Sent to All Peoples
Many of us see the need for a truly inclusive community, but we’re so prone to divide ourselves into the “clean” and “unclean” peoples. Here we see that God sends us to all peoples, providing a new way to be clean that includes all the peoples of the earth.
Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), Ajith Fernando
Something we think and talk about a lot today is how different groups of people can tolerate one another. We realize there are various differences between groups: Differences in class, culture, gender identity, race, and so forth. We see ways those differences coming together can be beautiful, but there’s also a problem: We’re all pretty quick to label our people clean and the other peoples unclean. Though we don’t usually come out and say it, we don’t have to: Who we choose to associate with proves it. In the passage we’re looking at today, we come to the classic example in the Bible of this distinction between clean and unclean people: Peter, a Jew, who thought of himself as one of the clean people, was sent by God to Cornelius, a Gentile, who Peter would have thought of as an unclean person. Through this we will see that as Christians, God sends us to all peoples, that they might turn and believe, because some are seeking, and because God makes clean.
That they might turn and believe
Our passage today begins with Peter, a character who featured prominently early in the book of Acts but hasn’t been in the last few scenes. He was one of Jesus’ followers on earth and functions as the leader of the apostles, the first leaders of the Christian church. He had a pattern of traveling about to the various churches that had now started, and as he went to the saints who lived at Lydda he found a man named Aeneas, who had been paralyzed for 8 years. Peter announces to him Jesus’ healing, and immediately the paralyzed man arose. In the next episode, there’s a woman named Tabitha or Dorcas who’s actually dead, but Peter prays, and in answer to his prayer, Jesus raises her from the dead through Peter. Peter is a representative of Jesus’ kingdom, and these miracles portray the kind of kingdom it is.
If you’re suffering today, if you’ve been suffering for years, this kingdom is good news for you. And for all of you who will one day suffer, and will one day die, this kingdom is good news for you. In this kingdom the paralyzed get up and make their beds; in this kingdom the dead open their eyes and rise. Now I know some of you are wondering: Well then why am I still suffering? Why is that person close to me still dead? A few things we can point out in this passage: Full healing does come to everyone who enters this kingdom, but the timing is not promised. On year 7 it’s easy to imagine Aeneas saying, “God doesn’t heal; I’ve been paralyzed 7 years!” Earlier in Acts we read of a man who had been paralyzed 12 years. In Tabitha’s case, she wasn’t healed until after she died. Full healing is promised to all who enter Jesus’ kingdom, but the timing isn’t: Your suffering may last 8 minutes, 8 years, or until after you die.
Another thing to notice is that the power to heal was not distributed among all the Christians. In Joppa the disciples didn’t say, “Ok Tabitha’s dead but if we just have enough faith and name and claim God’s promises, we can raise her!” They called for Peter, an apostle, who had been endowed with an extraordinary gift of healing. The Lord is certainly free to bestow this gift on others today, but in the ordinary course of Christian history, He doesn’t, and we cannot demand it; God doesn’t owe us. But the last thing to notice and this is really the most important point is that while Peter is going in and out, Jesus does heal miraculously through him, but at the conclusion of each healing account, here’s what we read, verse 35: “And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.” It doesn’t say, “And Peter miraculously healed them all too” or “And Peter taught them how to become faith healers like him.” Look at verse 42, after Tabitha is risen from the dead: “And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”
In each case the miraculous sign is just that, a sign, pointing beyond itself to the kingdom, which one enters by turning and believing in the Lord. Next week we’re going to see in verse 42 of this chapter that what Jesus commanded the apostles to do was not go around and run a healing ministry: He commanded them to preach to the people. God sends His church into the world not ultimately to heal the body. We do that, and in extraordinary cases, Jesus may even do it miraculously through us. We do it because we love people; how could we not want them to be healed? We do it because it’s a sign of the coming kingdom, where all disease and death will be healed, and sometimes that kingdom does break in to the present by God’s grace. But if we pray for healing and the Lord doesn’t grant it on our timetable, that’s no trouble for our faith. We don’t feel like we must be failing, because the task we’ve been sent into the world to do is not to perform miraculous healing; it’s to preach the gospel.
Love your neighbor: Address bodily suffering wherever you have opportunity to do so, whether through miraculous or ordinary means. And, not but, and don’t forget that ultimately, the best thing for your neighbor’s body and soul is to enter the kingdom of God, the only place where their body will be fully and forever healed and their soul restored to everlasting communion with God, a kingdom one enters not through bodily healing, but through turning and believing in the Lord. God sends us to all peoples so that might happen, and He sends us to all peoples because some are seeking.
Some are seeking
In chapter 10 we meet a man named Cornelius. He’s introduced as a centurion, which was a Roman soldier, and we’re told he was part of the Italian Cohort, which means he was an important soldier and a bona fide Roman. In Jewish terms, he was a gentile, or as Jews today colloquially say it, he’s a Goi, which is the Hebrew word for a non-Jew. In the Jewish mind at the time the world was divided into two categories: Jews and Gentiles; Gentile referring to all non-Jews. Cornelius is a bona fide Gentile, but we read in verse 2 that he was also devout, that he feared God, gave alms, and prayed continually to him. At this time there was a group of Gentiles known as “God-fearers.” They were familiar with the God of Israel through their contact with Jewish people, and they reverenced this God, gave to the poor by this God’s command, and prayed to him, but they didn’t convert to Judaism. They weren’t circumcised and didn’t adopt the Jewish culture. Cornelius is a typical case of a God-fearer.
What’s interesting about that is the Jews generally assumed that they were the righteous ones, and the Gentiles were unrighteous. If Cornelius wouldn’t get circumcised and adopt the Jewish culture, it must be because he doesn’t really want God. But throughout this passage, we see Cornelius genuinely seeking after God. He hasn’t found God yet; next week we’ll read of his conversion, but he’s seeking. Already we saw he was devout, feared God, gave alms, and prayed. Next he receives a vision from this angel of God, and in verse 7 we read that he did exactly as the angel commanded him: He sent men to Joppa to fetch Peter. When Peter arrives, Cornelius bows down to worship him in verse 25, but Peter corrects him. You might think such an experience would have been off-putting to Cornelius, but he doesn’t let being corrected stop him from seeking. When Peter finally arrives, Cornelius summarizes why he sent for Peter. He says in verse 33: “Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” He doesn’t bring Peter in to tell him whatever he wants to hear; he brings Peter to tell him whatever he’s been commanded by the Lord. He wants to hear from God. That’s a seeker.
So in verse 4 we read that Cornelius’ prayers and alms, his seeking, have ascended as a memorial before God. God saw that Cornelius was seeking, and God made good on His promise that whoever seeks Him will find Him by sending Peter to Cornelius. A word to those who believe, and a word to those who don’t. To those of you who do trust Christ today, do you believe there are people like Cornelius out there? Jesus tells us this in a number of ways: He says He has sheep who are not of this fold that He must also bring in, that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. It’s easy in a place like Philadelphia today to buy the narrative that the world is becoming less and less favorable to Christianity and there’s just no way your neighbor would turn and believe the gospel. After all, we are the righteous few in this wicked city, right? How dare we think that way? There’s a story earlier in the Bible where the prophet Elijah complains that he is the one righteous man left in Israel, and do you know how God responds? “I have kept for myself 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (Rom 11:4). God has a people He’s kept for Himself, so that we should always have hope that outside the walls of Christianity today there are people seeking God to whom He sends us. Don’t be so pessimistic and cynical about your neighbors, or the nations for matter. Think of the thousands of peoples throughout the world with no Christian witness among them. You might think they’d never have interest in Jesus, but there may be people among them today God is already working in, who are seeking Him and who would respond to the good news of Jesus if someone would go. We know that’s the case in some instances in fact, as throughout the Arab world Muslims have reported having dreams of Jesus, people to whom God then sends us. God has already sent members from our church to the Arab world; let’s faithfully support them and pray that He would send more, even some of you who are in this room today.
Whether the nations or your neighbors in Philly, don’t be afraid even to challenge them where Christianity confronts their culture either. Remember that Cornelius bowed down to worship Peter when he first saw him, an action common in Roman culture, where Caesar claimed to be God and required people to bow in his presence. But Peter corrects him: Peter’s not there just to affirm Cornelius, and because Cornelius is really seeking, he’s not put off by the correction. Don’t be a jerk about it, but be clear where Christianity contradicts the commonly held beliefs and practices of our culture. Now the word for those of you who don’t believe: Are you really seeking? This is what the attitude of a true seeker looks like: It’s willing to be corrected. Really seeking after truth requires that. If you really want to know what’s true, you can’t balk at the first sign of correction or refutation. If you really want to know what’s true and not just what feels good, adopt the attitude of Cornelius in verse 33: “Tell me all that you’ve been commanded by the Lord.” When you come to services here, don’t listen for a pep talk; listen for the words of God, recorded in this Bible. When you talk to Christian friends, ask them to tell you what’s true, not just what you want to hear. There are real seekers like this out there, and God sends us Christians to them, finally because God is the one who makes clean.
He makes clean
This is really the revolutionary part of this passage. After an angel appears in a vision to Cornelius, starting in verse 9 Peter falls into a trance while praying and hungry, and in the trance he saw this sheet descending from heaven with all sorts of animals on it. Remember Peter is a Jew, and in the law God Himself gave to Jews, certain animals were declared unclean by God, some of which were on this sheet. So when the voice from heaven comes and tells Peter to rise, kill, and eat, Peter emphatically refuses: No Lord, I don’t eat unclean food. But the voice comes again and says, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Three times that message is reiterated to Peter.
God is showing Peter, and through him, showing us, that the distinction between clean and unclean foods was temporary. All foods were created by God, and everything created by God is good. There are no inherently unclean foods, but God declared them unclean in His law, which therefore means God also has the authority to declare them clean again. That’s what He does here in this vision with Peter. Ok, so what’s the big deal? Now we can eat whatever food we want. Yes, true, but the implication is much broader than that, and Peter gets it. Throughout the Bible, in the ancient world, and to a lesser degree today, what you eat is connected to who you associate with. To share a meal with someone was to associate yourself with them in community. It was to say, “I’m one of them.” Think about today even how hard it is to have a meal together with a vegan, a gluten-free person, and someone with nut, egg, and soy allergies. You can do almond flour for the gluten-free person but then the nut allergy’s in trouble. You can do tofu for the vegan but then the soy allergy’s in trouble. You get my point. How much more then, when God gave the food laws, was a distinction created not only between clean and unclean foods, but between clean and unclean peoples. The Jews ate the clean foods together, while the Gentiles ate the unclean foods separately.
And Peter gets this. Look at verse 28, speaking to the Gentile Cornelius and his household, Peter says: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call person common or unclean.” Well wait, when did God show Peter that he should not call any person common or unclean? When he showed him the vision of the animals and commanded him to rise, kill and eat. When he told him not to call unclean what God has made clean. Peter realizes that if the ceremonial laws separating the clean from unclean foods have expired, so have the ceremonial laws separating the clean from unclean people. God intends now for people from every nation, even the ones previously declared unclean, to turn and believe in Jesus, and He sends Peter to one of those nations by sending him to Cornelius. Realizing this, Peter goes and freely associates with this man he’d spent his whole life considering unclean.
Will you go to the peoples you consider unclean? It’s pretty socially unacceptable today to come out and declare a whole people group unclean. If you say stuff like, “All whites are _____” or “All Asians are _____” you’ll rightly be charged with stereotyping or racism. So most of you in the room today probably don’t have a group of people that immediately comes to mind when I talk about a group you consider unclean. You ever stop to think about why that is though? Banding together with people similar to you and calling other groups unclean is the norm in human history and is still normal in much of the world today; why is it so stigmatized in the West? Any honest historian will tell you the same reason I’m about to give you: It’s because of the incredible influence of this book, in which this story exists, on our culture. It’s because the group of people we read about in this book, the Christian church, became the first truly mutli-ethnic religious group the world had ever known, and spread the message of Acts 10:28 wherever it went. Jefferson said hold it to be self-evident that all men were created equal, but it was only self-evident to him and to us today after a thousand years of the Bible’s influence on culture. The Greco-Roman world was highly rational, but they still held there were Greeks, there were Romans, and there were Barbarians, the unclean. All their rationality never led them to say what Scripture says, that here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free (Col 3:11).
That said, as much as we stigmatize calling any people group unclean, we still do it. We just don’t come out and say it like they used to. As I was thinking about this sermon this week, I realized it’s easier to see this in your own life than anyone else’s, because it’s so subtle. So, a story from my life: When I was in middle school, my goal was to be one of the cool kids. So I figured out what it took to be like them, and whatever it was, I did it. By the time I was in 8th grade, I was pretty much in, and my school did a two-night field trip to Washington, DC. We stayed in a hotel, and you could request 3 roommates. Well, it turns out my “cool” friends had already formed a group of 4, and I wasn’t in it. So I got stuck with 3 kids who in my mind were decidedly uncool, and man was I upset. They knew it too. In fact, in the room, there were two double beds, the idea being that two students would sleep in each bed. Two of them did, but the 3rd kid laid on the floor and gave me the bed, because he felt so unworthy to even be in the same bed as I. I never had to tell him he was unclean in my eyes; he knew. As I thought about that story this week, I was deeply grieved by it, because God has now shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. And I’m convinced that if God had saved me while I still lived in my hometown, He’d have sent me to that guy, whose name I still remember, with an apology, an admission of my wrong, and with good news from Jesus for him.
With whom do you associate? You go to work, and there’s some people to whom you instinctively talk, and others to whom you don’t. There are neighbors you engage, others you don’t. Within the church even, there’s those you want to get to know, and those you don’t care to. That’s not all evil per se; you can’t be best friends with everyone and commonality builds friendship, but your attitude toward the other groups is significant, and eating is still a great test. If you’re a young professional, do you invite the Philly native next door over for dinner? Would you go to their house for a meal? Or vice versa: If you’re the Philly native would you invite the young professional, or go to their home? Would you even accommodate the other by laying down your cultural preferences to include them? That sounds kinda culturally sexy right now, but it’s hard when the rubber meets the road. Like even within this church among those who already believe we’ve got different races, classes, nationalities, and life stages, and when you try to do church together or small groups even, which we call Citygroups, the white folks have one expectation, the latinx folks have another, something works best for the families with kids, something else works best for the single people, some songs feel normal to the young crowd, others feel normal to the old crowd, and on and on and on. And the real honest temptation in all that is just to say, especially for the majority group, “Hey, my preference is right. Mine is ‘clean,’ theirs is unclean, so we’ve got to do it my way or I’m going to find a group of people more like me, where I don’t have to do deal with this.”
That’s an attractive option for anyone who’s honest I think; there’s certainly days where I’ve thought it, but there’s a fatal flaw with it: God has actually sent us to all people. God has shown us that we should not call any person common or unclean. We’re in this together church, and we’ve been sent together to all peoples, even the ones with which we don’t naturally associate, to love them in deed and word, that they might turn and believe in Jesus. But it’s hard, and you know why it’s so hard? Because the best way to feel clean is to label others unclean, and then surround yourself with people like you who affirm your cleanliness. But what if there was another way to be clean? There is. The reason the distinction between clean and unclean foods and the distinction between clean and unclean peoples is now gone, when it had stood for so long, is because with the coming of Jesus, there came a new way to be clean.
The food laws were given to show us that there is a real difference between clean and unclean, but it’s not the difference between types of foods or even types of people. It’s the difference between sin and righteousness, and on that score we all have this in common: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. God sent Peter to Cornelius when Peter thought he was unclean, but God sent Jesus to us when we really were unclean. Under the Old Testament law, not only food, but human bodies could be made unclean, and the ultimate uncleanliness was death. And though He was truly clean, unstained by sin, Jesus died…for us. God made Him unclean. On the cross no one associated with Him, but He associated with us, and rose again, cleansed from all the shame and guilt our sin placed upon Him, so that now, by associating with Him through faith, we might be made truly clean in Him. That’s how God makes you clean, and the death Jesus died He died for all peoples, so that now we should not call any person common or unclean.
I referenced a verse earlier, Colossians 3:11, but I didn’t read the end. Here’s the whole verse: Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. When Christ is your all and you are cleansed by Him, you lose the need to bolster yourself by calling others unclean. He has a people for whom He died among all the peoples of the earth, and He sends us to them. Let’s go.