Thursday, June 21, 2012

To the Uttermost Parts of the Earth - Acts 10 - The Kingdom of God is Bigger than Us part 5

Acts 10 is the crux of the matter.
Without it, there would be no Christians as we recognize them today.

The early readers of Acts probably would have been challenged by the acceptance of murderer Saul/Paul into their community (Acts 9). But Cornelius (Acts 10) was another matter altogether. Saul may have killed people, but this man was an uncircumcised Gentile, an agent of the Roman empire, for goodness' sake.

If the boundaries of the Kingdom weren't drawn before Cornelius, where in the world were its' boundaries?

Here we see the apex of the message Acts 6-12 tells us of the story of this early Christian community's first steps toward an inclusive and universal message and practice.

(please see the introduction to Acts 6-12)

Acts 10:9b-15 (ESV)
Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”

Luke's two books, the Gospel of Luke and Acts, record a progression in the message of the Kingdom of God steadily moving from the neighbourhood of Galilee outward to the heart of the Roman Empire. But more dramatic than the geographical movement of the message is the cultural one. Jesus of Galilee was a devout Jewish man, following the covenant of Moses perfectly and with reverence. During his ministry, Jesus still reaches his hand out beyond the boundaries of his native religion to Samaritans, a cultural and religious minority one degree removed from his Jewish heritage, and traditionally excluded by his people. Luke also records a story of Jesus reaching out to heal the servant of a Roman Centurion. This willingness to reach out the message of Kingdom freedom to a wealthy man in the pocket of the violent empire was radical, and possibly very controversial as well.

With this and other stories like it, Luke begins to present the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven can be and is Good News for everybody, everywhere, not just one cultural or religious tradition. In Acts 1:8, Jesus commissions his followers to go and be witnesses of the truth of the Coming Kingdom of God to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the world. It is unlikely that the disciples truly understood the universality of the message at this point, but this command and prophecy would be fulfilled in their lifetime. The Kingdom of God was Good News of the Great Reversal in which the empires would crumble under the weight of living communities empowered by the Holy Spirit to live generously, justly, mercifully, and wisely even in the face of oppression and death. For each citizen of this Free Kingdom that the empire destroyed, innumerable seeds would be scattered to spread the living Kingdom further into the cracks of it's dead concrete foundations. Their perseverance would be the empire's ruin.

Such news is immediately accepted as hopeful when presented to the oppressed, the lonely, the poor, and the marginalized. But Luke, the educated Greek doctor, writes these letters to the powers of the empire itself. Luke and Acts are both addressed to Theophilus, who Luke calls “Most Excellent”, a title reserved for ranking officers of Rome. Slowly but surely, he has shown that this Great Reversal is good news even for those living outside of Jesus' inner circle. This Good News is for the oppressed, that they no longer need to live under oppression. This Good News is for the oppressors, that they no longer need to oppress. It is Good News for privileged Theophilus, for educated Luke, and even for the violent oppressive forces that kept the poor Jewish people of Palestine bound.

No one needs the message of love more than those consumed and bound by hatred.

The beginning of the story of the early Kingdom Community is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when the first Jesus People are given the miraculous gift of communication in languages unknown to them. The Good News spreads quickly to Jews from every region of the diaspora, speaking all languages of the known world. Luke has shared the exciting story of Samaritans who receive the Holy Spirit, the living seed of the Kingdom. He carefully relates that Peter himself, likely the most respected of the early apostles, witnessed the baptism of these outsiders into the new Jesus community. An Ethiopian Jew received the Good News by the leading of the Holy Spirit through the early Jesus Follower, Philip.

Saul was one of the most zealous of the first intentional persecutors of the Jesus People. He traveled in order to hunt them down and squash the message of freedom that they lived and preached. Even he was offered the freedom of the Kingdom, and upon hearing the truth, he began sharing it with others in the same passion he had once tried to silence it.

Because no one needs the message of love more than one consumed and bound by hatred. The Good News for Paul was that he no longer needed to hold onto and live by his earthly power and influence. Such power is as much a poison to those who hold it as to their victims.

With the story of Saul, Luke finally leads us to the event that opens his entire message to the world. The most radical message was and is available to those who had no previous understanding or faith in the law of Moses, to those who had no family or traditional cultural connection to Jesus and his people, even to those who had given their lives to oppress such people. It was a message of freedom even for citizens of the empire that had unjustly executed Jesus as an insurrectionist.

Acts 10:1-2 (ESV)
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.

Luke presents this citizen of Rome as a devout man, but he certainly wasn't a follower of Moses' law. He had never entered God's covenant by the symbol of circumcision. As good as he may have been, he was as outside the old covenant as Luke himself. Cornelius receives a vision that a man is going to come and share a message with him, and that the man and message are from God.

Meanwhile, Peter receives a vision as well. In it, God shows him animals that the law of Moses had said he was not allowed to eat. As a part of God's covenant people, he had never touched such things. God tells him three times that he is no longer allowed to call common or unclean that which God has called clean.

Just as Peter had been present to witness the Holy Spirit fall on the Samaritans, it is important for the story that the witness of this Gentile conversion also be by such a respected man of the early community. This was not to be a one-time event, but the crest of a new movement in God's Kingdom that Peter would bring back to share with all the followers of the Way.

When Peter enters Cornelius' house, he wastes no time in sharing the news of Jesus, and the conviction that he is right to share it even with this outsider.

Acts 10:24-29 (ESV)
24 And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshipped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”

Peter boldly shared the word with these non-covenant foreigners. He shared the story of Jesus' life and ministry, his execution and resurrection, of forgiveness from sin and freedom for all who would receive the Kingdom.

Acts 10:44-48 (ESV)
44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47  “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

The floodgates were open. The fulness of the message of freedom in the Kingdom had now arrived. This would be a great challenge to the early believers, opening the doors of their Kingdom Communities to citizens of the very empire they were resisting. In fact, this story of inclusion and universality, that the freedom of Jesus was available to the whole world regardless of any previous action, and without any need for conversion to a legalistic code, would be the heart of most of the rest of the New Testament. Saul himself, the zealous persecutor of the Way, would become one of the most effective ambassadors and advocates to and for the foreigners and outsiders. With every step outside the inner circle, the message would widen in its ability to receive anyone, anywhere who also desired to be free and leave the control of the empire for the justice of the Kingdom.

And it is this message that would allow all of us and any of us who would read these words today to receive the Kingdom into our hearts and lives. No bondage, creed, ethnicity, class, gender, sin, or distance can keep any one of us from the love and freedom offered by the life of Jesus. That's good news.

vv1-8 – A Gentile is called to Salvation by God. It’s significant that it was Peter, not Paul, who went to him.
vv9-23 – Peter is the first of the apostles to be given the message from God that the gospel is also for the Gentiles.
v28 – The significant beginning of the change, the gospel to the Gentiles.
vv34-35 – AWESOME!
vv44-46 – The gift of the Holy Spirit and tongues came with the preaching of the gospel. Again ALL who are present receive. This is a sign to the Jewish believers that God certainly has accepted Gentiles as well. In this case at least, the evidence to Peter that they had received the Holy Spirit was that they were able to speak in other tongues.
v48 – Water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ and The baptism of the Holy Spirit are two separate events.

(Click here to read Acts 10)


  1. I just read out several times to understand your writing. Of course learnt something new here. I am quite new in Jewish by the way. I think you can check out the interesting video Didn't realize the major effect forgiving has on our health.

    1. That's a cool video. Forgiveness is so powerful, reconciliation and redemption even more so. When we forgive, we open the door to a healed relationship with the person that harmed us. But that forgiveness must be received, and change in one or both parties must occur for the relationship to be restored. So when we forgive, it's us that's healed.

      The challenge for these early Jewish believers was to forgive even those who would pursue and kill them, the racist and violent Roman empire. When Cornelius actually received God's Spirit, he was changed. In forgiving and opening the door to him and his family, the community was able to allow an enemy to become a brother.