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Twelve things I saw preaching through the Acts of the Apostles, chapters ten to fifteen
This past summer, Sophie (my wife and co-pastor) and I preached from these key chapters of Acts—basically from Cornelius’s and Peter’s visions through the famed “Jerusalem Council.”
1. We’re not simply studying history. We’re discovering a pattern, the modus operandi of the Holy Spirit. What we see happening in Acts 10-15 is not a once-and-done occurrence. The Spirit continues to push us to cross boundaries, break taboos, and reach outward in an ever-bigger welcome. It’s happening today. Whatever questions we face now are mere child’s play compared to the issue faced in the first century. Must gentiles keep the Jewish law to be welcomed in the church?
2. We are to be people of dreams. In the Pentecost story, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel, “Your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.” Cornelius and Peter both have visions while praying. As modern people we are wary of dreams. Rightly so. Dreams invite the loonies and the megalomaniacs. Despite these dangers, how do we risk being people who are led by dreams from the Spirit?
3. Hindsight helps us see the Spirit setting us up. When the Holy Spirit starts moving us, we can often look back to see little clues, breadcrumbs along the trail, that brought us to this point, unlocking our hearts for bigger changes still ahead. Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, a person of unusual gender identity, is such a breadcrumb. Peter staying at the home of Simon the tanner is another crumb. It isn’t entirely clear how tanners related to the ancient Jewish law, nonetheless because of their work tanners faced wide social stigma as unclean people. Yet that is where Peter lodged and had his vision.
4. “Yuck” is not a good moral compass. To eat the animals that Peter saw in his vision, pork to prawns, was not only contrary to God’s law, it was repulsive to Peter. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The voice from heaven had to say it three times for Peter to hear. Western missionaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often learned the same lesson. Their initial “Ewwwgh! How disgusting!” to the customs and ways of the locals changed over time.
5. Change often comes through generational and geographical shifts—from Peter to Paul, from Jerusalem to Antioch. These shifts were key to the changes in the early church. New generations bring new ideas. Demographics is destiny. Context and location matter.
6. Tell your Story. Three different times Peter tells a version of the story of his encounter with the household of Cornelius. When asked to explain why he did what he did, Peter tells his story. It seems to give Peter authorization.
7. Secular events and people play a role in the Spirit’s work in church. A famine in Judea, the death of Herod—both are important in the church reaching its decision to welcome gentiles. We know that Christians played a key and courageous role in ending slavery. Other Christians defended slavery to the bitter end. But non-Christians, even anti-Christians, like Marx and Voltaire were also strong voices against slavery. That doesn’t mean Christian abolitionists were “capitulating to the culture.” Secular and sacred aren’t categories that restrict the Holy Spirit.
8. Scripture doesn’t seem to play that big of role in the debate. I hate to say this, as I’m sort of a sola scriptura guy. But it is striking how little appeal is made to scripture as the debate around gentile Christians unfolds. I’m not undermining scripture here, just noticing that James cites only one obscure passage from the prophet Amos at the Jerusalem Council. If the traditionalists, the “no-to-the-gentiles” crowd, had wanted to get into a scripture face-off, they would have won. The Holy Spirit gives us new ways to hear and read scripture. At a symphony, my untrained ears hear the melody, the big, booming parts. But if I began to play the bassoon, I would become much more attentive to the bassoon parts of the symphony. It had always been there, but only with my newly trained ears do I hear it among the entire orchestra. The work of the Holy Spirit often gives that gift of suddenly hearing the bassoon part you never noticed before.
9. When we are making major changes and decisions, we often flip-flop, revert, and feel uncertain about our new ideas. Four chapters before the Council, the Church of Jerusalem seems to give the okay to the gentile church in Antioch based on a glowing report by Barnabas. It wasn’t really okay. The pro-kosher and circumcision crowd continues to grumble, eventually provoking the Council. In Galatians, Paul reports that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. It reminds me of a friend who is a recovering fundamentalist. He doesn’t like to be around fundamentalists or listen to fundamentalist arguments. They can still throw him into a tailspin, stir up ugly sludge deep in his soul, and make him insecure in his freedom in Christ.
10. Big debates and decisions do not end quickly. If we think the Jerusalem Council brought clarity and unanimity to the early church, we aren’t reading very well. Paul’s letters are full of comments and advice about Jewish-gentile relations, keeping the Jewish law, diet, circumcision, etc. It didn’t just go away just because the council made its pronouncement.
11. Some things that seem very important in a moment of crisis turn out later to be pretty insignificant. The Jerusalem Council instructed the gentile Christians not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Within just a few years, even this was called into question. A decade after the Jerusalem Council, writing in his letter to the Romans, Paul suggests that those who refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols are “weak in faith.”
12. The Holy Spirit gives us incredible leeway. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”—this is how the Jerusalem Council announced its conclusion. The Holy Spirit treats us like coworkers. There is trust and permission, not fear and control. The church isn’t stressed that they might get it wrong. There is no sanctimony or servility before the Spirit, nor is there human overriding or manipulating the Spirit. Calm and confident, the church strides into new territory.