Monthly Archives: April 2019

THE BOOK OF ACTS – CONNECTING THE DOTS

CONNECTING THE DOTS

“As Peter puzzled, sat there trying to figure out what it all meant, the men sent by Cornelius showed up at Simon’s front door. They called in asking if there was a Simon, also called Peter, staying there. Peter, lost in thought, didn’t hear them so the Spirit whispered to him, ‘Three men are knocking at the door looking for you. Get down there and go with them. Don’t ask any questions. I sent them to get you.’

“Peter went down and said to the men, ‘I think I’m the man you’re looking for. What’s up?’

“They said, ‘Captain Cornelius, a God-fearing man well-known for his fair play — ask any Jews in this part of the country — was commanded by a holy angel to get you and bring you to his house so he could hear what you have to say.’ Peter invited them in and made them feel at home.” Acts 10:17-23a (The Message).

What a story! Three worlds coming together, Jewish Peter’s prejudice giving way to Roman Cornelius’ request through the intervention of God’s supernatural unseen influence! There must be millions of untold stories like this one where God’s world has come close to the world of people who cry out to Him in their need.

This was not only a significant event for the early church — God actively intervening to ensure that His followers take the message of Jesus out of the confines of the Jewish nation to a world that was waiting for a revelation of the truth. It was also a life-changing encounter for Cornelius with the living God which would transform him and his household.

Familiarity with the story can easily dull the edge of this drama. Peter, born and bred in the cradle of Judaism, was confronted with a situation which would shake him to the core. Not only did he have a deep-seated prejudice against Gentiles in general, a generations-old attitude passed down from his forefathers, but he also had a particular hatred for Romans and especially Roman soldiers.

Were they not the ones who had inflicted so much suffering on his people? They were prisoners in their own land and subject to the capricious cruelty of their oppressors. His dream of deliverance had been dashed when Jesus died, having done nothing to fulfil his expectation of a new order of freedom in his land. No Roman soldier was an individual to him. They were all lumped together as nameless and faceless enemies.

Now he was faced with a nightmare of a vision — an instruction from God — “Satisfy your hunger by eating an unclean creature!” How could he, Peter, a Jew, do a thing like that, and of all things, because God told him to do it?

Then a group of Romans arrived and asked him to accompany them to a Roman soldier’s home! What was the world coming to? It was to Peter’s credit that he both welcomed his visitors into his host’s home and was willing to go with them to Caesarea, realising that his vision and their visit were tied together into an instruction from God.

It takes faith and courage to connect the dots! God’s leading does not always come in unmistakeable instructions. We are not mindless robots. This is part of what it means to know God and to walk in the Spirit. We learn, on this journey with Jesus, to recognise His voice and to know His ways.

David prayed a significant prayer, one which I have prayed over the course of five years, which has been answered over and over in amazing ways.

“Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name.” Psalm 86:11 (NIV).

No other prayer has affected my life as much as this desire, planted in my heart by the Holy Spirit, to know God’s ways. It is the way of access to the heart of the Father.

THE BOOK OF ACTS – A PLAN COMES TOGETHER

A PLAN COMES TOGETHER

“The next day, as the three travellers were approaching the town, Peter went onto the balcony to pray. It was about noon. Peter got hungry and started thinking about lunch. While lunch was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the skies open up. Something that looked like a huge blanket lowered by ropes at the four corners, settled on the ground. Every kind of animal and bird and reptile you could think of was on it. Then a voice came: ‘Go to it, Peter — kill and eat.’

“Peter said, ‘Oh, no, Lord. I’ve never so much as tasted food that was not kosher.’

“The voice came a second time: ‘If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.’

“This happened three times, and then the blanket was pulled up back into the skies.” Acts 10:9-16 (The Message).

“I love it when a plan comes together!” said Hannibal Smith of the A-Team. Don’t you love God’s timing?

This was a crucial moment in the history of the church. Up to this point, it was growing and flourishing in the Jewish communities of Israel and Syria. God had clearly and powerfully moved in the Samaritan villages and towns, signifying His approval of their inclusion in the life of the kingdom of God. But they were half-Jews anyway.

But the Romans? They were the pits. To interact with these hated and despised Gentiles was a no-no. It would take drastic action on God’s part to convince Peter that what was about to happen was okay.

There was deep symbolism in this vision. Eating was an activity loaded with significance. It was much more that enjoying a meal in the company of others.

In a previous post I explained that eating with someone was a symbol of reconciliation. The Hebrew word for a meal is “shul” and for a table is “shulkan”. But the same word, “shulkan”, can also mean “reconciliation” and “a lamb skin.”  What do these three words have in common?

If there was no table, a lamb skin would be used as a sort of picnic blanket. The sacrifice of a lamb’s life was made in order to have a lamb skin (shulkan) to use as a table (shulkan) to eat a meal (shul). Sacrifice was the grounds of reconciliation (shulkan). A Middle Eastern person would only eat with someone to whom he had been reconciled. Eating together signified that two people or a group of people had no issues with each other and were therefore in fellowship with one another.

God was preparing Peter in two ways. He had to make a paradigm shift regarding what he “ate” and with whom he ate. It was obviously a serious issue for Peter because Paul had to rebuke him to his face on a later occasion when Peter drew back from eating with Gentiles in the presence of some legalistic Jewish believers.

“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles, but when they arrived, he began to pull back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.” Galatians 2:11-12 (NIV).

The symbolism of Peter’s vision was powerful. He was invited to eat from a revolting array of creatures. This illustrates Peter’s deeply-entrenched revulsion towards Gentiles. Without the vision and the disgust it had raised in him, would he have readily accompanied the three Romans back to Caesarea to enter a Gentile home and “eat” with Gentiles? I don’t think so. His scruples would have been sorely tested.

There had to be a personal reassurance from the mouth of God to remove Peter’s prejudice against the Gentiles. Once again, God was gracious to an erring human. Jesus had instructed His disciples to take the kingdom of God to the world but it would take more than words to convince Peter that He really meant it. Something as supernatural as this vision was necessary to move Peter into the next phase of Jesus’ mission to the world.

God will do what is necessary and whatever it takes to move you and me into understanding and obedience to do His will so that we can play our part in advancing His kingdom here on earth. Even our scruples and prejudices must give way to a greater purpose into which He calls us into partnership with Himself.

THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES – PHASE TWO

PHASE TWO

“Cornelius stared hard, wondering if he was seeing things. Then he said, ‘What do you want, sir?’

“The angel said, ‘Your prayers and neighbourly acts have brought you to God’s attention. Here’s what you are to do. Send men to Joppa to get Simon, the one everyone calls Peter. He is staying with Simon the Tanner, whose house is down by the sea.’

“As soon as the angel was gone, Cornelius called two servants and one particularly devout soldier from the guard. He went over with them in great detail everything that had happened, and then sent them off to Joppa.” Acts 10:4-8 (The Message).

Cornelius was busy carrying out his duty to God faithfully. He was not aware that there was much more to this “religion” he followed that he knew about. As far as he was concerned, he was doing what was required of him and doing it well and with all his heart.

But God had His eye on him. Cornelius was not one of His chosen people, but He was about to show this Gentile that His desire was to open the door of His grace to all nations. This had been His plan from the beginning. He had chosen Israel, not to have exclusive rights to His love and favour, but to be the vehicle through which He would reveal Himself to the world.

The Israelites had completely misinterpreted God’s requirement that they separate themselves from the idolatrous nations around them. God wanted them to be uncontaminated, not exclusive and isolated. They thought they were better than every other nation in spite of hob-nobbing with them and practising their wicked idolatry.

Instead of revealing the true nature of God as a loving and caring Father, they hated and despised the Gentiles, refusing to interact with them in any way. God would have to do something out of the ordinary to break down their prejudice and convince His followers that the good news of Jesus was for all nations, not only for the Jews.

Phase one was to alert Cornelius that there was something more in store for him. He was still living in a spiritual twilight zone and needed the supernatural intervention of God to move him into the light of new life in Jesus.

Cornelius was not used to anything as spectacular as a vision. He was flabbergasted and bewildered by the appearance of an angel. All he could stammer was ‘What do you want, sir?’ That the angel actually replied to him was even more of a mystery. Amazingly, he did not question his sanity or hesitate to do what he was instructed to do.

This was too dramatic and intrusive an experience to ignore. He called his subordinates to go at once to Joppa to fetch the man about whom he had received detailed instructions.

It is not often that anyone catches a glimpse of the supernatural realm of God which is all around us, but which we cannot see. In the ordinary course of life, we live and experience the natural world in the conviction that the realm of God’s presence is as near to us as our breath; but there are unusual times when God pulls aside the curtain for a brief moment for a specific purpose.

Cornelius needed just such a moment to convince him that God had noticed him and wanted him to enter that supernatural realm by faith in Jesus. He stood on the threshold of the greatest experience of his life when he would step over from darkness to light, from death to life and from the dominion of Satan into the kingdom of God.

This was not just another religious exercise. God was setting up an encounter with His Son that would transform Cornelius’ life forever, and open the door for a heavily prejudiced Jew to understand the enormity of the grace that sent His Son to be the Saviour of the world.

THE BOOK OF ACTS – ENTER CORNELIUS

CHAPTER 10

ENTER CORNELIUS                                                                                                       

“There was a man named Cornelius who lived in Caesarea — captain of the Italian Guard stationed there. He was a thoroughly good man. He led everyone in his house to live worshipfully before God, was always helping people in need, and had the habit of prayer. One day about three o’clock in the afternoon he had a vision. An angel of God, as real as his next door neighbour, came in and said, ‘Cornelius,'” Acts 10:1-3 (NIV).

What a resume’ of upright living! It is heartening to know that there were people like Cornelius, a Roman soldier, usually hated and feared in Israel for their ruthless cruelty, who was the exception. He was one of those who were called “God-fearers”. He was a Jewish proselyte who had abandoned his idolatrous upbringing and embraced the God of the Jews.

But he was not one in name only. He also lived out in practice the teachings of the God he followed. He carried out the three primary responsibilities of a faithful Jew:

He led his family in godly living:

“These commandments I give you are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Deuteronomy 6:6-7 (NIV).

He was generous to those in need:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 23:22 (NIV).

He took part in the regular prayer times of the Jewish people.

“One day at about three o’clock in the afternoon he had a vision…” Acts 10:3 (NIV).

It was at this time of the day that Peter and John went to join the regular daily recitation of prayer in the temple in Jerusalem and encountered the crippled beggar sitting at the Beautiful Gate of the temple (Acts 4).

These activities did not necessarily qualify him for what happened next. They were an indication of his heart’s desire to know God. He worshiped God with a sincere heart in the way he understood best.

Cornelius lived in a way that many believers in Jesus neglect in our modern world. These may have been God’s prescription for a godly life for His ancient people but His standards have not changed.

The fruit of a vital relationship with the Living God is still the same — a home life that honours Him and trains the next generation to do the same; a generous disposition that willing shares the resources God lends to us with those who have less than we have; and a heart that seeks after God and spends time with Him in prayer.

Although Cornelius faithfully did these things, there was still something missing in his life. He had not yet met the living Christ and been given the gift of forgiveness, faith and the assurance of sonship and access to the Father through Jesus.

As we step into Acts 10, we are witnessing God’s behind-the-scenes preparation to manoeuvre one of His sons into position so the He could set up a meeting with Cornelius. Such is the love and mercy of our God that He always hears the bleat of a lost lamb. He heard this man who, in spite of his background and upbringing, was crying out to be rescued.

THE BOOK OF ACTS – RESURRECTION PROOF

RESURRECTION PROOF

“When this became known all over Joppa many put their trust in the Master. Peter stayed on a long time in Joppa as a guest of Simon the Tanner.” Acts 9:42-43 (The Message).

What was it that caused the message of Jesus to touch people’s lives in wave upon wave every time a miracle happened? Was it the miracles that attracted them or was it the proof that Jesus was alive that convinced them?

Miracles do not produce or sustain faith. We only have to read the story of God’s people in their deliverance from Egypt and their sojourn in the wilderness to recognise this. At no other time in their history did the Israelites experience more or greater miracles than when God rescued them from Pharaoh “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” and cared for them for forty years in the desert.

Plagues that destroyed a nation and its economy and finally wiped out its military might; natural phenomena like a wind so powerful that it cut a path through the sea; manna that appeared every six days out of seven; a flock of birds so vast that it covered their camp; water that flowed out of a rock enough to satisfy the needs of more than two million people; a pillar of cloud that gave the people shade from the desert sun by day and fire that warmed them at night — these and much more, were the order of the day. Could God have done any more for them than He did?

Yet they grumbled, rebelled, disobeyed and even set up a forbidden image in spite of all the miracles that attested to God’s invisible presence with them and power among them. A deeper investigation into the Old Testament actually reveals that the greatest miracles happened during the times of Israel’s greatest unbelief e.g., during the times of Elijah and Elisha.

No, miracles do not produce saving faith. What was it that convinced people everywhere that what the disciples were proclaiming was the truth? There were no billboards inviting people to “come and get your miracle” as we so often see today. Their message was simple. “Jesus is alive and He is Lord.”

It was the resurrection of Jesus that powered their faith. Miracles were the evidence of the presence of God’s kingdom on earth. People put their faith in the risen Jesus, not to get their miracle but because He is alive and He is who He said He is. They did not come to Him to get their needs met or to have a comfortable life or even a free ticket to heaven. They entrusted their lives to Him because He is Lord.

Not even the threat of persecution could stop the phenomenal growth of the church. Persecution weeded out the passengers and strengthened the faith and character of those who truly followed Jesus. And God continued to verify the truth of His Son’s resurrection by confirming His word with signs following.

Peter remained in Joppa. A new branch of the church was growing there. As a guest of Simon the Tanner, he stayed on to preach and teach about Jesus so that the faith of these new believers would be anchored in the truth of who Jesus is.

What if Jesus did nothing for us? He owes us nothing and is under no obligation to do anything for us. Would we still follow Him and put our trust in Him, or is our faith so mercenary that we only believe in Him for what we can get out of it? What He does for us flows from His infinite generosity and we are beneficiaries of pure grace.

It is His passion to put His glory on display that prompts His goodness to us. Let us never slip into the false notion that there is anything in us or anything we can do for Him that merits His favour.