This passage gives us some important insight into the power of personal stories. It's amazing to think that Peter changed everyone's theology through the mechanism of story. Literally, an entire group of people believed one way for thousands of years, generation after generation, and in one powerful personal encounter and the testimony of that encounter, their whole belief system is radically altered.
In this case, the Jews' nationalistic and ethnocentristic views are enlarged so that they see and include non-Jews within the scope of redemption in Christ. This theological shift was necessary and right. Most Christians today and throughout history are non-ethnic Jews so I'm grateful for the reorienting that occurred in Acts 10-11. I am struck today, though, at how common it is for our personal encounters and stories to reshape our beliefs and theology even today.
Isn't this largely the force behind the sexual revolution. It's the power of personal stories that have erased so many boundaries around sexual practices and sexual identity. And the most troubling thing as Christian is not the political legalizing of formerly unthinkable behaviors and identities, but the ecclesiastical legitimizing of those behaviors and identities. In other words, it's not so surprising that the culture affirms an ever widening array of practices and personas, but those who presume to lead and belong to the church are affirming the always expanding sexual ethics of the culture.
More than anything else, I think it's the power of personal stories that is shifting our theology. Our sons or daughters who we love embrace a certain ethic and we want to embrace them. A co-worker or neighbor who practices something we thought sinful, we're now rethinking because they're the nicest and kindest person we know. A same sex relationship we're exposed to seems healthier than most marriages we're around so it must be okay. And on and on. It's our personal encounters with people that don't fit some long held paradigm and we start to reconsider everything in light of them. Isn't that what Peter and Jewish community does here? So, when we do that in our time, is it not in the spirit of the Apostles and the early church that we adjust and expand our categories to include more in the scope of redemption rather than less? Shouldn't we, along with Peter, ask "who am I to stand in their way?"
It's easy, but wrong to land there. Here's why...
The Rest of Scripture
The promises of redemption throughout the bible, which all find their "YES" in Jesus, align thoroughly with Peter's reinterpretation. The radical new understanding which the Jews came to in Acts 11 of the expansiveness of the gospel is actually plainly obvious when looking back through Scripture. They didn't adjust God's revealed plan for salvation or reimagine God's revealed standard of holiness. They actually came into alignment with it. This wasn't first century progressivism. This was first century biblicism. They weren't moving beyond the Bible to accommodate emerging social pressures and practices. They were moving deeper into the Bible even at personal and painful cost social cost.
The Revelation and Filling of the Holy Spirit
Secondly, this was not some sentimental anecdote that changed Peter's most deeply held convictions. This was a supernatural announcement of self-disclosure by the Lord. The Holy Spirit superintended every aspect of this development. It's the Spirit who spoke to Cornelius and gave direction to go to Peter. It's the Spirit who shared a vision with Peter and spoke to him claerly about the men sent by Cornelius. It's the Spirit who compelled Peter to go and it's the Spirit who gave him the words to say. It's the Spirit who in the middle of Peter preaching the gospel, fell on Cornlius and his whole household, opening their eyes, softening their hearts and imparting to them faith to believe in Jesus as the defining and ultiamte reality of their lives. And it was the Spirit that filled them, presumably with some outward demonstration, or observable transformation. Whatever the case, these were not people who could now recite some version of the gospel, or who had some story of some prayer they prayed asking Jesus into their hearts. These people were filled with the divine presence of the living God by the Holy Spirit. They were new creations in Christ. And the power and presence of the Spirit so clearly marked their conversion that nobody was questioning it's legitimacy.
The Repentance of Guilty Sinners
The last thing Luke recounts in this section is that those on whom the Spirit fell gave themselves to repentance that leads to life. That is that they wholeheartedly embraced the pervasive and comprehensive reality of their sinfulenss, need, and total reliance upon Christ alone for salvation. They repented. They turned from an old way of life, an old way of thinking, an old way of believing, and an old way of being, for a new way in Jesus. When God creates whole new categories for us, it will always lead us to repentance for the broken ways of seeing and engaging the world which previously characterized our lives. If the new categories make us more comfortable and more convinced of the way we already saw the world, it's probably not God because his way of seeing is altogether unnatural for us.
Back in chapter 8 of Acts, because of the violent opposition against the church in Jerusalem, led by Saul, many of the early Christians were spread around Judea and Samaria, except for the Apostles who stayed there. In this passage we see the fruit of that dispersion of believers. People were hearing the word and receiving the gospel. The church in Antioch, introduced here, was birthed through the ministry of ordinary Christians faithfully bearing witness to the resurrection of Christ, and calling people to repentance and faith. This church planting specifically took place among the Hellenists, who may have been ethnic Jews but were Greek-speaking Jews, and culturally gentiles.
Word of this gospel advancement circled back to Jerusalem around the same time that Cornelius and his family received the Spirit. So, the Apostles send Barnabas to check on Antioch and veryfiy what the Spirit was doing there. And sure enough Barnabas sees clear evidence of God's grace among the church that has formed in Antioch.
Now, if you remember, in chapter 9, Saul was converted from a persecutor of Christianity to a preacher of Christianity, the Apostles and others were scared of him and the genuineness of his transformation. It was Barnabas who welcomed him, trusted the Lord and lent his credibility to legitimizing Saul's conversion. Seeing the sincerity of faith in Antioch but the lack of clear leaership and teaching, Barnabas tracks down Saul, and invites him to come to Antioch where they can do ministry alongside one another. They spend a year together teaching and discpling the believers in Antioch, and it's there that followers of Jesus are first called Christians.
Make no mistake... the DISCIPLES were first called CHRISTIANS. Brothers and sisters, there is no distinction between being a Christian and a Disciple of Jesus. "Disciple" is not a special category of Christian. It's the only category of Christian. To be a Christian is to be a disciple. We must erase any unbiblical distinction between these terms. Christians are not those who loosely identify with Christ or claim to have prayed some prayer but who don't follow Jesus super seriously. Christians are followers of Jesus. Period.
Disciples aren't serious minded Christians who actually study the Bible and try really hard to obey Jesus. Disciples are followers of Jesus. Period. If you are a Christian, you are a disciple of Jesus. That's what it means to be a Christian. We need to recover the biblical identity of Disciple.
In the last paragraph, we are introduced to Agabus, a prophet. The Spirit revealed to him a coming fmine in the land and we see the family nature of the Church start to take shape. The disciples in Antioch give generously and sacrificially to make sure that they're brothers and sisters in Christ are cared for in Judea. And it's Saul and Barnabas who are entrusted with the money, and sent to deliver it to their fellow believers. I love this sense of shared responsibility for their Christian family, the sense of brotherhood. Church is Family. We belong to one another and must care for one another.
2 things in these few short verses:
We see here the continued outrage of the Devil, using human agents and people in power to oppose the gospel and God's people. Even with Saul converted, there are other opponents who make a sport of persecuting Christians. This is a reminder that on this side of glory, we will always find people who are not just unresponsive to the gospel, but who are antagonistic to the gospel. And it's often people in high places, cultural influencers, who hate Jesus, reject the gospel, and are hostile to the Church. The spirit of Herod lives on today and every generation of Christians will be confronted by that in their own time and lean into the Lord for strength to stand firm and remain faithful to Christ.
When persecution inevitably comes, as with Peter being imprisoned amidst this persecution in Acts 12, the response of the church must always be prayer. Not just prayer for an improved situation, or a more comfortable life, but kingdom advancing prayer. The word "earnest" in v. 5 indicates a degree of intensity and relentlessness. They were fervently crying out to God. The focus of prayer we see in the NT is toward gospel advancement, kingdom expansion, and God's usefulness of all situations to reveal himself more fully, redeem powerfully, and glorify himself continually. Brothers and sisters, there is a place for prayers for our needs and wants to be sure. But when difficulty comes our way, when darkness assails us, prayer should be our first, continual and desperate respone. And not a prayer for our physical and earthly comfort, or ease of life, or indulgence of appetites, but the emphasis of our prayers, should be toward his glory, the salvation of the lost, and the ongoing transformation of His people, including us.
This is such an awesome story... and a true story. This is the realities of heaven breaking into the earth, the supernatural power of God overwhelming the natural forces of evil. Herod will not get the last word. God will. As at the cross and through the resurrection, this is God making an spectacle of darkness, putting it's power to open shame.
It would be easy to read this as fanciful and sensationalized. What rings so true and earily human is the way the church responds when all this happens. They are gathered together praying for Peter, presumably his protection and release. And when Peter shows up in miraculous answer to their prayer they don't believe it or take it seriously. Isn't that like us.
Notice their explanation in v. 15. They believed it was Peter's angel. It's like a ghost of Peter was more believable to them than God actually answering their prayer and freeing Peter from jail safely. We will naturally believe anything before we believe God. We will naturally dismiss or explain anything away with all kinds of bizarre theories, rather than simply trust God. And that's true of the natural impulses of genuine Christians.
I'm reminded of the hymn, "prone to wander Lord a feel it, prone to leave the God I love..." We are not predisposed to faith in Christ in any way. We are predisposed to disregard God and diminish him in favor of earthly things, selfish things.
I wonder what we have prayed for, received, and then not given God credit for? I wonder what prayers God has answered for us only to have us rob him of glory and acknowledge other factors.
It's worth taking time to day to repent for withholding gratitude, robbing him of glory, refusing to believe when he responds graciously to us, etc. It's worth acknowledging him has God and giving thanks for his immeasurable grace and kindness to us, but in as many specific ways as possible.
We have seen God's remarkable power to heal people, reveal himself in visions and dreams, send angels as messengers, and prophets too. We've seen God give new life physically to a dead girl and spiritually to deadened people, and now in this text we see his power to also bring death to those whose hearts are set against him to brazenly presume the status, power, authority and glory that only belongs to God.
Herod is like a first century Pharaoh, an evil taskmaster treating his people cruelly and demanding their worship. But God opposes the proud. He humiliates those who exalt themselves. And Herod is a very real example of that. And through all these things, persecution, famine, imprisonment, the sword... the Word of God increases and multiplies.
The gospel is an unstoppable force and it's been proven to be so time and again throughout the centuries and all over the world. Kingdoms of earth continually and violently oppose the kingdom of God, and yet the Kingdom of God endures. The Kingdom flourishes despite the forces of darkness. The Lord Jesus will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
We are the result of the word of God increasing and multiplying. We are the fruit of that. And we are called to follow in the footsteps of our first century brothers and sisters, entrusted with that same mission of making disciples and multiplying churches. And God gives the same authority and power to that end. He is still advancing his kingdom through flawed, failed, redeemed people like us. And it's our joy to be involved. It's our privilege to participate.
Let's get after it. Let the word of God increase in you and multiply through you personally.