God Does Not Show Favoritism

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 10:1-48

Does God care more about some kinds of people than others? Does he “play favorites”? Does he have a preferred nation, race, or social class? The answer is an emphatic No!

The bitter conflicts of recent years have brought a hateful new term into the world’s vocabulary: “ethnic cleansing.” Whether it is Muslims in Bosnia, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, Albanians in Kosovo, or Kurds in Iraq, the dynamic is the same. A social group is singled out for removal, or extermination. Is this how we should view people who are different from us, as if they were an infection that needed to be wiped out? Are individuals who come from other ethnic backgrounds or religions some sort of pollution to be gotten rid of so that our communities can be “pure” and “clean”? What an appalling attitude! I can scarcely imagine a more horrible belief.

The Bible advocates a different attitude. One of the dominant themes of scripture is God’s plan to bring people back together across all their differences. God is the God of all peoples everywhere. He loves the incredible mosaic of races and tribes and languages that makes up the human race in all its diversity. No one people group is closer to his heart than another, nor is any group excluded from the circle of his loving care. The heart of God’s plan is to reconcile people of all kinds to himself, and to each other, through his Son Jesus Christ. So the need for accepting others in Christ is a lesson God worked very hard at teaching the first Christians.

CORNELIUS THE GOD-FEARER

One of the key episodes God used to drive this truth home about reconciliation was the encounter between the apostle Peter and a Roman soldier named Cornelius. Cornelius was a good example of a type of person that was more common than you might expect in the first-century world. He was what is known as a “God-fearer.” Though a gentile (a non-Jew from a pagan background) and an officer in an elite unit of the Roman army, Cornelius was a deeply spiritual man. He was searching for God. He wasn’t content to live only for the pleasures of the world, as so many do. It seems as though in every age most people live on the surface of life, without ever thinking much about the deeper questions. Cornelius wasn’t like that. It wasn’t enough for him just to have a good career, a comfortable home, a nice, happy family. He was interested in spiritual matters, questions about truth, the meaning of life, the nature of ultimate reality.

Not surprisingly, since he was stationed in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Palestine, Cornelius’s search led him to the God of Israel. He began to pray devoutly to this God, the real and living God, and he tried to serve him as best he knew how. There were many others like Cornelius throughout the ancient world, men and women who were dissatisfied with the idol worship and widespread immorality of their culture. When such people came in contact with the numerous Jewish communities around the Mediterranean they were often attracted to the wisdom of the Bible, the majesty and holiness of the God of Israel. In every place where there was a Jewish synagogue, these God-fearers were to be found. As these Greeks and Romans listened to the teaching of the Hebrew Bible and participated in the prayers and liturgy of Jewish worship, they found themselves being drawn to the one true God. The pagan religion in which they had been raised, with its multitude of mythical gods and goddesses, no longer appealed to these serious and devout truth-seekers.

But the God-fearers faced a major hurdle to acceptance as worshipers of God. Judaism was an ethnic religion. Its ritual laws and ceremonies were a barrier to any gentile who wanted to become part of God’s people. A gentile could convert to Judaism by becoming what was called a proselyte. This meant accepting the Jewish law (including undergoing circumcision for males), surrendering one’s ethnic identity, and adopting a new Jewish one. That was a very difficult decision to make. But until he or she actually converted to Judaism, the gentile God-fearer, no matter how pious or moral, remained unclean in Jewish eyes. So most of these worshipers hung on the fringes of the synagogues, watching and listening, praying and seeking, waiting to find a way by which they too could come fully into the presence of Israel’s God and become part of his family. When it arrived, Christianity seemed tailor-made for these people. In a sense, that’s exactly what it was. When the Christian gospel came explaining how anyone could come to the living God through Jesus Christ and be reconciled to him by faith through Jesus’ death no matter what their race or nationality, many of these gentile God-fearers became Christians on the spot.

A TALE OF TWO CONVERSIONS

It is important to remember that for its first few years the Christian church was entirely Jewish. Every Christian was simply a Jew who had embraced Jesus as the Messiah. In fact, even to label these believers as “Christians” is anachronistic. The term “Christian” did not come into being until the gospel reached the city of Antioch in Syria, as described in Acts 11. Before that, Jesus’ followers were known as simply that: the followers of Jesus.

During the earliest days the apostle Peter was their principal leader. He, of course, was an original disciple of Jesus himself and a bold preacher of faith in Christ, but religiously he also remained a practicing Jew. Peter kept the Old Testament’s ritual commandments, observed the Sabbath Day, and followed the dietary requirements of the law. And like every other devout Jew, he had no social dealings whatsoever with any gentile. It was a violation of Jewish tradition, a cultural taboo, for a Jew to even enter a gentile’s house, let alone sit down at table and share a meal with him. So here was the problem. How could gentiles ever be accepted as part of the new Christian movement? How would they be included in the church, the new community of believers in Jesus, if all the Jewish Christians had such a deep-seated cultural prejudice against them?

The answer is found in the story of Peter and Cornelius. Their surprising encounter broke the religious taboos and prepared the way for removing the racial and ethnic barriers that had been keeping Jews and gentiles apart for centuries. But in order to do that, God had to change both men. The story of Cornelius and Peter’s encounter is really a tale of two conversions. Both men’s thinking had to change. Both had to adopt new attitudes, a new way of looking at people. Cornelius was converted to accept Christ. But Peter was converted to accept Cornelius.

Luke tells us the story in Acts 10. One day while Cornelius was praying in his home, the Lord sent an angel who appeared to him in a vision and told him to send for a man called Peter. Then, as Cornelius’s messengers were approaching the place where Peter was staying, God sent another vision to Peter while he was praying to encourage him to go see Cornelius.

Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. . . .

Acts 10:9-16, niv

I once visited a McDonald’s restaurant in the city of New Delhi, India. Just outside the entrance was a sign that, out of deference to Hindu sensibilities, stated, “There is no beef on these premises.” Because of their religious attitudes Hindus are revolted by the thought of eating beef. That is exactly how Peter, as a devout Jew, would have felt at the sight of all the ritually unclean animals in the vision God showed him. The thought of eating that kind of meat, which had never before touched his lips, probably made him physically sick. God used this strong reaction to teach Peter a lesson about another kind of revulsion. Like many, Peter also thought of certain kinds of people that way. He shrank from any contact with non-Jews, with all those who weren’t “his kind.” They seemed to him to be unclean, impure. That’s the attitude God wanted to change. The message of the vision he sent was clear, and was made even plainer by its repetition and timing. This vision wasn’t really about food. It was about people. When Peter held back because of his religious sensibilities, the Lord reminded him that he was not to reject or consider people unclean when God has accepted them. And at that very moment came the messengers from the gentile Cornelius inviting Peter to go with them.

“WE ARE WITNESSES”

He accompanied them back to Cornelius’s house, and went in to address the crowd of family and friends that had gathered there.

[Peter] said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. . . .

10:28, niv

So Peter has learned the lesson. His heart has been opened to people of other races and cultures. He is a changed man, and now it is Cornelius’s turn. Peter went on to tell the household there assembled about the Lord Jesus. “We are witnesses of everything [Jesus] did,” Peter declared (v. 39). He related the facts of Jesus’ life, recounting the history of what he said and did. Most importantly, he told the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. “Jesus Christ is Lord of all,” Peter declared. “He is the one whom God has appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (v. 43).

You may wonder why Peter said all this, or why Cornelius and his family listened to it, or why this encounter was necessary at all from Cornelius’s perspective. After all, wasn’t Cornelius a virtuous and devout man already? He was pious and prayerful, generous and noble. Everybody admired him, and he was a sincere seeker after God. God even sent special messages to him. What more did he need?

He needed to come to know Jesus Christ. Cornelius was very religious, but religion isn’t enough. Cornelius was admirable, but being a decent person isn’t enough. Cornelius was a searcher for the truth, but searching isn’t enough. We must also find the truth, the truth as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. God answered Cornelius’s prayers for truth, salvation and knowledge by sending Peter to him to explain the way of salvation through Christ. Peter came and shared the gospel message and the whole family responded to it by believing in Jesus Christ. When that happened Peter the Jewish Christian and Cornelius the devout Roman soldier were no longer divided. They were joined as brothers in the fellowship of Christ.

JESUS IS ALIVE!

This is really what distinguishes authentic Christianity. It’s more than a set of doctrines or beliefs. It’s more than the practice of good works. At the heart of living Christianity is a relationship with the living Christ, who unites us with himself and with all who believe in him.

This good news of the gospel is for everyone! Everyone must repent and believe in the Lord Jesus to be saved. But anyone is welcome to do this, no matter what their race or nationality. “God does not show favoritism!” Peter exclaimed when he realized that Cornelius and his household were acceptable to God on the same basis he was – through faith in Christ. God doesn’t set one race or group or nationality above another in his estimation. God does not accept some people as they are while requiring others to change their cultural identity before they may approach him. All have equal access to God by putting their trust in Christ.

So which kind of conversion do you need? If you’re not a Christian, then you need to turn to the true and living Lord, Jesus Christ. “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name,” as Peter announced to Cornelius and his household. This is the only way to be forgiven and receive salvation. If you are a Christian, then how do you feel about people who aren’t just like you? Do you need the kind of further conversion Peter experienced, the one where you turn to those who are different in race or class or nationality and welcome them in Jesus’ name?