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Revelation and Response: A Model for Life
As we get started this morning, you might be wondering what “new information” this passage might be giving us to consider, if we compare it to the passage we read last week. Last week, Peter receives the vision that we just read—and this week, Peter reports the same vision and events to the church in Jerusalem. So, it’s the same passage, right? It has the same application points? Quite literally, verses 5–17 of our passage this morning repeats a big chunk of chapter 10 (almost word for word)! Perhaps you read this and think, what’s the point of rehashing this again?
What that we must acknowledge, here, is that Luke (who wrote Acts) takes the initiative to repeat Peter’s vision. The reason why is because he wants us to be brought into the moment when the church in Jerusalem first heard of Peter’s report.
You see, this is a big, monumental, water-shed moment for the history of God’s people. This is a turning point for the church. Last week, we read what God did through Peter and Cornelius. That was our focus last week. This week, we’ll see how the church responds to what God did, as Peter reports on this to the church.
That right there should shift our thinking a bit as we look at this passage, shouldn’t it? This passage isn’t so much about what God had already done—we looked at that last week. We know what God had recently done in this passage done because Acts just told us! God granted forgiveness to the nations, without ever requiring of them circumcision. Even though this isn’t a big shocker to us, today—this was jarring to the 1st century church in Jerusalem. We’ll consider why in a moment—but, this passage teaches us an important principle that I want us to see first. That is, the principle of revelation and response. That’s a huge principle for Christians. God reveals, we respond. That’s the life of faith, is it not? As God reveals himself and his ways to us, we have the responsibility to respond to him.
Revelation and response is at the very fabric of our faith. It’s a matter of life and death. Perhaps you remember John 1? Starting in verse 9—
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
That is, Jesus came as a light of revelation. Then, John continues in the next verse—
He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
They shut their eyes, and wanted nothing to do with the light. Verse 12—
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,
This is life or death. It’s blindness versus sight. It’s being an enemy of God, versus being a child of God (in fellowship with your heavenly Father through the blood of Christ). It’s revelation and response. How do you respond to God’s revelation—his word—wherein his salvation and instructions are especially revealed? It matters.
In our passage this morning, as we’re opening Acts 11, Peter brings God’s revelation concerning the gentiles to the church. How did they respond? It’s actually a really awesome example for us this morning, as we consider what it means to respond to God’s revelation. Notice how the story moves us from the church initially accusing Peter’s actions among the gentiles, to accepting Peter’s actions. Verse 3 tells us that when Peter showed up in Jerusalem, some came out swinging at him—“You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them!”. That was their initial response to the word they heard circulating around the streets of Judea. But as Peter brought God’s revelation to the church in a clear and orderly way, how did the church respond? Verse 18—“When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God”. They responded by faith—it’s a 180 degree turn when you compare them in verse 18 with verse 3 of our story. Then as we just read in the next several verses, they didn’t simply receive God’s revelation, but they obeyed it. They heard the gentile church in Antioch was growing, so they quickly sent Barnabas to help.
Something happened that moved this church from being bitter and divided and angry toward Peter, to supporting Peter. Revelation and response, fueled by grace. That’s what happened—and, as we’ll see, glorious things happened when God moved the whole church responded to God’s revelation with humility and faith.
This is the moment when the church formally received the gentiles into her membership. If the church hadn’t received Peter’s report, in this passage, Christianity and the world would look a lot different today. The rest of this book (i.e., Acts) would have unfolded very differently. This is a watershed moment—and in truth, any moment we are called to respond to God’s revelation is a watershed moment. Will you receive him, or reject him—open your eyes, or close your eyes, as his light and grace shines before you?
Three Churches, One Revelation
So, let’s look at this story and see how it all unfolded. As I already pointed out, the church at the beginning of this story looks very different than the church at the end of this story. So, we’re essentially going to meet three different churches as we move along in the story this morning. First, we’ll meet the suspicious church that came out swinging at Peter. Then, we’ll meet the silent church, as the church listens to Peter’s report of God’s revelation. (It’s always good to keep your mouth shut when God is speaking, isn’t it?) But then, we’ll finally see a very supportive church, as this story closes with the church in Jerusalem sending support to the gentile church in Antioch. That’s quite a turn of events, isn’t it? God’s revelation is powerful. So again—
1. The Suspicious Church
2. The Silent Church
3. The Supportive Church
The Suspicious Church
Let’s look at the suspicious church. What was the occasion of their suspicion? What “ruffled their feathers”, so to speak? You could say it was the fact that Peter ate with uncircumcised gentiles. That’s the accusation thrown at Peter in verse 3, isn’t it? “You ate with uncircumcised men!”
At the very least, that accusation only reveals how hardened many of these Jewish Christians were toward the gentiles. Remember—this is their response to hearing word that “the gentiles had received the word of God”. You might think that they’d have a problem with Peter baptizing these gentiles into God’s people, would you? Instead, they’re concerned that Peter defiled himself by eating with these folks. You have to wonder why they weren’t concerned that Peter defiled the whole church by including them into God’s people! It seems like a bit of a misplaced, strange response, to say the least.
To be completely honest, different people seem to provide a range of explanations for this accusation against Peter. I’m no going to go into those right now. The point is—these Jews needed clarity, and to be set straight. They were at the very least suspicious toward the word they received, that Peter entered a Gentiles house so that the gentiles might receive the word of God. We’ll consider why that might be very briefly later, but right now I want to point out something in this passage which sheds more light on the Jews’ suspicion. It’ll take a moment to develop this point, so bear with me, here.
More than Just “the Word of God?”
Look again at verse 1. Perhaps there’s something that struck you to be a bit odd. There, we’re told that the word which the Jewish church received was that “the gentiles received the word of God”. Now, here’s the question—didn’t the gentiles receive more than just God’s word in chapter 10? You know—perhaps, maybe, they also received the Holy Spirit?!
Really think about this—why doesn’t it say that the folks heard that the gentiles received the Holy Spirit? Isn’t that more significant than just receiving the Word about Jesus? Isn’t that more faithful to what was just described at the end of chapter 10? What’s going on?
Some have suggested that the folks throughout Judea couldn’t stomach that the gentiles received the Spirit in the same way they did. So, the news which was spread was dimmed down a bit—they just received “the word”. I suppose that’s possible, but I don’t think that’s Luke’s point, here, when he describes the gentiles as receiving “the word of God”. Luke has something else in mind, and I want to show this to you this morning.
Turn back to Acts 8, when the Samaritans received the gospel. Perhaps you remember that story from when we looked at it a few weeks ago. Philip—who wasn’t an apostle—fled to Samaria after Stephen was martyred. There, he preached the gospel to the Samaritans in order to fulfill what Jesus had instructed for the church—“You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). So here, the gospel is moving from Jerusalem to Samaria; from the Jews, to the half-Jews (as we had discussed before). Jews didn’t like the Samaritans, but the Samaritans did have something going for them. The Samaritans, who followed their own sect of Judaism, were circumcised. So, it wouldn’t be a big step for the Jewish Christians to receive them into Christ’s kingdom. The question of circumcision in the New Covenant did not have to preoccupy their time.
So Philip preached Jesus to the Samaritans, and the Samaritans believed the word and were baptized by Philip. Do you remember what they were missing? In one way or another, they were missing the Holy Spirit. So, the church in Jerusalem responds. In verse 14, we read something that “when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit”. That’s how Jesus brought in the half-Jewish, circumcised Samaritans into his covenant people. (1) Philip preaches the word, (2) they believe and are baptized with water, and then (3) hearing about this, the folks in Jerusalem send Peter and John so they might also receive the Spirit.
Now, go back to our passage when the non-circumcised gentiles are included into God’s people. Again, verse one of our passage (chapter 11)—“Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.” That’s almost a word-for-word echo of chapter 8, verse 14, when (quote) “the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God”. A lot of people think that connection is significant and intentional. Do you hear the connection, there? These are very parallel stories in Acts, here, as the church is receiving news about the Samaritans—and now, the gentiles—receiving “the word of God”. So the question: why is that significant?
For one thing, Luke is telling us that the next phase of Christ’s mission in Acts is commencing. The word of God has been received by the Jews, then the Samaritans, and now the gentiles. But think about what’s different, here, in these two stories. There’s some awesome takeaways for us here, if we really compare these two parallel events in Acts.
In chapter 8, when the Jewish church heard the Samaritans received the word of God, notice that they eagerly sent Peter and John to Samaria so the Samaritans might receive the the Holy Spirit. They didn’t think twice that the circumcised Samaritans might be included into God’s people (they were circumcised!). Yet here in chapter 11, what happens when the Jewish church hears that the gentiles received God’s word? Well, for one thing, they can’t say “let’s send Peter and John so they might receive the Spirit!”. Remember—the gentiles already received the Spirit! In a show if his most perfect providence, Jesus ensured that the gentiles would receive the Spirit before they were baptized with water. Do you see the difference, here? The Samaritans received the Word and water baptism first, and then the church in Jerusalem eagerly sent Peter so they might also receive the Spirit. They didn’t have to overcome the obstacle of circumcision when it came to the Samaritans.
But it was different for the gentiles. Christ didn’t give the Jews any opportunity to discuss whether the gentiles were worthy of the Holy Spirit—whether they were worthy of full inclusion into God’s people. As Peter was preaching, Jesus unleashed the floodgates of heaven upon these uncircumcised gentiles, and granted them the Spirit without reservation. In so doing, Jesus was boldly making a big statement: “these gentiles are mine!”. Perhaps even more than this—“my salvation comes through faith alone, apart from circumcision”. Even Peter was struck with awe when this unfolded before him—“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (10:47). God simply did that! No discussion. The gentiles belong to Christ’s kingdom apart from ever having to associate with Judaism through the law of circumcision.
Isn’t that awesome? God’s reveals his ways with such wisdom and power, that none can argue with him. There’s no confusion with God’s ways. When Peter tells this story to the Jews in our passage for this morning, he says in 11:17, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”. The sign of the Holy Spirit was involuntarily given, whether Peter and the apostles liked it or not. So, Peter had to follow through and give them the external sign of God’s people—namely, water baptism.
You see Jesus shepherding his church, here, don’t you? Think if he had saved the gentiles the same way he saved the Samaritans—if he said, “I’ll have the gentiles receive the word first, and then the church can send someone for them to receive the Spirit’s baptism.” Do you think the gentiles ever would have been confirmed as full members of the church like that? Even after Jesus claims the gentiles through this show of his Holy Spirit, their inclusion into the church was an issue that literally takes five chapters in Acts for the church to fully accept (chapters 10–15). Almost the entire book of Galatians is dedicated to this very matter. The Jewish church was culturally and theologically suspicious (to say the least) toward the gentiles, and Jesus knew it. So, he gives them his Spirit just as the Jews received the Spirit at Pentecost, and then he patiently led the church to clarity over the issue as we see the church deliberating the matter in the next several chapters, here in Acts.
Jesus shepherds his church, folks. He’s the chief shepherd, who cares for us through his Spirit. He claims those who belong to him through his Spirit. And by the way—he shepherds us with the same Spirit, today. He claims us as his own through his Spirit, today.
The Holy Spirit and Our Assurance
When it really comes down to the brass tacks—Jesus poured his Spirit upon the gentiles so that their salvation and inclusion into God’s people would be unmistakable to a very suspicious church. Perhaps you're suspicious that you belong to the Lord. I have news for you—it’s the Spirit’s job, on behalf of Christ, to provide assurance and testimony in matters of salvation. If you have ever struggled with the question “how can I know I’m saved?”, you can consider the Spirit’s work and witness in your life. While we can look objectively at a person’s fruit to know whether they’re a believer—there is a peculiar, subjective piece to personal assurance that’s situated deep down in the soul. Paul speaks about in Romans 8:16. Paul says that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God”. When you hear that God has forgiven you in Christ, is it peace to your soul—or is it just another story? That peace—that fruit of the Spirit—is the Spirit bearing witness to your soul that you belong to Jesus. When you sin, are you convicted and compelled to repent with an unrestful resolve? That conviction is the Spirit telling your soul that you belong to Jesus, and you should repent. When you read Scripture, does it speak joy and patience and love directly into your soul? That’s the fruit of the Spirit, testifying to your spirit, that you’re a child of God.
This is personal and applicable to us, folks. The Spirit is—and always has been—the mark of true believers. Even a very suspicious Peter couldn’t deny it when he saw the Spirit working through the gentiles.
For Clarity: "Think Like a 1st Century Jew, Here..."
Now, I just want us all to be clear on a quick matter, here, before moving forward. I’ve said that the church was suspicious of this news. They never outright reject the thought of the gentiles receiving God’s word. They just didn’t like the way the gentiles received the word. The accusation thrown at Peter was from the circumcision party (verse 2)—“you ate with uncircumcised men?!” (verse 3). This was all about circumcision. These Jews were suspicious of uncircumcised gentiles.
Think like 1st century Jew, here. You read your Old Testament, and see reference to the nations worshipping God in the time of restoration. You recognize Jesus said the same thing. So, you expect they’ll be included into God’s people in Christ. But, you also read in Genesis 17:13—
He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised [into God’s people]. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people”
You know—this is an everlasting covenant. It’s the physical mark of God’s people. It’s the physical mark that distinguishes God’s people from not God’s people—Jews from Gentiles.
Then, you read the passages in the Old Testament which anticipate the nations being gathered into God’s people. How are they described? They’re described as joining Israel—worshipping Israel’s God, going to Israel’s place of worship on Mount Zion, and finding their salvation in Israel where God dwells with his people. That’s what the Jews expected would happen as the nations would be drawn into worship Jesus Christ. They’d join the ranks of Israel to worship the Christ. Only, Peter’s little sermon at Cornelius’s house put a massive fork in this. When Jesus used that sermon as the occasion to pour his Spirit upon the gentiles, he provided unmistakable revelation which the Jewish church had to receive by faith.
Revelation and response. How did they respond? Initially, with suspicion. But then, Peter sought to win them over with greater clarity.
We’ve met the suspicious church. Now, let’s consider the silent church, as this church takes a moment to consider God’s revelation through Peter’s report.
The Silent Church
In response to their initial suspicion and accusation, we read in verse 4 that “Peter began and explained it to them in order”.
Now, this is where we might be tempted to skip the next 17 verses, because we already heard the story in chapter 10. The truth is, there are some details added here in chapter 11, which weren’t mentioned in chapter 10. We should expect this. Remember—verse 4 tells us that Peter explained this to them “in order”. That’s an important word for Luke. Orderly accounts of events really mattered to Luke. In fact, Luke is the only New Testament writer to use this word—this reference to orderly accounts of events. He opens his gospel up with it, saying that he wrote Luke and Acts in order “to write an orderly account” of the events concerning Jesus “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” There’s the assurance, there, for you. If you want to have certainty about Jesus, then Luke is saying that one way to get that certainty is to read the compelling account of Jesus’s life and kingdom provided in Luke and Acts. Or in our passage—if you want to have certainty that the Holy Spirit really did fall upon the gentiles, and that God did an unmistakable work of revelation and salvation, then listen to Peter’s account of the story.
These stories aren’t just stories written in a dry, historical order. They’re arguments written in an orderly way in order to prove Jesus. These stories are apologetics—they’re to defend the faith, and provide assurance to believers. I’ve said it before, and I’ve said it again—we’ve lost the art of story telling in our western world. If you want to make an argument on Facebook, most people write linear, logical, didactic arguments and quote statistics or quote some higher authority on the matter. We don’t trust the power of stories anymore, and it’s to our great loss. Stories change people. Stories are soul-food; lectures are brain food that rarely pull at a person’s deep convictions and passions.
Hollywood knows it—they’ve changed our culture dramatically over the course of 20 years through the stories we consume on television.
Here, Peter knew it as well. He didn’t just tell the story like a historian. He told it like an apologist defending the faith, persuading his audience. He draws them into his experience. As you read this first-person account of what happened, you can see Peter drawing his audience in as his story climaxes to the pivotal, decisive point of the story in verse 17.
Five Compelling Details in Peter's Report
So, let me briefly point out some of the unique details in Peter’s story which draw us into the story, experience it with Peter, that we might feel the weight Jesus’s revelation.
First, look at verse 5. There, Peter is explaining the vision he had when he was in Joppa praying. In this vision, Peter saw (verse 5) “something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by it’s four corners, and it came down to me.”—right there, directly in front of Peter. That’s a detail we didn’t get in chapter 10. Peter is drawing us in, here. He’s telling us that this sheet was right there, in front of him—Jesus had it directly in front of him so Peter could inspect it. Verse 6 even says that Peter was “looking at it closely”—he personally observed the animals. Some were clean, some were not. Then Jesus tells Peter to kill and eat, making no distinction. Peter is drawing us in, that we might feel the tension he felt in this moment.
Second, the next detail that’s unique to Peter’s account here in chapter 11 is found in verse 12. “And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction”. In chapter 10, the Spirit says he should go “without hesitation”—quickly. Here, to make it really clear, Peter says that the Spirit expressly told him not to make a distinction between Jew and gentile, here. Jesus was breaking down the Jewish prejudice against certain foods, and certain peoples.
Third, look at verse 12 again. Peter says “these six brothers also accompanied me”. These brothers—presumably, right here, with us right now! Peter is appealing to witnesses who were present at this meeting. Peter’s being very intentional and orderly with his words, here.
Then fourth, there’s an interesting detail in verse 14. There, Peter is describing the vision Cornelius had concerning Peter. Peter reports to us, here in chapter 11, something which Spirit said to Cornelius that wasn’t mentioned in chapter 10. Specifically, “he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” None of that is explicitly mentioned in chapter 10. Why is that significant, here, for Peter’s purposes? The Spirit confirmed that Jesus’s salvation is going to be brought not just to Cornelius, but also Cornelius’s household. That’s a very covenantal way to speak—the Jews hearing this would have made the connection immediately. Covenant membership, through covenant households, just like in the Old Testament. God spoke that promise—that covenantal language—to an uncircumcised gentile. More proof that the gentiles are included—together with their households. (And yes, this is why we baptize infants of believing parents into the covenant.)
Now, there’s one more (fifth) detail that Peter mentions that’s unique to his defense, here in chapter 11—verse 16. There, you see what Peter immediately thought of when he saw the gentiles receive the Spirit. He remembered Jesus’s words when Jesus said “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit”. What’s that all about?
Remember that John’s water baptism was a baptism of preparation for Christ’s kingdom. It wasn’t a baptism of inclusion into Christ’s kingdom. To be included into Christ’s kingdom, the fail-safe sign is baptism of the Holy Spirit—to receive the Spirit through faith. When Peter saw Jesus give this sign, he knew the gentiles were not getting prepared. They didn’t have any preparations to make to be included into the kingdom—no circumcision, no ceremonial laws or washings, nothing. No—by faith, and faith alone, through Christ alone, they received the Spirit for full and immediate inclusion into Christ’s kingdom. Verse 17—“who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”
At this point in the story, I can only imagine that as these Jews were brought into Peter’s personal experience of this story, they felt the same tensions and the same resolution as Peter did. They were silent before God’s awesome and mighty revelation—verse 18, “they fell silent”.
What Kind of Silence?
I don’t think this was just a momentary, cinematic silence that you hear in movies just before a loud, unanimous cheer. You know—the 5 second silence after the evil villain is killed, and then the silence is broken with a loud, unanimous cheer? That’s not what happened, here. I suspect the Jews were silent with awe, but also serious contemplation. We don’t know how long this all lasted. We just know that in the end, they responded to the revelation by glorifying God saying, “then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (verse 18). Were they singing? Were they celebrating? We don’t know—we often assume that’s the case because it says they “glorified God”. But notice that the way they glorified God was by saying “then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance…”. They glorified God by changing their mind on this matter—by repenting from their animosity toward the Jews, and receiving God’s revelation by faith whether they liked it or not.
It reminds me of when Joshua told Achan to confess his sin, if you remember that in Joshua 7. This was an incredibly somber moment—Achan’s sin led to the death of many people in Israel. Joshua said, “my son, glorify God and give praise to him. Tell me what you have done, do not hide it from me”. Achan wasn’t singing, he was repenting—changing his mind, and that glorified God. You and I, brothers and sisters, glorify and praise God when we repent, even when it’s incredibly painful or uncomfortable.
I think there’s some of that going on, here in our passage, as the Jews received Peter’s report. (I hope they were singing and rejoicing, by the way.)
So, we’ve met the suspicious church, and the silent church that repented and formally received the gentiles at Peter’s report. God’s revelation came to the church, and their humble response glorified God. But, their response to all this didn’t stop in verse 18. To wrap all this up—let me point out that the silent church quickly mobilized and became the supportive church.
Conclusion: The Supportive Church
We’ll look at all this more next week, but I just want us to see that when the church in Antioch—in very gentile territory—began to grow, the church in Jerusalem sent one of their best guys to help out. Barnabas “saw the grace of God” in Antioch (verse 23), and “he was glad, and he exhorted them to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose”. Then, Barnabas enlisted Paul to help out—and it was there, in Antioch, after a year of Barnabas and Paul’s teaching, that the disciples were first called “Christians”.
That all happened in Antioch because a suspicious church silently heard the word of Christ’s love for the gentiles, and so they supported the gentiles. Their response to Christ’s revelation changed the world. It’s revelation and response, folks. It deeply matters how you respond to Christ, his revelation—even his Holy Spirit of salvation (through whom Christ is saving and shepherding even us this morning).