Sunday, July 5, 2015

The attack on the church, Acts 12

Recent decisions on the part of the government, not only in America, but also in various other countries, have amounted to nothing less than an attack on the church.  And I believe that this is just the beginning of a wholesale attack on the church which will continue to get worse and worse as we go forward.  The Bible makes it clear that in the last days, perilous times will come.

Paul described such days as this in 2Tim. 3:1-5 “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.  For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy,  unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good,  treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,  holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.” 

Difficult times are coming for the church.  We stand on the authority of God’s word, and as such are in opposition to those types of people, who want not only to be allowed to continue in their rebellion against God, but want to make us agree with their rebellion and redefine morality so that what they do is no longer considered sinful.  It’s not enough for us to allow them their immorality, the church must be forced to condone it and even celebrate it in order for them to be satisfied. 

So I believe that these are the beginning of perilous times for the church in America, especially.  It is a difficult time for the church because we live in a country with a representative form of government that is managed by a peculiar type of leader called a politician.  And a lot of politicians are willing to cater to whatever crowd will keep them elected.  Many politicians seem to be willing to embrace anything that will endear them to enough people to guarantee their reelection. 

But as I alluded to last week, I would encourage you not to be dismayed and give up hope.  Over the last 2000 years, nations and governments and political despots have risen and fallen, and yet God’s church still stands.  Jesus promised Peter, “I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” The church will survive until Jesus returns one day to reclaim it as His bride and there is nothing the world can do to stop it. 

But that doesn’t mean that there will not be persecution of the church.  I believe wholeheartedly that the church will endure persecution in the last days.  I do not subscribe to the post millennial doctrine that things are going to get better and better until the whole world is saved.  Neither do I subscribe to the pre-millennial view that the church will escape unscathed by a secret rapture.  I believe that the church will go through the tribulation, and it has already started and will continue to escalate and will consummate with the second coming of Christ. 

As Jesus Himself prophesied in Mar 13, saying, “And except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved: but for the elect's sake, whom he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days. ...  For false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall show signs and wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect… But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, ... And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.”

Persecution is coming, but we should not be alarmed by it.  Rather we should understand that God uses all things for good, even persecution, for them that love God, and to them that are called according to His purposes. (Rom.8:28)  God uses even the death of His saints for His purposes and to build His church.  As Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” 

The problem is that we value too much this present world, and value too little the next.  We should remember that in Christ we have already died to the world, and if they should take our life, then so much the better for we will be present with the Lord.  “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” 

In chapter 12 today we see a perfect illustration of the principle that God will preserve His church against the attacks of the enemy.  What I want to show you from this passage is three principles that we can be assured of as the church endures persecution from governments or any organization used by Satan to attack the church.  The first is the persecution of the saints.  The second is the protection of the saints.  And the third is the judgment upon the wicked.

So first let’s look at the persecution of the saints. In this chapter we see persecution against the church ramps up from merely religious persecution by the Sanhedrin, to political or government persecution against the church.  And yet, God illustrates through this passage that He is on the throne and in control. This passage illustrates that rulers and politicians are granted their power from above, for such a time as God sees fit.  And when God decides that their time is finished, He can remove them from power.

Jesus told us in John 16:33 that we should expect tribulation; "These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world."

As I mentioned, persecution at this stage takes the form of government persecution.  It comes in the person of King Agrippa the 1st.   He was the grandson of Herod the Great who had all the babies under 2 years old killed at the time of Christ’s birth.  And like father like son, the Herod’s were an immoral, murderous lot that only were concerned about acquiring power and keeping power.  His jurisdiction was practically all of Israel, which he had acquired in piecemeal through cronyism  with Roman leaders.  Furthermore, he was not a pure Jew by birth.  He was an Edomite who had been circumcised and thus was considered part of Judaism, but never really accepted by the strict Jews. 

If you remember though, in the last chapter Herod had intervened for the Jews with the Emperor Caligula to keep him from erecting his statue  in the temple, which would have desecrated the temple.  And the Jews were appreciative of his efforts.  So when he saw that he was appeasing the Jews, he sought to further ingratiate himself to them by attacking the church.  Because the church now was accepting Gentiles, and as such were even more odious to the Jews.  So as it says in vs. 1 and 2, Herod began to attack the Christians in Jerusalem, and one of the most famous ones was James, one of the sons of Zebedee, the brother of John.  And to please the Jews, Herod had him beheaded. 

And then when Herod saw that it pleased the Jews, he arrested Peter as well.  He obviously intended to put Peter to the death also.  And I just want to emphasize here that Herod had no legal grounds to arrest these men or have them killed.  He just did it for political expediency.  It was the politically correct thing to do. 

I’m afraid we live in a culture today when it is politically correct to try to silence the church as we know it.  The world has always been an enemy of the gospel, but in the past it was somewhat more discreet, today it is out in the open.  There is a downright animosity, hatred even towards Christianity today that is unbelievable.  The internet in particular seems to be a breeding ground for this hatred. 

But as much as I am dismayed to see this today, I am reminded that Jesus foretold this 2000 years ago.  Look again at Mark 13:12-13 "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by all because of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.”

Now I want to show you an important principle here regarding trials and persecutions.  God did not deliver James from death, but He did deliver Peter.  And if you are like me you cannot help but ask why?  Why would God allow Peter to be delivered but not James?  They were both apostles.  They both were a part of the inner circle of Christ. 

And here is the first part of that answer, the second will be given in the next point.  Why did God allow James to die while Peter was delivered?  The answer;  it was the sovereign will of God.  It wasn’t a lack of faith or prayer or any effort of man.  It was the will of God.  Remember when Jesus prayed to be delivered from this cup in the Garden of Eden He prayed “Not my will but your will be done.”  And it was the will of God that Jesus suffered and died on the cross.  It was the will of God that virtually all the apostles and close disciples of Jesus would eventually die as  martyrs.  I don’t claim to know the mind of God or all the purposes of God.  I have to trust His wisdom.  But I can tell you this, James was immediately with the Lord, and as Paul would say later, that is very much the better. And I believe these men understood that better than anyone.  They knew the reality of the resurrection.  They knew that Jesus said in John 11:25-26, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”  They believed that from the bottom of their hearts, and that is why I think they were so bold in their commitment to Christ and willing to die for Christ.

I wish that more of the church had that kind of assurance today.  The fact is that if we have truly died to the world to follow Christ, then there is nothing that the world can really do to us. Rom 6:8-11 “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him,  knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him.  For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  That’s the secret to enduring persecution, to know that we will never die if we are Christ’s.

Then the second point we see in this passage is the protection of the saints. Peter is arrested at the beginning of the Passover Feast which lasted for 8 days.  And during this time he is chained to a guard on either side, with two others guarding the cell.  And there are four such squads of soldiers guarding him 24 hours a day.  Undoubtedly, Herod had heard that Peter had escaped from jail before and so he wanted to be sure that he kept him locked up until after the Passover, when he expected to have Peter executed.

But on the night before Herod was going to bring Peter out to be killed, an angel of God appears to Peter.  And Peter is sound asleep.  So soundly asleep that the angel has to smack him on his side to wake him up.  I would suggest that is not due to Peter’s sleepiness so much as it must have been that the entire guardhouse was put into a deep sleep by the angel in order to effect Peter’s deliverance. 

So back to our question, why does God deliver Peter and yet He did not deliver James?  The first part of that answer was the sovereignty of God.  It was His will that James would become the first martyr of the apostles, and it was His will that Peter would live for several more years. 

But I think I can add something to that answer by saying this;  I think God rarely works to bring about a personal miracle unless it serves the greater good of the kingdom.  And in Peter’s case God wasn’t finished with him yet.  After this chapter, Peter sort of disappears from the book of Acts for the most part.  The emphasis turns to Paul and his ministry.  But God was still going to use Peter.  Peter would go on to write two epistles, 1st and 2nd Peter, and he would also mentor a young man that is introduced in this chapter, vs.12, John Mark.  John Mark would eventually just be known as Mark, and he would be Peter’s interpreter as Peter continues his ministry to the Gentiles.  But even more importantly, Peter teaches this young man the words of Christ which eventually are written into the Gospel of Mark, one of the four gospels.   So Peter’s deliverance illustrates my principle which is that God rarely works to bring about a personal miracle unless it serves the greater good of the kingdom.  And the greater good that God wanted to accomplish through Peter is the furtherance of the gospel through the written word of God.

We see that principle in the Old Testament as Joseph  was delivered from prison after 17 years as a slave and prisoner and elevated to the second in command of Egypt.  God performed a miracle in Joseph’s life because he was going to be the deliver for the children of Israel.  He preserved the kingdom of God through his position.  But that principle is also illustrated when John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, and he was beheaded because his ministry was finished.  His ministry was to herald and prepare the way for the ministry of Christ.  As he himself would say concerning Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  His ministry was completed, so God took him home to glory.  So much the better.

But there is another reason suggested by the text for Peter’s deliverance.  And that is the prayers of the church.  The church that was meeting at Mary’s house (who was the mother of John Mark) had been engaging in a week long prayer vigil for Peter.  They knew that James had been beheaded by Herod, and so they were under no illusions about Peter’s destiny.  So they earnestly were gathered together praying.

The church in Mary’s house had been praying for a solid week.  I think that kind of prayer comes as the result of persecution.  I’m afraid that kind of prayer is lacking today in the church for the most part. Yet we are commanded to pray like that. 1Thess. 5:17 says, “pray without ceasing.”    Jesus told a parable in Luke 18 about a woman that petitioned a king and wouldn’t give up, to teach that we should pray at all times and not lose heart.  Rom. 12 says be devoted to prayer.  Eph. 6:18 says “pray at all times.”  Peter says in 1Pet. 4:7 “The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.”  And James says in chapter 5 that the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.

Jesus was a man of prayer.  He prayed all night on a mountain top alone many times.  I asked the Wednesday night group last week the question, “When was the last time you prayed all night for your children or loved ones?”  Jesus did it.  This church in Mary’s house did it.  I would estimate that it was after midnight at least when Peter came knocking on their door.  That may have been why they didn’t think it could have been Peter outside.  Maybe it wasn’t so much that they didn’t believe God could deliver him as much as they didn’t think it would happen in the middle of the night.

Jesus rebuked the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane because they could not pray with Him for one hour.  How about you?  Have you ever prayed for one hour-  much less all night, how about one solid hour of prayer?  If not, why not?  Jesus prayed so fervently in the Garden that He sweated drops of blood.  Can you imagine that?  Lord, if the church would get an urgency about prayer then I think we could still turn our communities, if not the world upside down.  Prayer is one of the only two weapons that we have at our disposal according to Ephesians 6.  The word of God and prayer.  And most church members avoid both of them like the plague.  No wonder we are in the mess we are in today.  I would suggest that the mess we have in America is a mess of our own doing.  We have neglected our duty and our responsibility, due to our romantic entanglement with the world.

Listen, God gave a promise about prayer in 2Chron. 7:14 which we would do well to remember is a promise given to the church!  “If MY people, which are called by MY name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”  We don’t need to worry about the pagans and the atheists becoming more sinful, ladies and gentlemen.  We need to consider our own sins.  The church needs to get on our knees before God Almighty and repent from our wickedness and call upon the Lord to hear us and heal us,  and then He will heal our land. 

Jesus said we are the salt of the earth.  The church is what is supposed to stave off corruption in the world. But if the salt loses it’s saltiness, then Jesus said it is worthless and should be thrown into the road to be trampled underfoot.  We need to humble ourselves and pray, ladies and gentlemen.  As long as God is on His throne we need to pray.

There is one more reason I can think of why God did not allow Peter to be killed. And that is because of the promise of Christ.   Jesus had promised that Peter would live to an old age. Jesus said to Peter in John 21:18 "Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go."

I would suggest that is another reason that Peter is sleeping so soundly.  He knows that Jesus predicted his death, and it would be when he was old.  Peter wasn’t old at this point, it being only about 10 years since Jesus’ resurrection.  Listen, that teaches an important principle.  Our faith is not founded in wishful thinking.  Some preachers teach that if you just believe hard enough you can get whatever you pray for.  That is not taught in the Bible.  The church in Mary’s house shows their lack of faith and yet God answers their prayers.  But when we pray according to the will of God we pray the promises of God.  If God said it, then I can trust Him to perform His word.  But God is not some genie that responds to our incantations and mutterings.  No God is sovereign, and I am His servant and so therefore I can trust Him to protect me as long as He needs me here.

Finally, the last point that the passage makes about the attack on the church is the judgment of the wicked.  And we see the judgment of the Lord upon the wicked illustrated in the life of Herod.  Herod was a wicked man, like his grandfather before him.  He has imprisoned Christians and killed James for no reason other than political gain.  And after Peter is delivered, Herod shows once again his ruthlessness by having the guards put to death.  Very likely, that meant all 16 guards were executed for something that was obviously a miracle of God. This miracle should have been a reason for Herod to repent of his wickedness when he realized that he was working against God.  But instead he hardens his heart and puts the guards to death. 

But soon afterwards Herod leaves Jerusalem and goes to spend time in Caesarea. And while he was there the people of Tyre and Sidon try to appeal to his vanity in order to gain food for their cities.  So to gain an audience with Herod they bribe his chamberlain, named Blastus, and he arranges for Herod to address the people. 

Now Josephus, the Jewish historian tells us some additional details which Luke does not.  Josephus said that Herod dressed in his royal attire which was made of silver threads, and when he came out into the sunlight to address them from the rostrum, the sun shining on his garment made a dazzling spectacle.  And the people seeing this dazzling light emanating from Herod, and hearing his oratory, began shouting praises to Herod, calling out that he was a god and not a man.  And it pleased Herod’s vanity.  He accepted their praises, and he did not give glory to the true God of Israel, but accepted their praise.  And the Bible says that the angel of God smote Herod with worms and he died.  Josephus adds that he immediately fell down and was taken out in the middle of the ceremony, and then died a horrible death four days later.

Listen, the church needs to be assured that the judgment of God upon the wicked is a certainty.  The word of the Lord assures His church that He will reward the iniquity of the wicked.  Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay. 

Psalms 2:2-6 declares that “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying,  "Let us tear their fetters apart And cast away their cords from us!"  He who sits in the heavens laughs, The Lord scoffs at them.  Then He will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury, saying,  "But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain."   Do you understand what David is saying?  He says the kings of the earth don’t want the constraints of God’s law upon them.  They cast away the cords of restraint that God establishes in His word.  They want to do what they think is right in their own eyes.  They want to do as they please.  They think that they are autonomous.  And they forget that it is Jesus Christ the Soveriegn King that grants them any authority that they have, and Jesus can and will remove all authority that opposes His will when He sees fit.

You remember when Pilate told Jesus that he had the authority to put Him to death, Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.”  It would behoove our elected officials to remember this statement, that God gives them their authority, especially in light of recent events.  But even more in light of what happened to Herod.  God delivered Peter, but he judged Herod, not only in his flesh eaten by worms, but for eternity in hell where the worm dies not and the fire is not quenched.  And the Bible teaches that there are degrees of punishment in hell.  We aren’t given specifics as to how that works, but if the statement concerning teachers is that we are under greater judgment because we are teachers of the gospel, then it must be equally  true concerning governors and officers of the state that they are also under a greater judgment and will be held to a higher standard for what they have done with the responsibility that God gave them. “To him who has been given much, much shall be required.”

Oh church, do not be dismayed because the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing.  Peter wrote in 2Pet. 3:9, “The Lord is not slow concerning His promise, but is patient towards you, not wishing for any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”  Christ came the first time in mercy, but He comes the second time in judgment to vindicate His church and execute revenge for the death of the saints. 

John, the brother of the martyred James says in Rev. 19:11 says “And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself.  He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.  And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.  And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS." 

O Church, do not be dismayed at the persecution that has come upon you.  Peter writes in 1Peter 4:12-13 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you;  but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.”  He goes on to say in vs. 17 “For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?  AND IF IT IS WITH DIFFICULTY THAT THE RIGHTEOUS IS SAVED, WHAT WILL BECOME OF THE GODLESS MAN AND THE SINNER?” 

Jesus is coming again as the Judge of the whole earth.  Kings and princes will bow down to Him.  Every knee will bow and confess that Jesus is Lord of all.  Judgment is coming.  But our job as the church is to preach the gospel, the good news that Jesus has made it possible for man to be reconciled to God, for man to be saved from the judgment to come if they will just repent of their wickedness and believe on the name of Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

And that is what we see described in vs. 24 “But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.”  The church continued to grow and spread the gospel and people were being saved in spite of the attacks against the church.  That is the purpose of the church.  And the gates of hell will not stop the word of God from going forth and accomplishing it’s goal.  Let us not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which has come upon us.  But let us be about the Lord’s business of spreading the gospel.  Let us be men and women of fervent prayer.  Let us be citizens of a higher kingdom, servants of a greater King.  The Lord is coming soon.  As we see these things going on in the world, as we see the persecution against the church ramping up, let us keep looking up.  Jesus is coming soon.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Distinctives of the Gentile Christian church, Acts 11

Last week as we looked at the previous chapter, we studied the way in which God brought the gospel to the Gentiles.  If you will remember, Peter had a vision in which he saw a great sheet lowered down out of heaven with all kinds of animals and creatures in it, which contained animals considered both clean and unclean.  And I will not take the time this morning to review the details of that story.  Peter himself reviews it once again in this chapter as we have just read. 

But I would ask you to consider the importance of such an event in light of the fact that the Holy Spirit inspires Luke to recount the details of this event three times.  There were surely many other things that happened in the church that were noteworthy in the 10 years or so between the day of Pentecost and the church starting in Antioch. But God chooses to review this one event in detail, occupying almost 2 chapters out of 28 altogether in the book of Acts.  In fact, in these chapters, we find that this story is recounted three times.  Now it is significant when God mentions something once.  That should be enough.  After all, it is written down, so that we might read it as often as we like.  But to have it written down three times shows the great emphasis that God makes of this event. 

So the question for us then as we look at this is why?  Why does God make such a great deal out of the conversion of the Gentiles?  And the answer is that it is significant because it was a major step in the progression of the gospel, when the church is opened up from being strictly a Jewish religion to encompass the entire world. 

When God originally gave Abraham the promise of a seed, God said in Gen. 26:4, "I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”   The first part of that promise to Abraham had been fulfilled through God’s covenant by Abraham’s seed producing the nation of Israel, through whom was promised the Messiah.  But now the second part of that promise was being fulfilled in all the nations of the earth becoming blessed through the gospel of the Messiah.  The Gentiles were now being included in the church.  And this is a major thing in the history of the gospel, but it does not come about without causing serious consternation among the believing Jews. It’s going to change their whole way of thinking.  It’s going to affect their inherent prejudices against the Gentiles.  That is why when Peter comes back to Jerusalem, he finds that word of the salvation of the Gentiles has beaten him back there and the believing Jews in the church at Jerusalem are ready to take him to task for it. 

So Peter patiently reviews for them the whole situation, everything that happened just as God brought it to pass.  He culminates his argument by saying in vs.17 "Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?"

Then notice their response in vs.18, “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life."  Now that phrase is really the starting point of my message today that I would like to develop this morning.  “God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance unto life,” is how the KJV reads. 

I want to show you how the new born Gentile church in Antioch responded to the gospel.  I want to show from this chapter the characteristics of Gentile church.  And I believe that we will see in this account many similarities between what happened on the day of Pentecost when the church in Jerusalem was born, and what happens in Antioch as the Gentile church is born.  Because it is the same church.  As Paul would declare later in Eph. 4:4-6  “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling;  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” 

This is why this passage is so significant.  And this is why the Holy Spirit confirms it three times.  Because there is not a Jewish faith and a Gentile faith.  There is not a church in Jerusalem and a church in Antioch.  But there is one church, one body, one Spirit, one faith, one baptism by which all are baptized into one body.  There is no more Jew or Greek, no more Israelite or Gentile, but one man in Christ.   And from that foundation, the local church in Antioch will grow and be a part of the body of Christ.  And in a moment we will look at some characteristics of this church that are evidence of being in the body.  But first I want to camp out on the aspect of being born into the body.  And that is highlighted by the phrase, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance which leads to life.

If you have been in attendance over the last few weeks, then you might have taken notice of several of my attempts to clarify the way you are made a part of the church of God.  Before we can be part of the church, there must first be a supernatural conversion by which sinful men and women are born into the family of God.  If the church is, as the Bible states the body of Christ, living temples of His Spirit, a holy priesthood, then there must be a supernatural means by which unholy, sinful men are transformed into sons of God and indwelt by the Spirit of God to do the works of God.  That is the distinctive of the church. 

The church is not an institution, it is not an establishment, it is not a 501-3C organization, it is not a building.  But the church is the body of Christ wherein He dwells in His people.  You cannot enter this spiritual body by birth, or by nationality, or by certain rights of government.  Membership in Christ’s church is conferred by God, through Christ, for God’s purposes.  It is entirely possible to be a Catholic, or Methodist, or Baptist, or any other denomination, and yet not be part of the church of God.  It’s possible to belong to a denomination and not be in the body of Christ.  In fact, no one can be a part of the church, unless they are born again by the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God residing in you, makes you a part of His body.

I believe that all the problems besetting the church today find their roots in this principle.  Churches are trying in all sorts of ways today to attract the world into the church.  The problem is that the church is not made up of unsaved people, but of born again people. 

The problem is that unsaved people are described in the Bible as being dead.  You can have a body but be dead, to not have life.  And that is the natural state of all men. Eph. 2:1 “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.”  It goes on to say that all men are dead in their sins.  But in vs. 4 he adds, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”

Now that is wonderful news, but how is it accomplished?  How does this transformation from being dead to being made alive happen?  You see, there is a serious problem today in the church, because there are many that have a form of religion, they claim to believe the tenets of the gospel, they tacitly believe in God and that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and yet they are unsaved.  They have not been born again.  And that is obvious by the lack of  fruit in their lives.  It is obvious that they do not have the life of Christ living in them.   That is the mark of being the body of Christ, is it not?  That the Spirit of Christ lives in your body?  Is that not what it means to be made a part of His body, the church? As 1Cor. 6:19 makes clear; “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.”  That is the acid test of being born again.  That is the test of whether or not you are in the body or not in the body, in the church or not in the church.  I don’t care if you have a paper signed by someone or not.  I don’t care if you have been baptized or not.  If you do not have the evidence of the Spirit of God living in you and through you so that you are not your own anymore, but you are bought with a price and therefore you glorify God in your body, then you obviously are not in the body of Christ at all.  If that is the case in your life then I hope to God that you have your eyes opened to see that.

So how does one become born again into the body of Christ?  It starts with Acts 11:18, God granting the repentance unto life.  To receive that life of God in your dead body, you must repent.  What does it mean to repent?  I will start by saying what repentance is not.  Repentance is not just feeling sorry about the predicament or crisis you may find yourself in and wanting to get out of it.  That is not repentance.  Repentance is not just crying a few tears because you got emotional when you considered some experience of your past.  The Bible says that Judas went out sorrowful, and later tried to return the money which he had received from selling out Jesus, weeping bitterly over what he had done and yet he was not saved because he had rejected Jesus as His Savior.  It’s possible to feel remorse, to cry bitterly, to want to undo certain elements of your past and yet not be saved.

True repentance is coming to a point of hating your sin, mourning over your sinful condition, seeking to be cleansed of it, changed from it, delivered from it.  True repentance, according to the Psalmist David, is a broken and contrite heart.  It is coming to understand how much of an affront your sin is to God, that it has caused there to be eternal separation from God and deserves the wrath of God.  That is the precondition of the heart that leads to repentance.  It is hungering and thirsting for the righteousness of God and being willing to forsake and leave all that is sinful and offensive to God. 

I’m sure that there are some here that are hearing this who say, “Does repentance really have to be so drastic? Aren’t you being a bit overly dramatic?”  And the answer is yes, we do need to be so radical when describing repentance, because there is a tendency to think that we are not so bad, and by adding a little bit of religion to my life, I will be just fine.  But that is the devil’s lie and believe me, he has caught a lot of people up in it.  No a little bit of religion is a dangerous thing.  Because unless you come to the end of yourself, unless you realize that you are dead, that you are in your sins and need supernatural deliverance, a completely new life as a gift  from God, then there is no salvation.  Because true repentance is being willing to surrender all that you are, to die to yourself, for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of your life.  And that is the repentance that  leads to life.

So that is how the Gentiles in Antioch were saved.  That was how the Jews in Jerusalem were saved.  That is how all men are saved.  And as such, they are then born again, given new life in the Spirit, which is life in Christ’s body.  They are born into the church.  The church starts by conversion, salvation.  And now there are just a few things I want to point out briefly in regards to the distinctives of the new born Christian church of the Gentiles.  What things are emblematic of the believer AFTER you become a Christian.  After you are born into the church.  The following is the evidence that you have new life and are part of the body of Christ, that Christ now lives through your body.

One quick note before that though that I should point out about this church’s location.  Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire.  And we all know how corrupt the Roman Empire was don’t we? Especially Rome was a terribly hedonistic, depraved place.  A place where every sort of abomination was openly practiced.  But I bet you don’t know this;  Antioch was considered the river that corrupted Rome.  In other words, Antioch was much worse than Rome.  For one, prostitution of every kind, of the vilest sort was practiced there openly in the worship of the goddess Daphne.  So I find it ironic that God picks the vilest culture in the known world to start the first Christian church of the Gentiles.  Now I say that in light of the recent proceedings in the Supreme Court here in America.  Christians are bemoaning the state of the Union.  And what has become of America.  But God has placed the church to be the light in the darkness.  And the darker the night, the brighter the candle seems to be.  So I would say to you, don’t despair that the wicked are wicked.  But rather I encourage you to strengthen and encourage one another as we are the church of God, and Jesus promised that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.  This is not the first time in the history of the church that governments have aligned themselves in opposition to the church.  But I can tell you this;  The Roman Empire has been long gone from the scene, but the church of God stands firm.  The Bible was written thousands of years before the Constitution of the United States, and it will still stand thousands of years after the United States is long gone. The word of the Lord endures forever. Matt. 5:14-16 "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden;  nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

So let’s look now at the distinctives of the first Christian Gentile church. The first sign or evidence that it was the living church of Jesus Christ in Antioch was that it was characterized by preaching the Lord Jesus.  Vs. 20, “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.”  Folks, in God’s church, preaching is not on the back burner, but it is the means of God declaring His gospel and His will to His people.  The church at Jerusalem was founded on the Apostles doctrine.  Peter and the Apostles were preaching the gospel and the multitudes were convicted and called upon the Lord to save them.  The same thing happens here.  They are preaching the Lord Jesus, and the hand of the Lord, the power of the Lord was with them and many turned to the Lord.  The Christian church is a preaching church.  The distinctive of the church is not what kind of music you play, or the programs you have, but whether or not you preach Jesus.  1Cor. 1:21 says, “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”

Second, there was the testimony of their salvation.  Vs. 22, “The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch.” When these new believers were saved in Antioch word soon spread 300 miles back to Jerusalem that there was a new church growing in Antioch.  So the elders of the church of Jerusalem, the Apostles, sent one of their choice men to go there and determine what was going on.  Let me tell you something, when you are genuinely saved, people are going to hear about it.  You will not need to be told by a preacher that you need to be telling people about your salvation.  It is a natural outcome of being saved.  You want people to know about your salvation because something fantastic has happened in your life and you want to share it with others.  That is a natural thing when you’re born again. 

Not did their testimony reach Jerusalem, it also reverberated among the unsaved people of Antioch.  Vs. 26 says that they were first called Christians in Antioch.  You know, when the people of Antioch called them Christian they weren’t being complimentary, it was meant to be derogatory.  It would be quite some time before Christians embraced that title for themselves.  But the interesting point is that their lifestyle was different enough that the world had to coin a phrase to describe them.  And the word the world chose indicated that they were considered to be like Christ.  That’s not a bad thing to be characterized by the world as, is it? To be said about you that you are like Christ. What a testimony that is.

Thirdly, there is the witness of the grace of God in their life.  Vs. 23, “Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord.”  What did Barnabas see there in Antioch which made him rejoice?  The grace of God.  You know, it’s one thing to claim the grace of God, but it’s another thing to exhibit the grace of God, isn’t it?  A lot of people today want to claim the grace of God but continue right on living the same way they always lived. 

Listen to how Jude describes those people who claim grace but live lives that are unchanged. Jude, vs. 4 “For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”  What he is saying is they claim the grace of God but use it as a covering for continuing in sin, denying their Master who is supposed to be living through them. 

But the Christians in Antioch aren’t guilty of that.  What Barnabas sees when he arrives there is the witness of their lives that the grace of God has changed them.  What transpired spiritually is being lived out physically.  The grace which they received is evidenced by an overflowing of grace,  being spilled out into the church around them.  Grace means gift.  As they received God’s gift, they gave in like manner to others.  They served one another, as they served the church. 

Fourthly, the church was taught the word of God.  Barnabas goes and gets Saul to help him teach this church and they teach them for a year.  I’m going to read in between the lines there a little and suggest that encompasses a bit more than meeting for an hour once a week.  I’m going to suggest that it followed the pattern of the church in Jerusalem which we were told met daily in Solomon’s portico and were taught by the Apostles. Act 2:42 “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” And you want to know how I can confidently say that was happening at Antioch?  Because Barnabas had been trained in the church at Jerusalem.  He was the one in chapter 4:36 who sold a piece of land and brought the money and laid it at the Apostles feet.  So I am sure that he replicated that same style of church there in Antioch.  That would have been the reason that the Apostles sent him to replicate in Antioch the same pattern that he had learned in Jerusalem.  And so to help him do that, he brings in Saul, who will later become Paul.  And there we see another important principle of church, there is discipling.  A true disciple makes disciples. Taking someone under your wing and teaching them and encouraging them to become more effective witnesses for Christ.  That’s what the name Barnabas means, by the way, Son of Encouragement.

Then lastly, a distinctive of this church was that they were a giving church.  This falls in line with the grace of God that Barnabas witnessed when he first came.  Because they received grace, they wanted to be gracious, to give, to help others and help the church.  In vs. 27, we read that some prophets came down from Jerusalem, and by the Spirit of God disclosed to them that there was going to be a severe famine, which would hit Jerusalem and all Judea really hard.  God disclosed that to the church at Antioch so that they could help those who had helped them.  That is the Biblical principle found in Rom 15:26-27  where some years later Paul writes, “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.  Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things.” 

The principle was and is that those who share spiritual things are to be shared with in return by your physical things.  That giving is not supposed to be under compulsion, but as a result of the grace that was given to you.  If you received the gift of grace, then is it not reasonable that you return gifts graciously?  Paul would say in 1Cor. 9:11 “If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” 

The church of Antioch willingly, gladly gave to the elders in the church at Jerusalem. Acts 11:29 “And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea.” According to the proportion of their means.  Luke isn’t talking about tithing here.  Tithing is an Old Testament law, but it has an even older precedent.  Abraham gave tithes to Melchisadek long before the law was written.  While it is not a law for New Testament believers, it continues to be a principle, and it is evidence of a new life in Christ.  Now that you are saved, you should realize that God has given you gifts not just to help yourself, but to help others.  And your first responsibility is to the church and to those who teach you the gospel. 

I find it extremely uncomfortable to talk about giving to the church.  So many preachers have abused this principle that I feel it has a detrimental boomerang affect.  Consequently we go out of our way to not pass an offering plate or try to get people to pledge money or anything like that.  I would rather suffer financially than cause the church of Christ to suffer.  But my reticence does not eliminate the principle that the Bible clearly teaches, and furthermore to omit teaching that principle deprives you of the benefit of giving.   There is a blessing that comes from God from giving with a cheerful heart.  The Lord loves a cheerful giver.  There is a blessing that God gives to those who honor Him with the first fruits of their income.  And furthermore, it is evidence of a new life in Christ.  Christ was anything but selfish.  He gave His very life for us, that we might have life in Him. So if Christ is living in us, through us, then that will become evident by our generosity towards His body.

So just to recap quickly, there cannot be a true church without people who are truly saved.  Salvation begins by repentance which leads to new life.  Life in the church is evidenced by certain distinctives, which are characterized by preaching the Lord Jesus first and foremost, secondly a vibrant testimony of your salvation, thirdly the witness of the grace of God in your life, fourthly regularly being taught the word of God in a Bible teaching church resulting in making disciples,  and fifthly, being gracious, willing to give generously and liberally to supply the needs of the church, so that the gospel goes out to the world unhindered.

I hope that in the closing minutes of this service today, you will examine your life in light of this testimony of this early church and see if there are areas in which you have fallen short.  Maybe you have fallen out of regular fellowship and need to get back into a Bible teaching church where you can be discipled and begin to make disciples.  Or maybe you recognize that you have never truly repented.  There is not any evidence of Christ living in you because you have never been born again by the Spirit of God.  I’m here to tell you today the good news, that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.  Don’t leave this place today without calling on the name of the Lord in faith and repentance so that you might be born again.  I would be happy to talk to anyone that wants to know more how they can be saved directly following the service today. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

God’s great drama of redemption of the Gentiles, Acts 10

In Matt. 16:19, Jesus told Simon Peter that  “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”  As such, Peter had a unique ministry.  This verse does not establish Peter as the first Pope, as some would try to say, but he is a special emissary of Christ as the chief representative of the  apostles to open doors to the kingdom of God that had formerly been closed in Judaism.  Once these doors are opened, we are going to see in our study of Acts that Peter starts to gradually fade from the scene, and the Apostle Paul becomes the focus of the ministry of the gospel to the world.  Peter’s ministry was primarily to the Jews, and Paul’s ministry was primarily to the Gentiles.  Of course there was much crossover. 

But Peter is used by God to show that while salvation is from the Jews, it will go beyond Jerusalem to the rest of the world. Peter and the rest of the apostles were headquartered in the church in Jerusalem.  God first gave the gospel to the Jews through Peter and the apostles.  But now we are seeing the gospel spread outward, even as Christ said it would, from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world.  And to do that, God uses Peter in a special way to symbolically unlock the doors to each new region.  That is why we saw Peter first unlock the doors to the Jews on the day of Pentecost in chapter 2, then he unlocked the doors to the Samaritans in chapter 8, and now we see him using the last key to unlock the door to the Gentiles in chapter 10. All in all, a span of about 10 years from Pentecost to Caesarea. 

And each time Peter unlocks the next door, we see a confirming act by the baptism of the Holy Spirit to show that these new believers are part of the body of Christ, the church.  That is the significance of the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Samaria and now in Caesarea.  Each time the gospel moves to a new people, there is an accompanying sign of the Holy Spirit to show that they are now considered a part of the church body, just as the Jews were.  On the day of Pentecost the converts were made up of Jews, not only from Israel, but those Jews who had been scattered all over the Middle East and were visiting Jerusalem for the feasts.  Then the second baptism of the Holy Spirit is given to show that the Samaritans, who were considered half breeds by proper Jews, were now brought into the new covenant through the blood of Jesus Christ and were part of the body as well.  And now the gospel moves even further out to include the Gentiles, who formerly were completely outside of the prior covenant with Israel.  They now receive the gospel as well and there is the confirmation of the Holy Spirit with the same sign that He gave to the Jews at Pentecost, the half breeds of Samaria, and now to the Gentiles.

Now today we want to look specifically at how God unlocks this last frontier of the gospel, which is the Gentiles.  The name Gentiles of course is given to all non Jews.  This title would include those of us listening here today.  We too are Gentiles.  And so this is particularly our history as Christians.  Now there are four acts to this great drama of God.  And the first act is that of preparation.  God had to prepare not only the Gentiles, but prepare the apostles, particularly Peter in this case as the chief representative of the church.

Peter had to be prepared because Jews and Gentiles were traditionally enemies of one another.  Jews had been given strict laws concerning diet and dress and customs in order to keep them isolated from intermarrying and intermingling with the pagan cultures that lived around them.  God knew that if they had no social restrictions upon them they would soon be influenced by the neighboring pagan people and end up adopting their idolatrous ways.  So God had specifically given strict guidelines to keep the Jews separate from the Gentiles. 

But that had morphed into something that God had not designed, and that was a hatred of the Jews for all things Gentile.  And that had resulted in the Gentiles hating the Jews right back.  But God’s plan was to use the gospel to reconcile all men, Jews and Gentiles to Himself.   From a Gentile’s perspective, they knew that they were considered enemies of Israel, and therefore they assumed, enemies of the Jewish God as well.  The fact is though, all men are by nature enemies of God.  Because all men are by nature sinners.  And Paul in Romans 5:10 says our sin nature makes us enemies of God. But God’s plan was to reconcile man to Him through Christ.

And He is going to use Peter to do that.  But first, God has to prepare Peter because of his natural prejudice towards Gentiles.  And at the same time, God prepares the Gentile.  God uses the agency of the Spirit as the first step in the process of salvation.  Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.”  So to prepare the heart of both the centurion and of Peter, the Holy Spirit works in each of them through a vision.

Let’s look first at Cornelius, the centurion.  Verse 2 says that he was a God fearing man, who gave alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually.  Added to the fact that he was a Gentile is the additional stigma that he was a Roman soldier.  Yet amazingly, this man was seeking after the God of the Jews.  He had done so by giving alms to the Jewish people, probably to their synagogue.  He had come out of pantheism to the conclusion that the God of the Jews was the only true God and he prayed continually to Him.  It’s likely that he followed the formula of most devout Jews, by praying three times a day, 9am, Noon and 3pm. 

It’s interesting to note that this text shows that a person can be very religious and yet not be saved.  They can be morally a good person. They can be religious and even pray fervently and yet they are not saved.  There are many people like Cornelius today.  They worship God after a manner of speaking. They are religious. They belong to a church.  They believe in God.  And yet they are not saved.  The difference between Cornelius and most people in this situation though is that Cornelius knew that his religious efforts were not enough to save him.  Many people today are satisfied that their good character and moral compass and their religious efforts are enough to please God.  They follow the logic of Martin Luther before his conversion, that a good God will accept those who do their best.  But not Cornelius.  I believe that as he considered the God of the scriptures, he was convicted ever more of his sinfulness and how far short he was of the kingdom of God.  And so he prayed continually that God would show him the way of salvation, that he might be righteous before God.

Well, God heard his prayers and sent an angel to tell him to send for Peter.  For the last couple of weeks I have raised the question of why God designed man to be the instrument of His gospel.  Why not use angels to write in the sky the flaming letters of the gospel, or declare it from their mouths as they are revealed in their full glory?  And the answer is that God uses fallen sinful men to declare the gospel, because man can be redeemed, whereas angels cannot.  God could have used the angel to convey the message of the gospel to Cornelius, but instead the angel tells Cornelius to send for Peter to come from Joppa who wil tell him how to be saved.  Peter could give testimony to the gospel because Peter was a testament to God’s grace, God having saved a sinful man such as Peter and restored him who had denied the Lord to the position of a preacher of the gospel.  Peter was a living testimony to God’s grace.

And then at the same time, God must prepare Peter’s heart.  But God will also confirm His word spoken to Cornelius.  I think that is important to see here.  I don’t think God very often speaks in visions today since we have the completed word of God already written down for us as a more sure word.  But in that age, the New Testament scriptures had not been written, and so God did occasionally speak through visions.  But even then, God needed to confirm the vision of Cornelius to Peter by the word of God in a vision.  Consequently, when the delegation from Cornelius shows up even as Peter is still in the vision, the Spirit tells him to go with the men who are at his door.  If Peter had not had the vision, then why should he have believed these Gentiles?  He probably wouldn’t have gone with them.

You know, the early Christians were taught that they were to confirm every fact by two or three witnesses.  We need to be careful about people claiming to have some vision from God that is not confirmed by scripture.  I’ll never forget getting ready to go out of the country once on a short term mission trip and some lady called me and told us that she had a vision that I was killed in the plane so I should not go.  Well, I went anyway, because her vision was not something that was confirmed to me by God. And it’s obvious her vision was not from God because I stand here before you today. Colossians 2 warns us about false prophets taking their stand on visions they have seen, inflated without cause in their fleshly minds. 

But there is another reason for Peter’s vision and that is to show that God is not a respecter of persons.  In the dream Peter sees a great sheet let down from heaven with all kinds of animals and creeping things in it.  And a voice from heaven calls out, “Arise Peter, kill and eat.” And Peter responded, “No Lord, I have never eaten anything unholy or unclean.” And each time the voice responded, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happens three times, not only for confirmation, but also for emphasis.  Now I could go off on a tangent here and say this proves that God’s plan is not for us all to become vegans.  But while that may be true that is not the point of the vision.  The point of the vision was to show that the dietary laws regarding clean and unclean animals not longer pertained to the church.  We are free from the dietary restrictions of the Jews. But there is a greater purpose even than that, which is that Jewish dietary restrictions were not simply for health reasons, but for social reasons.  It was meant to put a wall up between  the social customs of Jews and Gentiles so that they would not intermarry and cohabit and live together, and as such the Jews would become corrupted by the immorality of the Gentiles. 

Now God through this vision was eradicating that wall of separation, so that there would be no more Jew and Gentile, but all men would be able to receive the gospel.  Peter doesn’t understand all of this at first.  Peter is hungry, he was waiting for lunch to be fixed and so he went up to pray until it was ready.  So what Peter is thinking about is food, not about evangelism.  But when the men from Cornelius knock on his front door, the Spirit of God tells him go with them without misgivings, because the Lord had sent them himself.  And that is when the light starts to dawn on Peter.  It will take a couple of more days to sink in, but when he eventually gets to Cornelius’s house and hears what he has to say, then he will finally understand what it is that the Lord desires out of this; that God is not a respecter of persons.  But that whosoever will may come to salvation.  As 1 Tim. 2:4 says, God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

There is one other matter in regards to preparation that we don’t want to miss, and that is prayer.  God prepares as man is praying.  God uses our prayers, requires our prayers, and answers our prayers in mysterious ways.  It is mysterious that He should desire us to participate at all.  But He does, telling us to pray at all times. To pray earnestly and fervently.  And what happens so many times is that prayer precedes revival. Prayer conditions the sinner’s heart to receive the word, and the saints heart to present the word.  I like the fact that both Peter and Cornelius were engaged in regular scheduled prayer when God intervenes.  Do you schedule your prayer time?  I think you should.  Otherwise it will not happen.  These men were praying at the regular customary prayer times which were three times a day.

The second act in this drama we will call the explanation.  Peter hears the message of explanation from the delegation at his door.  He invites them in to lodge with him overnight, which was already evidence of a great work that had begun in his heart, since Jews would not allow a Gentile in their house.  The next day, Peter gets 6 believing Jews to accompany him and he travels for two days to go to see Cornelius.  When he arrives, Cornelius falls down at his feet to worship him.  But Peter urges him to get up and says “I too am just a man.” 

Today in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, thousands line up to kiss the toe of Peter’s statue so that the toe is completely worn away.  These poor people need to be taught that Peter forbad the worship of him, since he too was a sinner saved by grace, a man just as we are.

Cornelius gives his explanation of why he had summoned Peter and what he wanted from Peter in vs. 30.              He told of the appearance of the angel and his obedience in sending for Peter as he had been instructed.  You know, this is a good illustration of how faith is always tied to obedience in some form or another.  It is not just enough to claim to believe, but faith is to trust in obedience and follow instructions.  Perhaps that is why God chose a soldier to be the first convert of the Gentiles.  He knew how to obey instructions.

Notice that what is being taught here is Cornelius’s morality, his sincerity, his belief in Judaism was not enough to save him.  There are not many roads to heaven.  There are many roads to hell.  There is only one way to God and that is through the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  Jesus said in John 14:6  "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

Secondly, note that God sees hearts, not skin color or race or nationality.  No matter where a man might be, if he truly seeks salvation from God then God will see his heart and answer his prayers.

And third, note the attitude on the part of Cornelius and those assembled in his house.  This is the attitude of a congregation that would hear from God; they were all present, they wanted to hear the word, and they listened attentively, believed with their whole hearts, and obeyed.  They were the shining example of a receptive congregation.

And that leads us to the third act in this drama of redemption, the act of proclamation.  God has ordained according to 1Cor. 1:21 that by the “foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”  Peter didn’t start out with 8 worship songs and a skit, he just went right into proclaiming the gospel of Christ.  They already were practicing religion.  They needed to be saved.  And Rom. 10:17 tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”  Faith is not founded on feelings, or experiences or sincere hopes, but on the written promises of God. 

I believe we just get a glimpse into Peter’s sermon here, I don’t think this is much more than an outline.  But Peter preaches Christ; the life, and death and resurrection of Christ. That Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises of the prophets.  His plan of salvation starts with the standard of salvation;  fearing God and doing what is right. That is the outcome of salvation.  That is the way of life for a Christian.

Peter then summarizes the historical basis for the gospel through the life of Christ.  Jesus was anointed by God, filled with the Holy Spirit, whose works were evidence that God was with Him.  And yet He was put to death by hanging on a cross.  But God raised Him up from the grave the third day, and it was witnessed by the disciples who ate and drank with Him.  Jesus then ordered them to preach the gospel and to testify to everyone Jesus is the Messiah who now lives and has been appointed by God as the Judge of the living and the dead.  And that whoever believes in Him has received forgiveness of sins.

That is the gospel in a nutshell.  That God sent Jesus to be the promised Messiah, who would take the sins of the world upon Him, and die on the cross in our place, so that we who believe in Him and confess Him as Lord, will receive forgiveness of sins. The essence of sin is that we substitute ourselves for God.  And the essence of salvation is that God substitutes Christ for us.  2 Cor. 5:11 says it this way, “God made Jesus, who knew no sin, to become sin for us, so that we might be made the righteousness of God through Him.”  This is the good news for all that recognize that they are outside of the kingdom of God.  That their righteous efforts are not able to outweigh their sinfulness.  But by calling on the name of the Lord, believing in Him, we might receive the gift of righteousness which was purchased by Christ for us.  Whosever believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sin.  That is the only way to achieve the righteousness that God demands.

And that leads us to the last act, validation. Now when they heard this good news, the whole assembly immediately believed.  The indication there is that Peter had not even finished his sermon and they believed.  They were ready to accept the gospel.  So simply believing that Christ had died for them, and trusting in Him as Lord and Savior, they received the righteousness that comes on the basis of faith.  The righteousness of Christ.  By believing, their sins were transferred to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness was transferred to them.

Now Peter and his delegation cannot see such a transaction.  So God arranged a demonstration to show him and his church members that these people had been saved in the same way as they had.  And God does that by the same baptism of the Spirit that came at Pentecost and in Samaria, testifying through the Spirit that they were now in the body of Christ, the church.

And not only was there validation by the Holy Spirit, there was validation by the obedience of the new believers.  Peter orders them to be baptized, as a testimony to the world of their faith in Jesus Christ.  Notice these Gentiles are not saved by baptism, but having already received the Spirit of God they are baptized in water in obedience as evidence of their salvation.  Salvation results in obedience from the heart.  From this point on, there will not be a visible manifestation of the baptism of the Holy Spirit that accompanies salvation except for one more time when a remote band of John’s disciples in Ephesus are brought into the church.  But the baptism of the Spirit was specifically to show that God has accepted all races and all nationalities into the kingdom of God, the church.  But from now on the order will be to hear the word, believe in Christ as Lord, and then be baptized and join with other believers in the local church to serve and worship God in obedience. 

So in closing, don’t lose sight of the big picture presented here in this chapter.  God is not a respecter of persons.  God looks at the heart, not at race or outward appearance or skin color or nationality.  And the good news of the gospel is that by faith in Jesus Christ, salvation is made available to all men everywhere who will confess Jesus as Lord, believing in what He did for us on the cross, that we might receive forgiveness of sins.  I hope that you have the same attitude as the congregation in Cornelius’s house.  I hope that today you will immediately call upon the Lord in faith and repentance that you might be saved.

And for those of you that have already been saved, I pray that you will be prompted through this account to be obedient to what God has asked of us.  To not only fear God and obey righteousness, but to be baptized as a testimony to the world, and then to be His witnesses throughout the world, taking the good news of the gospel to every living person, recognizing that we are chosen by God to be His representatives to a lost and dying world who need to hear the good news.