Topical Scripture: Acts 9:32-10:48
A study in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that talking on a cell phone while driving increases the risk of accident fourfold, the same risk as driving while intoxicated. It doesn’t seem to matter if the phone is hands-free or handheld. The study did cite one safety benefit. Nearly 40% of those surveyed used their phones to call 911 after they crashed.
Who can we call before the accident? Before we drive into an uncertain future? Before we meet the truck coming around the next bend?
We in Western culture like to visualize history as a line, a timetable with a past, present, and future. We appreciate five-year plans and strategies for the future. We are at our most disconcerted when tomorrow is clouded in the mists of uncertainty and our headlights cannot see around the turn in the road. But there’s only One who knows the road before us. Learning to let him drive is the key to traveling well.
What about the future most worries you today? Let’s learn how to give that very burden to God this week.
Trust the power of God (9:32-43)
No one in scripture faced a less certain future than the apostle Peter. Identified already by the Sanhedrin as the leader of the movement they branded criminal, he will soon face the wrath of Rome yet again (ch. 12). In the meanwhile, our study this week will put him squarely in the sights of the Jerusalem church leaders and their centuries-old, cherished customs and beliefs regarding the Gentiles. Such racial tensions were at least as deep and divisive then as racism is today.
Before we can follow God into such uncertainty, we must first believe that he will lead us well. Only when we trust his power, will we trust his providence. Now Peter will learn to do both.
The apostle has traveled from Jerusalem to Samaria and back (Acts 8:14-25). Now he is in the midst of another missionary journey, this time to Lydda, a town situated some 12 miles northwest of Jerusalem. There he met a crippled man named Aeneas. Likely a believer (“he went to visit the saints in Lydda,” v. 32), he had been bedridden eight years.
Remembering his earlier experience with the healing power of Jesus (Acts 3:1-10), Peter offered this man the same grace from God. He received it in faith, getting up and trusting God to heal him (v. 34). And the Lord answered his obedience, so that all in Lydda and Sharon (probably the region, but possibly a nearby town) saw him “and turned to the Lord” (v. 35). A changed life is the most potent means of changing other lives.
26 miles further to the northwest lay Joppa, an important sea port. A suburb of Tel Aviv today, it is still a popular tourist attraction. The last time I was in Israel, our group stopped and read the story we will now review. A disciple named Tabitha lived there. Her name is Aramaic; Luke translates her name into the Greek Dorcas, a hint that his reader(s) did not understand Aramaic and thus may have been Gentiles and/or Romans (cf. the dedication to “Theophilus,” perhaps a Roman official, Luke 1:3, Ac. 1:1).
Her mercy ministry was widely known and received, so that her untimely death was mourned by all. The disciples heard that Peter was nearby in Lydda, and summoned him to come urgently (Jewish custom gave those living outside Jerusalem only three days to bury the corpse).
Peter found the deceased girl and her mourners “upstairs” (v. 39), the typical “upper room” used by families as a kind of den. The apostle had been present each time Jesus raised the dead (Matthew 9:25, Luke 7:11-17, John 11:1-44), so he knew that his Lord possessed such power. Unlike Jesus, he knelt and prayed, making clear the fact that this miracle would come from God or it would not come at all. He then called the girl by name, an indication that he believed God intended to raise her. And he did.
The result of this physical miracle was an even more important spiritual miracle: “many people believed in the Lord” (v. 42). As in Lydda earlier (v. 35), this is always God’s ultimate purpose in healing our bodies. They will die again, but souls which turn to him in response to such grace will live forever in his paradise.
If Jesus can raise the dead, what can’t he do? Think back to all the ways the Lord has revealed his powerful grace to you. He gave you physical life, then spiritual salvation. He has given you health, the freedoms we enjoy, and a loving church family. When we remember all he has done, we will more readily trust him for all he will do. When we see his power, we can trust his providence.
Hear the voice of God (10:1-18)
So we know that our Lord can lead us into an uncertain future. But will he? Will the God of the universe actually speak with us?
He certainly spoke to Cornelius and to Simon Peter. The issue before us in Acts 10 is the most crucial turning point in Luke’s entire narrative: can Gentiles become Christians, or must they first become Jews? Is the gospel for everyone? Do you and I as Gentiles have the right to this mercy and grace?
To this point, no one had come to faith without a prior relationship to Judaism; even the Samaritans of Acts 8 espoused a kind of Jewish theology and culture. One could argue that the Ethiopian eunuch was himself related to Judaism, given his Jerusalem worship (Acts 8:27) and obvious interest in the Scriptures (v. 28). Must we all go to Jerusalem before we can go to Jesus?
Peter’s residence with Simon the Tanner in Joppa (Acts 9:43) is indication that his heart was already turning from the racial and moral prejudices of his traditions. A “tanner” was one who worked with the skins of dead animals, and thus handled things unclean to the Jew. To stay with him was a significant step out of the legalism of Peter’s heritage. Now he will be asked to take a second step, the largest of his entire life.
In Caesarea we meet Cornelius, a centurion (a Roman military official given charge of at least 100 soldiers). God had already prepared his heart for this day, so that he was a “God-fearer” (a Gentile who respected the God of Israel), praying and giving to those in need. Now the Lord sent his angel to this good man, instructing him to ask Simon Peter to come from Joppa. Not knowing Peter at all, he demonstrated his faith by sending his messengers to retrieve him.
Meanwhile, Peter was sitting in another upper room, praying. He became hungry, but received instead food for his soul—the most significant single vision in Christian history. It is familiar to you and those you teach—”unclean” animals made clean by the Lord, foreshadowing his grace to “unclean” Gentiles like us.
If the Lord could reveal such a monumental, historic truth to a hungry fisherman, will he not reveal his plans and providence to us today? Again and again, his word calls us to listen to his voice:
•”Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live” (Isaiah 55:2-3).
•”Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:2).
•”He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:11; 2:17; 2:29; 3:6; 3:13; 3:22).
Well over 300 times in the Bible, God calls his people to hear his word. We worship a God who speaks. The problem is not that he will not speak to us—the problem is that we so seldom take time to listen. The supposedly workaholic Germans only work 37 hours a week and take five-week vacations. When last did we? Pour water into a bowl, and it splashes and swirls. Only when you set the bowl down and let it sit, does the water become still.
Where do you most need God’s guidance for your future? Have you given that burden to him, and listened for his response? When last did you spend an hour listening to God? Even ten minutes? His will is a flashlight in the dark, showing you the next step to take. But you must stay in the light to find your way home.
Share the burden of God (10:19-33)
Peter didn’t want to obey what he heard from the Lord (vs. 14-15). Finally he did (vs. 20-21), with this result: “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (v. 28). He has moved from revelation to obedience. So must we.
He invited the Gentile messengers from a Roman official into Simon’s home as his guests (v. 23), an act unthinkable to a self-respecting Jew. Note that when the leaders of the Sanhedrin paraded Jesus to Pilate for trial and execution, “to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace” (John 18:28). Even with the crucial outcome of their plot against this supposed insurrectionist hanging in the balance, they would not make themselves “unclean” by sharing a dwelling with a Gentile. But Peter has already begun to share the heart of God for all his children.
Thus he set out the next day at their request, walking thirty miles from Joppa to Caesarea. Would you make such a trip for the sake of someone you hadn’t met from a race you grew up despising? He told Cornelius his story, and heard in turn the Roman’s story. And the rest made history.
Author Joyce Huggett says, “The secret of true prayer is to place oneself utterly and completely at the disposal of God’s Spirit.” Thomas Merton, one of the best-known monks of the twentieth century, added, “The deepest prayer at its nub is a perpetual surrender to God.”
In his small but helpful book Intimacy with the Almighty, Chuck Swindoll quotes this Puritan prayer:
When you would guide me I control myself.
When you would be sovereign I rule myself.
When you would take care of me I suffice myself.
When I should depend on your providings I supply myself.
When I should submit to your providence I follow my will.
When I should study, honor, trust you, I serve myself;
I fault and correct your laws to suit myself.
Lord, it is my chief design to bring my heart back to You.
Standing before the House of Commons in June of 1941, Winston Churchill announced, “I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby.” Your questions about the future will be much simplified if you will first surrender that future to God. What is his plan for your life? His purpose for your gifts and service? His “north” for your compass? His Great Commission is clear, and required for every believer. Make sure your plans for the future fit within his purpose, and you will have his direction and provision for each step of the way.
Speak the word of God (10:34-48)
Peter has learned again to trust the power of God, to hear the voice of God, to share the burden of God. Now he can speak the word of God. He recounts in detail the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, sharing the greatest story ever told. It is interesting that he began with John the Baptist (v. 37), as did Mark’s gospel. Early tradition indicates that Mark recorded the teachings and testimony of Peter as the basis for his gospel; perhaps what we find in Acts 10 is the way Peter always presented the faith.
Peter’s testimony centers on the most powerful element any of us can introduce into evangelism and ministry: our personal experience. Again and again he cites his own encounters with Jesus’ life and work, incontrovertible evidence for the veracity of his presentation. The man born blind did the same thing before his critics: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25).
We studied the result of Cornelius’s faith experience two weeks ago, in contrast with the Samaritans’ salvation. The results were historic beyond description: if a Roman officer could come to Christ without coming first to Judaism, the gospel is for the entire human race. With this one encounter, the whole world opened to the church and her mission. Her responsibility and privilege grew from a small race of people in a neglected area of the Empire to the entire globe. Cornelius began a call we are still attempting to fulfill today.
Wherever God intends you to be tomorrow, you may be sure that he intends you to speak his words where you go. Life is what happens while we’re making other plans. Peter had no intention of going to Joppa to raise a dead girl, or from there to Caesarea to witness to a Gentile soldier. His five-year plan would have included nothing that actually happened to him. But his obedience to God’s daily call led to the possibility of salvation for the entire human race. Our obedience is intended to do the same.
Recall again that place where the future is most troubling you today. Remember all the ways God has revealed his power to you to this point in your life, and know that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
Give him your greatest fear and uncertainty, and listen for his Spirit’s voice in response. Expect him to call you into a future which will help fulfill his Commission for the nations. Yield to his desire to use your life in spreading the good news of his love. And tomorrow will be all the God of the universe can make it to be.
When Billy Graham began his first preaching crusade in England, criticism quickly rose from skeptics who claimed, “Mr. Graham is setting the church in this country back a hundred years.” When reporters asked him about such criticism, he smiled and responded, “I don’t want to set the church back a hundred years. I want to set it back 2,000 years.”
If we will trust tomorrow to God today as did those who began the faith movement we share, our future will be as secure as our past. This is the present-tense promise of God.