Breaking Down the Barriers of Partiality and Prejudice
When you were in school, there were the popular kids and the unpopular kids. When a popular kid tripped over his own feet, people laughed and he laughed because he was popular. When an unpopular kid tripped over his own feet, people mocked and he was humiliated because he was put into the box of being unpopular, nerdy and a reject.
We have all put people in boxes. We have all struggled with our own prejudices and we have all battled with treating others without partiality–and so did the Christians of the Early Church. Friends, when the Church began, it was entirely Jewish for years. The first believers never comprehended that the Lord intended to save Gentiles. They never thought the Gentile dogs could become Christians and belong to the Church without becoming Jews first.
But this is exactly what Jesus had in mind from the very beginning. The Gospel was intended for all people, all nations, all races, all tongues, all languages–Jew and Gentile. Before Christ ascended to Heaven–in Acts 1:8 Jesus declared believers are His witnesses who will carry the Gospel message to the entire world in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. And the book of Acts records exactly how that happened.
Then how did God plan to turn the initially all-Jewish Church into Jews and Gentiles together in Christ? Jesus told us how way back in Matthew 16:18 to 19, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. What do you need keys for? To unlock a door? Peter was used of God to unlock the Gospel to all peoples, starting in Acts 2–to all Jews, then all Samaritans in Acts 8, and now in Acts 10 to all Gentiles.
This is not as easy as it sounds–Peter needed preparation. God unlocked the door to the hated half-breed Samaritans. Then the Lord had Peter stay with Simon the tanner. Acts 9:43, “he stayed in the house of Simon, a tanner.” The Jews despised the tanner trade (leather products), because they handled the flesh of dead animals and no self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with such a man. Peter may have stayed in this house while he was in Joppa for as long as two years.
So the Lord was slowly prepping Peter by breaking down his prejudices in order to prepare the apostle for what is to coming–the biggest door Peter needed to unlock was to the Gentiles. No religious Jew would ever allow himself to be a guest in a Gentile house. When they traveled, Jews would shake the dirt of a Gentile country off their sandals as they re-entered Israel–otherwise the dirt would defile the very land of Israel. The Jews viewed Gentiles as unclean dogs.
Yet all these prejudices will be crushed and the door of the Gospel unlocked to the Gentiles–Acts 10 shows how salvation came to the Gentiles and later spread to the whole world of Gentiles, which is great news for those of us here who are Gentiles. How many of you are non-Jews? This is your story. It’s about six years after the crucifixion–approximately AD 40. Your Bible is open to Acts 10 and follow in your outline.
#1 Two CULTURES in Conflict: Gentile and Jew
First A GENTILE named Cornelius Verses 1 to 8
“Now there was a certain man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort” (verse 1). Cornelius lived in one of the most beautiful places in all of Israel, Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast. It was the headquarters of the Roman government for all of Israel. Cornelius was a Roman centurion–he commanded 100 soldiers. Cornelius is the one Christ selected to be the first Gentile convert. Verse 2 describes what Cornelius was like—”a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually.”
“A devout man” means he is sincere in faith. And the term “fearing God” tells us what kind of Gentile he is. There were three kinds of Gentiles in the Bible—1) normal pagan Gentiles, 2) God-fearing Gentiles who were sick of the pagan culture and determined the God of Israel was the one true God, lived moral, supported the Jews, but didn’t go to feasts, and 3) a Gentile proselyte is one who becomes a Jew in a spiritual sense and lives as a Jew in practice.
Cornelius is the second, a God-fearer–he wasn’t a proselyte, but he was sick of the emptiness of pagan beliefs. He affirmed the Jewish faith, believed in the one true God, attended Jewish worship services and lived morally, but didn’t follow the ceremonial laws or feasts. Later, when Paul would visit Gentile cities, he’d preach to the God-fearers first. Cornelius is not saved, yet even though he was a devout man, Acts 11:14 tells us the angel promised—”and he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.”
Too many devout and nice people think they are saved. But being devout doesn’t save you and Cornelius isn’t a Christian. Verses 3 to 4, “About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in to him, and said to him, ‘Cornelius!’ 4And fixing his gaze upon him and being much alarmed, he said, ‘What is it, Lord?’ And he said to him, ‘Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God.’”
About 3:00 in the afternoon as Cornelius was praying, an angel visits him telling him his prayers and good deeds have risen to Heaven like a fragrant offering to God. God is telling him, “Cornelius you’ve pursued the light you’ve been given, now I’ll show you the saving truth.” God gives Cornelius some specific commands to obey in verses 5 and 6. “Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; 6he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.”
God tells Cornelius to send some men to Joppa to find Peter, who has the key message this Gentile needs. Why doesn’t the angel tell Cornelius the Gospel himself? Because that’s the joy and job of Christians. Believers are responsible to share the Gospel with everyone and God sovereignly saves those He chooses. You can’t be like Christ without sharing the Gospel.
Why didn’t God let Cornelius go to Peter himself? Because God needs to prepare Peter. By faith, Peter needs to do what no Jew would ever do–enter a Gentile’s house. In verses 7 and 8, immediately after seeing the vision, Cornelius sent his men to Joppa. No doubt, no delay, no discussion–just obedience.
Second A JEW named Peter Verses 9 to 16
After God had finished preparing Cornelius to hear the Gospel, God began to prepare Peter to share the Gospel in verse 9. “On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray.” One of the Lord’s original twelve disciples, now an apostle, but not without deep-seated prejudice. As Cornelius’s men draw near to Joppa, where Peter is–it’s noon, and now Peter has gone up to the roof to pray. People rested, recreated, reflected and relaxed on their flat roofs in the first century. And now it’s time for God to break Peter of his biggest prejudice–Gentiles.
The salvation of the Gentile dogs and seeing Gentiles as brothers and sisters, without being Jews first, is a locked door. Verse 10, “And he became hungry, and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance.” Like all hungry men smelling food being prepared, Peter fell into a pre-dinner drool–no, it was a trance. “Trance” is the Greek word where we get ecstatic. God invaded his consciousness with a vision regarding food. When I get hungry, I often get a vision–a vision of eating.
But here God uses Peter’s hunger to communicate a truth. Verses 11 to 13, “And he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, [What’s on it?] 12and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. 13A voice came to him, ‘Get up, Peter, kill and eat!’” Something like a tarp was being lowered from Heaven–as it lays out on the ground, Peter could see it had a conglomeration of animals on it.
God taught in Leviticus 11 very specific standards regarding the diet of His people. There were certain animals, like anything from the sea that didn’t have scales or fins, they could not eat. You know what that meant–no king crab. On this tarp were clean animals they could eat, like sheep—and unclean animals they could not eat, like pigs. God had restricted their diet to protect them from diseases and keep them from mixing socially with the Gentiles, which would help them not intermarry with Gentiles. The Lord wanted His children unique, set apart, holy. Peter was not immediately convinced–this vision had to be repeated three times. And even then Peter was still perplexed. His heart was right, he was praying. But prejudices run deep.
What was the point God was making with Peter? God wanted Peter to enjoy some bacon with his eggs? No! The meaning of the vision was, God was abolishing the Old Testament dietary laws. Why? Because they were designed to separate the Jew and Gentile. But what is the body of Christ designed to do? To unite Jew and Gentile. The social barrier had to be removed for them to come together. Both groups had to learn to socialize around the table together, because they would be one in Christ. It didn’t mean Gentiles shouldn’t be sensitive to the dietary preferences of Jews, nor that Jews should force their standards upon the Gentiles. The Lord wanted them to be one family and eat together.
Family, be careful not to buy into dietary doctrines. Eat healthy, if you want–but never forget three key truths.1) you’ll die when Christ determines, no matter what you eat, 2) only false teachers say foods make you more spiritual (1 Timothy 4:3 to 4), and 3) to be like Christ, then be more concerned about what comes out of your mouth than what goes into your mouth (Mark 7:14ff).
The general meaning of the vision was, clean animals represent the Jews and unclean animals represent Gentiles. God was pointing to Jews and Gentiles mixed together in the Church. The tarp represents the Church, and in the mind of God, the Church was born in Heaven, then comes down to Earth. The true Church includes both Jews and Gentiles. At the end of the vision, the sheet is received up into Heaven, which is exactly how the Church will leave the world, yanked up in the Rapture.
Peter is learning there was no more barrier regarding the diet between himself and the Gentiles. He is learning God accepts both Jew and Gentile in His Church. And if God accepts them, then so should Peter. God was preparing Peter’s heart for the Gentile dogs coming to his door right at this moment.
Third A GENTILE-JEW encounter Verses 17 to 23a
The Lord’s vision is not mere theory–God gives Peter an immediate opportunity to put the vision into practice. The fastest way to grow is to put what you learn into practice. As Peter is still trying to understand the vision, the men from Cornelius are knocking at his door. They introduced themselves in verses 17 to 18, “Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate; 18and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there.”
I love God’s providence! Think about the mathematical probability of those men arriving instantly after Peter’s vision. God not only prepares the receiver and the messenger, but also ordains the timing. Verses 19 and 20, “And while Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold, three men are looking for you. 20But arise, go downstairs, and accompany them without misgivings; for I have sent them Myself.’” God is direct with Peter–get over your bigotry and go. God wants both men to trust Him, to actively depend on Him by faith. Why? God has already worked out every detail.
Verse 21, “And Peter went down to the men and said, ‘Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?’” Peter had a decision to make and no time to think about it–overcome your prejudice and obey, or reject God’s direction. Peter was ready. Peter embraced God’s message, mixing clean and unclean animals was no longer a problem. Jew and Gentile can now be one family in the mind of God.
And immediately Peter faces three Gentiles, who just an hour before would never cross his threshold. They tell Peter, verse 22, “’Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well-spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you.” This God-fearer, who has a great reputation with the Jews, has been instructed by an angel to go find you and hear what you have to say.
Verse 23 is an extraordinary barrier being broken, a door unlocked, a bigotry bashed when it says, “And so he invited them in and gave them lodging” (verse 23a). God didn’t say, “Peter you’ve got to lodge the Gentiles”–and Peter giving them housing shows the barrier was coming down. Jews never would do that for a dog Gentile, least of all for a hated Roman soldier. The Greek word “lodging” means to entertain as guests. Peter rolled out the red carpet for his Gentile guests. God didn’t tell Peter to do that, but when Peter invited them in, he proved the wall of prejudice in his heart was coming down–which leads us to . . .
#2 Two hearts in TRANSITION: Peter and Cornelius
Look at what happens next . . .
First Peter’s HOSPITALITY Verse 23b
“And on the next day he arose and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him” (verse 23b). It was crucial certain brethren from Joppa accompanied Peter for two reasons. One) something new and shocking, Jewish Christians were traveling with Gentiles. And two) the presence of these brethren would become a pivotal turning point for the Church. Acts 11:12 reminds us that God didn’t command, or even direct Peter to bring six other orthodox Jewish Christians with him to Caesarea–but he did. And they are key to what happens. They were used to unify Jew and Gentile in the Church.
God led Peter through direct communication of a vision, but God also led through Peter’s own desires and ideas. God didn’t say, “Peter, take six men.” But Peter chose to, and God’s will was accomplished. God often works through the desires of your heart to accomplish His will. Just as Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” God gave Peter the desires and accomplished His will. As seven Jews meet a house full of Gentiles, history was made. Two key men come together from two different worlds, but it’s all designed by God. Look also at . . .
Second Peter’s HUMILITY Verses 24 to 26
“And on the following day he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 And when it came about that Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshipped him. 26 But Peter raised him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am just a man’” (verses 24 to 26). The day and a half journey between Joppa and Caesarea was necessary for God to thaw Peter’s frozen Gentile prejudice. And notice Cornelius’s eagerness. Those four days must have seemed like eons, as he waited for this meeting–so when Peter arrived, Cornelius left his house and fell to his knees and worshiped Peter.
Picture this– Cornelius is in full Roman regalia, bright red plume, long red cape, polished brass breastplate, decorated sword, an awesome sight–and now he is falling down before this dirty bath-robed Jew and worshipping him. Peter, of course, said, “Stop it–I am just a man.” I have to say that to my wife all the time—”I am just a man, Jean.” I know–some of you are saying, “Chris, that’s not a vision, you’re dreaming.” That’s not honest, but Peter is.
Third Peter’s HONESTY Verses 27 to 29
“And as he talked with him, he entered, and found many people assembled” (verse 27). As Peter and Cornelius talk together, they enter his courtyard and Peter discovers many Gentiles have gathered, not merely Cornelius. The centurion invited many family and friends. Again, no one told him to, but God used his desire to have others there in a big way. Can you imagine Peter later telling the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15, “Yes, one Gentile was saved.” God worked through Cornelius’s desire, in order to properly open the locked door to the Gentiles by many being present.
Verse 28, “And he said to them, ‘You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.’” Peter affirms not only the dietary laws have ended, but the separation between Jew and Gentile is also over. The Greek word “unlawful” means taboo. The Old Testament ceremonial law didn’t teach it was unlawful for Jews to keep company with Gentiles. God wanted His people to reach the Gentiles with the knowledge that leads to faith.
But rabbis taught entering a Gentile home resulted in a 7-day defilement. The Jews thought Gentiles put aborted children down their drains, defiling their houses. As a result, they believed any contact with a Gentile home resulted in a 7-day defilement, because the law did teach that touching a dead body was a 7-day defilement. But Peter clarifies in verse 29, “That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. And so I ask for what reason you have sent for me.” Peter says he came right away to obey God–so Peter asks, “Why did you send for me?” Why? Because of . . .
Fourth Cornelius’s HUNGER Verses 30 to 33
In verses 30 to 33, Cornelius repeats the story, affirming they’re ready to hear what Peter has to say to them about God. Their hearts are ready to respond. Verse 33, “And so I sent to you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” This is a preachers dream–a room full of spiritually prepared people ready to listen to God’s messenger and respond to the Gospel.
#3 Two peoples, one MESSAGE
The Gospel of Jesus Christ–Peter turns the final key. He is the first to share the good news of Christ to a room of Gentiles.
First The need for PEACE and no Partiality Verses 34 to 36
“And opening his mouth, Peter said: ‘I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him. 36‘The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)’” (verses 34 to 36).
The human race and each person in it are at war with God. You have rebelled. You’ve gone your own way. You choose to defy God’s flawless will, to attack God’s character and to violate His perfect Law–you’re at war! Feel the tension in that courtyard–the Hatfields and McCoys, the Democrats and Republicans, the Gentiles and the Jews. They are all at war with each other and at war with God. The Romans understood war and the need for peace. So Peter announces all people are at war with God and with each other, but God can bring peace through the Lord of all, Jesus Christ.
Peter is beginning to understand–God doesn’t put people in boxes. He is not partial–Jew and Gentile alike can find peace with God through Christ. Verse 35 says God is looking for two things–the right attitude respecting God, and the right actions, which is doing the right things. Not good works to save you, but dependent faith and turning away from sin in repentance, causing God to indwell you so He can do good works through you.
Peter says salvation is available. Salvation is in Christ. And peace can only come through Christ, because men are in rebellion to God and must be reconciled to God. And that can only come through Christ, because verse 35 says, “Jesus is the Lord of all.”
Second The PERSON of Jesus Christ Verses 36 to 43
Peter affirms the Lordship of Christ, the Master of Jew and the Master of Gentiles–the Lord of all mankind. And the apostle affirms in verse 37 that the listeners all know about Christ. You have heard about His good works, His teaching, His miracles, His healing and His deliverance from demons. Peter is reminding them that the Jesus you have all heard about is God in the flesh.
Verse 38–this isn’t hearsay, but Peter was an eyewitness. Verse 39–Christ alone is the only Savior, the one who paid the price for sin, which is death. Christ died for sin on a cross and rose from the dead to accomplish forgiveness. Verse 42—and Christ is the Judge of all mankind, all Jews, and all Gentiles must answer to Christ for their lives. Verse 43–Christ was God’s plan from the beginning of time, surrendering to Christ as Lord was God’s only plan for the forgiveness of sins and was prophesied for hundreds of years in the Old Testament Scriptures.
Third The PROOFS of Salvation Verses 44 to 48
Even before Peter was done with his message, these eager Gentiles got saved and proved their salvation with some obvious indicators.
1 Proven by the INDWELLING Holy Spirit
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. 46For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God” (verses 44 to 46).
Immediately, the Spirit of God indwelt them and manifested His presence through the speaking of known languages, just the way the Spirit did at Pentecost, to demonstrate to the six Jews who came along, that salvation came to the Gentiles exactly the way it came to the Jews. These Jews knew salvation was a gift, not something you could earn. And now they knew the Gentiles could receive the same gift of salvation given in Acts 2. Their salvation was . . .
2 Proven by their willingness to be BAPTIZED
Peter answered, verse 47, “’Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?’ 48And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.’” The Spirit displays the importance of baptism, for the moment they were born again, they were immediately baptized by immersion in water, which is what the word baptism means–immersion.
The first step of obedience for the Christian is baptism and these first Gentile believers were obedient. Baptism indicates that they now follow only Christ and identify only with God’s people, the Church. Peter ordered the six Jewish believers to baptize the Gentiles. This was not merely Peter’s response to the Gentiles, but all the Jewish believers took part, affirming the faith and obedience of these first Gentile converts. Plus their salvation was . . .
3 Proven by their desire for FELLOWSHIP
Verse 48b, “Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.” Peter and his Jewish brethren stayed with the first Gentile Christians for several days. You can tell when someone is really saved, because they desire to be with the community of Christians and share of the blessings of Christ in fellowship. Have you ever seen a baby that didn’t want to eat? These new babies didn’t want Peter to leave, so they asked Peter to stay a few days–because like a newborn, like all true Christians, they wanted the companionship of fellowship and the food of God’s Word.
God is no respecter of persons. Repent of your prejudices–God can save any race, any nationality, any language. And because God isn’t partial, you’re free to share the Gospel with everyone and anyone, because Jesus is a friend of sinners.
TAKE THIS HOME
A Ending prejudice requires hard WORK
Did this event solve the prejudices of Jewish Christians toward Gentiles? No. In chapter 11, news of the Gentiles coming to Christ spread so fast, that by the time Peter returned to Jerusalem, they accused him not of proclaiming Christ, but of violating their Jewish traditions, saying in verse 3, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Unlike Peter, these Jewish believers had not been prepared by God with a vision from God. So Peter carefully explained what happened and how they had been baptized by the Holy Spirit just like the first Christians were at Pentecost and in Acts 11:18, “And 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.'”
Even though these Jewish Christians accepted the truth that the Gospel was extended to the Gentiles, and soon as Paul and Barnabas were sent out to proclaim Christ to Jews and Gentiles alike, the Early Church was forced to hold its first counsel over this issue in chapter 15. The book of Acts shows us how hard prejudices die.
How about you? Are you prejudiced against Arabs, a different race, a type of schooling, certain kinds of dress, what others drink or don’t drink, hair style or tattoos? Repent of your prejudice and hold your preferences in an open hand. Why? They don’t matter and God can save anyone and make them closer than family.
B Sharing the Gospel requires you to CHANGE
The first step to share the Gospel is to ask God how you should change. Peter had to make a radical shift in his thinking and behavior in order to share the Gospel to Gentiles. God had more work to do on the one doing the proclaiming than the ones doing the hearing.
Maybe you need to learn how to be more loving over the relative who smokes and drinks. Maybe you have to deal with the bitterness in your heart toward what they did. Maybe you need to forgive them before you can share with them. But ask yourself, “Lord, what must be done in my heart so I might share the Gospel with others?” And finally . . .
C New life in Christ requires REPENTANCE
After Peter explains what happened to the Jews in Jerusalem, how did they react in Acts 11:18? “And 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.'” If you want a whole new life, it will require repentance. This is a heart change God gives you, which will cause you to turn from following your wants, dreams, desires, and plans, and now follow God’s will in God’s Word.
Don’t be fooled–real repentance comes from God and will change you to want to obey Jesus, fellowship with your family, gather for worship, study His Word, pray, give, grow, submit, serve in ministry and rejoice in worship. Christians repent to be saved and repent to be sanctified. Turn to Christ in salvation and be transformed by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Only in Christ will you know forgiveness. Only in Christ will you enjoy family. And only in Christ will you know abundant life now and enjoy eternal life forever in Heaven.
Turn to Christ today. Let’s pray.