July 24, 2022

THE WHOLE GOSPEL FOR THE WHOLE WORLD PART II: PETER, THE RELUCTANT WITNESS

Passage: Acts 10:9-43

9 The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
17 Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon's house, stood at the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” 21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So he invited them in to be his guests.
The next day he rose and went away with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And on the following day they entered Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, “Stand up; I too am a man.” 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many persons gathered. 28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.”
30 And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.’ 33 So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.”
34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
— Acts 10:9-43, ESV

Have you ever wanted to witness to someone about the gospel, or at least invite them to a church service, but suddenly felt reluctant?  You lacked confidence and courage.  You felt somehow inadequate or incomplete.  So, the moment passes, and your family member or friend or neighbor goes on about their business, but it is not God’s business, and without God in their business they risk entering into eternity unsaved and undone.

One of the greatest witnesses for Christ of all time, the Apostle Simon Peter, was himself reluctant to spread the gospel by telling other people about Jesus Christ.  When his brother, Andrew, introduced him to Jesus, Simon was reluctant to embrace Him.  When Jesus told Simon about His gospel mission, His crucifixion and resurrection, Peter was reluctant to believe Him and even tried to stop Him.  When it all came down in Jerusalem and Jesus was on trial for His life, Simon Peter was reluctant to defend Him, even denied he knew Him.  Even after the resurrection, when it was time to go fishing for men, Simon reluctantly went fishing for fish instead.

But the book of Acts shows Simon Peter blazing a trail with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He takes the whole gospel to the whole world by bringing it to the Gentiles, wholesale, in the turn of events described in chapter ten.  What turned this reluctant witness into such a reliable soul-winner?  What might we Christians do today to be more willing and able to share the gospel with those around us?

Peter Learned How to Pray

I scanned the four Gospels this week looking for a place where Simon Peter prayed.  Jesus was always praying, and exhorting His disciples to pray.  Once they came to the Lord as a group and asked Him to teach them to pray, meaning they did not know how, at least not very well.  At the end of the Gospels, when Jesus retreats to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, He invites Peter to join Him in prayer, but Peter falls asleep instead.  Peter is not exactly a prayer warrior in the Gospels.

But in the book of Acts, Peter becomes a new man in many ways, and one of those ways is prayer.  Prayer became a staple of the early church, and Simon Peter led the way.  As he prepares to play his part in the whole gospel going to the whole world, we find him enjoying a brief retreat, but the one spiritual disciple he takes no rest from is time alone with God in prayer.

It is no coincidence that at this same time, forty miles away, Cornelius, the incomplete man we met in the last text, is praying, too.  Cornelius is praying because He wants to know Jesus and be made complete.  Simon Peter is praying about his next witnessing opportunity, about who and where to go with the gospel.  This is something all Christians should pray about often, but too often we do not.  Peter did, though, because he had learned from the Lord how to pray, and pray well.  What an answer he received!

Peter Put Away His Prejudice

The reply to Peter’s prayer was perplexing.  It was a dream of various edible animals considered unclean in Old Testament law, which Jesus had pronounced clean (ref. Mark 7:19, and remember Mark’s Gospel is told from Peter’s point of view).  Perhaps Peter had this dream because, as the text tells, he was hungry.  This makes sense to be because fried chicken and banana pudding are often in my dreams.

It makes better sense, however, to understand that God gave Simon Peter this dream to challenge and change his legalism and racism.  The dream sequence exposed Peter’s reluctance to associate with and share the gospel with anyone except the people of his own Jewish race.  Up to this point, Peter had not done so.  But now, the whole gospel had to go to the whole world, and Peter had to put away his prejudice and take the Jewish Messiah to the Gentiles.

It is not wrong to love, in some ways even prefer, people of your own race, nationality, class, and culture.  This is called the homogenous unit principle, and we see it played out in marriage, vocation, neighborhoods, even in church.  People like to hang out with people like them.  It is wrong, however, when the principle becomes permanent, prejudicial, or prevents a Christian from sharing Christ with someone else, just because that person is of a different race or class.  The ground is always level at the foot of the Cross.

Peter Put Away His Pride

Prayer had changed Peter, made him a better follower of Christ.  Prayer and its answer had directed Peter where to go with the gospel, westward into Gentile territory, and onward he would go, all the way to Rome, where he eventually died.  But the story of the whole gospel going into the whole world turns at Acts 10:25-26, “When Peter entered, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, ‘Stand up; I too am a man.’”

Peter is propped up in the book of Acts.  After his failure at the end of the Gospels, Jesus forgives him, restores him, and commissions him as a leading shepherd of the sheep.  In Acts he is the first among equals, the chief spokesperson at Pentecost, the senior pastor of the mother church in Jerusalem (a job he relinquishes to James, Jesus’ half brother, in order to take the gospel to more Jews and Gentiles).

But right here, if Peter had let Cornelius kiss his ring and call him the Pope, literally the Father, and lord himself over the Christians Jews and pagan Gentiles, his gospel ministry would have collapsed.  Such pride is not a problem for just Catholics, but Baptists and every other stripe of Christian.  If we believe we are better than other people, we will be reluctant to share the gospel with them.

Peter took Cornelius by the hand and lifted him up to his own level.  They were hand to hand, heart to heart, on equal footing, sinners standing upon the same ground, separated only by grace.  Peter had it, Cornelius did not, yet.  So Peter prayed, put away his prejudice, swallowed his pride, and preached the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Peter Knew How to Preach

Of the four things that turned this reluctant witness into an effective soul winner for Christ, preaching was the easy part.  Praying is much harder.  Getting past prejudice and putting away pride is much harder.  Once one has done the hard parts, preaching is as easy as telling the truth.

Professional preaching (John Piper please forgive me) is not easy.  It takes hours and hours of work and years and years of practice.  The better preachers stay on point, don’t chase rabbits, don’t build skyscrapers (just put one story on top of another), and stay out of partisan politics.  Simon Peter was a full-time preacher, and he was excellent at it.

At Cornelius’ house, however, Peter was not a professional.  He was just a Christian, witnessing to non-Christians, so that they could be saved.  What he told them about Jesus is something any Christian could tell any non-Christian any time.  Jesus lived, Jesus died, and Jesus lives again, forever.  Those who accept His life as the sinless, Spirit-filled, Son of God, and those who accept His death as the substitutionary sacrifice for sinners, and those who believe in His resurrection from the dead, will have Jesus as Lord and Savior, be forgiven of all of their sin, and enjoy everlasting life.

It’s not rocket science.  It’s just preaching, and not professional preaching either.  It is just the simple, stay on point, saving gospel of Jesus Christ, lovingly proclaimed by a Christian to an unchurched, unbaptized, heretofore unbelieving person, so that they may believe and be saved.

We must be less reluctant to do it.

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