Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Acts 11:1-18 – Jesus Changes His Church

Sometimes we can receive startling news about a well-known church leader. We hear that he has adopted a new idea or changed his mind about a practice that he once held. For some who speak about it, their comments are little more than gossip, but for others, the comments are expressions of genuine concern in case the individual is making a great mistake. 
Something similar happened in the church in Jerusalem when the news filtered through regarding what Peter, one of its most important leaders, had done during his preaching tour which had included an unexpected invitation to speak in the home of a Gentile soldier in Caesarea. We can imagine the comments. ‘I never thought Peter would do that.’ ‘It was a mistake to let him away on his own.’ ‘Why did he not wait for another person from the church in Jerusalem to join him before he went off to Caesarea?’ Peter had done something there that was causing repercussions in Jerusalem.
We have an advantage that the people in Jerusalem did not possess at that time. The advantage is that we have a bigger picture regarding the situation. We know the difference that a bigger picture can make. Imagine a photograph of a well-dressed couple. A bigger picture tells us that they are with a group of well-dressed people. An even bigger picture reveals that they are at a wedding, and an even bigger picture will show which wedding they attended.

When we read incidents in the Book of Acts, which type of picture are we using? If we don’t have a big enough picture, we will not understand what is going on. It is essential that our picture is big enough to include the most important fact that the One who is responsible for what went on in Caesarea and what is going on in Jerusalem is Jesus. Sure, there were other secondary contributors and factors, but if our picture stops at them we will misunderstand the developments. So over the next three readings, as we look at what took place in this incident in Jerusalem, bear in mind that King Jesus is the Mover and Shaker here.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Acts 10:44-48 – Meeting between Jesus and Cornelius

In the previous few readings we have considered various details connected to the way that Jesus, as the seeking Saviour, pursued Cornelius, the Roman soldier who was seeking for spiritual reality. Today we will think about what happened when Peter was used by Jesus to bring him and Cornelius together. What happened then tells us what will happen now when the seeking Saviour and a seeking sinner meet?
The first detail to note is that Jesus gives the Holy Spirit as a gift to Cornelius and his family and friends (v. 44). Luke uses a wonderful word to describe the arrival of the Spirit – he fell on them. ‘Fell’ usually indicates that some weight belongs to whatever landed on a person. We would not normally say that a feather fell on us. So Cornelius and his friends received much of the Spirit.
What is the significance of receiving the Spirit? One answer is purity. Through the work of Jesus from heaven, Cornelius had become a pure man, set apart to God by the indwelling Holy Spirit. A second answer is prosperity because the Spirit is the key that Jesus uses to open up to us the treasures of the kingdom of God. A third answer is power because, after all, the Holy Spirit is divine. So Cornelius the sinful centurion discovered that he was purified, Cornelius the Roman citizen with many privileges discovered that he had become a far wealthier man because he had access now to heavenly riches, and Cornelius the faithful soldier of the Empire discovered a new kind of power far more effective that the powers of earth. That is what the seeking Saviour gives to the sinner he has found.
But what does the seeking sinner give to Jesus?  The answer to this question is twofold praise. We don’t know what language they spoke in, but we do know what they were doing – they were extolling God. Their praise was strong and clear. What else would we expect from those who now realised that Jesus had given them salvation and the Spirit? Along with praise, the seeking sinners (Cornelius and family and friends) gave Jesus a public declaration that they belonged to him. This they did when they were baptised and identified themselves with God’s kingdom. So they gave to Jesus the praise of their lips and a public statement that they belonged to him.

What effect did Cornelius the seeking sinner have on the Christians? To begin with there was amazement as they saw what God was doing before their eyes in the hearts of Cornelius and company. This was a great day for the kingdom of God when Gentiles came in to the church of Christ. So there is no wonder that they were amazed. The amazement was followed by fellowship because they wanted to be together. And out of this flowed an appetite to know more about Jesus from Peter, so he stayed there for several days. Cornelius the seeking sinner was now satisfied.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Acts 10:34-43 – What does Peter say about Jesus?

Peter informed Cornelius that Jesus was a preacher with a message of peace (v. 36). In other words, Jesus was the reconciler between God and man. His kingdom would be composed of those who were at peace with God. How did Jesus become this? First, he is the Messiah who was anointed with the Holy Spirit and power in order to overcome the powers of darkness, which overpowering was revealed in his acts of compassion and deliverance that he performed while enjoying the presence of God throughout it all (vv. 37-38). This would be encouraging to Cornelius because he was a sinner needing divine compassion and deliverance.
Second, Jesus died a death that Cornelius, with his knowledge of the Old Testament, would have realised was a death of a person who was cursed by God (v. 39). Crucifixion was cruel, but in Jesus’ case he was also treated as an outcast from heaven by the God with whom he had enjoyed communion. No doubt Peter expanded on this aspect and told Cornelius that Jesus had taken the place of sinners when he suffered divine judgement on the cross.
Third, Peter informed Cornelius and the other listeners that Jesus had been raised from the dead by God the Father. The one who had brought Jesus to the dust of death at Calvary raised him from the dead three days later. Peter’s point is that the one who treated Jesus as a curse now treated him as a conqueror. His resurrection is evidence that his act of atonement for the sins of others was accepted, and we can imagine Cornelius’ sense of wonder as he listened to Peter’s preaching.

Fourth, Peter reminded Cornelius that Jesus had chosen witnesses to testify to his life, death and resurrection. They were not merely to recite historical details. In addition, they had to stress two possible consequences for everyone (vv. 42-43). One is that the risen Jesus will yet be the Judge of all people and the other is that the risen Jesus can forgive sinners. Jesus has ambassadors with a crucial message – condemnation by Jesus or forgiveness through Jesus. Imagine Cornelius as he listened to what Jesus had done (life, death and resurrection), would yet do (judge), and could do for him right away (forgive). The point of forgiveness is very important because it takes place when a sinner is found by the seeking Saviour.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Acts 10:34-43 - Speaking for the seeking Saviour

Peter was not put off because Cornelius made an uninformed mistake when he bowed down to the apostle. Nor was he put off when he found himself in front of a strange crowd composed of Gentiles. Both these situations would have had an adverse effect on Peter previously. But since Jesus had been working on him, he was no longer disturbed by such responses and situations. I don’t Jesus will search for sinners through a person who is easily put off.
After Cornelius confirmed what had taken place when the angel visited him, Peter is used by Jesus to find a seeking sinner. How does Jesus do it? First, Peter encourages Cornelius by acknowledging that God accepts everyone who fears him no matter one’s racial or cultural origins. Verse 35, which says that ‘God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him,’ has been misinterpreted to mean that God accepts devout pagans. Instead it means that God now has a universal people, that in every country there will be those who will believe the gospel and become part of his church. Jesus seeks for Cornelius through a man who has learned that Cornelius, despite his racial and cultural background, is welcome to join the family of God.
Second, Peter speaks about Jesus. In verses 36-43, he surveys the work of Christ from his baptism by John. There are many things that can be said about Peter’s approach, but here are a few of them. Notice that he begins with what his listeners already knew (v. 37). How did Peter know that they knew these details? I can only assume that he asked the representatives that Cornelius sent to Joppa. He had made good use of the journey and discovered how much they knew and then connected his sermon to that knowledge. The fact that they knew some spiritual truth was evidence that Jesus was working in their hearts.
Peter then summarises the public ministry of Jesus that lasted until his death. He explains his particular calling as an apostle, which was to bear witness to all that Jesus said and did, and also to explain the significance and meaning of things that had happened to Jesus, both before and after his resurrection. All of the apostles were to preach about Christ, and that is a very important lesson. I have heard sermons in which Jesus was hardly mentioned. But Peter’s sermon is all about Jesus, which is what one would expect when Jesus is seeking for one of his people.

We will think more tomorrow about this message about Jesus that was delivered by Peter to Cornelius.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Acts 10:17-33 – Jesus, the seeking Saviour

We thought yesterday about how Jesus had been working in the life of Cornelius. Today we will think about how Jesus continued his secret approach to Cornelius.
First, Jesus tells the Roman centurion to do something, which is to send to Joppa for Peter. Jesus passes on this command in a supernatural manner by speaking to Cornelius through an angel. Can we think of any reasons why Jesus did it this way? I would say that he was creating humility and hope within Cornelius. Humility is seen in the way that Cornelius, who usually gave the orders, now received an order. Yet the command that he received was full of hope because the angel assured him that something would happen.
Is that not often the way that Jesus works, whatever our spiritual state? We may be dissatisfied with the world or looking for assurance or disinterested in the Christian faith. Totally different situations, but those in each one need to see whether or not they will bow to Jesus. He speaks to us supernaturally through his Word and speaks about humility and hope. This is often the key for future progress as we can see from the response of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus. He was unwilling to humble himself and acknowledge that Jesus was Lord, despite giving the impression that he did. Even on that occasion, the Saviour had encouraged the ruler by saying that if he did obey he would have treasure in heaven. But without humility the hope is not grasped.
Thankfully Cornelius obeyed what he was told to do and was then waiting for the next stage in his spiritual journey. Meanwhile Peter was getting prepared by Jesus to meet with Cornelius, and this preparation was fourfold. First, we saw in a previous study that Peter had taken some steps in the direction of not imposing the separation of Jew and Gentile that was stipulated in the ceremonial law when he went to live with a tanner. Second, now Jesus gave him a very specific vision, which Peter realised came from Jesus (the apostle addresses God by a title that usually belonged to Jesus). Peter also would have been impressed by the fact that the vision was repeated three times – on a previous occasion he had been told three times to feed Christ’s sheep. Third, Jesus arranged a coincidence in providence in that Cornelius’ representatives arrived at that exact moment, which tells us that Jesus in heaven is master of all the moments of history. Fourth, the Holy Spirit told Peter to go with the men.

Whatever else was happening, Jesus was in control of all the circumstances as he worked to bring Cornelius and Peter together.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Acts 10:1-10 – Cornelius Gets a New Captain

As we have observed repeatedly throughout our readings in the Book of Acts, the emphasis of Luke is on what Jesus was doing from heaven as he ruled there on behalf of his church on earth. So whenever we come to a new section, we should ask ourselves, ‘What did Jesus do in that incident?’ We can even ask, ‘Why did he do that activity?’ The main player in the drama involving Cornelius is not Cornelius, nor is it Peter. Instead it is Jesus and he is doing at least two things in this incident. One is that he finds a seeking sinner called Cornelius and the other is that he opens up his church to the Gentiles. We will consider the first activity today.
Cornelius was a Gentile soldier from Italy who had discovered that his original way of life was not very satisfying. He had had a good military career, having attained the rank of centurion. He was probably married. At some stage in his life he had decided to become a godfearer, that is a Gentile who liked the Jewish way of life and was prepared to adopt certain of its practices, without becoming a fully-fledged proselyte. Nevertheless he realised that the Jews worshipped the true God and that realisation affected his whole life. Luke mentions that Cornelius’ family was affected, Cornelius’ wallet was affected (he gave alms), and Cornelius’ tongue was affected (he now prayed). So clearly, Cornelius was a religious man, but he was aware that there was something more.
The question that arises, of course, is, ‘Was Cornelius a regenerated man?’ After all, it is possible for an individual to do what Cornelius was doing, but to focus only on the externals. Cornelius, in contrast, had his heart focussed on serving God. I would say that he was already regenerate because he was living a spiritual life of which God approved. Having accepted the Old Testament he would have been looking forward to the promised Messiah by faith, which is proof of regeneration. At that moment he was not yet aware that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus. Shortly Jesus was going to let him know. So Cornelius was a religious man who was not satisfied and he was a regenerate man who was not aware of what Jesus had done.

The next question is, how did Cornelius come to be in this state? If we had asked him before he met Peter, Cornelius would have listed a whole lot of incidents that caused him to make certain choices and that string of choices led him to where he now was. If we asked Cornelius after he had met Peter, the centurion would have replied that Jesus had been working secretly in his life. And that is the answer to the question how he became a seeking sinner.