The Big Moment
Through Jesus, all can be saved
setting the stage, building things up, then the hush before the curtain rises...
Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 key disciples, was marked out as special a number of times. He’s in the inner 3 who go up the mountain to see Jesus transfigured; who were in the room when Jesus raised the dead; who Jesus called to pray with him in the garden at Gethsemane. But Peter’s more special still: he’s the first to identify Jesus as God’s messiah; he’s the rock on which Jesus will build the church; he’s the one with the keys to the kingdom. He’s at the helm of the church as it’s born, grabbing the mic at Pentecost. There’s no-one like him: he’s had extraordinary experiences, an extraordinary role, and then last week we heard about extraordinary power.
Last week we saw Peter deliver the max miracle: he raises the dead. “Tabitha, get up!” he says, like an echo of Jesus. This is a big deal - a huge deal. Only two guys before Jesus and two guys after Jesus raise people from the dead in the whole bible. Peter’s marked out as someone absolutely extraordinary through this act.
This has to be the high-watermark of Peter’s whole life, right? Wrong.
God is setting the stage for something even more epic. He’s marking Peter out with unmistakable authority, ready for what happens next. This next section of the bible, which we’re going to be exploring together this morning, is a climactic turning point - so important that the story gets told twice, back to back.
But here’s a bit of a spoiler: it’s pretty hard for us to feel like it’s that big of a deal, that much of a climax as we read about it. So before we read this morning, I want to see if I can get us to feel a bit more of the punch, the significance of what happens. So imagine with me...
Imagine God picked one guy on the whole planet - just one guy - and said “you’re special, you’re chosen.” Imagine God told that guy he was going to have children who’d have children who’d have children who’d have so many children that he’d end up with a whole nation of descendants, a whole people group tracing their family tree back up to him. Imagine God said that one family, that one nation, was going to be his special nation - loved by God in a way that no-one else, no other people group, no other nation would be. Out of all the people on the face of the earth, God would call that one family his treasured possession. They’re the chosen ones, they’re the special ones, they’re in.
This is ancient Israel’s story: the chosen family of Abraham, the chosen Jewish people.
Deuteronomy 7:6 (NIV)
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
Now imagine you’re out. Because that’s the big deal here. This in/out line, this chosen family means every other family is not chosen. If you’re in, you’re in. But if you’re out, you’re out.
This isn’t quite the whole story. Because you could join this family - you could join the chosen family. All it took was adopting their way of life, their rule-book - the Jewish Law - rules which make them stand out among the nations. So people joined that family along the way - many Egyptians joined the Israelites in their Exodus, we’re told, after those ten epic plagues. Rahab from Jericho joins them with her whole family before the walls fell down; Ruth from their arch-enemy Moab joins them, following her mother-in-law.
You might be wondering what’s in this Jewish law? Well, lots. Three big markers that really stood out to people, though:
1. Sabbath - one day in seven set apart where there was absolutely no work to be done whatsoever. Weekends off are pretty normal in our world but that wasn’t normal back then - so to stop work altogether for a whole day was a big deal.
2. Food - there was a whole set of foods marked out as off limits in the Jewish Law. Weird stuff like camels and eagles and lizards and eels. Tasty stuff like bacon. Boo. And for animals that you could eat, there was a special way to slaughter them. So sharing meals with people outside the family was basically out. And boys, here’s the biggie:
3. Circumcision - there was no way into the family without - well, without giving up a little flesh.
If you’ve been with us as we’ve worked our way through the story of the earliest church so far here’s the thing you need to know: the growing church we’ve been reading about is growing inside this Jewish family. It’s growing among people living in keeping with the family’s rule-book, the Jewish Law - either descendants of Abraham or those willing to sign on the dotted line and join the family, snip and all - like Nicolas from Antioch who we read about a few weeks back in chapter 6, a convert to Judaism, we’re told.
And that, so it seems, is how people expected it to continue. How Peter expected it to continue. This new church of Jesus which is bursting onto the scene, which we’ve followed through the first nine chapters of the book of Acts, is made up of people from the extended Jewish family.
Now Jesus plainly told his followers there’d be people joining the church from every nation. The marching orders he left his disciples, what we call the Great Commission, is super-clear on this:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
disciples of all nations. Peter himself on the day of Pentecost is totally clear that Jesus welcomes everyone - his message about Jesus is “for all who are far off” - that’s how he puts it, speaking as he is surrounded by people from all over the world. But it seems everyone’s figuring that the way this is going to happen is by them joining that one chosen family, the special Jewish people - which means signing on the dotted line, agreeing to take on the Jewish Law.
Are you with me so far? This making sense?
Ok, so, the stage is set with Super-Peter pulling the max miracle; and the church is growing inside the Jewish family. Now I think we’re ready for today’s story.
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa. About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?” The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.” While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
So there you have it. This is the big moment: God simply blows people’s minds, putting an end to the idea of the church as just a movement within Judaism, a new and better reason to join the Jewish family. It turns out everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name - whether they’ve joined the Jewish family or not. Turns out as Peter makes disciples of all nations in obedience to Jesus’ call, he isn’t going to have to circumcise people from all nations too!
Turns out you can have peace with God through Jesus without coming under the Jewish Law, without becoming Jewish first. And that is really really good news, right? Perhaps particularly for bacon lovers and boys? But also for anyone feeling like picking out just one people from the whole earth is.. well.. favouritism:
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism
God does not show favouritism. From the very beginning his plan wasn’t just to bless his chosen nation, but to bless the whole world through them. In the first book of the bible, Genesis, we see the founding charter of the Jewish nation as Abraham, the very first of them, is chosen by God:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
All peoples on earth will be blessed through you. The surprise for Peter - and basically everyone else on the scene here - the thing they couldn’t get their heads around, is how God has gone about doing that: by sending his son, Jesus, to be the culmination of that Jewish nation, God’s chosen people. It’s in Jesus that they ultimately become a blessing to all peoples. And all peoples are blessed not by bringing them in to the Jewish nation, but by sending the message about Jewish Jesus out to every nation.
Now there’s a verse here which we can find a little confusing: Peter, finally grasping the meaning of his triple-vision, says he’s now realised that
Acts 10:35 (NIV)
[God] accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.
Now that can read like there are just two boxes to tick to be acceptable to God, to get into God’s good books: Fear God, and do what is right, and you’re sorted. But that’s misunderstanding what Peter is saying here - and you can see that because Cornelius already ticks both these boxes very explicitly - when we first met him at the start of the reading, he was introduced as a God-fearer and a do-good-er: someone who prays and gives.
Is that enough to make him right with God? No! If it was, there’d be no story here. No need for angels and visions and journeys and stories and signs. If Cornelius was already right with God, through fearing him and doing good, then the story would begin and end with God saying “well done” to him and giving him a nice pat on the head. Instead it ends with him believing the message about Jesus that Peter has been sent to tell, then joining the church without first having to join the Jewish people.
So what is Peter’s point in this verse? God accepts, or welcomes all nations - think of it like God answering the door to all, rather than ignoring everyone but his chosen people. God will open the door when you knock - not just if you’re Jewish, or have joined the Jewish people; he opens the door to every nation, to all. That’s Peter’s point.
God open the door to Cornelius - but then he still needed to hear Peter’s message. And what’s Peter’s message?
A message of peace through Jesus, the Lord of all - see that inclusivity there? not just Lord of the Jewish people but of all.
Jesus lives the perfect life yet died a cursed death. He dies in our place - that’s what brings us to peace with God.
Jesus rose to new life, and God has appointed him judge of all on the last day - again, see that inclusivity; Jesus won’t just judge the Jewish people, but all of the living and dead when he returns
And the last thing Peter gets to share before he’s interrupted by the Spirit is the key thing Cornelius needs to hear, the reason for all the angels and visions and journeys, the heart of God’s message:
Acts 10:43 (NIV)
Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Everyone. Everyone who believes. Receives forgiveness of sins - that’s what’s behind this good news of peace. And it’s for everyone.
You don’t have to become anything first to find peace with God through Jesus Christ. There’s no-one you have to be, nowhere you have to go - instead the message about Jesus has come all the way to you. There is nothing standing in the way.
No boxes you need to tick first, no list of hoops you need to jump through first, no way of living you need to pick up first, no people you have to join first. The message has come to you where you are - you can come to Jesus as you are. This is great news because not just because you don’t have to become Jewish first — but also because you don’t have to become as weird the Christians around you first, either!
God will answer the door to you - all you have to do is believe and you can be a part of his church, his people, his family. So I have to ask you this morning: are you ready to believe, to take that step of faith? God opened the door to Cornelius and sent him this message of peace through Jesus. God has welcomed you this morning, opened the door to this same message. And nothing at all can stand in your way.
Are you ready right now? I’m going to read out this really short prayer. As I read it, just say it to God inside your own head and he’ll hear you.
God, thank you for opening the door to me.
I want this peace with you through Jesus.
Thank you that Jesus did everything right, yet took the punishment for all my wrong when he died on the cross
I was going the wrong way. I’m sorry. I want to go the right way.
Thank you that Jesus rose into new life, and that I can share that new life and join your family because of him
As best as I know how, I give you my life.
Did you pray? We would love to connect with you and help you take your first steps in this new life if you did. If you’re here in the room, please talk to someone this morning - someone you came with, someone you know, or me if you like. If you’re on the livestream, there’s a box in the chat right now where you can click to raise your hand - it gives you the option to connect with someone at Hope City. If you’re watching a recording, send me an email. I’m email@example.com . Let us help you step into this new family.
And if you’ve prayed that prayer in the past, or a prayer like it, and you’ve already found your way into God’s family, walked through that door he has opened, then what does this say to you?
You, too, are sent out with this message. Peter goes and shares the message; he doesn’t expect Cornelius to come, or an angel to tell him everything. When we’re together at church on Sunday we hold up this message week by week - but Cornelius didn’t come to church, the church came to him. Who around you needs to hear this message? Who is God opening the door to among your friends, family, colleagues? Who will God already have been speaking to so that they are ready to listen to the message the Lord has given to you? Peter’s message isn’t polished or complicated. It’s just the story of Jesus’ life and the truth that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness through his name. You could share this.
Who is God calling you to speak to? Who has he prepared? Look out for them this week.
We’re going to respond now in song - one from our Easter programme which speaks to the heart of this amazing passage: “Just as I am” - we can come to God just as we are. Do it, Marvel at it, Share it.