Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg
with Tom Fuller
Visions of Change
Here in Israel our life is hard. First the leaders of my people killed our master Jesus - then even after He raised from the dead they denounced him and flogged us. They told us not to speak in His name - but what could I do? I am Peter, a simple fisherman with a simple cause - spread the good news.
Then our own people stoned Stephen and oy-veh, things got really bad - and we dispersed, Phillip to Samaria, me to Joppa.
As if this wasn't enough there are the Romans, always the Romans with their Centurions and soldiers and spears and orders! It's enough to drive a Jew to distraction.
To keep our sanity and our inner peace we try to stay to ourselves - following God's laws and the rules passed down to us from our forefathers. What rules, you ask? Very important rules that tell us to stay away from uncleanness of all types because our God is holy so we must be holy.
What do we call these rules, you are wondering? I can sum it up in one word:
(next track - TRADITION!)
Have you ever been so completely convinced in your mind about something, only to find that what you thought was completely wrong?
I saw two groups of people this week - who were both so convinced that their view was right that all they could do was stand across the street and yell at each other - with no hope of anyone changing their mind - because they let their own traditions stand in the way of truth.
You see feelings eventually become views, which held long and firm enough become opinions - opinions eventually turn into lifestyles, which if followed long enough by enough people, become traditions.
That's the situation we find Peter in, in Acts chapter 10. His traditions, and the traditions of his people, are about to be upset in a very big way.
The disciples heretofore had only preached the gospel to the Jews. Even though the Samaritans were shunned at first - they were still considered a Jewish cult. And the Ethiopian was a Jewish convert. Despite being persecuted, and dispersed, we don't find the disciples reaching out to non-Jews. The Gentiles were unclean and to be avoided.
God had other plans to reach the gentiles - and He would use a most unusual man to do it.
The Man: Verses 1, 2
It seems like a mistake that the word "Centurion" should be used in this section. Centurions were soldiers, leaders of a hundred Roman soldiers. They were ruthless, cruel, and loyal to Rome. Their idea of a good time was to run through some enemy or whack one of their men on the back with a rod.
The Roman army was broken up into various units, like our military today. A Centurii had 100 men - it was part of a cohort, which contained 555 infantry and 66 cavalry. In turn the cohort was part of a legion which contained 6,000 men.
The 5th, 10th, and 15th legions were stationed in Judea. A Centurion would hold the same rank as a captain by today's standards.
It says Cornelius was part of the Italian cohort. That meant he was a Roman, from Italy - not one of the many locals conscribed into the military.
Here, a Centurion named Cornelius is described in a most unusual way:
o Devout: He loved God. Gk: eusebes "to adore, or revere well" - a worshiper. a "normal" Roman would love battle.
o God-fearing: He awed God. Gk: phobeo (we get phobia) "to be alarmed" Implied here, he understood about the true and living God. - a "normal" Roman would fear his commander and his emperor.
o Generous: He loved to give - a "normal" Centurion could look forward to getting land for himself after his service was over.
o Spiritual: He loved to pray - a "normal" would believe in something called the Imperial Cult - part of which ascribed deity to the emperor.
Not only that, but it says his whole family was the same way.
o Oddities: the Jews hated the Romans. Why would God choose not only a Roman, but a Roman Centurion as the conduit for the gospel? Not all, but many of the Romans hated the Jews.
o God chose Peter - a man who often judged by appearances and, as we later learn, was very prejudiced against the gentiles?
The Centurion's Vision: Verses 3 - 6
Happened at 3:00 in the afternoon. Cornelius was not asleep - but wide awake.
We don't know exactly how it happened, but the Scripture says an angel "distinctly" appeared to Cornelius. Imagine the scene - you are sitting there and suddenly an angelic being just appears - and no "Touched By An Angel" glow either - this was no Hollywood lighting trick. This was real. No wonder the being struck fear.
Perhaps Cornelius heard stories of another Centurion's experience with angels -
1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.
3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.
4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.
We don't need to see an angel to be stuck with awe and fear of the Lord. In fact, you notice that much prayer preceded Cornelius' experience. Even though he fears the angel he doesn't question him but immediately does what he says.
We too need to bathe our lives and our paths in prayer so that when God does show up we aren't shocked into numbed silence.
Note too that God heard the man's prayers. Now, we know that Scripture tells us that God does not hear the prayers of sinners:
1 Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.
2 But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.
The angel said that his prayers and gifts had come before God as "a memorial offering."
1- God hears those who seek Him (Heb 11:6 "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.")
2- God responds to those who seek Him by speaking the gospel to them.
Don't put off your unsaved friends if they don't fully understand God - if they sincerely seek Him, that's all that's really necessary. Cornelius looked like the last guy, according to his profession and background, to become a Christian. So too may many of your friends. Don't assign them to the fires of hell so quickly. You might just help them take that last step to freedom.
Note: The influence of Cornelius. Not only did his whole family share his beliefs and love of God, but also those that worked for him - the devout soldier. You would be completely astounded if you knew the influence you have on other people - your family, friends, co-workers, employees. Its so sad that we rarely shine out so that others will see our light and give glory to God.
Now notice that the angel gives Cornelius some very specific instructions - there would be no doubt this was divine intervention. God wanted to take no chances as He opened up the floodgates of the gospel. He gave location, name, host's name, everything.
Peter's Vision - Verse 9 - 16
My first question is: why did God have to do it like this? I mean, the guys from Cornelius were approaching the city - they could have just come up and said: "an angel appeared to my master and told us to come fetch you." Peter could have said "okay" and that would be that.
OR - when Peter went up on the roof God could have just said: go with the guys that are coming to meet you. Peter could have said: "okay" and that would be that.
Instead there is Peter's hunger, followed by this strange vision where all kinds of gross things fill a sheet and the Lord tells him to eat. Now, to understand this we must understand the mind of a Jew.
To the Jew, cleanliness was everything. Many of the laws of the Old Testament dealt with how to get and keep clean, and what not to eat to stay that way. In fact, many of the creatures Peter saw were indeed unclean to a Jew - he would have been precluded from eating them under the Old Testament Law.
We say, well now we're in the New Testament days and, of course, all that stuff was old. But Peter didn't know that - he couldn't have read Paul's letters on the subject because they hadn't been written yet.
Specifically: God told Peter to "Sacrifice, and eat". The word used for "kill" would more properly be used in conjunction with someone offering a sacrifice - after the animal was offered to God, the one giving it would eat it. This fits with the theological implications here - Even the "unclean" peoples, when given to God, become "clean."
What was God doing?
1. He wanted to make a point that this was something new
2. He gave Peter a hunger, then challenged him to fill it in an unusual, unthinkable way - we need a hunger for the lost that transcends our own world
3. God challenged Peter's pride and prejudice. "I have never eaten anything unclean." Are we sometimes too "pure" to share the gospel with someone of that group?
The implications theologically are that - Jesus broke down the wall separating the holy place from the holy of holies, now God is breaking down the middle wall, that separating the Jew from the Gentile.
Was God undoing the Mosaic Law? Not really - He was showing that He had the authority to declare something unclean; He also had the power to declare something clean.
The Gentiles: Verses 16 - 33
God prepares Cornelius through a vision to receive instruction from Peter, then God prepares Peter to give instruction to Cornelius, also through a vision.
God will prepare you for times when you will give out the gospel, and rest assured He is also preparing those to whom you are to speak.
30 miles from Caserea to Joppa.
Interestingly, Peter didn't know why he was going with the men, only that he was to go. It wasn't until he got there that he realized what he was to do and the great import of what God had shown him.
Sometimes God shows us something - a truth, a revelation - but only part of what He is doing. It is often only as we obey what He's given us, that He reveals the real purpose and our mission.
The Message: Verses 34 - 43
Elements of the message
o Jesus was foretold to the Jews (36-37)
o Jesus was revealed in power (38)
o Jesus was killed (39)
o Jesus was raised and seen (40 - 41)
o Jesus judges (42)
o Jesus forgives (43)
It was a very simple message - often the best are. You don't have to have a degree in theology to talk about what God has done for you or for the world.
The Response: Verses 44 - 48
Obviously these folks were ready for the gospel, thanks to the groundwork laid by Cornelius.
Sometimes it works like that - other times it takes years. You never know, all you can do is speak.
It's interesting that Peter didn't preach anything about the Holy Spirit or speaking in tongues - just Jesus. God did the rest.
In conclusion, a couple of questions:
1. Does God ever surprise you?
Does He ever upset your apple cart, or bring you to someone you don't care for, or lead you into who knows what?
My suggestion is, God loves to surprise us - Jesus did it repeatedly to the disciples. The point is, don't worry when it happens, just flow, knowing that He's doing something wonderful through you, if you obey.
2. What are your sacred traditions?
Peter had his record of ceremonial cleanliness. What is it with you? Are there things you hold on to that are perhaps more tradition than Biblical truth? Peter was willing at least at this point, to let go - and we should too. When God reveals truth to us, and we know it is truth, we need to embrace it.
Now we aren't perfect, neither was Peter. Later he fell back into shunning contact with gentiles when he ate. God called him on the carpet about it then - but it goes to show that we are in the process of being made whole.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,
14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Strain on, then, even if it is into uncomfortable territory.
3. There are unsaved people out there, like Cornelius, praying for someone to come and share God's truth with them. Are you ready - even if it means going into some uncomfortable territory?