BREAKING THE BARRIER Acts 10–11
“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28).Social barriers to fellowship between Christians must be broken down.
An angel told a devout Roman centurion to send for Peter (10:1–8). God prepared Peter with an unusual vision (vv. 9–23), and he readily traveled to Cornelius’ home (vv. 24–29). As Peter revealed God’s promise of forgiveness (vv. 30–45) the Spirit fell on the Gentiles and they spoke in tongues (vv. 46–48). Back in Jerusalem Peter related what God had done, and the church realized Christ is for Gentiles as well as Jews (11:1–18). When a strong Gentile church developed in Antioch (vv. 19–24), Barnabas sought Saul in Tarsus to join him in leadership (vv. 25–30).
Understanding the Text
“He and all his family were devout” Acts 10:1–8.
Cornelius is also described as “God-fearing.” In the first century this served as a technical term for those who admired Israel’s religion, and worshiped Israel’s God, but had not converted to Judaism. We can’t be sure that “God-fearing” is used in this technical sense here. But certainly Cornelius did worship God as well as he was able, showing his devotion in regular prayer and by giving generously to those in need. God’s stamp of approval is given in the angel’s words: Cornelius’ prayers and acts had “come up as a remembrance before God” (v. 4). We can be sure that God will reveal Himself and the way of salvation to any person like Cornelius, who honestly seeks to know and to serve the Lord. “Bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter” Acts 10:5. If Paul was the “apostle to the Gentiles,” why was Peter chosen to open the door of Gentile conversion? In part to show that the church is one: there could be no schism between a “Gentile” and “Jewish” church. The leading Jewish apostle was selected to preach the first Gospel message to Gentiles. There’s probably another reason. First-century Jews looked down on Gentiles and carefully separated themselves from them. Just entering a Gentile home made a person ritually unclean, and it was unthinkable to eat a meal with a Gentile. Only testimony by a leader of Peter’s standing would possibly be accepted by the Jewish believers. The barriers between Jew and Gentile were just too great. But soon, through Peter’s ministry in the house of Cornelius, those barriers would begin to go down. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” Acts 10:9–23. Peter could not be called a “strict” Jew. We remember all too well how he and the other disciples were criticized by the Pharisees, to assume he was a strict legalist (cf. Matt. 12:1–2). But like all Jews, Peter had a deep-seated awareness of Israel’s call as God’s people. He was firmly committed to the basic symbols of his people’s separation to God. That’s why the command, “Kill and eat,” was so traumatic for him. Peter realized that the voice in the vision was from heaven, and thus was God’s. Yet the voice commanded him to eat animals which the Law of Moses identified as “unclean,” and thus a violation of the principle of separation. God’s word to Peter was clear. Peter was not to call “unclean” what God had made clean. God, who established Israel’s dietary laws, had the right to change them, or any other element of the ancient faith! Peter must change his outlook in order to be in step with God. Sometimes we find ourselves in a similar situation. We meet someone with different convictions than our own, and feel terribly uncomfortable. Yet we discover he or she is a committed Christian! Something in our outlook must change, for our concept of separation has come in conflict with Scripture’s teaching that all believers are brothers and sisters. If God calls them clean in Christ, how can we separate ourselves from them? Peter was about to learn a lesson each of us must learn. We can keep our convictions about what is right and what is wrong for us to do. But we cannot let our convictions become a barrier to fellowship with believing brothers and sisters with whom we differ. (See DEVOTIONAL.) “God has shown me I should not call any man impure or unclean” Acts 10:23–29. Peter openly acknowledged the divine correction. A few days before he would never have entered the house of Cornelius. But the vision showed him that “clean” and “unclean” were terms that should not apply to persons. You and I can hold convictions about what actions are right or wrong. But we can never let our convictions spill over to shape our attitudes toward fellow Christians. The other day I dropped a can of Diet Pepsi. When it hit, a tiny hole was opened in its side, and it spun round and round on the floor, with Pepsi spurting from the hole and staining the whole kitchen. I found drops on the cupboards, chairs, refrigerator, walls—even in the dining room. My wife had just one word for me: Clean. Sometimes convictions are like that Pepsi—they spurt out and stain everyone around us, convincing us that others are unclean. And we impulsively grab for our rags, intent on cleaning them up! Convictions, like Pepsi, are to be kept in the can except when in use. They’re ours, and we should live by them. But we can’t let them spurt out and taint our attitude toward other Christians whose convictions may differ. “Peter was still speaking these words” Acts 10:39–48. Use of the Greek rhemata rather than the familiar logos here suggests that it was the specific words concerning forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ name to which these Gentiles responded. We can believe many things “about” God and still come short of salvation. That comes as we trust God’s promise of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. “The circumcised believers . . . were astonished” Acts 10:44–11:18. Peter had been accompanied by six Jewish Christians. Later their testimony that the Holy Spirit had indeed been given to Gentiles was crucial in convincing the Jerusalem church that Christ reached out to all. Again we see special circumstances for an unusual event. The Gentiles gave evidence of the Spirit’s presence by speaking in tongues. Later Peter related this to the Pentecost experience. As Gentiles had been given the same gift that was given the Jewish believers, they had obviously been accepted by God. So “who was I to think that I could oppose God?” (11:17) When there was a need to convince a skeptical Jewish church that God intended to welcome Gentile converts, a special sign was given. We don’t need to be convinced—or shouldn’t need to be. We know from Scripture that all who profess Christ as Saviour, whatever their previous background, belong to Him. And belong with us. “A great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” Acts 11:19–24. It was one thing to accept Gentile converts into a predominantly Jewish church. But now in Antioch, a major city of the Empire, a predominantly Gentile church was established! Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to find out what was happening. He was an excellent choice, for he was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” He may have been one of the few Jewish Christian leaders sensitive enough to sense what God was about, and able to resist the temptation to impose a Jewish lifestyle on these Gentile converts. What Barnabas did do is again a model for us to follow. He simply “encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” (v. 23). God doesn’t need or want cookie-cutter Christians, all stamped out on the model you and I provide. He wants Christians who are true to Him with all their hearts. If we help others be true to Him, they will reject sin. And they will be responsive to God, who is better able to shape their convictions and their lifestyle than we are. “The disciples . . . decided to provide help” Acts 11:25–30. When a severe famine was predicted and came, Judea was especially hard hit. The Gentile church in Antioch, led now by Saul as well as Barnabas and its own elders, sent aid. Again we see a principle at work. When barriers are let down, and Christian brothers and sisters released to work out their own way of expressing their commitment to the Lord, love and caring also flow. As an expression of that love the Gentile church of Antioch sent its gift to their Jewish brethren by Barnabas and Saul. Love others and give them freedom in Christ. That kind of love will surely be returned.
Broken Barriers(Acts 11:1–18)
Thirty years ago I’d have bristled a bit, put up my defenses, and wondered if he was converted. But then, 30 years ago I erected all sorts of barriers to protect myself from having to consider that folks whose convictions and beliefs differed from mine might be Christians. My list of convictions included such things as no smoking, drinking, or going to movies. And my list of essential beliefs ruled out Catholics and a goodly number of Protestants too. I couldn’t help smiling about this last weekend, as I stood just off the dance floor with Bob Dyksra. The band was blaring as he sipped his cocktail, and shouted just a bit to be heard. We were back in Michigan for my wife’s niece’s wedding, and Bob, a cousin, had come up from Indianapolis. We’d stayed in his home one weekend a few years before, and discovered that he was an active member in a large Catholic parish, heavily involved in small group Bible study. Among his more unusual claims to fame, Bob is one of the few persons, if not the only one, who’s read all the articles in my 720-page Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985). Last weekend, though, Bob was telling me about a family he met in the Orlando airport. The dad was 64, wheeling a 42-year-old son in a wheelchair. The son had been stricken with a disease that gave him no control at all over his body, but left his mind sharp and unimpaired. Mom and Dad had cared for him for years, but as their lives were drawing to a close, they knew that they had to find someplace for their son to be cared for. They were going to Indianapolis, where Bob’s parish sponsored just such a facility. Bob looked at his watch as he told me the story. It was nearly 10 P.M., and he and his wife had to leave to drive back home from Grand Rapids. It seems he’d told the mom and dad that whenever they came to Indianapolis to visit their son, they could stay at his home. So he had to get back that night, to pick them up early next morning at the airport and take them out to see their boy. Bob took one last swig of his drink, smiled, and left for the long drive home. And I felt a little bit like the Jerusalem church must have, when it praised the Lord that God had “even granted the Gentiles repentance unto life.” This ol’ Diet-Pepsi-drinking-Protestant is so glad the barriers are going down, and that I can feel comfortable calling a modern “Gentile” who loves Jesus, prays regularly, and gives generously to those in need, “Brother.” And love him in the Lord.
Keep your convictions. But don’t let them keep you from others.
“To pass judgment on another is to usurp shamelessly a prerogative of God, and to condemn is to ruin one’s soul.”—John Climacus