Scripture: Acts 11:1-18
Today’s scripture is basically a short summary of all the important events described in Acts chapter 10. So, as much as I would like to read and preach on all of chapter 10, I don’t have time. So I’ll be preaching on this summary instead. But I will make frequent reference to chapter 10.
And the three most important points that I need to make in this sermon are the following: One, non-Christians need the gospel. Two, Christians need the gospel. And, three, because everyone needs the gospel, we need to understand precisely what the gospel is… What does it mean?Because… based on Peter’s own experience, and our experience, it is incredibly easy to forget.
But first, non-Christians need the gospel.
Maybe this point seems incredibly obvious to most of us, I don’t know… But it isn’t at all obvious to our culture at large. Let me give you just one small example. Several years ago, there was a TV show called Saving Grace, starring Academy Award-winner Holly Hunter. The show involves an angel named Earl who is sent from heaven to save the lives of people who seem hell-bent on destroying themselves. One of these people he’s sent to rescue is a prisoner on death row named Leon. Earl the angel meets with Leon in his prison cell regularly—and Earl gives Leon encouragement and hope.
In one episode, however, we learn that Leon has been cheating on his “Christian” angel. It turns out Leon’s been meeting with a Muslim imam and reading the Koran—behind Earl’s back! Leon has decided to convert to Islam. Earl finds out about it and seems angry and hurt. He challenges Leon to go ahead and convert to Islam if that’s what he wants to do.
So before he recites whatever prayer he needs to recite in order to become a Muslim, Leon tells his angel, “Well, I guess this is it. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me.” And then Leon makes this Muslim “profession of faith.”
And guess what happens next? Earl is still sitting there in the prison cell next to Leon. He greets Leon with an Arabic greeting. Leon looks confused. “Why are you still here? Aren’t you a Christian angel?” Earl laughs: “Humans! You get so hung up on all these religious differences. They all lead to the same place, you know?”
They all lead to the same place, you know?
I share this with you as a warning, becausethe writers and producers of this TV show were simply reflecting what most people believe: that it doesn’t really matter whether you follow Jesus, or Mohammed, or Buddha, or Vishnu, or Brahma, or Moses—just so long as you’re sincere. If you’re sincere enough—and you’re a “good person,” whatever that means—you’ll be okay; you’ll be “saved”—however that particular religion defines being okay or being saved.
But this simply can’t be true. Consider, after all, this “uncircumcised man,” this Gentile, whose house in Caesarea Peter went to. In chapter 10 we learned that he’s a Roman centurion named Cornelius… Cornelius was about as sincere in his faith, and as “good,” as anyone can be! If you have your Bibles—and you should—turn to chapter 10, verse 2: There Luke tells us that Cornelius was a “devout man who feared God with all his household,” and he “gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.”
The producers of that dumb television show would certainly agree that this man’s eternal destiny was precisely the same as the eternal destiny of any perfectly faithful Christian you can name… Right?
God’s Word indicates—emphatically—that Cornelius, as good a man as he was, as generous with his money as he was, as faithful as he was in prayer, as much as he sincerely believed in God… Cornelius was bound for hell apart from someone—Peter, in this case—going to his house and doing what? Preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to him!
If you don’t believe me, look at chapter 11, verses 13 and 14. Peter is describing his experience with Cornelius:
And he [Cornelius] told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.”
Notice those words: “a message by which you will be saved.” These words accord perfectly with Jesus’ words from John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” They accord perfectly with Peter’s own words earlier in Acts: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12. And they accord perfectly with Paul’s words in Romans 9, when talking about his own people, his own blood relatives, his fellow Jews who haven’t yet received Christ… he says, in Romans 9, verses 2 and 3:
My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.
Do you get what Paul is saying there? He saying, “If it were possible—granted, it’s not possible, but hypothetically, if it were possible—if it were possible I would lay down the greatest treasure that exists, the greatest treasure that any of us could possess… I would lay down not merely my life… but I would be willing to lay down my very soul to save my family and my people… In other words, he would exchange his own salvation, his own gift of eternal life which Christ had given him, if it meant the salvation of his fellow ethnic Jews who hadn’t yet received Christ as Savior.
In other words, “I would be willing to be damned… if by doing so, my people, these people that I love, could be saved.”
Paul would be willing, if possible, to lose his salvation, to save these people he loved. And that challenges me: What would I do? What would we do?
When I was in high school and college, back in the ’80s, I used to listen to a radio call-in show called The Bible Answer Man. It was hosted by Walter Martin, who would field often difficult questions about the Bible. And it was often the case that Christians would call in to the show after a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness confused them or shook up their own faith… because as you know, those groups are very aggressive about sharing their particular faith.
And Dr. Martin was an expert at handling these questions. And at the end of every broadcast he was famous for closing with this tagline: “Are we willing to do for the truth what others are willing to do for a lie?” If we love other people—our people, our friends, our families, our children, our grandchildren, our co-workers, our classmates—what are we willing to do that they might be saved?
The stakes couldn’t higher: Non-Christians need the gospel!
So I just invite us to examine our hearts: Are we satisfied that we’re doing enough in our lives in order for others to be saved? Are we satisfied that we’re doing enough to fulfill our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ?
And I can anticipate the pushback: “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to say!”
But you do know what to do and say… You know enough… You know how to pray, for instance, for people—to pray for lost people to receive Christ. You know how to volunteer for Vacation Bible School, for instance, which is coming up, and pray for the kids who will attend… You know how to come to the Summer Kick-Off event that you heard about a few moments ago… to come to that event not just to have fun, but to make visitors feel welcome and loved… You know how to invite people to come church with you. You know how to come out to the July 3 event at Henderson Falls Park, which you heard about during the announcements—to reach out to people and make them feel welcome and invite them to our church.
That’s enough to get started, right?
Dr. Jerry Walls, a United Methodist scholar, writes that John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, over the course of his long life, rode 250,000 miles on horseback and preached 40,000 sermons—among many other things—because of his firm conviction that everyone who didn’t repent and believe in Christ would be eternally separated from God… in hell.1
So that’s what he did. But what about us?
Listen: Even if we feel like complete failures when it comes to fulfilling our church’s mission, the Great Commission, let’s recognize our failure, confess to God that we’re failures, and pray that God would give us the power to change… for the sake of people we love who haven’t yet heard and believed the gospel!
Because, as God’s Word makes clear, being “good” isn’t good enough. Lost people need to hear and believe the gospel!
And that’s Point Number One.
Point Number Two: We Christians also need to hear the gospel, and believe in it more deeply.
After suffering through a few of my sermons a while back, a fellow pastor tried to give me some helpful advice. This person said, “You sound like you’re always preaching for ‘conversion,’ Brent. Maybe don’t do that… You should be more practical.” And I know this pastor meant well—it was as if they were saying, “Brent, look around at your congregation… This ain’t exactly a Billy Graham Crusade. Nearly everyone here is already a Christian! Why waste your breath sharing the gospel on these people. These people don’t need the gospel! They need something else.”
Respectfully I disagree—and today’s scripture shows us why!
Because you know who needs the gospel almost as much as Cornelius and his household?
Peter… And it’s not because Peter wasn’t already saved. Of course he was! In fact, he was already a very well-seasoned Christian, and apostle, and church leader at this point.
But Peter needed the gospel… Why? Because look what Luke reports Peter saying to Cornelius in in chapter 10, verse 28: “And [Peter] said to [Cornelius and his household], ‘You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.’”
Under the old covenant of the Law of Moses—before Christ fulfilled the Law and set us free from the Law, this was true enough: It’s not that the Old Testament explicitly forbids a Jew from doing associating from Gentiles, it’s just that because Gentiles didn’t obey the dietary laws of the Old Testament, they would usually be considered ceremonially unclean. So by being in close quarters with these “ceremonially unclean” Gentiles, by coming into contact with things that they touched, and certainly by sitting down for a meal with them, Jews themselves would become “ceremonially unclean.” Again… under the old covenant.
But surely Peter remembered the way Jesus dealt with ceremonially unclean people—for example, the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4: Jesus asks her for water from one of her own buckets. She asks Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?”2 Then John writes, “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”
No dealings…Why? Because, under the old covenant, if Jesus drank from the same pitcher that this unclean woman drank from, he would become unclean.
Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to care. And it’s not because all those laws in the Old Testament were wrong or untrue or didn’t serve their purpose for God’s holy and set-apart people Israel—they did… It’s just that the coming of Jesus into the world rendered all those ceremonially laws obsolete. And that’s the point of this strange vision Peter describes before Cornelius’s men arrived to bring him to Cornelius, in verses 5 through 9. “What God has made clean, do not call common.” If all foods are now considered clean, then Gentiles can’t become unclean by eating those foods… And if Gentiles can’t become unclean, then neither can Peter… you know, by associating with Gentiles.
But here’s the larger point: Peter shouldn’t have required this vision. First, he heard Jesus himself declare that all foods were now clean back in Mark 7:18-19. But even more: Peter had seen with his own eyes the way Jesus himself had ministered to so-called “outsiders”: not just Samaritans, but also lepers, people with hemorrhages, tax collectors, prostitutes, and, yes, even Roman centurions not unlike Cornelius!3 All of these groups of people could be considered “ceremonially unclean,” but Jesus was sent into this world to save “unclean” sinners exactly like them…
Which is good news because it means, of course, that he was sent into the world to save “unclean sinners” like us, too!
And Peter should have known this… Not just because of what he saw Jesus do, but because of what Jesus said when he gave him the Great Commission: “To make disciples of all nations”… And… “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”4
Did Peter not believe Jesus? Surely he did! He had already been very effective at fulfilling the Great Commission among fellow Jews and even some Samaritans. So what was Peter’s problem?
Most modern commentators—including preachers like John Piper, Tim Keller, and Chuck Swindoll—believe that old-fashioned racism was one reason. Peter was reluctant to go to the Gentiles because he thought Gentiles were just… kind of… gross! Peter at this point simply didn’t love the Gentiles the way he loved his own people. So this prejudice was at least one small part of his reluctance to take the gospel to them.
And literally nothing cures the old-fashioned sin of racism like… the gospel.
Why? Because the gospel tells us that we have no basis for feeling morally superior to anyone else. It tells us that apart from God’s grace, none of us—not Peter, not Cornelius, not anyone—is righteous. As the psalmist says, “Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive?” None of us! So on what basis would Peter feel morally superior to Cornelius? When it comes to sin, we’re all in this together!
Moreover, the gospel tells us that when we’re in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Regardless of our racial or ethnic background, regardless of our gender, we all enjoy the exact same status and love and acceptance and favor of God!
The gospel is incompatible with racism and other kinds of prejudice! And if we find in our hearts—as I often find in my own—that we look down on other people because they don’t look like us, or dress like us, or talk like us, well… it doesn’t mean we’re not saved, but it does mean that we need to believe more deeply in the gospel!
But also… Peter needed the gospel to remind himself, once again, that he has done nothing at all to make himself worthy of this gift of eternal life that he’s received. Nothing at all—including following those Old Testament’s dietary laws!
No, it’s only because of what Jesus did for Peter by living that life of perfect obedience to the Father that Peter couldn’t live, and by dying the God-forsaken death that Peter deserved to die, and by suffering the hell that Peter deserved to suffer—on Peter’s behalf—that Peter stands as righteous before God. Peter’s own actions contribute nothing at all to his salvation. It is completely a gift of God.
So it’s not not the basis or eating or not eating certain foods that we’re made righteous; it’s through faith in Christ alone!
In fact, when we read on in the New Testament, we see that Peter forgot this lesson yet again! In Galatians 2, the apostle Paul describes confronting Peter—years after the events described in today’s scripture—Paul confronts Peter over this exact same issue! You see, Peter had come to visit Paul’s church in Antioch—and the church was filled with Gentiles. And for a long time, Peter used to eat at the same table with these Gentiles, to enjoy their fellowship, and yes, even to eat “unclean” foods alongside these Gentiles… Until… some men from the church in Jerusalem showed up in Antioch. These men may not have even been Christians at all because they were still of the opinion that Jews and Gentiles needed to remain separate from one another.
And Peter was so afraid of being judged by these people that he “withdrew” from the Gentiles, stopped eating at the same table, and started eating only “kosher” food with his fellows Jewish Christians. And Paul calls him to account for his hypocrisy.
Paul says he “opposed Peter to his face.”5 Why? “Because he stood condemned,” Paul says. Paul doesn’t mean that Peter had lost his salvation in that moment and was going to hell; rather, Paul understood that if Peter was going to fall back into trusting—even to the smallest degree—in his own efforts to be righteous—by doing things like following these dietary laws—rather than trusting in Christ entirely for his salvation, he was effectively rejecting the gospel! By refusing to share a meal with Gentiles, Peter was saying through his actions—whether he intended to or not—“Jesus isn’t enough to make me righteous; I need to do these other things, too.”
So Peter was showing through his hypocrisy that he didn’t believe in the gospel enough… And Paul confronted him with this fact. And Peter repented. And he believed the gospel more deeply.
My point is, if even Peter needed the gospel, so do we. Also notice in Galatians 2 the reasons that Peter was playing the hypocrite: Because he was so worried about what other people thought of him, whether they would approve of him or accept him… or whether they would disapprove of him and go and say mean things about him to other people… For whatever reason, Peter wanted to win the favor of these men from the Jerusalem church. He cared about that more than he cared about being faithful to Jesus!
Man, I can relate, trust me! I’ve spent way too much of my life living in fear of what other people think of me… how they judge me. How about you?
But even here, the gospel helps us!
Why should we care what mere human beings think about us? Do we not remember that we’ve already been accepted into God’s family—that we’re members of the most powerful “royal family” in the universe! That we’re “highly favored” sons and daughters of the most powerful King in the universe! And that that King promises to ensure that everything that happens in the universe will work together for our ultimate good!6 And the worst thing our worse enemy can do is kill us, and the Bible says that that’s even better than living life in this world! So…
So we Christians need the gospel!
And we need the gospel because even long after we get converted, even long after we’ve been living a Christian life, we still sin… just like Peter still sinned—years after the events described in today’s scripture. And when we sin, we can easily forget this gospel truth: we don’t earn any part of this eternal life. We never start earning it. Literally nothing we do earns even a small part of our eternal life. It’s all a gift. It’s all grace!
And when we forget this gospel truth, we feel guilty. And God doesn’t want us Christians, whose sins have been repented of and forgiven, to live with guilt.
And this is my third and final point: What is the gospel… What does it mean?
I know many of you seen and loved that Steven Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan. If so, you’ll remember the dying words that Captain Miller, Tom Hanks’s character, speaks to Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. After nearly everyone in Miller’s unit dies in order to save Ryan’s life, Miller grabs Ryan by the collar and with his dying breath says, “Earn this… Earn it!” In other words, live a life that earns or makes himself worthy of the sacrifices that Captain Miller and the men in his unit made to save his life.
And next we see an elderly Ryan, decades later, near the end of his own life, standing beside the grave markers at Normandy beach—asking his children and grandchildren, “Did I earn it?”—in other words, “Did I live a life worthy of the sacrifices that Miller and his fellow soldiers made for me so long ago? Did I deserve the life that their deaths made possible for me?”
And his family reassures him: “Of course you did, Dad!”
But who were they kidding? A dozen men sacrificed their lives to save his life. How could he possibly “earn” that. What a cruel thing for Captain Miller to tell Ryan with his dying breath! What an impossible, crushing burden to have live up to!
What guilt to have to live with for your entire life!
By contrast, when Jesus—the world’s one and only true Savior—willingly sacrificed his life on the cross to save ours, he didn’t say “earn this”—as if any one of us could earn God-in-the-flesh suffering death and hell for us, in our place… No, our Savior didn’t say, earn this—“earn this forgiveness,” “earn this salvation,” “earn this eternal life”—instead he said, receive this—“Receive this gift and enjoy it. Enjoy it! Don’t you dare feel guilty! It’s yours for free. I’m giving it to you out of love! I wanted to do you this for you because I love you that much!
Believe… the… gospel… And “Enjoy this gift.” Amen.