral and ethical man. And yet he was told, to go find Peter because he needed Jesus.
You see, maybe you’re here this morning and you’re like Cornelius. You’re a good man, a good woman, a good kid – maybe you were even raised in the church. Maybe you try to do good things for others. You try to make a difference. You even pray at times and encourage people to practice their spirituality. That’s great, but do you have Jesus? Have you been born again? Is there a before and after mark in your soul?
Have you ever confessed yourself as a sinner before God and placed your hope in Jesus, and Jesus alone for your salvation? Not the good things you do. Not the money you gave. Not your thoughts about God. Do you trust in Jesus, and only Jesus for your salvation? It’s not enough to be good and respectable like Cornelius. Cornelius also needed Christ.
There are some very good people out there in the world, doing very good things for people in need and strangers. And, you know what, there are some very bad people in the church at times, mean, critical, unkind, unloving people, prejudiced and bigoted people. But don’t let that cloud the fact that Cornelius needed Jesus. And so did Peter, Peter needed Jesus to teach him to be more loving and accepting of people like Cornelius whose home he wouldn’t have entered a few months ago.
As each of these men sought God – Cornelius from outside the church, and Peter from within – as each man sought God, He led them both to the same place – to the place of recognizing who Jesus was and what He was doing, and then they both faced the same choice – would they follow and respond? Would Cornelius, and would Peter, submit to what God was doing?
And what about you? Are you willing to submit to God? Are you willing to follow where He leads? And are you willing to allow Him to shape your life? God did a great work in the lives of both men, but He also used each of these men to affect other people. What about you? Are you making the lives of people around you better because Jesus is in you?
The world is a crazy place. It needs men and women who will stand firm, who will be anchors for others in the storms of life. Men and women, boys and girls, who will make a difference in the lives of people around them. Who will wrestle and struggle to find a way to be an excellent dancer, an excellent doctor, or an excellent director of their department and still love Jesus because neither of those things are enough all by themselves. God saves us from our sins, but He also sends out to make a difference in the world.
The world needs you, and God Himself wants you, to go back into your neighborhoods and work places and make a difference. But never on your own – it’s never by yourself. He wants you to admit that you can’t do it by yourself, you can’t do it on your own. You need to be led and you need to be empowered by Him.
Right now, this world needs people who will be bold and who will be brave, in the face of the Coronavirus and a thousand other issues – it needs men and women full of wisdom and competence, people with professional skill and diligence. This world needs men and women, boys and girls, who will spend time in prayer and in God’s word, and then go out and give – to live in light of what they believe. To receive from God and then reflect to the world.
But it all starts with Jesus – remember, even Cornelius needed Christ. So, start with Him – confess that He is the Judge of the living and the dead, confess your need for forgiveness of sins, and then make yourself available to serve God by making a difference in lives of people around you.