Summary: I preach expository messages, and this is the twentieth in my series on the Book of Acts.
“Getting Out of God’s Way”
September 23, 2007
What happens when God thoroughly and completely messes up the paradigm? When God acts in a way utterly differently than you expected Him to act?
According to Wikipedia (and if it’s in Wikipedia, then it must be true), “Angst is the German word for fear or anxiety. It is used in English to describe an intense feeling of emotional strife.” Angst is the word, perhaps, a sense of “what do we do now?” Edvard Munch graphically captured this sentiment with his painting entitled “The Scream”. Of course, in our contemporary society, we don’t think of Edvard Munch; we think of MacCauley Culkin. But nonetheless, the sense of angst is profound, particularly when we are thrown for an unexpected loop. News of the conversion of these Gentiles in Caesarea reached Jerusalem prior to Peter’s arrival, and it caused widespread angst among the leadership of the early church. We can feel for them; this represented such an incredible shift to their way of thinking that we could hardly have expected them to greet the development with open arms! This against the backdrop of the fact that some of the Hellenistic Jews—remember, these were the Greek-speaking Jews who’d not been raised in Jerusalem, but rather moved there—some of these had adopted fairly liberal attitudes toward the popular interpretation of Jewish law. This didn’t set well with the Jewish authorities, and led to not only the martyrdom of Stephen, but a widespread persecution of the Hellenistic Christians that led to a dispersal of most of them from Jerusalem (remember, though, that we said that this was part of God’s plan as well!).
Now, if Peter were advocating the acceptance of Gentiles, uncircumcised and apart from converting to Judaism, straight into the church, then whatever goodwill might have remained between the Jewish religious leaders and the followers of Christ was bound to dissipate. And so his homecoming wasn’t the joyous occasion it might have been!
I. Peter’s Criticism - :1-3
God’s Word to the Gentiles
He was confronted by the Jewish believers, or at least many of them (“the circumcision party”) with the charge that he’d essentially punted the entire Jewish character of Christian faith in order to win Gentile converts. The issue they raise was not that of Gentiles coming to faith in Christ; rather, it was Peter going into the home of a Gentile and indiscriminately sharing a meal with them. This, as you might remember, represented a real breach in conduct; for a Jew, taking food with a Gentile implied a casual indifference to issues of cleanness and uncleanness in a ceremonial/religious sense. It’s not an off-the-wall charge; it was in keeping with their understanding of God’s design for holy living. They undoubtedly saw themselves as being concerned for maintaining the appropriate standards of holiness, and there is nothing wrong, per se, with that idea.
And yet, what was undeniable was that God’s Word had gone to the Gentiles, just as they were, without their having come through the doorway of Judaism first. This presented a real dilemma, one that needed some explaining, and thus we read
II. Peter’s Defense - :4-16
God’s Work among the Gentiles
His defense? God did it! It was pretty much that simple! Peter had been presented with, in the words of F.F. Bruce, a “divine fait accompli”. Yes, it was revolutionary for Peter to go into a Gentile home; yes, it was revolutionary for Peter to eat with Gentiles; yes, it was revolutionary to baptize an uncircumcised Gentile, but to not do so would have been to get in God’s way, and that’s not something he wanted to do!
He had six witnesses to confirm the truth of everything that he was saying. William Barclay finds this number significant, because “in Egyptian law, which the Jews would know very well, seven witnesses were necessary completely to prove a case”, while in Roman law, which they would also be well-acquainted with, seven seals were necessary to authenticate an important document like a will.” Peter isn’t making this up. Peter recounts how
• Gave Peter a vision which showed him that eating animals was not in itself to any longer be considered an unclean thing.
This wasn’t something Peter merely dreamed up, and it wasn’t something that he was looking for. It certainly didn’t equal “wishful thinking” on Peter’s part; he had no particular notion, apparently, that Gentiles would be accepted so easily into this newly-inaugurated church. In fact, he protested when God said, “dinner is served.” No, this was a God-thing in its origin.
• Sent three Gentile men from Caesarea, who arrived at the precise moment that the vision was wrapping up.
God’s timing was impeccable; just when Peter was wondering, “what in the world is the meaning of this”, three men appeared at the door of Simon the tanner. It was a God-thing…