July 15, 2010

Grace for All

BY ABRAHAM J. JULES Acts 10 marks a pivotal point in the history of human existence. It represents the shift from the exclusivism of Judaism to the gospel’s inclusion of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.

Acts 10 is the story of two men—Peter and Cornelius—and the convergence of faith in the face of uncertainty about how to fulfill God’s redemptive agenda. It is the story of how God pried open Peter’s mind to the infinite possibilities of Christ’s redemptive activity, while closing Cornelius’s mind to parochial limitations of historic Judaism in order that he and untold billions might experience the fellowship of our Creator through the redemptive work of His Son.

Though far removed from the setting of the first century, many of the attitudes addressed in this passage, and the ideas that shaped them, still prevail today. And maybe that’s not so remarkable, given that many of the religious, social, and cultural dynamics of the first century are the same ones we grapple with today.

The Challenge to Learn More
About noon Peter had assumed a posture of prayer atop the flat roof of the house of Simon, a tanner. While waiting for his meal, Peter prayed, unaware that three Gentiles, dispatched by Cornelius, a Roman centurion, were on their way to see him. 

Peter 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 of the earth and birds of the air” (Acts 10:11, 12).

Notice the voice’s explicit command: “Get up, Peter. Kill [as you would a sacrifice] and eat” (verse 13).

Immediately, Peter, a devout Jew, recoils at the command: “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (see verse 14).

To which the voice replies, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (verse 15). This happened three times. 

Peter is now faced with having to make a decision between obeying the Levitical law and obeying the heavenly2010 1526 page18 voice. The Torah said one thing and the voice said another. The written word said one thing and the spoken word said something else. 

It was as if God was saying, Yes, Peter, I know you saw Jesus glorified on the Mount of Transfiguration, I know you were there when Jesus turned water into wine, fed the 5,000, healed the sick, and quieted the storm. Yes, you preached at Pentecost and many were baptized. But Peter, you still have much to learn.

The Wonder of Self-surrender
While Peter was trying to make sense of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius stood at the gate. The Holy Spirit told Peter, “Simon, three men are looking for you” (verse 19).

It was the Holy Spirit who, through Cornelius, led these three Gentiles to Peter. Jewish prejudices against the Gentiles were so strong that they treated them as if they were inherently unclean. Even believers in the Way clung tenaciously to their Jewish traditions and had to have them pried away from them by the Holy Spirit.

But God speaks His word to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (verse 15).

Before Peter could respond otherwise, the Holy Spirit told him, “Get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them” (verse 20). That word translated “get up” is the same Greek word used when the voice from heaven told Peter to “get up, kill and eat,” conveying a sense of urgency.

Left to himself Peter could not comprehend the purposes of God. Left to himself Peter had only his customs and traditions, his life experiences. But there comes a time in every believer’s life when the written word, the traditions, and his or her life experiences are not enough.

It may be that in that moment Peter remembered the words of ?Jesus: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:13).

Peter needed the written Word confirmed and the Word was confirmed by the Holy Spirit, initiating His universal work, executing God’s strategic initiative, orchestrating God’s redemptive activity so that Peter and the other apostles could understand not only that the Comforter had come, but that the Comforter was the active agent in the transformation of the world.

The Witness of Selfless Service
Peter went down to the men and said, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?” (Acts 10:21).

What starts as a shadowy sketch begins to assume a recognizable form as Cornelius and Peter eventually meet and marvel at the providential working of God’s unseen hand.

Peter lived through the Word conflicted, but he experienced the Word confirmed. Now Peter and Cornelius were about to experience the Word confessed.

When we, in obedience to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, follow His direction and submit to His leading, He will break in at the intersection of human experience and divine purpose like a mighty, rushing wind. “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (verse 44). That is the power of the Word.

2010 1526 page18The story of Peter and Cornelius has a message for the church. We have long gone from the gospel commission, “Go.” We now move to an absence of barriers in our faith community—no spiritual barriers, no cultural barriers, no sociological barriers. God declared all equal by the power of His Word.

When God intervenes in human history, He doesn’t reach up, because His providence reigns over us. He doesn’t reach out, because His sovereignty exceeds our human boundaries. God reaches down!

God reached down into the static worldview of His self-assured people. He reached down into the religious, social, and cultural assumptions of the first century. He reached down and disrupted the spiritual equilibrium of the apostle Peter.

The Incarnation was God reaching down. That’s what the cross was: God reaching down. That’s what the Resurrection was: it was a reaching down. But when God reached down, Christ came up! And because He came up, He will come and empower us.

The grace of Jesus embraces the whole world, and His kingdom is constituted by all who submit to it, transcending all distinctions. The Spirit does what the apostles couldn’t imagine. They saw a world of great divides, but the Holy Spirit reminded them that God made a promise to Abraham that in him all nations of the earth would be blessed.

The disciples eventually understood this message. Paul spoke about this when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Soon our Savior will come, and we shall see the universality of His grace realized when people gathered from every nation, language, tribe, and ?people stand before the throne of God.

Abraham J. Jules, pastor, Mount Vernon Seventh-day Adventist church, Mount ?Vernon, New York, U.S.A.