The greatest human divide in the world (Jew/Gentile) was temporarily erected by God and finally destroyed at the cross, therefore we must apply the gospel to all human divides because it only has the power to heal what divides us.
Introduction – In the 1940s the racial divide between black and white in the U.S. still existed, and it was entrenched in American’s pastime–Major League Baseball. For six decades an unwritten rule was enforced preventing black people from playing on MLB baseball teams. But in 1947 that taboo was put to the test. The Brooklyn Dodgers decided to sign and play a black man named Jackie Robinson. Many players throughout the league protested, threatening to forfeit their games against the Dodgers rather than share the field with a black man. In Cincinnati the heckling was particularly fierce. Jackie Robinson felt the weight of the world separating him from everyone around him. The black-white divide seemed insurmountable. But Pee Wee Reese (a white southerner and teammate of Robinson) put his arm around his hated black teammate Jackie Robinson on the field to begin healing the divide. A hush fell over the ballpark as spectators, players, and the press were stopped in their tracks as they witnessed what everyone recognized as a significant moment in American history.
As deep-seated and heated as the black-white racial divide was in this country, it was nothing compared to the Jew-Gentile divide in the ancient world. The conversion of Cornelius is the longest narrative in Acts because it is the story of the final and most significant divide the gospel heals. For a Jew, it was conceivable that Galileans and Samaritans could be saved. But Gentiles? God’s answer is a resounding Yes! The story of Peter and Cornelius tells us how it happened. But this story is not just a history lesson. It has practical implications for us today.
I. How God Erected the Great Human Divide
To appreciate the monumental significance of this story, we need to first examine how and why this great human divide came to exist.
A. The most ancient and fundamental divide in the world
1. Seed of the woman vs. seed of the serpent (Gen 3:15). From the beginning of human history, God created strife between his children and everyone else. The story of the OT is of God’s children (his faithful followers) being persecuted by Satan’s children (everyone else). Again and again, the OT recounts the battles between these two divided peoples, which typify the cosmic battle between Christ and Satan. Although the serpent’s seed even infiltrates the Jewish people, the faithful remnant continues to resist by being holy and separate from unbelievers.
2. Circumcision: covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:9-14). This sign of inclusion in the covenant community set Israel apart from the nations. If any male descendant (or household member) refused circumcision, he was “cut off” from the community and regarded as an “unclean” Gentile.
3. Dietary laws (Lev 11). Animals divided into either clean or unclean as God’s approved menu for Israel. Not for health, but for holiness. Even Israel’s diet set them apart from the Gentiles!
4. Sacrifice (Ex 19:5-6a; Lev 2:2, 9, 16; 5:12; 6:15; 24:7). Israel set apart from the Gentiles to be a kingdom of priests (those who offer sacrifices to God). Sacrifices were pleasant memorials before God. They brought Israel into a state of forgiveness and holiness—unlike the nations.
B. Why erect the divide?
1. Protect the seed of the woman (Gen 34; Dt 7:1-4; Ezra 9:1-2, 12; cf. 2 Cor 6:14-18). Traditional cultures understand this. Marriage within one’s own ethnic group or culture preserves the heritage, distinctiveness, and peculiar customs of the group. Intermarriage is the biggest threat to preserving cultural beliefs and customs. Americans, who are hyper individualistic and pride themselves on diversity, don’t value culture as something to protect, but most cultures in the world and throughout history try very hard to protect their cultural heritage because they don’t want to lose that which they value. God values his plan of salvation through the Jews, so he erected appropriate barriers to protect the faithful Jewish remnant and his holy offspring from corruption.
2. Distinguish between the holy & common/clean & unclean (Lev 10:10; 11:45b; Deut 7:6-8). “Clean” meant fit for God’s presence because God is holy; “unclean” meant unfit for God’s presence. The “clean” could be dedicated for special service as “holy” to God. For the “unclean” to become holy it must first be cleansed and thus made “clean”. Clean and unclean classifications were based on either the moral or natural order of creation, and had theological implications. Theologically, the clean symbolized Israel’s default status; the unclean, Gentile default status.
Remember the royal wedding of Prince William and Princess Catherine? Only guests fit for a royal wedding were invited and admitted. An uninvited commoner could not be “dressed up” enough for his presence to be appropriate. He would be considered “common” or “unclean”. But an invited guest (someone considered “clean”) who arrived at the door with the measles or in the middle of child labor would not be admitted despite her invitation. She would be considered “unclean”—unfit for the royal occasion. Most Americans judged that presiding archbishop Rowan Williams who conducted the ceremony should have been declared “unclean” with his wildly uncut hair and out-of-control eyebrows, but to British royal sensibilities he was “clean.” Our natural sensibilities are not always correct when determining who and what is either clean or unclean.
II. How God Destroyed the Great Human Divide
God destroyed the great human divide in principle at the cross (Eph 2:11-16), but the practical outworking came years later because God waited for the right time to establish it in the life of the Church. At this point in the Acts narrative, Peter has been busy healing in Christ’s name (healing Aeneas at Lydda and raising Tabitha from death at Joppa; Acts 9:32-43).
A. God and Cornelius, the devout Gentile God-fearer (vv. 1-8). Notice Cornelius’s devotion to the God of Israel, praying, teaching his household about God, and giving alms to the poor.
Cornelius’s example shames Christians who profess to know the Savior and to obey him, yet neglect prayers and giving alms to the poor. The sum of the law is to love God and to love our neighbor. Cornelius did both with zeal. How often do those who are forgiven by the liberal grace of God act conservative (even miserly) in their love for God and others? Christians of all people should be known for their piety, devotion, goodness, and holiness in their interactions with God and neighbor.
But as a devout, religious person (we would judge him in our culture as a “good” person), he still needed the gospel of Jesus Christ to save him from his sins as much as notorious sinners like Paul. God “remembers” (as a sacrificial memorial) his devotion by sending him an angel in a vision. Cornelius responds in prompt obedience, eager for Peter’s important message.
Why didn’t the angel tell Cornelius about Jesus and the gospel? This is curious since it seems to be a step back in terms of Cornelius’s intimacy and relationship with God. We assume that the best way to know God is through intimate discussions (prayer) and face-to-face interactions (visions). We think if we had these, we wouldn’t need the Bible. (By the way, that is one of the reasons why I think many of us struggle to read the Bible with any consistency or excitement. We don’t functionally believe it is the way to knowing God.)
I was on a short-term mission trip in 1992 in Latvia. As a newly opened to the West country, we were eager to bring the gospel and Russian language Bibles to people who had lived in fear of the Soviet communist government for three generations. Latvia has a national church that is in the Eastern Orthodox tradition (which is 1000 years old). These Christians in the Orthodox tradition had been denied Bibles for almost a century, and their only expression of faith was what their Latvian Orthodox churches could offer. Their experience of the Christian faith was mystical and worship centered, not Word-centered. I’ll never forget their response to our distributing Bibles to them. They were desperate for them! Women pined for them. Men grabbed for them. Mothers sent their children back for more copies. Those who came up empty handed wept. Their expressions told us what their words could not–they were starving for the Word of God. They had a mystical Christianity, but it was ultimately not satisfying. They wanted the meat of the written Word of God.
So again, why didn’t God give Cornelius the gospel through direct revelation? Because God wills that his people come to faith through the hearing of the preached Word of God (Rom 10:17). The preaching of the Word (from God’s perspective) is not a relational step back from visionary experiences of God, but a step forward. The person who listens to God, believes the gospel, and heeds God’s instruction in the reading and preaching of the Word has a more intimate knowledge of God than the one who only has a vision.
B. God and Peter, the devout Jewish Christian (vv. 9-23). Peter also is busy praying when he receives a heavenly vision. But this vision is cryptic and requires contemplation to interpret. Since the vision’s meaning marks a new movement in redemptive history, God repeats the vision twice, orchestrates the timely arrival of Cornelius’s messengers, and prods Peter into understanding. This vision had tremendous spiritual depth for Peter (as a Jewish believer) because keeping God’s covenant (including its dietary regulations) had profound implications on one’s relationship with God. Peter also responds in obedience, eager for Cornelius’s important message.
C. Peter and Cornelius Together (vv. 24-33). When they finally meet at Cornelius’s door, both must broach the Jew-Gentile divide. Cornelius falls down before Peter in worship, treating him like a god. Peter rejects the gesture, but instead of despising the ignorant Gentile like a dog, Peter restores Cornelius to a level equal with himself and crosses the Jew-Gentile divide into his home. Peter finds many Gentiles awaiting him. He explains how it is taboo for Jews to even associate with Gentiles, but God has shown him in a vision that Gentiles are no longer considered common or unclean. In erasing the boundary between clean and unclean animals, God erased the boundary between clean and unclean peoples. (Now that symbolic uncleanness has been erased, only moral uncleanness remains so that the distinction between sin and righteousness is clarified.) Cornelius and his friends respond to Peter with thankfulness and eager expectation of his message.
D. Why destroy the divide?
1. Fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). Israel was to be a blessing to the nations.
2. Glorify the seed of the woman who died to redeem and heal the Jew-Gentile divide (Jn 10:14-16; Gal 3:16).
3. Display God’s mercy on the nations, whom God has declared clean (Isa 49:6; Acts 10:15).
III. How Only the Gospel Can Heal What Still Divides Us
A. How should you respond to God (vv. 4, 7-8, 21, 23)? Worship (specifically prayer) and prompt obedience.
If you have trouble finding the time to spontaneously pray, consider making a habit of setting a prayer time each day. Ancient tradition sets corporate daily times of prayer that some observe today as their own pattern. For busy Americans who are not attuned to the hourly schedule of prayers, it might be best to choose a time early or late in the day when busyness is at a minimum. Many people begin and end their days in prayer at their bedside, often praying with their spouse or family. Note that Peter, a busy apostle, nevertheless set aside time to pray. Jesus did the same.
Cornelius and Peter knew well that when God prompts us to begin healing a human divide, the only correct response is obedience. Neither argued with God because he is the living God, not a make-believe god in our image. He is the God of salvation, and he is able to heal any human divide. There is only one true God, and he is worthy of our worship and obedience. Anything else we worship or obey is an idol.
B. How should you respond to your gods (heroes) (v. 25)? Do not put them on a pedestal (like Cornelius did), but see them as people who sin just like you.
Evangelicals tend to heap undue adulation on our preaching, teaching, writing, and other ministry heroes, turning them into Christian celebrities. Do you belong to the Cult of the Reformed? Do you rise and fall with your favorite Christian athlete, leader, or celebrity? This is obviously idolatry. No man is a “god.” But Christ fulfills your deep need for a human hero. Worship Jesus! He alone is the sinless Savior. He alone can heal whatever is still dividing us since he already healed the great human divide. The gospel heals you from slavish devotion and hero worship by leveling the playing field. No person except Jesus can live up to your hopes of deliverance, truth, righteousness, justice, friendship, love, acceptance.
C. How should you respond to your dogs (zeroes) (vv. 26-29; 34-48)? Recognize that you must not call common or unclean who God has made clean. Almost every person grants himself the right to judge other people and other people’s standards of morality. When we judge other people immoral according to our personal standards, we render them “unclean” or “common”—not worthy of the grace of God that somehow we deserve. But just as God in the OT called the people of Israel to himself as a holy people (and thereby declaring that he considered all people outside Israel unclean and unholy), now after the work of Christ, God calls all peoples to himself as holy. God has not lowered his standards, for Israel was not intrinsically holy, but was declared holy by adoption into God’s love. In the NT God has adopted all peoples and nations into his love and declared them clean. Therefore we have no right to ethnic pride, attitudes of racial superiority, or any other notion that in ourselves we are more acceptable to God than anyone else.
Search your heart and examine your thoughts to discover your zeroes. Are they people:
1. Of a different political party?
2. Of a different religion or church?
3. Of a different nationality or country?
4. Of a different culture or subculture?
5. Of a different language?
6. Of a different ethnicity or skin color?
7. Of a different social class or pay scale?
8. Of a different neighborhood or city?
9. Of a different circle of friends?
10. Of a different school?
11. Of a different level of educational?
12. Of a different level of intelligence?
13. Of a different standard of cleanliness?
14. Of a different set of problems or sins?
None of these are outside the church’s mission field. This is a subtle form of idol worship. When you refuse God’s judgment (no one is unclean or common) and instead cling to your own judgments about other people, you put yourself and your standard of acceptance above God. You worship and obey something higher than God. That is idolatry. No man is a “dog.”
Conclusion – The back-story of Jackie Robinson’s role in healing the American black/white divide used to be well-known. It’s not just a story from a bygone era of colorblind heroes acting on principled morality. The gospel of Christ’s forgiveness of sins (and its implications for human reconciliation and social justice) was the engine driving the decisions of many of the key players in the story. God has healed the great human divide between Jew and Gentile. The healing power of God and his gospel is able to heal what still divides us. Believe it, be reconciled to God, and be an agent of Christ’s healing.