What's the difference between your personal convictions and God's commands? Stephen reminds us in this message that being fully in God's will requires learning the difference.
The Church that Changed
Glad to be back - family and I spent several days at Cedarville College...
In our last discussion we observed Peter in the crucible of change - change, for any of us is never easy;
Perhaps you can identify with having recently changed your geography (ocean to a dry creek bed; flat lands to rolling hills; dry weather to constant rain - if this is your first June in North Carolina - this is not normal)
-maybe you’ve gone from a career to a stay at home life with a newborn
-perhaps your looking a few months down the road at the empty nest, as one family recently told me, your only child will be leaving the home for college or marriage - or maybe entering kindegarten.
I can still vividly remember several years ago taking our oldest daughter to her first day of kindegarten - if you were watching us from 20 yards away, we would have been picture perfect - she had on her new shoes, carrying her shiny lunchbox - I was holding her hand as we walked down the sidewalk from the parking lot toward the school - but if you came within earshot, you would have discovered that we were actually arguing - she wanted me to stay in the car - “Daddy, I don’t need you to take me to class - I can do this by myself” And I’m saying, “Listen, you might be feeling good about all this young lady, but I’m not, so why don’t you just allow me a little insecurity, okay?
I remember that change.
-some of you are involved in the changes of married life.
-some of you are struggling with the challenge of single parenting, when a few months ago you were married.
-some of you have changed from busy career to retirement
-others here have changed from being healthy to sickly
No change is really easy - we naturally resist the rough waters, the upheaval, the emotions, the hardships that are all cousins to change.
One of the most difficult changes to make is a change regarding lifelong traditions and a past heritage.
Let me be more specific - changes are hard to accept when it comes to church - when it involves your relationsip to Christ - when it affects how you worship.
Let me give you an illustration.
We send cards to those who visit us from other cities, along with a letter thanking them for stopping in and joining us - read cards.
What that tells us is that Colonial represented an uncomfortable change - frankly, I’ve been asked about the closing of our service as much as any thing else.
Our focus, every Lord’s day, is not on the unbeliever, but on the believer. The church in Acts and the Epistles met together, not for the purpose of evangelism but edification. In fact, my job description according to Ephesians 4:11 is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry - my title - poimenos, literally means feeder or shepherd.
There are people in our auditorium who do not know Christ as Savior, and that is why, most often as we close our service I invite people to accept Christ - or to see me afterward, or to call the office. I long for people to come to faith in Christ as a result of our ministry, but the primary purpose for our gathering is clear from scripture - “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together, but encourage one another unto love and good works as you see the day drawing near.”
But I recognize how different that must be to many of you - just one little change in the service format can bring great consternation.
Not to mention the musical instruments we might use, or the order of service that we don’t print, or the choruses that we do sing, ( I remember one card simply reading, with an exclamation point, “Where is your robe!”)
Maybe you’ve struggled with a change in some doctrinal point - or a passage that deals with a change you need to make - you’ve discovered the upsetting, even miserable conflict that comes with spiritual or religous change.
Fortunately, we’re not the first Christians to encounter change.
In our last study in chapter 10 of the book of Acts - we were provided with a behind the scenes look at a painful, confusing time for Peter as some of his life long beliefs were for the first time challenged.
Turn to Acts 10 with me. We don’t have time to restudy everything, but for the sake of refreshing our memories, Peter is in the home of Simon the tanner. While there, praying, v. 11 tells us that he “Beheld the sky open up, and a certain object like a great sheet coming down,
lowered by four corners to the ground and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. 13. And a voice came to him, “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” 14. But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean. 15. And again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” 16. And this happened three times; and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.
Now there are several things to mention:
-this vision from God, if obeyed, would directly conflict with earlier revelation from God (i.e. O.T. dietary laws)
-this vision from God, if followed, would dramatically change the course of first century Christianity (that’s exactly what’s happening by the way)
-this vision from God, if applied, would develop new thinking toward the Gentile people’s of the world.
Now, if you remember, following that vision, the servants of Cornelius arrived at Simon the Tanners home asking for Peter to come with them.
A Gentile named Cornelius, a God fearer, though not yet a Christian had also recieved a vision from God that Simon Peter would come and explain the terms of N.T. Christianity to him and his household.
Yet, as we studied last time, Peter came into his home and preached to him and all the others and after they recieved Christ by faith - he ate with him and fellowshiped with him.
What shocking developments! Developments most of us can’t appreciate becuase we don’t know the tradition and the heritage and the lifestyle that Peter was setting aside for the sake of obedience to God.
It didn’t take long for the word to travel back home that Peter was way out of bounds.
11:1 now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had recieved the word of God. 2. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took
issue with him, saying, 3. “You went to uncirumcised men and ate
Peter, we’ve put up with your shananigans before - we know you’re impulsive and we’ve put up with most of it - but Peter, this time you’ve gone too far!
Did you notice here that they don’t begin by asking Peter questions; they don’t ask for his point of view; not even a verse of O.T. scripture - they go right to the juglar - while Peter had been away, the jury had already met and decided - the verdict was in - Peter was in sin!
Now notice just the first phrase of the next verse 4a. But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying....” Stop!
Is this Peter we’re seeing here?! Peter - short fused, emotional Peter -the swinger of swords and the chopper off of ears??
Imagine this hostile scene where Peter is accused of hypocricy and inconsistency and ungodliness.
How do you treat people who accuse you - they’re wrong - you’re right.
I would have never imagined learning from Peter a lesson in tactfullness, but let me give you three observations before we read Peter’s response.
First observation: Peter restrained his actions and emotions.
These leaders have just unloaded their guns on Peter - they’ve pinned his hide to the wall - and they’re dead wrong - Peter knows it too - he’s seen the vision, he’s spoken with God.
I would have expected verse 4 to begin with the words, “But Peter began yelling at them . . .”
But instead - v. 4 tells us that Peter began to explain to them in orderly sequence. . . Peter is under control -
Proverbs tells us:
-he who restrains his lips is wise (10:19)
-a gentle answer turns away wrath (15:1)
-the slow to anger pacifies contention (15:18)
Observation #2 - Peter showed respect toward his accusers point of view.
This was a volatile issue all by itself - but let me give you an historical vantage point that revealed how even more explosive the situation was:
Peter’s trip to Caesarea took place around 40-41 A.D. During that time, the political situation in Jerusalem was incredibly tense. The Roman Emperor’s name was Caligula - in 40 and 41 A.D. Caligula had become insane - he killed most of his family members; he had people tortured while he dined; most tragically, he declared himself a god and had temples built and sacrifices offered to himself. He decreed that of a statue of himself be placed inside the Jerusalem temple - he sent Peteronius and a large force into Judea with orders to set his likeness up in the temple, and to use the sword if necessary. Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived during this time, recorded that when Petronius reached the shore of Galilee, tens of thousands of Jews met him and begged him not to place the emperor’s statue in the temple. They succeeded in getting Petronius to write Caligula and ask for the command to be rescinded. A few months later, the potential catastrophe for Judasim was avoided when Caligula was assasinated.
I tell you that to help you feel a little more deeply the context of this event.
Not only has Peter been hobnobbing with a Gentile - that’s bad enough - he’s trying to include in the church a Roman centurion - Cornelius was a ranking officer in the Roman army - a man who’s part of the empire that at that very moment perhaps is marching toward Jerusalem to desecrate the temple and spill blood if necessary.
Emotions are running high - religion and patriotism are offended.
Peter, you are not only unfaithful to the God of our Fathers, but you are treasonous and unpatriotic as well.
Peter evidently respected why they were so upset - he understood what it must have looked like from their vantage point.
3rd Observation: Peter recognized his accountability to the church body
Had Peter been the head of the church - infallable in his actions, he would never have had to answer to church members, or leaders - he could have said, “I did what I did and I said what I said, who are you to accuse me of wrongdoing.”
Instead, we see Peter giving a full explanation to the church family in Jerusalem - not rebuking them for calling him on the carpet.
Now, with that in mind, let’s follow along as Peter carefully, yet directly answers their accusations: 4 But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, a certain object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, 6 and when I had fixed my gaze upon it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. 7 “And I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Arise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 “But I said, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 “But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ 10 “And this happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky. 11 “And behold, at that moment three men appeared before the house in which we were staying, having been sent to me from Caesarea. 12 “And the Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings. And these six brethren also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 “And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, ‘Send to Joppa, and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; 14 and he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. 16 “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ (In other words, as some have called it - we had sort-of-a Gentile Pentecost - they evidenced that same sign gift that we did when the Holy Spirit descended - this was indeed proof that the Gentile church and the Jewish church were one - they had received the same Spirit.)
17. “If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”
Peter declares, “Did you expect me to stand in the way of God’s working?”
He is also implicating that question to them - “Will you stand in God’s way?” The question was, as one author phrased it, “Would they loosen their grip on the past and accept God’s new plan for the Gentiles?” Would they re-learn centuries of practice and teaching.
Simply put - would the church change??!!!
Can you imagine that moment in church history - it was a defining moment - the Jewish leaders must have looked at each other - at Peter - at Peter’s 6 witnesses who had come with him from Cornelius’ home - which, by the way was twice the amount of witnesses required by Mosaic law. It was an incredible story - dripping with unimaginable changes - but the flush receded from their faces and their anger subsided and smiles began to appear on the faces of many of them!
I find it interesting that Luke writes of the vast history of the New Testament church in this Book of Action - in order to cover decades of ground - he typically provides sketchy details - he’s forced to be concise - yet, here he devoted nearly 2 chapters to this incident - why?
Beyond the obvious? Why? Becuase Luke was a Gentile - and this moment in church history revealed the incredible, personal truth that Gentiles were allowed in. They were full fledged members of the church of Jesus Christ.
Notice the very next verse 18. And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, “Well, then, God has granted to the
Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.
Now, I do want to insert this challenge - not everyone was happy about this.
There is the tragedy here that some refused to change - they refused to accept Gentiles full privilege in the church because they had not come by way of the synagogue. In chapter 10:45 - the Jewish believers are refered to as “ the circumcised believers who had come with Peter”
A narrower designation occurs in chapter 11: 2b. “those who were circumcised took issue with him (lit. “those of the circumsicion”).
Herein lies the subtle implication of the seeds of dissension within the church - a faction that Paul will refer to in the Book of Galatians as “the party of the circumcised” - they had gone from resisting change to actually forming a dissenting party or faction in the New Testament church - they wanted to mix Judaism with the gospel.
They would not change - therefore, they would never be able to rejoice in the truth of the gospel recorded in John 1:17. The law came through Moses, but now grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ.
Let’s apply this passage more specifically - how do you keep from becoming unbalanced in what you believe with how you live.
-How do you distinguish between godly disciplines and legalism.
-How do you determine what to keep and what to change.
And by the way - this isn’t a 20th century problem. Controversy’s related to the Christian life and walk have recieved far more attention than they deserved.
For instance, in the second century, a young man asked a church Father how he could follow Christ more diligently, the answer was written,
The questions arises from this passage in Acts, “How do you keep from being driven by non-essentials - so that the essentials are ignored.
How do you determine what to do as a believer and what not to do?!!!!!
1) If the scriptures warn against it, don’t play around with it.
Don’t use this passage on Peter’s vision as liscense - don’t throw all your stuff on that sheet that descends from heaven and say, “that’s not unclean anymore - nothing is - I can do anything and go anywhere and say anything. . .
Be careful that you don’t let just anything come into your life and then say, “Well, I’m under grace” - being “under grace” doesn’t meant that you can use grace to cover impurity, or a lack of godly discipline or a tolerance of sin. Paul said, “Should sin abound that grace aboud more” God forbid.
2) If the scriptures forbid it, don’t try to justify it.
This is the will of God, even your sanctification, that you abstain from fornication (sexual relations outside of marriage). The Bible forbids it - don’t justify it - “we love each other. . .we’re going to get married -surely God understands. . .”
3) If the scriptures are silent about it, don’t go door-to-door with it.
Don’t turn what God may be doing in your life into a public crusade.
In other words, some practice or discipline may be for your life, but not every one elses.
Learn the difference between a Biblical command and a personal preference. Now, there’s nothing wrong with personal preferences - I wish Christians had more of them . . . just remember their personal!
I’m wearing a suit instead of a robe - I’m called Stephen or Pastor, instead of Elder Davey or Bishop - not becuase scripture speaks to either way of doing it, in fact, any one of those titles would be Biblically acceptable . . . I simply have a preference.
Did you know in the third century there was quite a controversy on the physical posture you should have when praying?
You know what the problem was? The scriptures do not command any particular posture - they are silent on the issue and these men went door to door with their personal preference.
4) If the scriptures encourage it, don’t try to ignore it.
Find out more - study the implications - maybe God is addressing a needed area of change in your life.
5) If the scriptures teach it, don’t try to live without it.
ARTICLE ON PRAYING
In A.D. 220, Tertullian, a well known church father, set down some guidelines for praying. He said if you lifted your hands toward heaven when you prayed, they did not need to be washed every time before prayer - since they were spiritually clean. Tertullian also believed it was wrong to sit when conversing with God in prayer. (Have you ever been to a church that practiced standing whenever you read the scripture? Well Tertullian would have been offended that you stood to read the word of God, but didn’t stand when you prayed to God.)
Likewise he strongly believed you should never kneel in prayer on Easter becuase that was a day of celebrating the risen Lord.
Another famous church father, Clement of Alexandria, also in the third century, believed you should pray with eyes open toward heaven. (he’d have a real problem with “heads bowed and eyes closed”)
Other believer taught that prayer was most spiritual if you stretched out your arms horizontally in the cross position as you prayed, in order to mimic the curcified Christ.
Do you kneel? Fall prostrate? Hands up - washed or unwashed?
The controversy on the posture of prayer raged for more than 100 years, until the Council of Nicea declared that congregational prayer in the church should be offered standing up.
“Forsake colored clothing . . . remove everything in your wardrobe that is not white” (evidently taken from Revelation where the saints will be robed in white) Stop sleeping on a soft pillow and taking warm baths (so far, I’m striking out, how about you?) If you are sincere about following Christ, never shave your beard. To shave is to attempt to improve on the work of Him who created us. (written in the 2nd cent.)