************ Sermon on Acts 10:34-35 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 5, 2003
"God Does Not Show Favoritism"
People give me church newsletters and bulletins from other congregations and denominations. My eye caught a tirade of one minister against mixed marriages. In the strongest possible language he condemned not only these marriages but also the people who enter into them. The next month he wrote that many people had questions and so he thought he would make himself even more clear. A mixed marriage, he said, is not only marriage with an unbeliever but also a marriage with a member of the Christian Reformed and Reformed Churches and a marriage with someone of another race.
When I think about these comments, I can still hardly believe that he dared to talk that way. Thank God, I thought, as I was working on this sermon, that people in Trinity, Visalia don't think and talk this way. Somehow that pastor never learned that the church of Jesus Christ is made up of people called "from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev 5:9b). Somehow he got unbelievers confused with members of other churches.
Today, as our bulletin cover puts it, we are called to celebrate "All Nations Heritage."
We celebrate the heritage of all nations that have become a living part of the Christian Reformed Church ... We celebrate Christ Jesus, our Lord, whose redeeming work gathers our diversity into one unified body. We celebrate the Spirit who speaks in many languages at Pentecost and who still overcomes the differences of language and culture.
I The Human Problem
A Our Bible story takes place approximately ten years after the ascension of Christ. It has been ten or more years since Christ gave the command to "go and make disciples of all nations" and be "witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Mt 28:19; Acts 1:8).
During those ten years the gospel has been preached in Jerusalem (Acts 2), Judea, and Samaria (8:1,4,5,25). However, it has not yet been preached to the nations. The Gentile mission has not yet started. Why?
B The blame has to be placed on the division between Jew and Gentile prescribed by the Law, or, to be more exact, the Jewish interpretation of that Law. Jewish culture and tradition forbade almost all contact with Gentiles. F.F. Bruce in his commentary on the Book of Acts says,
Association with Gentiles was not categorically forbidden; but it did render a Jew ceremonially unclean, as did even the entering of a Gentile building or the handling of articles belonging to Gentiles. The most ordinary kinds of food, such as bread, milk or olive oil, coming from Gentiles, may not be eaten by strict Jews, not to mention flesh, which might have come from an unclean animal or from one sacrificed to a pagan deity, and which in any case contained blood ... of all forms of contact with Gentiles, to accept their hospitality and sit at table with them was the most intolerable.Peter refers to this when he says,
(Acts 10:28) "You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him ..."
We see from this that the first Christians – being mostly Jews – could NOT fathom a command to disciple the nations – that went against all the precepts of their culture and tradition. They could not understand that Gentiles, too, had to hear the message of salvation in and through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
In the Bible passage in front of us we see God taking action to institute the Gentile mission of the church.
II God's Persons
A The two main human actors in our story are Peter and Cornelius.
Cornelius is a Roman soldier, a centurion in the Roman army. His servants tell Peter that "He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people" (vs 22). Scripture tells us that
(Acts 10:2) He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.Cornelius, though a Gentile, had very impressive religious credentials: he feared God, gave generously, and prayed constantly. Nevertheless, there was something lacking in his faith, and his religion was not good enough. That's what an angel of the Lord told him: "Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter" (vs 5). Evidently, the angel told Cornelius that Peter has a message from the Lord for him and his family (cf vs 33). Though Cornelius's prayers and gifts "have come up as a remembrance before God" (vs 4), he lacked one thing: it was still necessary for him to believe in Christ Jesus.
I must say that I have met many religious people today, like Cornelius, who also have impressive religious credentials. But because they do not believe in Jesus they lack the most important thing.
B The other main human actor in our story is Peter. We know him as an impatient, impulsive follower of the Lord.
Peter was a man stuck on tradition and culture. On his own, he was unable to break free from its shackles and intolerance. His traditions and culture would not allow him to actively begin a mission to the Gentiles.
Yet, there is reason to believe that the Gospel of grace has begun to change Peter's mind and attitude towards other people. We are told in verse 6 that Peter was staying in Joppa in the house of Simon the tanner. The tanning trade was considered an unclean trade, for the people involved with it killed unclean animals, worked in blood, and were in constant contact with other things which might make them unclean. Most orthodox Jews would never consider staying in such a place. Yet Peter did.
One day about lunch time Peter was standing on the roof of Simon's house waiting for his food to be prepared, for he was very hungry (vs 10). All around him there were reminders of the uncleanness of the place: the smell and squeals of animals being slaughtered, the skins hanging in the sun to dry, the blood-stained hands of those working on the tanning process. Still, though, Simon's was a Jewish home. At least the food would not be unclean.
It was at this point that Peter had a vision of a cloth coming out of the sky filled with all kinds of creatures – all of them unclean. A voice from heaven said, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat" (vs 13). Every good Jew knew one was not supposed to eat that which was unclean. So Peter replied, "Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean" (vs 14).
Then some of the most interesting and marvelous words come to Peter: "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean" (vs 15).
"This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven" (vs 16).
Peter's vision left him thinking and wondering about its meaning.
III God's Solution
A I have mentioned that Cornelius and Peter are the two main human actors in our story. It would be a mistake, though, to think they are the main actors in Acts 10. For they aren't. God is. From beginning to end the story of Peter and Cornelius is first of all a story about God. He is the main actor and the director of all that takes place.
It is God Who breaks down the barrier of human tradition and culture. It is God who initiates the Gentile mission and brings Cornelius into the church as a full member. It was God Who took steps to let others hear about the dying and rising of Christ.
Note the following: it is God Who sent an angel to Cornelius with the message to send for Peter; it is God Who came to Peter in that strange and marvelous vision; it is the Spirit of God Who commands Peter to go with the men from Caesarea; it is God Who compelled Peter to enter the home of a Gentile; it is God Who made Peter declare the Gospel of Christ to Cornelius.
Peter parted with his traditions and culture because of the Lord's leading. Out went Peter's observance of clean and unclean food. Out went Peter's observance of no fellowship with Gentiles. It was God's Spirit which allowed Peter to make the leap from impure or unclean food to impure or unclean people. So Peter himself says, "God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean" (vs 28).
It is safe to say that Cornelius and Peter are but passive participants in God's acts. The only thing they must do is submit to God's leading.
B The Spirit of the Lord taught Peter a most important lesson in our story: that no person, after Jesus Christ's great work of atonement, is to be considered unclean merely because of cultural or ethnic origin. As the Apostle Paul puts it,
(Gal 3:28) There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
That Peter learned this lesson is obvious from what he says in our text: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism" (vs 34). God has no favorites. He does not favor one nation over another.
Peter, and the other Jews of his day, wrongly thought God did play favorites. They thought that God, like a parent or a teacher who wrongly favors one child over another, favored Israel over all the other nations of the earth. The message of the early prophets had been forgotten. These prophets maintained that God's choice of Israel was an act of grace, not an act of partiality or favoritism because there was something about Israel that God liked! If God brought Israel up from Egypt, He also brought the Philistines from Crete and the Arameans from Kir, says Amos (Amos 9:7).
God does not show favoritism. Hence, Jew and Gentile are judged the same way (Rom 2:11; Col 3:25) – do they love God above all and their neighbor as they love themselves; do they act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). God does not favor Master over slave (Eph 6:9). Nor does He favor the rich and powerful over the weak and poor (James 2).
God does not show favoritism. Therefore no race, language, people, tribe, or nation are exempt from His salvation. Therefore no race, language, people, tribe, or nation can claim salvation only for themselves.
What a blow this truth must have been to many Jewish Christians. The Kingdom was not only for them. It was even for those God-fearing Gentiles who believed like them. The Kingdom was for all people, for whomever and whatever God has declared to be clean in Christ.
Perhaps you have heard of the Rev. Richard Butler, a leader in the Aryan Nations Church. As the name implies, the Aryan Nations Church is a white supremacist group. They promote the establishment of a "whites only" homeland in the American northwest modeled after the former white-ruled South Africa. Butler's church refuses to recognize that our Lord calls His chosen "from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev 5:9b). They believe that God has favored the white race, and only whites belong in heaven.
C No, God does not show such favoritism "but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right" (vs 35). God does not show favoritism, but this does not mean just anyone is accepted by Him and is found to be pleasing in His sight. God does not show favoritism; yet, He accepts only those who, by grace, believe in Jesus Christ. True believers, true Christians, from every nation are accepted by God in Christ.
IV The Results
A Once Peter came to realize this great truth he preached the Gospel to Cornelius and the rest gathered there. The result confirms what Peter just came to realize. Scripture tells us "the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message" (vs 44). Cornelius and his family received the baptism of the Spirit and the same phenomena occurred as with the apostles at the first Pentecost (cf vs 46). How this shocked Peter and those with him (cf vs 45): imagine, the Gentile Cornelius received the Spirit and began to speak in tongues just like the apostles did.
Then Peter said, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have" (vs 47). So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Water baptism cannot be refused to those who have Spirit baptism.
B All around the world there are Christians with the same fears and desires as in Peter and the Jewish Christians. They too want to protect themselves from those they consider to be "unclean." I think of South Africa where some churches tried to defend the sin of apartheid on the basis of Scripture. I think of former President Jimmy Carter's Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, which still struggled with the issue of admitting Black members more than 100 years after the American Civil war was fought. I think of that pastor I mentioned at the start of this sermon.
Topic: PovertyAll over this world, and it saddens my heart to say this, there are churches and Christians who try to protect themselves from those they consider to be unclean. Barriers are erected against those of other races, cultures, nationalities, and income levels.
A number of years ago, on a Sunday morning, members of First Church in Kingston, Oklahoma, noticed a shabbily dressed, bearded man wandering near the church, poking in garbage cans. The man finally came to rest on the church steps. His pants were worn, his cap and coat dirty, and his shoes old.
A few members commented about "that old bum." The morning service started, and after the special music the members were surprised to see the "old bum" wander in the door and start down the aisle. Someone whispered, "Look there, that old guy's come inside!" Another said, "there he is ... he's the guy who was sitting on the steps."
The man walked right up to the front of the church, and walked behind the pulpit. Removing his cap and wig the "old bum" revealed that he was the church's pastor, the Rev. Bobby Rice, Jr.
Rice said only two members approached him in his "bum" disguise. One offered to buy him a meal; another invited him to church.
Rice used a similar technique while a member of a church in Texarkana, Arkansas. "Some of the church members there actually pushed me aside as they hurried into church," he recalled.
When God's people think and act like this, then the sheet descends from heaven and the voice says, "Get up, My People. Kill and eat." And with Peter they respond, "Surely not, Lord. For we have never taken part in that which is unclean." And God's marvelous and loving words to the nations come back to us, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."
How thankful I am that Trinity United Reformed Church is not this way. How thankful I am that you, the congregation, are warm, loving, and accepting of all those who walk in our doors. I believe that we, like Peter, know the truth about God: that He does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.
You know what? This truth is personally important for me and for you. Do you know why? For if God did show favoritism, then none of us would be or could be saved. So, I would urge you, congregation, to always make room for others in your midst. Let us not make the mistake of the Jews and others since them who dare to think that only they are favored by God. Instead, let's celebrate the diversity of Christ's body.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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