Psalm 96

We are going to have a break from Acts for some time, for the sake of variety. Tomorrow, the 1st of the month, we will begin a new series on Amos. Today we have a special edition. This is a sermon (prepared for Australians to explain about our ministry in Thailand), so it is longer than the usual post. You may prefer to go back and catch up on a passage from Acts which you missed.

Click here to read the passage.

There are a whole lot of imperatives in this psalm: sing, bless, declare, ascribe, bring, worship, tremble, say. Why does the psalmist tell us to sing and praise and worship? Verse 4 tells us. Firstly, because the LORD is great, and worthy of praise. Verse 3 says he is glorious, verse 6 talks about his splendour and majesty, his strength and beauty, verse 10 says he reigns as King. The psalmist compares the LORD with the gods of other nations. LORD, in capital letters, is our God’s personal name, sometimes written as Yahweh or Jehovah. This is the God of Israel that the psalmist is singing about. Other gods, he says, are worthless idols.

In Thailand, where we live, we see idols everywhere. If people were truly following Buddha’s teaching, they would not bring offerings to spirit-idols, but they do. They honour them because they are afraid that if they do not, the spirits will hurt them or cause bad luck to them, their family, their household. Every building has a spirit house outside, where the people leave offerings so the spirit will stay outside and not bother them. Even educated people fear the spirits, but the psalmist here urges the readers to fear the LORD – Yahweh – above all else.

What is the difference between Yahweh and the other gods? He is the Creator. You can see that in verse 5, where it says that he made the heavens, but we also see his creation glorifying him in verses 11-12, where the sea roars, and all its creatures, and the fields and all the animals exult. Even the trees of the forest sing for joy before their Creator. Thai people generally do not believe that the world was made by Yahweh or any other god. Thailand is a beautiful place. Our LORD God created Thailand and Thai people. Yet they do not honour him as the Creator.

Thirdly, we see in the psalm that the LORD is the Judge of all the earth. Look in verse 10 and verse 13. Normally when we hear that the LORD is judge, we think of the guilty being punished, particularly in the end times. But the biblical concept of judgment is much broader than that. Notice how God judges with equity, righteousness, and faithfulness in these verses, not with fire and brimstone. When God judges, he sets things right. Because in the world of the Bible, and in the world today, things are not right. There is corruption and oppression. 

We see this up close in Thailand. 67% of the wealth is owned by 1% of the people – the greatest wealth inequality in the world. Bribery and corruption are part of society’s fabric, factored into the construction of roads and other things. But the most heart-wrenching injustice we see is the exploitation of human beings. There are about 100,000 refugees in Thailand, mostly Burmese who have fled the fighting in their own country. But refugees have no rights in Thailand; they have no access to education or healthcare, and are vulnerable to arrest, abuse, and deportation. This situation came to world attention 2 years when the boys lost in the cave – born and raised in Thailand – were finally given the right to become citizens. Perhaps even worse, boys and girls, men and women, are bought and sold as slaves. Some work in the horrendous sex industry; others are forced to labour as fishermen. Many are refugees, but some are simply from poor families who sold one or two children off to people claiming they could give them jobs in the city. God wants to bring justice to these people. He wants to restore their dignity and bring equity. God will judge with righteousness and faithfulness.

And so we have learned about the ‘why’ as presented in Psalm 96: 

  1. God is the great King
  2. God is the Creator
  3. God is the Judge

Let’s look now at what he wants the people to do as a result.

Firstly, he tells us to sing – three times! Isn’t it wonderful to gather together with the people of God and sing praises that bless his name? Humans love to sing together. Nonbelievers come for public Christmas carol-singing because they just love it, even though they don’t believe the words. Ours is one of the few religions where people come together and sing. They certainly don’t do it in Buddhism! 

The next instruction also has to do with words: we are to ‘tell’ or ‘proclaim’ in verse 2, and to ‘declare’ in verse 3. The Hebrew word (bsr) used in verse 2 is the same word that Isaiah uses when he talks about proclaiming the good news in 40:9. It’s the message that the King is coming, who will restore order and bring comfort to those who suffer. It is translated in the New Testament as ‘evangelise’, an announcement of good news about the coming of a king who will bring victory for his people. It is the word that is used in Is 61:1 that Jesus quotes in Luke 4, when he is talking about his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … to bring good news to the poor … to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives”. It’s the same word in Is 52:7 which Paul quotes in Rom 10:15 where he says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who proclaim the gospel”. So it’s not just the simple word ‘tell’, but really about proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation.

When we know about God’s character, his saving works, the victory he has won, how can we help but share this good news with others? When we encounter the lost, the fearful, the oppressed, and we have this good news about this great God, we must share it with them. Not just at big evangelistic events with lots of people, or at church on Sundays; we share it ‘day by day’, with everyone we meet, believers and nonbelievers. We need to be reminded every day that God has won our battles, that he cares for the broken-hearted, and that he is in control of every situation that threatens to destabilise our lives. It is wonderful to come to church and testify what God has done for us during the week; let us do that with our friends and neighbours every day! This is part of our discipleship, as we follow Jesus in his mission. 

In verse 3 the psalmist tells us to “declare his glory among the nations and his marvellous works among all the peoples”. That means not only among other believers, but with those who do not know him. To “declare his marvellous works” means to tell about everything he has done for you, including salvation won by Jesus. The phrase “declare his glory” needs unpacking. There are a lot of ways the word ‘glory’ is used in the Bible. Sometimes it is the manifestation of God’s presence, like in Isaiah’s vision or on Mount Sinai. God’s glory is also revealed when he works miracles by his strength and power. Another aspect of ‘glory’ is a sense of weight, honour, or importance. So when we are told to “Declare his glory”, it can mean to declare how important he is, or to give him the honour he deserves, or as in verse 8 “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name”.

In Thailand, as well as in Australia, people do not give God the glory or honour or importance he deserves. Mostly they simply ignore God. Even we do not give God his rightful place in our lives, despite knowing who he is. This is why we have to keep singing new songs to him, and telling of his salvation – to remind ourselves what he has done for us, and so give him the honour he deserves. Thais have no concept of God, but they have a deep culture of honouring those who deserve it. They honour their parents, spiritual leaders, teachers, and the royal family. To not give due respect is wrong. Who deserves honour more than our God and King? Observe again verse 8: “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.”

What a challenge this is for both Aussies and Thais! Do we really give God his due importance? One way of expressing the importance of God in our lives is by bringing him offerings and coming into his courts to worship him. This is to give him our time and our money, the most tightly-held things we possess. Paul talks about offering up our whole lives as a sacrifice to God. Our ministry in Thailand is in response to who God is – his glory, his saving work in our lives, his ownership of our lives. It is not just the context in which we find ourselves, with all its needs, or using the gifts that God has given us. As disciples of Jesus, we follow him in proclaiming good news to the poor and liberty to the captives. Our motives might have been (1) to help sad people and fix injustice; or (2) to fulfil a sense of significance and need for purpose in our lives. But our motive, and yours, should be the glory of God. That we, and our Christian friends, and our nonbelieving family and neighbours, should honour God in accordance with what he deserves. Our work on his behalf should flow out of his greatness and be for his glory, never a desire for our own glory.

Acts 12:20-25

Click here to read the passage.

Luke’s purpose in including this story about the death of Herod Agrippa is not entirely clear, but there are certainly some hints from which we can make a well-informed guess. The framing of the chapter with the death of James at the beginning and the death of Agrippa at the end perhaps indicates that, in the words of John Piper, “if you oppose Jesus, you lose”. In contrast with Peter’s journey from Judea to Caesarea (chapters 9-10), which brought life and the spread of the gospel, Herod’s journey brought only fear and death.

Luke introduces us to the political context of Herod’s furious dispute with the people of Tyre and Sidon. They need to pacify him, as they depend on his grace and economic favor to be able to eat. Having got Herod’s close official on their side, they arrange some kind of festival where they plan to flatter him. Josephus mentions this event in more detail than Luke, in his book Antiquities, written probably forty years after the event and close in time to when Luke was writing Acts. There are a remarkable number of words used only here in the New Testament, which suggests that Luke might have borrowed this story from another writer.

When the Tyreans and Sidonians started to acknowledge Herod – a Jewish king, note – as a god, Josephus says, “He did not rebuke them, nor did he repudiate their impious flattery”. He was immediately struck down by an angel of the Lord, a messenger of judgment, for not giving glory to God. Luke’s description of Agrippa’s death by worms is likely to be symbolic, used in other well-known ancient writings such as Maccabees, Josephus (of another Herod’s death), Lucian, and Eusebius.

Although Herod Agrippa breathed his last, the word of God, in contrast, continued growing and multiplying. The first verb is often used of natural things, such as plants and children (eg Luke 1:80; 12:27); the second verb is used of Abraham’s descendants in the Greek version of the Old Testament (eg Gen 17:2; 22:17). Together they are used in God’s command to the first human pair: “Grow and multiply” (Gen 1:28). The growth and multiplication of the word of God is both natural and a fulfillment of God’s command. In the return of Barnabas and Saul to Antioch we will see how the church continues to grow throughout the world.

What shall we take from this passage as application to our lives? Firstly, that God’s church will continue to grow and flourish no matter how earthly rulers try to suppress his people. For those of us who live in areas where Christians are persecuted, this is an enormous encouragement. Secondly, let us beware that we never become like Herod, seeking power and the praise of people, and taking the glory that belongs to God. It might seem impossible that you or I could ever come to such a tragic end, but power and self-seeking corrupt slowly and secretly from the inside, like worms (or viruses) which seem so small and yet are able to destroy something much larger than themselves.

Prayer: Lord God, please reveal to me the subtle ways that I am being devoured by my own pride and self-seeking. Forgive me for times that I take honor for myself instead of giving glory to you. Thank you that your church grows because of your word and command, and help me to be humble and obedient.

Image result for coronavirus image
This picture of the Coronavirus is just so the Facebook post looks more attractive. 🙂

Acts 12:1-19

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This chapter of Acts is somewhat dedicated to Herod Agrippa, the puppet king of the predominantly Jewish region (Judea, Galilee, Perea) of the Roman empire. This Herod, a genuine Jew of the Hasmonean dynasty, had grown up in the courts of Rome and was a personal friend of Emperors Gaius and Claudius. The introduction to this chapter shows Herod’s violent attitude towards the church: he has James Zebedee (cf Luke 5:10) put to death and puts Peter in prison. Luke notes that this happened at the time of Passover, an unmistakeable allusion to the time that Jesus also was handed over, arrested, and executed to please the Jews/Judeans. The rest of this subsection is the wonderfully humorous story of Peter’s third arrest (cf 4:3; 5:18).

It starts off seriously enough, with a genuine fear that things may go very badly for Peter and the church, in the shadow of the deaths of both James and Jesus. Peter is in prison, being guarded by four squads of four soldiers each; clearly they didn’t want anything going wrong like the last time, when Peter and the other apostles somehow escaped. Now, Peter is bound with chains in between two soldiers, with two more guards at the door. But just as the chains of death could not hold Jesus in the grave (cf Ps 116), nor were these enough to hold Peter. He thought he was having a vision, like the one we heard about three times in the previous two chapters, but it was actually a real angel liberating him from the very real prison. The chains fall off, and he walks past two lots of guards and through an iron gate which opens automatically for him – the stuff of Mission Impossible movies, but without all the action! When Peter realizes he is really outside in the city, that it was not a vision, he goes to John Mark’s mother’s house, where the believers are gathered to pray for him.

Meanwhile, the church kept up their prayers diligently. Hearing a knock at the gate, the servant Rhoda goes to answer, but she is so excited on hearing Peter’s voice that she immediately runs inside to tell the others. They tell her bluntly, “You’re crazy”, and when she insists on it, it seems more rational to them that it is his guardian angel (or Peter’s ghost after he has been executed?) rather than Peter himself. It is crazy, right, either way you look at it? How many times has it happened to me that I am praying for something but I don’t really believe it is possible? And then it happens!? There he is, standing at the gate. In the face of their wide-mouthed amazement, Peter describes what happened and tells them to announce it to James (presumably James the brother of Jesus, cf Acts 15:13, rather than James the brother of John who was killed in 12:2). Then he leaves abruptly – almost never to be heard from again (apart from 15:7ff). Ironically, Peter could get out of prison but he couldn’t get into his friends’ house.

It seems like another Peter redemption story (cf John 21). When Jesus was arrested and imprisoned, awaiting execution, Peter was outside in the courtyard denying any knowledge of him. This time Peter has truly and faithfully followed his Lord, and with the church is praying boldly for him, he is still standing outside in the courtyard! But this time he is free, both physically and spiritually. His rescue is like a mini-resurrection and his disappearance a mini-ascension.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

Fast bound in sin and nature’s night

Thine eye defused a quickening ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.

My chains fell off, my heart was free

I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

Charles Wesley

Neither the church nor the soldiers knew what became of Peter that night. The poor Galilean fisherman defeated the might of the Roman empire and its Jewish king. God up-ends society once more. Herod had the failed guards ‘taken away’, perhaps a euphemism for execution, in place of the execution that was supposed to befall Peter. Just as Peter had two chapters previously, now Herod takes the path from Jerusalem down to Caesarea. We will hear more about him in the next subsection.

Prayer: Thank you Lord, that you are a God of great power, power to set captives free. You are full of surprises! Help me to believe and to trust in you, even when things seem to be going badly, or when I feel like I have let you down. You are the God that turns everything the right side up.

Acts 11:27-30

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This very short passage will take us back from Antioch to Jerusalem for the next chapter’s narrative. It has been perhaps a year that Barnabas has been shepherding the church in Antioch, with Saul at his side, when prophets arrive from the mother church in Jerusalem. It is interesting that Agabus’ prophecy of a general famine is ‘signified’ through the Spirit, not simply spoken (or as ESV smooths it out, ‘predicted’), but we don’t know what that looked like. In response, the disciples determined a set amount, according to their means, to send as a service to the brothers who lived in Judea. This money was sent with Barnabas and Saul to the elders in Jerusalem.

The famine happened during the reign of Claudius, who was emperor from 41 to 54 AD. There is plenty of extra-biblical evidence of droughts creating famine conditions in Rome, Egypt, Greece, and Judea during these years. It was particularly bad in Judea in 45-48 AD, and the money from the Antioch church would have been a welcome relief.

There are a couple of things to note from this very simple story. Firstly, the prophecy indicated that the famine would affect the entire known world. But the Antioch church did not worry about themselves and their own security – or if they did, there is no evidence of that. They gave money to people far away, most of whom they didn’t know yet were considered brothers (and sisters) in the faith, trusting the elders to do the right thing with their contribution. It is impossible not to be reminded of our very own world situation right now, as we suffer out this coronavirus. The virus is affecting the whole world, including you, wherever you are, and your economy. How many of us have looked to the situation of others worse off than ourselves and set aside money for them? Personally, I stand as one convicted: I have given nothing.

Secondly, each person assessed what they had, and gave a fixed portion of it away to others. As mentioned yesterday, the church in Antioch would have been very diverse, with both wealthy and poor members, both Jews and Gentiles. The text is clear that each person gave according to their own wealth, and that they self-determined that amount. Paul’s instructions regarding giving to the poor in 2 Corinthians 8-9 come flooding into my mind at this point: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” If this is touching your heart at the moment, I encourage you to read those two chapters.

Prayer: Lord God, you own the cattle on a thousand hills, and I trust you can provide for me. Help me to be a generous steward of the riches that you have given to me. Put it on my heart to care for the poor, whether they are just outside my door, or in another country. Forgive me for any stinginess when it comes to sharing the resources that you have given.

Acts 11:19-26

Click here to read the passage, and there is also a map below to help understand the locations.

In this section, after a protracted delay in the story explaining how Gentiles can become followers of Jesus in exactly the same way as Jews, Luke returns to his narrative of the spread of the gospel beyond Jerusalem. He signals this return to the reader by mentioning the scattering which occurred after Stephen’s “tribulation” (the Greek text doesn’t actually mention persecution here) in Acts 8:1. We had already heard they went south to Gaza, north to Samaria, and northwest to Lydda and Joppa, then onto Caesarea. Now the story of the gospel journey stretches considerably further, to Antioch (500km north of Jerusalem, beyond Phoenicia in Syria) and Cyprus, a large mediterranean island. Those who took the gospel message there were not only Judean Jewish followers of Jesus, but also Hellenistic Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene, in northern Africa (Libya), although presumably it was from Jerusalem that they went out.

Antioch was to become a significant city in the spread of the gospel, as Luke’s original readers would have known. It was the Roman capital of Syria from 64 BC, the third most important city in the empire after Rome and Alexandria (Egypt). This thriving, cosmopolitan hub of commercial trade and physical pleasure was to become the cradle of Gentile Christianity, as we shall see. As verse 26 mentions, it was in Antioch that followers of Jesus were first labeled ‘Christians’. The good news of the Lord Jesus was proclaimed to both Judeans and Greeks, and many believed and turned to him. The word hellenistas would normally indicate Greek-speaking Jews (cf 6:1), but the context suggests that it is possible Luke meant Jews and Gentiles, rather than Aramaic-speaking Jews and Greek-speaking Jews.

There is a curious construction here which probably doesn’t deserve too much emphasis: “those who believed turned to the Lord”. (The verbs are a participle and a finite verb; they are not equivalent in the sense of “they believed + they turned”.) The way Luke puts it suggests one could theoretically believe without turning – although they didn’t. I just note it here because I think we sometimes see this: people who believe in Jesus but don’t turn, in the sense that their faith doesn’t translate to life change. But it didn’t happen that way in Antioch!

Seeing the church grow in Antioch, the Jerusalem church sent the Cypriot Levite Barnabas (cf 4:36; 9:27), presumably to encourage and teach the new believers. He also added more people to the Lord. Barnabas is one of my favorite characters in the New Testament, though we rarely hear about him. His heart is open towards others; he is generous with possessions but also in terms of acceptance. Can you imagine what that new church might have been like? A mixed bag of Jews and Greeks, probably both poor and wealthy, slave and free, and those infected by the multitudinous sins of the city. It was hardly an easy assignment. Yet he rejoiced when he arrived in Antioch, having been sent from what was presumably his home in Jerusalem. He also pursued Saul to come and help him – Saul the former persecutor, who at this stage of history had little to commend him. Barnabas was prepared to take a risk with him, asking Saul to help him teach the large crowds of people.

I like Barnabas’ message as explained by Luke in verse 23: literally “in the purpose of the heart [they should] adhere to the Lord”. It is an expansion of, or drilling down into, Jesus’ “abide in me” (John 15:1). ‘Abide’ is meno; here Barnabas adds a preposition to make it prosmeno, or ‘adhere’. I’d like to take that as a message to me and to you today. Whatever else we are doing today, let our hearts’ purpose be to press into Jesus.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, let my heart’s purpose be to press into you today, to experience your presence with me wherever I go and whatever I do. I thank you that you build your church and spread your word even through adversity. Lord, I may not be a Barnabas, but let me be good and full of faith and the Holy Spirit, to encourage and inspire and trust others.

Judaizers and Gentilizers — House of David Ministries

Acts 11:1-18

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As I alluded in the previous study, the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the Gentiles continues in this chapter. Just as the story of Saul’s conversion is told thrice, so here the story of Peter and Cornelius is narrated, in part, for the third time, in this iteration as a report to the apostles and other believers in Judea. This repetition demonstrates the incident’s importance for Luke’s purpose. Again, I will pick up on a few words and phrases that may be interesting.

In the first verse, Luke narrates that the Gentiles received ‘the word of God’. In the previous chapter it clearly states that they received the Holy Spirit and forgiveness. These came to them as Peter preached about Jesus. So it is not quite clear what Luke means by ‘the word (logos) of God’ – the message? Jesus as Lord? the Spirit? As we continue reading Acts, we will listen out for this phrase again.

In the next verse the conflict starts. The word Luke uses, diakrino, is the very same word used in 10:20, when the Spirit told Peter to go with Cornelius’ men “without doubting” (and returns again in 11:12 as Peter retells that part of the story). It is a compound word derived from the root ‘judge’ (krino). When Peter did not diakrino it meant he did not pass a negative judgment about the men who came to summon him to Joppa. Now in this present context, we might suggest it means that ‘those of the circumcision’ did pass a negative judgement about Peter. They were displeased that he entered into the home of someone uncircumcised and ate with him (cf 10:28). Thus begins a conflict that will color the rest of the New Testament.

‘Those of the circumcision’ is a phrase used to talk about a particular group perhaps four or five times in the New Testament. It doesn’t mean anyone who is Jewish and has been circumcised, but refers to a specific group of Jewish believers in Jesus. We read about them in Galatians, Philippians, and Titus, and we will see them again in Acts 15 too. They believed that Gentiles had to become Jews (and therefore be circumcised) in order to become followers of Jesus.

However, in this section of Acts, it appears that the problem is resolved when Peter tells his story, referring back to Jesus’ prophecy in Acts 1:5, as he asks how he could stop God from working on those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (11:17). Those of the circumcision who had objected were silenced and instead they glorified God for granting the same gift to the Gentiles, namely the Holy Spirit and repentance which leads to life. It was not a similar gift they received, but the equal gift. In today’s febrile context of racism and inequality, we do well to notice that God gifts equally.

I am captured by Peter’s question in verse 17, literally “Who am I to be able to hinder God?” Peter’s role was simply obedience. He didn’t question the instruction given to him by the Holy Spirit and the circumstances in which he found himself. He knew his place in God’s mission. Do we sometimes make the mistake of thinking that God is somehow relying on us to do his work? That if we mess up, we have messed up his plan? Do my piffling actions (or inactions) stop God’s will from coming to pass? Let us not think of ourselves more highly than we ought, nor minimize God’s power. He can do what he wants, when he wants, with whomsoever he wants. We might join him in his mission or not, but his mission will continue with or without us. We simply continue in obedient service because he is our Lord and King.

Prayer: Lord God, you are the King. I offer my life to you as a living sacrifice so that you may use me in your service. Help me be obedient to you. Yours is the power, the kingdom, and the glory. I thank you that you can do above and beyond anything I can think or imagine, saving those I can’t.

Acts 10:37-48

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In this section of the narrative we hear Peter’s sermon at Cornelius’ house (likely Luke’s nutshell version of it) and witness the response of his listeners, both Jews and Gentiles.

Peter simply summarizes the story we find in Luke’s Gospel, beginning with the baptism of John, the anointing of the Spirit on Jesus of Nazareth, his healing miracles, death, and resurrection. There is an emphasis on the theme of testimony and knowledge. He starts off in verse 37 by telling the listeners that they already know the story, and stresses that he and his friends were witnesses of both his life and his resurrection from the dead, noting that they ate and drank with him at that time. That is, what they witnessed was not merely a vision, but an actual living person in the flesh who commanded them to testify. He also describes the prophets as a kind of proto-witnesses, in the sense that they testified about Jesus even before his days on earth.

Another theme of the sermon is ‘appointment’, for want of a better word. Peter and the other eye-witnesses had been chosen ahead of time, or more literally ‘fore-appointed’. The Greek term suggests the idea of having had hands laid on them beforehand. These eye-witnesses Jesus commanded to testify about him. Jesus himself is anointed and appointed. To anoint someone was to charge, consecrate, and equip them with a significant task, for example, as a prophet, a priest, or a king; Jesus is shown to be all three in the New Testament. Jesus is also appointed as judge, not merely in the Old Testament sense of leader and defender of his people (although it includes that), but as ‘The Judge’ in the eschatological sense (cf Dan 12:2; Rev 20:11-12).

As Peter is preaching, Cornelius and his friends and family start speaking in tongues and exalting God. It was probably a similar sight to what happened on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2:4, foreshadowed in Num 11:25 and 1 Sam 10:10. The men who had travelled with Peter from Joppa, who were Jewish believers in Jesus, along with Luke, attributed this sign to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. They were astounded and amazed that it was possible for this to happen to Gentiles. Peter, seeing them receive the gift of the Spirit, orders that they are baptized in the name of Jesus, and then he stays with them, presumably for further instruction.

We must not miss the significance of this chapter in its entirety (that is, including yesterday’s reading too, and even most of the next chapter). It seems obvious in today’s context, where nearly all believers in Jesus are Gentiles, and few are Jews. But for the early disciples, it was completely out of the realm of their thinking that Gentiles could become followers of Jesus, and submit to his rule as Messiah King. The big question in the first century was not “How could a Jew become a Christian?” but “How could a Gentile become a Christian?”. (This led to a further question which the rest of Acts and several letters in the New Testament deal with: “Does a Gentile need to become a Jew in order to be a Christian?”) For application today, I would like this to be our most prominent thought, even though it might not feel very important to you; if you can transform your thinking in this area, a lot of the New Testament will become easier to understand.

A less significant but perhaps more personally powerful application is the idea that salvation can come to those that we least expect. Remember that Cornelius would have been wealthy and a man of honor within his community. He didn’t appear to ‘need’ Jesus the way that the paralyzed man of the previous chapter did, the way that the poor and oppressed do today. In fact, becoming a Christian would come to mean loss for people like Cornelius. In the middle and upper class society in which I live also, people don’t seem to ‘need’ Jesus. And yet an angel may still appear to them and the Spirit may still fall on them. With these people also, I need to be ready, like Peter, to proclaim the good news about Jesus the Messiah, whether I think it will make sense to them or not.

Prayer: Holy Spirit, thank you for anointing me to be your witness, set apart for your service. Help me to be ready, whoever I am with, to declare the good news about Jesus Christ, the King.

Acts 10:9-36

Click here to read the passage.

We have read this passage before, and understand its significance. But reading it slowly again blows my mind. It’s a long passage and I won’t go through every verse, but here’s a simple recap of the story before I pick out the key point and tell you about a few interesting words.

The text doesn’t mention the day of the week, but let’s say we start on Monday, for the sake of clarity. It’s 3pm in Caesarea, and the Roman army officer, Cornelius, is praying to the God he honors. He is visited by a shiny angel in a vision, who tells him to send for Simon Peter at a tanner’s house in Joppa, 50 kilometers away. First thing the next morning, Tuesday, two of his servants plus one God-fearing soldier go to fetch Peter. Meanwhile, Peter is up on the roof, about 12pm, also praying, when he receives a thrice-repeated strange vision, of a sheet laden with lawfully unclean animals. His vision signifies that he must not call unclean whatever God has made clean. At this point, while he is trying to understand what the vision means, the men from Caesarea arrive at the house asking for him. In the midst of severe persecution, Peter would probably have been concerned that these men were going to arrest him, or at least wondering why a Gentile soldier was asking for him. But the Spirit has already told him, up on the roof, that he should go with them, without doubting. Perhaps the meaning of his vision is starting to become a little clearer to Peter. As it is too late to begin the long journey to Caesarea, Peter invites the men in to stay the night at the tanner’s house. On Wednesday morning they set out for Caesarea, along with some other disciples from Joppa, and spend the day traveling. On Thursday morning Peter goes to Cornelius’ house, where he finds the great man and his friends and relatives waiting to hear him speak. By this stage, Peter has fully understood what his strange roof-top vision meant. Let’s unpack it a little now.

Firstly, we need to understand the context of Jew and Gentile. These days we marvel when a Jewish person becomes a follower of Jesus. But in the first century, it was a marvel that a non-Jewish person, a Gentile, could become a follower of Jesus. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, which would have meant very little to any Gentile, least of all a Gentile who was a wealthy man of rank in the Roman army. Jews were seen as a feeble and poor race, insignificant in world affairs for the last five hundred years, conquered and ruled by successive empires: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and now Rome. Why would any Gentile be interested in a Jewish religion? That Cornelius feared God, prayed, and gave alms is no indication that he had any inclination toward Judaism or any of its sects. On the other hand, few Jews would have had any desire that a Gentile should be like them or with them, or follow their own God and his commands. They despised the Gentiles as unclean, and hated and feared them as oppressors. Associating with them was unacceptable (cf 10:28).

And yet, Peter invites the three sent by Cornelius into Simon the tanner’s home. As someone who dealt with the skin of dead animals, Simon would already have been on the outer of society, but this was beyond the pale. There is a delightful word in the Greek text. The word for ‘lodge’, used in 10:6, 18, 23, 32 (and a few more times in the New Testament, but not in 9:43) is xenozetai, which you might recognize is linked with ‘xenophobia’, fear of those who are unlike me. Xenos is a stranger, someone unfamiliar or foreign. Philoxenia is hospitality, or literally, being friendly with a stranger (eg Heb 13:2). Peter invited these strangers, unclean Gentiles, to stay the night in Simon’s house. He has already crossed a huge gulf before he began his journey to speak with Cornelius and his friends and family.

Now in a room full of Gentile strangers, who don’t even know that no one should be worshipped apart from God alone (cf 10:25), he explains to them the power of his vision: no man should be called unclean. In verse 34 he uses another significant word; literally it means that ‘God is not a face-receiver’, that is, God doesn’t decide whether he will accept someone based on his face. In today’s ethnic-tension charged context, we might expand to say God doesn’t relate to someone according to the color of their skin. Anyone, from any ethnicity, who fears God and does what is righteous, is acceptable to him. There’s a theological bomb waiting to be detonated, right there!

In the last verse, Peter asserts that this message has indeed been sent through the people of Israel, a gospel proclamation of the king bringing peace, binding nations together under one banner, as promised by Isaiah (2:2-4; 11:1-10). This peace comes through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all, Jew and Gentile, Roman and Judean, Samaritan and Ethiopian, oppressed and oppressor. Peter’s sermon will go on, but I must stop here!

Prayer: Lord my God, King of the universe, you have created all human beings of every race. You accept anyone who turns to you in reverence and who acts righteously. Help me to be like you, not to judge others according to their surface value or skin color. And let me be a proclaimer of the peace that you bring through Jesus, the Lord and King of all.

Acts 10:1-8

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Today’s story is a fascinating chapter in the long narrative of God’s personal revelation to people outside the traditional boundaries of faith as we erect them. Have you ever wondered how Moses’ father-in-law, a Midian priest, could bless Yahweh and help his people? Or how Balaam had a direct line to the God of Israel? Or more recently, have you read of God speaking to Muslims in dreams? The God of the universe is not bound by our petty camp constructs.

The scene shifts from Peter staying with Simon the Tanner at Joppa, 50 kilometers away to Caesarea, a Herodian naval base, major port, and Rome’s capital of the province of Judea. We are introduced to the central character there, Cornelius, a Roman centurion. He is not only a man of rank and wealth, but also, Luke tells us, pious and God-fearing, along with his household, although there is no indication that he was a follower of Judaism. His faith was demonstrated in action: charitable work to all the people, and prayer. The angel tells him in verse 4 that these acts ‘went up before God’ as a ‘memorial’. The imagery is that of burnt offerings, pleasing to the LORD (eg Lev 2).

God chose to reveal himself to Cornelius in stages. Somehow, in the recesses of history to which we do not have access, Cornelius turned towards God. Then we have this story of Cornelius at the hour of prayer (3pm, cf Acts 3:1), where an angel of God comes in a clear vision, calls him by name, assures him of God’s favor, and gives him precise instructions for the next phase. We cannot help but be reminded of the Lord appearing to Ananias in Damascus here. Luke’s intent is to show us that this is another important part of his narrative, not a side-story or illustration.

Cornelius’ response is immediate obedience, as he also expects from his soldier and servants (cf Luke 7:8). Note that he calls specifically a pious soldier to accompany the servants, not just any soldier. And that he doesn’t simply send them, but that he explains what happened and why they are going to fetch Peter from Joppa.

Could it be that God looks upon and is pleased by those who seek to honor him and serve people, even if they don’t properly understand who he is and the full extent of his revelation? I am not saying that we should leave these people in their ignorance, but perhaps we should not be so quick to judge them as outside the realm of God’s grace.

Prayer: God, I am encouraged by the story of Cornelius. A man of power and wealth, still he was willing to submit himself to you and be generous to people around him. Please make me aware of people in my own community who fear you in their own way, let me be a light and a revelation of who you truly are in their context.

Acts 9:36-43

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Today we read the second of Luke’s example stories of how the church grew beyond Jerusalem after the disciples were scattered. After healing Aeneas in Lydda, Peter is called to Joppa (currently known as Jaffa, north of Tel Aviv), where a disciple named Tabitha had become sick and died.

Tabitha was beloved in the community because of her good works and charity, one example of which is the clothes which she used to make for poor widows. She was probably known by her Greek name, Dorcas, which has the same meaning as Tabitha, or in English, Gazelle. Luke uses the Aramaic name because of the obvious parallel with Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:41-55).

Peter did what he had seen Jesus do: sending the mourners out of the room, he got down on his knees and prayed; then turning to the dead woman’s body, he said ‘Tabitha, arise’, which if spoken in Aramaic would have been a difference of only one letter from what he had heard Jesus say (cf Mark 5:41). Just like Jairus’ little girl, Tabitha opened her eyes and sat up.

There could be no mistaking this miracle. Tabitha had been dead long enough that they had washed her body to prepare it for burial. After she died, two men went to Lydda and then they returned with Peter; it couldn’t have been done in less than a full day’s walking. Jairus’ daughter, in comparison, may have been dead only a few minutes or an hour. (Likewise, the widow of Nain’s son was dead for long enough to be on the way to his funeral before Jesus resurrected him, Luke 7:12-15.) She was dead, and now she was alive. When the news spread throughout Joppa, many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed there for several days, presumably to continue teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus (though the text doesn’t say this explicitly).

How are we to apply this text to our own lives? Surely I am not going to go visiting funeral parlors to raise people from the dead. Luke is not asking his readers to be like Peter. He is demonstrating the power of Jesus to bring new life, and illustrating how that power continues to flow through his disciples, just as Jesus had promised (John 14:12). He is also showing that this is how the church grows: acts of mercy, compassion, and restoration. We may not be called to raise people from the dead – who knows? – but like Peter, we are called to walk in the footsteps of our Master, Jesus.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, I desire to follow you. Show me today how I can serve others through good works, healing and mercy. Through my life, reveal your glory and power to others so that they come to know you as the Lord, the giver of life.