God’s Seal of Approval
Summary: God is expanding His kingdom, who are we resist?
This morning we’ll see that God is in control of human history, driving His agenda while the rest of us scramble to keep up. Specifically He is taking the gospel to Gentiles, people, like most of us, with no Jewish background – and we’ll notice that this wasn’t the result of the church’s strategic outreach plan, it wasn’t the result of a missions prayer conference, it was something God did, in His timing, in His way, and the Church had to figure out how to respond.
We’ll also see what happened when the Gentiles came to faith and consider what it means to be born-again in a dying world. We need to focus on their specific context 2000 years ago in ancient Israel, but we’ll slip in some observations along the way that relate to our current cultural crisis when it’s appropriate because God is still God, He is still in control of human history, and He is still way out ahead of us.
We pick things up where we left off two weeks ago – with Peter the Jewish apostle standing in the home of Cornelius, the Roman centurion sharing the gospel. It’s a critical moment in the history of the Church, because remember, Jesus was Jewish. He lived in Israel. His first disciples were Jewish and also lived in Israel. All of the first Christians were Jewish.
But God’s plan has always been to save people from every tribe, and culture, and nation and the book of Acts helps us see how that happened – how the gospel spread across ethnic lines, across state lines, and across continents reaching people from every possible background because no matter what language your mom spoke, or where you were born, or what you call home, there are two things that unite us as humans: we are made in the image of God and we rebel against or ignore Him – the Bible calls that sin – and says we all need forgiveness of it and salvation from its consequences.
The Scriptures also say that salvation comes in only one form: Jesus.
Peter is explaining all of this to a Roman centurion named Cornelius who has gathered his friends and family to hear a message from God. When suddenly, we pick things up in
Acts 10:44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. 45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.
I love this – because God doesn’t even let Peter finish what he’s saying. No, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon” them, just like the Spirit fell on Peter and the other first Christians at Pentecost. There was no altar call, there was no pressing them to make a decision, there was no formula or special prayer, no laying on of hands, God just did it, and expects Peter to deal with it.
There is no doubt as to who is driving the agenda here. No doubt as to who is in charge, and Peter recognizes that.
(vs 46 continued) Then Peter answered, 47 “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.
Now, if you were with us two weeks ago, you remember Peter pointed out that it was unlawful for a Jew to come into the home of Roman, much less to stay with him for a few days, but Peter is beginning to see that God is expanding the kingdom, calling people in – including people that Peter wouldn’t have thought to call if left to himself.
And so now you have an uneducated Jewish fisherman discipling a leader in the Roman Army, an important man, in an important city. It’s an unlikely relationship for either of them, and it’s only made possible in Christ. These men have almost nothing else in common but their common love of God and yet, that’s enough!
This is the power of the gospel to transform lives, to break down barriers, to establish relationships that otherwise would not have occurred, and it happens because God is driving the agenda.
Peter never said, “We really need a plan for diversity.” Cornelius never said, “We really ought to be more inclusive and seek greater representation.” But it happened, naturally, as both men sought God. Remember, Peter had a vision while he was in prayer, Cornelius heard from the angel while he was in prayer.
Brothers and sisters, we need to make ourselves available to God – to learn to see with His eyes, and love with His heart. Our heavenly Father wants all people to be saved and we have to watch out for personal biases and prejudices that naturally settle into our hearts and make us look at people differently than God does.
Even in the church, we need to work on that. Because, when word gets out about what has happened, some people aren’t so sure about Peter’s just done – they wonder if he’s doing this on his own:
Acts 11:1 Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles [remember, that was the term for anyone who wasn’t a Jew] had also received the word of God. 2 And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, 3 saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!”
Again, you have to see – this wasn’t the early Church’s plan. Diversity wasn’t their idea, and they’re not all sure it’s a good idea yet. They can’t believe what Peter has done – they contended with him, it got confrontational. But Peter explains, look, this wasn’t my plan, it was all God.
4 But Peter explained it to them in order from the beginning, saying: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object descending like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came to me. 6 When I observed it intently and considered, I saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered me again from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ 10 Now this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven. 11 At that very moment, three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent to me from Caesarea. 12 Then the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, ‘Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, 14 who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”
That’s the line you want to underline or highlight right there: if this is what God is doing, who am I to resist?
18 When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
Shocking, but true.
It wasn’t their plan. It wasn’t on their calendar or agenda, it wasn’t part of their strategic goals, but it’s what God was doing, and they needed to decide: how would they react?
And that’s a question we all need to consider: when it is apparent that God is allowing or initiating things that we didn’t foresee or plan, how will we react?
We find ourselves alone in our bedrooms or living rooms right now instead of gathered in a sanctuary. How will we react? Our lives have been completely taken over by an invisible disease. How will we react? It wasn’t what we sought, it wasn’t what we asked for, it wasn’t what we wanted. How will we react?
Well, my hope is that we will go along with God. We will adapt to our circumstances and we will seek to do what we should always be doing, at all times, in all places, under all conditions: Love God and Love Others.
Even if that means keeping some distance from others. Look for ways to demonstrate more faith than fear. Pray. Grow in your relationships with God and others. Right now, many people have more time and fewer commitments, how are you going to use that?
The time will come when you’ll look back on this moment and wish that certain aspects of it were still with us. So Carpe Diem Christian, seize the day. Ask God what He wants you to learn from all of this. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8). God hasn’t changed. Our circumstances have, but He hasn’t. He is still in control, still on the throne, still ruling over every aspect of human life.
That’s one of the things our text helps us understand this morning: God really does control the destiny and flow of history in general and of our lives in particular. He always has, He always does, and He always will.
When you read the book of Acts it is almost impossible to miss the fact that God is driving the agenda, pushing things into place. The story of salvation is His plan, unfolding His way. And it’s always been like that.
But don’t miss the fact that it hasn’t always been easy. Along the way, there have been moments, seasons, at times even centuries of difficulty, suffering, persecution, depravity, and captivity. This morning we see the gospel arrive at the home of a Roman centurion, it’s a milestone marker in the history of the Church, but it’s taken a long journey to get there.
Remember, God called Abraham out of Ur, and gave promises to him and his descendants who became the nation of Israel. They were God’s chosen people, but along the way they spent time in captivity in Egypt, then they were invaded in the Promised Land. They were eventually taken into captivity by the Assyrians and the Babylonians and when they finally made it back to Israel, they endured nearly 500 years of occupation by the Greeks and then the Romans. Along the way, they endured plagues and famines and horrible politicians. And these were God’s chosen people.
Then He sent His chosen Son, Jesus, and He was rejected and ridiculed. He was resisted and reviled. He did nothing but good to people and for people, and was eventually conspired against, arrested, and murdered on a cross. But that wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t like, “Ooops, I guess the Son of God was overwhelmed by the power of men.” No, it was purposeful. God was working temporary tragedy into eternal good. The motives of the people involved were rotten, the pain His Son felt was real, but God was pushing the agenda, driving the ultimate outcome – and it was for our good – bringing us salvation.
We see that good unfold in the book of Acts as the Church grows, but along the way we’ve seen fussing and fighting inside the Church and persecution and conflict with people outside the Church. The growth of God’s Kingdom and plan of salvation continues, but it has rarely been smooth.
There are times, seasons, of peace and quiet and prosperity. But there’s also a lot discomfort, fatigue, friction, and fighting. And let’s be real – that means that at times it’s bumpy and bruising, and painful for the people living out their individual lives, but when you pull back and take in the big picture, God is there, He is good, and He is working things together for good.
That becomes clear at moments like this when you see the borders of the Kingdom expand taking in a Roman centurion and his family and friends – people you never would have thought would be saved until it actually happened. And it only happened because God was in control, weaving the threads of history to reflect His design; writing the individuals lines of code that fit together into a masterful program.
My friends, at a time like the one we are living through, that’s a message we need to remember: God is at work. He’s not on vacation. We may not understand what is happening, or why, and we can certainly wish that it was not so. But here we are.
So, how will we respond? Will we trust? Will we have more faith than fear? Will we look for ways to love?
Because that’s God’s ultimate agenda. He’s leading us to love – to know and experience His love and then to share it with others.
Think with me about how this played out with Peter and Cornelius as God drove the agenda there. I want to draw your attention to five things we observe about the event.
First, God told Cornelius to send for Peter because (11:14) he would “tell [Cornelius] words by which [he] and [his] household will be saved.” Now, we talked more about this two weeks ago, but Cornelius, a man whose prayers had been heard by God and whose good deeds had been seen by God, needed to be saved. And that salvation comes through hearing the message of the gospel that Peter brings: that Jesus Christ died in our place, to pay the penalty for all the wrong we have done and save us from the penalties we deserve.
This is the gospel. That if we will confess our sins (the wrongs we have done), to God, and ask for His forgiveness, He will cover us with the blood of Christ, as if Jesus was a sacrifice made for us personally, and reckon us innocent for all time.
Cornelius needed to hear that message, and so do we. We all need to hear it. And people today still need to hear it. It could be that God will use this time when so many people are thinking about life and death to consider – what really happens when you die? Are you ready to die? Why do you want to live so bad, and what are you doing with your life?
God has given us very clear instruction in Scripture: after death there is a judgement, and you will either pay your own penalty or have it paid by Jesus for you.
This is why the message of the gospel is one of salvation. But it’s also a message that calls us to point number Two: repentance, or change in our lives. Notice with me in 11:18,
18 When they heard [everything Peter had to say] they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
Cornelius and his family and friends needed to repent. Now that’s not a word we use very often in English today, (which tells us a lot about ourselves), but to repent means to change direction. You once were going this way, and now you reverse course. There is change in your life, outward, obvious, evident change. You do things differently that you used to. You do things differently than the people around you. For better or worse, you stick out, because you’re not going the same direction as the masses.
Friends, a life of repentance will stand out in the middle of a pandemic. We’re called to repent from things like fear, greed, and selfishness – can you picture Jesus freaking out, hoarding toilet paper, worriedly following the next headline or press release, and gripped by panic and anxiety? No. And that’s why we need to repent, to turn, away from those things. You heard Vic share that great example of his wife buying paper towels last week – she just had one package and someone in the store told her the limit was actually two, she could get another and she responded: but we only need one. Friends, that looks different.
So, are you repenting of fear, worry, anxiety, greed, and selfish ambitions – because there is no doubt, we’re all by tempted by them – but are you repenting of them, or are you slipping right into their choke hold of death?
That’s not a one-time question, it’s rinse, lather, repeat. You’ve got to ask and keep asking that question of your heart. This virus is going to help us wear down a clear path to the cross as we fall into sin and temptation, receive awareness and conviction of our sin, and then repent. Over and over again. This is a spiritual deployment as we wage war against our own flesh, heart, and minds.
But notice, it’s repentance that leads to life. They marveled, in vs 18 because they saw that God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life. Fear, anxiety, worry, self-focus, all drain life from you, they immobilize you, they control you, they make you into something less, something small, something weak and thin.
But repentance brings life: strength, trust, hope, peace, concern for others. If you can take the path of trust or the path of fear, which one is going the right way? And which one are you on? Where do you need to repent?
Now, the really, really good news is, we don’t do this alone. Cornelius and the other Gentiles needed to hear the gospel, they needed to repent of their sins to life, and then point number Three, they needed to: be baptized.
Notice, when Peter sees that the Spirit has obviously fallen on them, He says, is there any reason why they shouldn’t be baptized like we were?
Baptism is a public profession of a personal commitment. When we are baptized in water, we tell the Church: I agree with you, I am one of you, I am joining the family of God. And the members of the church, by arranging and performing the baptism, agree with you – yes, you are. You are one of us, we are the same. Baptism, by, with, and in the Church, says we are one, we are the family of God on earth, no matter our background or differences we all agree on the gospel and the need to repent.
And that means something incredibly important – it means that you are not alone. You are part of something. Christian, you are part of the family of God – even when you’re isolated and alone. And we have seen the family of God ministering to each other in encouraging ways this week. Baptism is making a public entrance into a living, nourishing, encouraging, loving, serving family bound together by the gospel demonstrating practical acts of love and service to each other and the community around us.
So, just like the first Jewish Christians, these Roman Christians needed to hear the gospel, repent, be baptized, and point number Four: receive the Spirit. We picked things up this morning with the Spirit falling, as Peter was speaking, and suddenly you have all these Romans speaking in tongues, just like what happened at Pentecost.
Now, that’s not normal. That’s not what you should expect to happen when people are saved today. But it was absolutely important that it happened then, because God was showing Peter and the other witnesses – I am doing for these Romans exactly what I did for you, so receive them. Don’t think they’re different. Don’t go creating classes or ranks of Christians. Everyone is the same, is that perfectly clear?
So, while people do not typically speak in tongues at the moment of their salvation today, we can, will, and should experience the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives if we are born again.
The Scriptures speak over and over again about the gifts of the Holy Spirit that we receive in our lives, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit that we produce in our lives. And while there’s way more to the subject than we could hope to cover this morning, the main idea you need to focus on is: you’re not left alone to live this life anymore. If you have repented and been saved, God is with you, in you, and available to come upon you, empowering you through the Holy Spirit.
Which is GREAT news – you’re not called to live through COVID in total isolation. Yes, there is social distancing, but there is no spiritual distancing. God is with you through the power and presence of His Holy Spirit. And He can and will give you the gifts you need to survive and thrive in this crisis. He will make it possible for you to turn inside out and look for ways to help and serve others for His sake. Ask Him.
Think about this: God could have used the angel to tell Cornelius the gospel. But He didn’t. He got his attention with the angel, and then told him to send for Peter because God’s plan is people reaching people. So, how does God want to use you, in this crisis? Whose life does He want to use you to touch?
Look with me one more time at verse 18 and notice the final outcome of everything we’ve seen this morning:
18 When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
So, point number Five is: They glorified God. When the Spirit was poured out and people started speaking tongues on Pentecost and in the home of Cornelius – they glorified and magnified God. He was glorified when it happened and when people heard about it later. They were all able to see what He was doing and praise Him for it.
Our circumstances today are different. People are dying. Jobs are lost. Life is hard. But, God is still here, and He is still good. He is in control of human history.
There have been, there are, and there will be, times of difficulty, suffering, tragedy and pain. Don’t let that lead you to question God – let it prove to you that everything He has said is true – our world, and our lives, are broken by sin.
We need to hear the gospel, repent – and keep repenting, be baptized and brought into the community of the Church where we will find strength, family, and fellowship to sustain us, and receive the Holy Spirit who is always with us, even when we’re stuck at home alone in our apartment for weeks, He is still giving us gifts and producing fruit in us.
Friends, God is in control of human history, let us glorify and magnify Him in our lives in the middle of a pandemic and one day, when others hear of what He has done in us and through us, may they glorify His name again just as they did when they heard of what happened with Cornelius.