Saturday 27 July 2013

My God is so BIG!

This is a draft of my talk to the kids at the Summer Holiday Club this week who will be studying the book of Joshua. The kids are aged 6 to 11 and their parents will be joining us on the last day for this gospel talk.

Also, I’ll be dressed up as Joshua. If anyone can lend me a fake beard and a toy sword, I’d be very grateful!

Hello boys and girls. My name is Joshua. That’s JOSH--SHUUUAA!

I hear that you have been reading my book, is that right? The book of Joshua. That’s me!

Can anyone tell me what my name, Joshua means? Anyone? It’s a very special name. Joshua means God saves. Did you know that? God saves. This book you have been reading is about God. I hope you enjoyed reading my book and I hope that you enjoyed learning more about my God.

Today what I want to do is tell you kids three things about my God.

1. My God is so BIG

Number One: My God is so BIG! He is big and powerful God! Did you know that? Well sometimes you can know that God is so big but if you are like me, sometimes you can forget that God is so big.

You see, sometimes you feel scared or when you have a big problem in front of you or you have big, big job to do, you might forget that God is a big God. You might think, “I’m just a small kid but I’ve got big problems.” Ever feel like that sometimes?

I feel like that sometimes. Which is why God said these words to me. They are up on the screen. I wonder if you could read them together?

Remember that I commanded you
to be strong and brave.
Don’t be afraid,
because the Lord your God will be with you
everywhere you go.

Wow! Isn’t that amazing? God reminded me that when I feel small and weak, to remember that God is big and strong - because he’s God! He made the entire world.

Can you imagine if God was standing right next to me right now? How big he would be standing right next to tiny little me? I don’t think anyone would want to mess with me, would they, if they saw this big awesome powerful God going with me to school, eating lunch with me, hanging out with me at SHC.

Boys and girls, do you know what? Look at those words again. God says, “I will be with you... everywhere you go!” That means he is right here with me!

Wow! If God is with me, why, I don’t think anyone would want to mess with me would they? I’m friends with God!

So, the first thing to know about my God: He is BIG! And he is my friend!

2. My God is so faithful

Number Two: My God is so faithful. That means, God keeps all his promises in the bible.

Do you remember the time I went round and round the walls of Jericho. Every day... my whole army would wake up early in the morning. They would put on all their armour, like me. And then.. we would go out for a walk!

Every day, we would get up, eat our breakfast, get dressed. And then walk one circle round the city of Jericho.

You know what? A few of my friends said, “This is stupid! We’re just walking around the city doing nothing. The priests would be in front. They would carry the ark of the covenant and some of them would blow trumpets (Pooh! Pooh! Pooh!). And all us soldiers would be walking behind them. After going one round the city (in the hot sun) and then.... go home for lunch.”

We felt so stupid! But God told me to do this for six days. Round and round and round.

But on the seventh day..... God said, “March around the city SEVEN times!” So we did. Round and round and round. But on the seventh time, kids, do you remember what I said?

Shout! For the LORD has given you the city!

Do you remember what happened next? All the walls fell down! Wow!

You see, God promised that he would fight for us. He destroyed the city, not us soldiers. Why? Because God promised. And my God keeps all his promises.

So, that’s number two: My God keeps all his promises.

3. My God is so holy

Number three (and this is the last one): My God is holy.

This is a sad story. Do you remember a man named Achan. I call him Ah-Chan. What did he do? And what happened to him?

That’s right. Achan took some of the gold and the silver and the money he saw in the city of Jericho. God had already said to us that this money belonged to him. But Achan thought, “I’ll just take a little for myself.” Achan disobeyed God.

It was a very sad story because even though Achan sinned, everyone was punished for Achan’s sin. Even those who did not take the gold for themselves.

Why is that? It’s because God is holy. That means that God does not like sin. He doesn’t like it when we don’t listen to him; when we say to God, “I think I don’t want you to be my God anymore. I will be God. I will make up my own rules for my life.”

Because of Achan’s sin, he was punished. He died and his family died and donkeys died. And all his money was burned up.

That’s very, very sad. The bible is warning us that when we disobey God by thinking we are smarter than God, by thinking we can take things which belong to God and hide it from him... God actually knows when we sin against him. And the bible tells us that God will punish us for our sin.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that when we say sorry to God, God will forgive us our sin. He will not punish us. In fact, he will change us so that we will not want to sin anymore.

Now, someone might ask me: How do you know that? How do you know that God will forgive my sin?

I know that because the bible tells us of another man named Joshua. You might know him as Jesus. Both Joshua and Jesus are the same name, did you know that? Both mean, “God saves.”

The bible tells us that Jesus forgives us our sin by dying on the cross. You see, Jesus became like Achan. He took the punishment of sin by dying on the cross. Only, Jesus never sinned, not even once in his life. But he died so that all the Achan’s would not have to die; so that instead of me, Joshua, being punished for my sin, he, Jesus, was punished instead.

Isn’t that amazing? Jesus is actually a better Joshua than me! I led the people into the Promised Land. Jesus leads us into heaven. I helped Israel win the victory over the enemies. Jesus won the victory against the devil and against sin and against death. Jesus is the better Joshua.

God loved us so much that he gave his Son Jesus so that whoever believes in him shall not perish (like Achan) but have eternal life.


So, I hope you can remember the three things we learned about God today.

1. My God is sooo BIG
(You might be a little kid but remember your God is big! And he is always with you! That means you can talk to him. You can pray to him any place, any time.)
2. My God is sooo FAITHFUL
(This book contains all the promises of God. And God says I will do everything I promised in this book! Wow!)
3. My God is sooo HOLY
(God wants us to listen to him because he loves us and knows what is best for us.)

But finally, 4. My God is sooo LOVING. He loved us so much that he sent Jesus to die on the cross, so that we would not perish but would have eternal life.

To end, let’s remind one another the memory verse:

Remember that I commanded you
to be strong and brave.
Don’t be afraid,
because the Lord your God will be with you
everywhere you go.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Christians (Acts 11:19-30)

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
Acts 11:26

One of the earliest images of Jesus is an inscription found on a wall in Rome, etched some 1700 years ago. It is known as the “Alexamenos graffito”, or the Alex Graffiti. The image depicts Jesus as a human figure hung on a cross but having the head of a donkey. Next to him is Alex, a man worshipping the crucified Jesus, with these words written below, “Alex worships his God.” The image is meant to insult Jesus, of course, hence the donkey’s head. But it was probably meant to insult Alex who believed in Jesus; to make fun of this Christian who worships a God who got hung on a cross.

In today’s passage we meet the very first Christians. That is, this is the first time in the bible that they are called Christians. It wasn’t a name they chose for themselves. Most likely, it was a name given to them as an insult because they believed in Jesus Christ.

Someone I know was recently very angry with God. She started cursing God and cursing Christianity and then cursing the church. Pretty soon she began cursing Christians. “Damn those people who call themselves Christians!”

The bible tells us that “Christian” is an appropriate name for a follower of Jesus which is why it stuck ever since. From Acts 11, we see three reasons why this label of “Christian” was given to the first-century believers in Antioch; three reasons why we should be ashamed to be called Christians today.

1. They were the real thing

The first reason is: These believers were the real thing. When we look at the story of how they first became Christians, there was no mistake that only God could have done this.

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, man from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.
Acts 11:19-20

Imagine you wanted to buy Char Siu Pao. What would you do? You could go to Charlie Chan. You could get the frozen packs from Cho Mei and microwave them as a tasty snack  in the comfort of your home.

Now imagine you grew up in a part of the country with no Char Siu Pao’s. Not a single Chinese restaurant in town. No Chinese people living in your village. And one day, you see a few Chinese tourists walking down the high street eating some strange white fluffy bun and you smell the delicious roasted pork filling in the bun: You have just seen your first Char Siu Pao! It is love at first sight! So you approach these tourists and ask them, “Could I have some?” only to have them say to you, “Lei Chee Sin, Ge?” (“You’re crazy!”)

Antioch was a city far away from Jerusalem. No one there had ever heard about Jesus before. Then something unexpected happened! The church in Jerusalem was attacked and all the Christian believers were forced to leave the city. Verse 19 tells us they were “scattered”. Meaning, one day they were all in one place but the next, they were all over the place - scattered all across the country - “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch”, that is, many even left the country because of the persecution and threat to their lives.

Even so, once they reached their destinations, verse 19 tells us they told the message “only to Jews”. It’s like the Chinese people sharing their Char Siu Pao’s only with their Chinese friends. No way were they going to give the secret recipe to Gweilos! Thankfully, not everyone thought that way, because in verse 20, some of them “went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also” - non-Jews - “telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.”

The reason why I say that only God could have done this is because of verse 21.

The Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
Acts 11:21

In order for these non-Jews to hear the gospel, God caused a persecution in Jerusalem. God’s hand was with these Christians who decided to share the gospel with their non-Christian friends. And God caused their friends to believe in Jesus when they heard the gospel.

God overcame prejudices. God overcame cultural barriers. And God granted repentance and faith to the new believers in Antioch.

This was a big deal. The church back in Jerusalem did not expect something like this to happen, which is why the moment they heard the news in Antioch, they sent one of their leaders named Barnabas to check things out. As we shall see, Barnabas was the right man for the job because in verse 23 it says:

When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
Acts 11:23-24

Barnabas, or Barney as I call him, is known as the “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36). He is the kind of guy you want as your basketball team coach. He sees the best in people and brings the best out of people. When he arrived in Antioch, he saw evidence of the grace of God. “Only God could have done this,” was Barnabas’ official verdict of the situation in Antioch. “You guys are the real thing,” he said to the Christians there, “and all I have to say to you guys is: Keep on trusting in Jesus!”

No criticisms. Barnabas looked at the church in Antioch and just went, “Thank God. Hallelujah!” And as a result, verse 24 tells us, even more people became Christians! The church in Antioch continued to grow even further!

Now I want you to get how amazing this reaction is. Barnabas was a representative from Jerusalem and was, himself, a Jew. Acts Chapter 4 tells us he was a “Levite from Cyprus,” meaning that on the one hand, Barnabas descended from Old Testament priests who served at the temple. He was a Levite. On the other, it also says that he grew up overseas, “in Cyprus,” (And you might notice that some of the people who started evangelising in Antioch were from Cyprus - verse 20. This might be one of the reasons the apostle sent Barnabas to investigate the situation.)

The safe thing that Barnabas could have done was to said, “Slow things down.” Barnabas as a leader from Jerusalem could have said, “You guys need to get permission from the apostles back in Jerusalem. I’m not saying you did a bad thing, but maybe it would be wise not to offend anyone back home. Who knows whether these outsiders are real Christians?”

Barnabas did none of that. Why? Because Barnabas looked at what was happening in Antioch and saw the grace of God. “God did this, not because someone had a brilliant idea about evangelising the Gentiles, not because someone messed up and planted a church without permission. No, God did this out of his mercy and grace. Only God can give forgiveness. Only God can cause non-believing Gentiles to repent of their sin and turn to Jesus for forgiveness and rescue from judgement.”

2. They lived distinctive lives

The second thing that we see about these Christians is their distinctiveness. Or, if you like, their unique identity as people who live for Jesus alone.

Barnabas looked at the Christians in Antioch and he saw the real thing. But he didn’t leave them as they were. Barnabas saw potential in this church and what he wanted to do next was to strengthen the church in Antioch. To do this, he needed help. So, in verse 25:

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
Acts 11:25-26

I think there is something tremendously humbling about Barnabas. You see, when we hear a name like “Son of Encouragement,” we tend to think of someone who is young; of someone who is optimistic and sees the silver lining in every situation.

But actually, there is no reason to think of Barnabas as a young guy. If anything he might be a pretty senior member of the Jerusalem church, which explains why he has quite a bit of property to give away in Acts 4, having built it up over the years. Also, in Acts 14, Barnabas is mistaken for the Greek God Zeus. I think that says something significant about his personality. Barnabas had a huge presence - he was mistaken for a Greek God!

More likely, Barnabas was a senior, respected older man who was experienced and wise as a church leader. And I think it says a lot of about Barnabas then to recognise the need to seek out a young guy like Saul to help him lead the church at Antioch. Don’t get me wrong; Saul was a brilliant guy - a scholar and a gifted preacher. But Saul had made big mistakes in his life, not least in causing the persecution that happened in Jerusalem in the first place. But Barnabas looked at Saul and saw the same thing he saw in Antioch: he saw the grace of God. And maybe he knew what Jesus had said back in Acts Chapter 9, that Saul would be his instrument to carry his name before the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). At each and every point of this story, Barnabas was humble enough to lower himself in order to lift others up. Isn’t that amazing? In fact, isn’t that truly encouraging? Those of us who want to learn from Barnabas: It’s not about personality. It is humility that is the key to being a “son of encouragement.”

For a whole year, Barnabas and Saul stayed in Antioch and they taught “the church and great numbers of people” the bible. It was at this point that verse 26 tells us, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Why is that?

There are two parts to that answer. The first thing to notice is that they are Antioch. Remember that these are mainly non-Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, which was a strange thing. They weren’t converting to Judaism. They didn’t start going to temple. They didn’t start learning Hebrew and following food laws and Sabbath laws. You see, that’s the amazing thing. The world looked at these believers and went, “I don’t get them! They’re not Jews. But they are no longer Gentiles either! What are they?”

That is, the world looked at this gathering of believers - this church - and saw that they were so oddly different in the way they lived their lives, they were so distinctive from everyone else - that they had to come up with a new name. They called them Christians. Why? Because the only clear distinctive about them was Christ. They seemed to the outside world like little “Christs”. Or perhaps it was because they kept talking non-stop about Jesus Christ.

It is worth asking ourselves here in the Chinese Church: Is that the way our friends see us? Is it clear from the way we live our lives; from the things that we talk about and live for - that it is all for Jesus?

The second part of the answer lies in the fact that they are called “disciples” in verse 26 and this connects back to the teaching that Saul and Barnabas did in the church. “Disciple” means student. “Disciple” means someone who learns. And what it is saying is: the way you grow as a Christian is by growing in the knowledge of God’s word. The way you grow as a Christian is by growing in obedience to God’s word.

Do you see why Barnabas was so keen to build up the church by teaching them the bible. Why he thought it was so important to get a the best teacher - Saul - to come to this church? It wasn’t so that he could start a bible college. It was so that these young Christians would build their lives on Jesus by spending time in his word. The bible is God’s means of transforming his people to be more and more like Jesus. As they grew in discipleship, in obedience, in knowledge and love of the bible, the church grew in Christ-likeness.

If you want to live a life that is truly significant; if you want to know what God’s plan is for your life and be able to keep in step with that plan - you need to spend time studying his word. Barnabas and Saul did that with the new young believers in Antioch for a year. The result was a community so noticeable, so significant, so distinctive for Jesus - that their friends looked at them and went, “That guy is just like his Christ. That girl is just like her Christ.” They called them Christians. Whether it was a compliment or even if it was an insult, it was name that marked them out not by their culture or race or love for movies or food but by the God whom they worshipped.

3. The loved one another

Finally, what we see of these new Christians is is their love. In a very practical and generous way, this church was marked by their love for one another.

During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Acts 11:27-30

I was on the train last week and got to talking to elderly gentleman sitting next to me. He wasn’t a Christian - in his own word, he wasn’t “religious” - but he told me that he’d once heard Billy Graham preach. At the end of Billy’s sermon, he was challenged to go forward to put his trust in Jesus, but he resisted, he said, because he was worried that he would then be asked to give his money away.

It’s a tricky thing talking about money, isn’t it? And to read in this passage how the church in Antioch gave money to the church in Jerusalem; that’s embarrassing. “There! Don’t you see? The church wants your money after all!”

Notice, that the disciples decided to give of their own free will. This wasn’t an offering at the temple: There was no temple. No, this was a generous response to the prophecy of Agabus the prophet that there was going to be a famine throughout the entire Roman world. Agabus stood up at their Sunday meeting and said, “God is calling us to be prepared for a time of difficulty.” If he had said that in our church, what would be our instinctive reaction? I might be tempted to say, “I’d better save up then for my own needs.” God says, “Tough times are coming,” and I naturally start to think of my own needs first.

Not these Christians. They said, “OK, we’re going to need to help the churches which are worse off than us.” Each according to his ability - there was no coercion - gave generously from what they had.

That’s love. It’s not flowers with chocolates wrapped in a shiny bow with a card that says, “Dear Jerusalem, Thinking of you. Yours truly, Antioch.” Love is not infatuation. Love according to the bible means putting another’s needs before your own. When husbands love their wives by putting their needs first, sacrificing their own. When Christ loved the church by dying on the cross. These brand-new Christians understood that loving their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem meant looking out for them practically, generously and financially at the expense of their own comfort.

I think the church in Jerusalem was surprised. In a good way, I mean. Often times, we are surprised by another person’s selfishness and sinfulness. We shouldn’t be. The bible tells us that we struggle with a sinful nature; that this is a world broken by sin. What we should be surprised by is grace.

I was at New Word Alive recently at a seminar about loving the church. We were talking in small groups about what that meant - to love the church. It was very tempting to gripe: “Oh, loving the church is hard, isn’t it?” In my small group, I said, “I look forward to being surprised by acts of love in the church. I mean, I look forward to it. But I say to God, ‘Please surprise me! Please show me how you can display your grace even through your people!.’” And God does. I talked about a stranger emailing me with a distressing need which I forwarded to a brother I know and trust well. By the end of the day, he had his wife and two other sisters visiting her and her family and he was on the phone arranging regular follow-up over the coming weeks. I wrote back to this brother: “I am proud to call you my brother in Christ.”

Now this doesn’t happen every day but what it is isn’t random. It is a response borne out of care and concern for one another in the family of God. Brothers look out for one another. Sisters talk to one another. Fathers provide for their children. Of course, it involves financial help at times but if you think that’s the main thing, my friend, you have a warped sense about what it means to be in a family. God’s family reflects God’s love which is other-person-centred. Which is gracious, not expecting payment. Which is generous to the point of being sacrificial.

Jesus says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) That was the church in Antioch. I dare say, that is the church today.

Conclusion: Belonging to Christ

Three reasons why the believers were called Christians: (1) They were the real thing, (2) They lived distinctive lives and (3) They loved one another.

But I’d like to end by adding a fourth. They belonged to Christ.

The early Christians weren’t called Jesuits. “Jesus” or “Joshua” was not the name they were most closely associated with. No, the fact that they were called “Christians” means they were being identified with who Jesus was as the King. As the Christ. It meant that Jesus was their King. It meant that Jesus was Lord.

The name “Christian” means “belonging to Christ”. So the next time you tell someone, “I’m a Christian,” what you are saying is not, “I go to church,” or, “I believe in God,” or even, “I believe in Jesus” - as true as all these statements are. No, what you are saying is, “Jesus paid for me with his blood on the cross. I am not my own. I belong to him. The life I live now I live by faith in the Son of God who loved and gave himself for me.” What you are saying is, “I belong to Christ,” and that is a thought that is both marvellous as it is true.

For I am his and he is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ

(“In Christ Alone”, Stuart Townend & Keith Getty)

Saturday 13 July 2013

Unclean (Acts 10)

Unclean food

God gives Peter a vision about food. The time is twelve o’clock - the hottest time of the day - and Peter is up on the roof praying to God. Verse 9 tells us, “he became hungry and wanted something to eat.” It just so happened that it was the time his host was barbecuing lunch on the grill downstairs. Peter could smell the roasting of the meats and hear the sizzling of the steaks. It was at that moment, verse 10 tells us, that Peter fell into a trance.

God gives Peter a vision of huge buffet spread. “All kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds” being lowered down from heaven on a huge white sheet. A voice says to him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

If Peter were Chinese, he would have immediately obeyed. “Yes, Lord!” he would have said. We Chinese, eat anything that moves except an automobile; anything that flies except an airplane. This vision - of eating the various kinds of four-footed animals, reptiles and birds - would not have been a problem for us Chinese.

But it was a big problem for Peter. “Surely not, Lord,” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

That word “unclean” implies a category of food that was not allowed - that was forbidden - according to tradition. Peter was not Chinese but Jewish and according to the Old Testament laws, Jews were not allowed to eat certain foods like reptiles and pork. Leviticus Chapter 11 gives a list of clean and unclean animals. They couldn’t eat camels, rock badgers, pigs, any fish that does not have fins and scales or any insects like grasshoppers. These animals were categorised as “unclean” creatures. As “unclean” foods.

So when Peter says to God, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean,” what he means is, “I’ve never broken the rules. Not once. I have been keeping all the rules since I was a kid.”

Notice God’s response. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” God was not telling Peter to break the rules. God was telling Peter that he had changed the rules. These animals which were previously unclean have now been made clean.

What does this mean for us? As we shall see in today’s passage, it means more than the fact that Peter can now order sweet and sour pork and charsiu pao at Charlie Chan. It means that God wants to make us clean. It means God has done something to take away our uncleanness and our sin.

The three points I want us to see in today’s passage are:

1. More than food (looking at Peter)
2. More than good (looking at Cornelius)
3. Lord of all (looking at Jesus)

1. More than food

The first thing to see is that this vision is about more than food.

While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.

While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
Acts 10:17-20

After receiving three visions from God, Peter receives three men from God. “Do not hesitate to go with them,” says the the Spirit, “for I have sent them.”

“Why have you come?” Peter curiously asks these strangers who have turned up at his door.

The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”
Acts 10:22

These men are representatives of a powerful man, a military man but most strikingly, a non-Jewish man. The reason they are there is to invite Peter to come with them to Cornelius’ house and that was a big deal because, you see, visiting a non-Jewish home and hanging out with a non-Jewish man was against Jewish law. Peter knew that and Cornelius knew that. Look down to verse 28.

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”
Acts 10:28

Both Peter and Cornelius knew that it was a big deal for a Jewish person to enter a non-Jewish home. It was against the law. It was taboo. But Peter had finally made the connection between the vision of the food and the visit to Cornelius’ home. He says, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”

That is why Peter invites the three men into his home to be his guests (verse 23). And that is why Peter goes with them to Caesarea and enters the home of non-Jewish man (verse 24). God had shown Peter that the boundaries of the clean and unclean have been removed - not just for food but for people.

Any missionary will tell you that a very practical challenge living in a new country is the food. When you go to a new country, you might find the food there too spicy, too rich, too bland, too weird, too much, too little. I remember Judy’s Facebook posts of her trip to India last year where she put up photos of the different people she met in the deprived areas of India as well as the food. Every meal was curry, curry, curry! It was challenging but eating the food was part of receiving hospitality and enjoying the fellowship of her friends in India. When Jesus sent out the seventy-two disciples in Luke Chapter 10, he said to them, “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you.” (Luke 10:8) In other words, “Don’t get picky about the kind of hospitality you receive.” That can be hard for a Western missionary in Malaysia invited to a feast of durians. But let me just say, that despite jokes about Chinese people adept at eating anything and everything, we can be quite picky as well. All our meetings begin with food but then again a lot of meetings tend to be just about the food. “Come to our Chinese New Year gathering.” Why? “Because we’ve got so much delicious food!” And if the food isn’t up to scratch, or if there isn’t enough roast duck to go around, we might not come again!

The lesson that Peter learned, which perhaps, we too, need to learn here in the Chinese Church is that it is about more than just the food. God was teaching Peter not to call any person impure or unclean. That meant that God wanted Peter to welcome these non-Jews - these Gentiles - into his home and to enter theirs. More importantly, that meant the God wanted Peter to tell them the gospel.

Are we being selective in the people we choose to tell the gospel; the people we choose to invite to hear the gospel preached? If I asked that question of you, of the leaders here in the church, of the parents and teachers in Sunday School, I might get a range of answers. But just look around here in the Chinese Church. That’s your answer. Who do you hang out with? Who did you have lunch with?

If the only place you ever go for lunch is Hong Kong Fusion; if the only friends you hang out with are those who look like you and sound like you - and I’m not just talking about friends who are Chinese, but friends who are of the same age, who watch the same movies, who like the same kind of music - What do you call that? Most of us would call that “normal,” I know. The bible calls that strange. Strange: because one day men and women from every nation, tongue, people and tribe will gather around Jesus can worship him as Lord. Strange: because we live in a city filled with people from many nations, tongues, peoples and tribes; we walk past many of them today in order to come here to the Chinese Church.

At this point, it is tempting to react by saying something along the lines of “We have to try and welcome everyone to our church.” And yes, that’s a very bold statement. I think this passage gets real with us by showing us that it is better to think of the “someone” rather than focusing generically on everyone. Who is the someone that God has put in your life whom you’ve been avoiding simply because they’re different? Has there been one person you have conveniently ignored simply because frankly, you’ve written them off? “That guy will never be a Christian! She would never want to come to Solid Rock, she hates this kind of thing!”

Notice that in Peter’s case, God was gracious enough to nudge him in the right direction step-by-step. Actually, those of us who were here last week saw that in the way God brought Peter step-by-step to Joppa where he ended up staying with Simon the tanner (and in doing so was already breaking one of the rules in Leviticus 11). Here, we see God using his hunger and his hang-ups about the food laws. God sending the men to his home and Peter welcoming them in. Later, we’ll see that God already gave a vision to Cornelius confirming Peter’s visit there. Every step of the way, God was helping Peter to see his own pride and prejudice; to see God’s purpose and plan for the Gentiles.

2. More than good

So, that’s Peter. Next, we look at Cornelius under our second point: More than good. That is, goodness isn’t enough to be accepted by God.

Cornelius, we’ve already said, was a Gentile military commander. The beginning of Chapter 10 tells us more about him: He and his whole family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. He wasn’t a Christian and yet this guy would put most Christians to shame with regards to his prayer life, with regards to the amount of money he gave to the poor. And you know what? Even God recognises his goodness. An angel says to him in verse 4, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” How many of you here today can God say this: “I’ve seen how loving you’ve been to the poor and I’m proud of you.”

Friends, if you are here today and you are not a believer, I want you to notice that here is God commending a non-Christian for his goodness. Here is God speaking to a non-Christian recognising his generosity. As a Christian, I can think of non-Christian friends who are nicer than me, more hardworking than me; who are better husbands than me; who are better sons to their parents than me. And frankly, I thank God for them.

But here’s the thing: It’s not enough. Being good was not enough for Cornelius. Even Cornelius, for all his goodness and piety, had to turn to Jesus for forgiveness and rescue from God’s judgement.

I think the most striking thing about Cornelius is not his goodness; it’s actually his humility. He sends his servants to fetch Peter, but he also, in verse 8, tells them “everything that happened,” meaning these were men who had similar regard for God, whom he trusted enough to share this vision from God. He didn’t send them to Joppa to force Peter to come though he could have - after all, remember that Cornelius was a powerful man - but he sent them to accurately convey the message he had received from God.

And later on when Peter arrived in Cornelius’ home in verse 24, Cornelius has gathered all his friends and family (verse 27 says there was a large gathering of people). This guy is so eager to hear God’s word that the moment Peter enters the house, Cornelius falls to the ground and Peter has to make him get up - this respected army officer - and say to him, “I’m only a man myself.”

But finally, in verse 33, Cornelius says to Peter, “Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” That’s truly remarkable, for a non-Christian to say to a Christian, “I am so conscious of God’s presence here today. God must have something he wants you to tell us. Please would you preach the gospel to us!” Something like this doesn’t happen every day and I suspect it was new even for the apostle Peter. But God was preparing this non-Christian’s heart in a powerful way, impressing upon him the privilege of hearing his word spoken and preached.

Cornelius was a good man. There is no denying that. But he was a good man who knew that there was more to being accepted by God than just being very, very good or trying your utmost best. Cornelius would have been aware of his own status as a Gentile - as someone who stood outside the promises of God. Peter says to him in verse 28, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile.” Cornelius knew that and if it wasn’t for God commanding Cornelius to bring Peter to his home; if it wasn’t for God telling Peter to enter into his home, Cornelius would not have dared to go against that law. Which is why Cornelius repeats the vision to Peter a second time. He wants Peter to know that this was not a scheme of his, this was not a great idea he had - this was something God had commanded Cornelius to do and he simply obeyed that command.

At the same time, he was so excited to hear what Peter had to say. His whole family were there. He got all his friends round his house to come - and the fact that so many of them came is a testament to how much they respected this guy. “Now we are all here in the presence of God,” he says to Peter, “to listen to everything the Lord has told you to say to us.”

The reason why we open up the bible each week here in the Chinese Church is because we share that same anticipation, that same expectation that comes from hearing God’s word. It is the anticipation and expectation of the presence of God in our midst. We believe that these words are God’s words. More than that, when these words are read out loud, what we hear is God’s voice speaking to us.

What Peter goes on to tell Cornelius is the gospel. Which brings us to our third and final point, because verse 36 describes this gospel as “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.”

3. Lord of all

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
Acts 10:34-38

What we have here is a blind first date. Peter and Cornelius have been brought together by two visions from God. They know they are supposed to be there but there’s a sense of awkwardness in the room. Cornelius mistakenly bows to the ground when Peter enters the room (verse 26). Peter says something to the effect of, “Erm, I’m not really supposed to be here. Why did you ask me to come?” And Cornelius answers, “But you’re supposed to know! I’ve got all my friends here and told them something big was going to happen. Now please tell us why we’re here?” Peter is looking at Cornelius; Cornelius and his friends are looking at Peter.

So, Peter opens his mouth and begins to preach. This much, he’s figured out - God doesn’t show favouritism and accepts even the Gentiles - Peter got that much sorted in his mind. But then notice how he says, “You know... you know...”? He is trying to build up momentum. “You know that this message I have - it’s from Jesus. He’s the one who started it all. You know about him, right? He had a powerful ministry in Galilee (up north) and Judea (down south), and Jesus did amazing things like heal the sick because, well, God was with him, that’s why.”

That is, Cornelius would have been familiar with the message so far. He would have heard of Jesus as a good man, perhaps even, as a man of God. He might have heard about Jesus from other Christians in town. After all, we know from Acts Chapter 9 that both Paul and Philip were in Caesarea preaching about Jesus in that town and maybe word got round to Cornelius that Jesus was someone who did great things for God.

But then Peter went into what Cornelius, perhaps, didn’t know. What Cornelius really needed to know - that Jesus died on the cross. God raised him from the dead. And that Jesus was appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. Friends, that’s the essence of the gospel - who Jesus is and what Jesus did. And the key that unlocks the person and work of Jesus Christ is the cross. He died to take our judgement of sin and he rose again as proof that he was victorious over death and sin.

Peter says in verse 43, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

At that moment, God interrupts Peter’s sermon. A few of us were at a wedding last week when the sermon was interrupted - a couple of times actually - by cellphones that started to go off in the middle of the service. It was actually quite funny to hear the different ringtones people used - one was a recording of a pop song, another had peculiar beeping sound - you don’t really hear the old familiar Nokia ringtone very much these days. Of course, it wasn’t so funny for the pastor and the bride and groom! “How rude,” we might be tempted to think. Only here, in verse 44, it is God who rudely interrupts Peter’s sermon!

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Acts 10:44-46

God was giving a powerful sign and very visible sign of his Holy Spirit by causing Cornelius and his family and friends to speak in tongues. This was a repeat of the Pentecost event when Peter and the 120 believers with him were filled with the Holy Spirit and supernaturally enabled to speak in tongues, that is, to praise God in various different languages of the nations.

Only notice that now, the reverse was happening. The nations were praising God before the Israelites. You see, this was a sign, not for Cornelius, but for Peter. Look at what Peter says in verse 47.

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
Acts 10:47-48

“They have received the Holy Spirit,” Peter says, “just as we have.” It was only at that moment that the penny dropped. These outsiders were now insiders. The Gentile Christians were full members in the family of God. Jesus Christ is Lord of all - of all nations, of all races, of all peoples.

Conclusion: Mission is God’s idea, not ours

Acts is a picture of God on mission. Missions is something God does. Mission is God’s big idea, not ours; his work, not ours. And the way we see this in today’s passage is in the way God prepares both Peter and Cornelius.

For Peter, God prepares him by breaking down his preconceptions. Even Peter, who was an apostle, who was a follower of Jesus Christ, who was a leader in the church, had preconceptions about who can be saved; about who should be saved.

I think God was very gracious in the way he did this. He led Peter step by step. But in the end, God helped Peter to understand that missions is not reaching your own people who are most like us; mission means bringing the gospel to the nations. And being involved in God’s mission inevitably involved engaging with people we would normally classify as “unclean” - people towards whom we are naturally prejudiced towards.

Even Peter needed to learn this lesson. Don’t you think that we do, too, here in the Chinese Church? Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations. I don’t think we can say that we have done that faithfully if our focus as the Chinese Church is exclusively on the Chinese.

And what about Cornelius? God was preparing him, too, by sending him the vision through the angel. By sending Peter to his house to preach the gospel. God was preparing Cornelius from the beginning to receive the gospel - not by doing more and more good works - but by trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins through his substitutionary death on the cross.

Now, unless, we forget, we have more in common with Cornelius than we do, Peter. Because we are Gentiles. Culturally and racially, we stand outside the boundaries of Israel. I wonder if that is why we’ve lost that sense of expectation and anticipation Cornelius had when he saw Peter walking into the room. Maybe that’s why we don’t feel like we need to invite our friends to hear what God has to say in his word. It is because we have taken God’s grace to us for granted.

Prejudice works both ways. On one hand, we can be prejudiced against others, like Peter was. But we can also be presumptuous about ourselves, as if we deserve to have God’s presence with us, because he has always been with us, because we are his church and because we know his word. We forget that mission is God’s idea, not ours. Mission is God’s work, not ours.

Cornelius was so bowled over at the expectation of hearing the gospel, the guy fell to his knees when Peter walked in the room, right in front of all his friends and his family and even his servants. Friends, you may or may not realise this, but these words we have in front of us are pure gold. If you would but just listen, you would hear God’s voice. If you would but just humble yourself, you would find yourself in God’s presence.

Friends, the brutal honest question - and it's so obviously in front of us, I admit I missed it the first few times I looked at this passage - is simply this: When was the last time we humbled ourselves before our God in prayer? God appears to Cornelius in a vision at three in the afternoon, it says in verse 3, but it isn't until verse 30, that Cornelius clarifies, that it was when he was on his knees in prayer before God. God appears to Peter when he is on the rooftop - in prayer. Friends, you can be the nicest guy on earth and the kind of person who helps little old ladies cross the road but if you call yourself a Christian, and you do not regularly come before the Lord of the universe on your knees, humbling yourself before him in prayer - I don't care who you are; you are proud.

The question at the end of the day is not: Are you like Cornelius or are you like Peter? That’s not the question. No, it’s: Are you like Cornelius and Peter: who were both humbled by God; who were both obedient to his word? That is what is means to call Jesus the Lord of all. It means all of us need to humble ourselves before him. It means all of us need to be forgiven by him - the judge of all. It means all of us who put our trust in him, receive full  and final forgiveness through his name.

Sunday 7 July 2013

Healing (Acts 9:32-43) - MP3 recording

Preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 7 July 2013.

Download MP3 View transcript

Who are you, Lord? (Acts 9:1-31)

What do Christians mean when they say that Jesus is Lord?

The story is told of a group of tourists wandering through corridors of the House of Lords only to encounter Lord Neil Kinnock, dressed in ceremonial black robes and a white wig after a session at Parliament. A friend sees Neil from afar and calls out to Lord Kinnock to attract his attention. “Neil! Neil!” he cries out to him from across the hall - upon which the group of tourists promptly fall to the ground on one knee!

In the passage we looked at last Sunday from Acts Chapter 9, Saul of Tarsus falls to the ground - he falls to his knees - upon encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Saul does not recognise who it is who stands before him. Yet, curiously enough, Saul address him as Lord.

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” he replied.
Acts 9:5-6

In this passage, we learn four implications of the lordship of Jesus Christ. Jesus is lord over our ignorance. Jesus is lord through his death on the cross. And Jesus is lord over the church.

1. Jesus is Lord over our ignorance

In Galatians, we learn that Saul “was advancing in Judaism” beyond many of his peers (Galatians 1:14), meaning, he scored top marks in all his theology exams at Cambridge. As an esteemed member of the religious party known as the Pharisees, Saul of Tarsus strictly observed the law of Moses - putting into practice all the traditions of his father into everyday life. This would have included offering up the prescribed worship and sacrifices at the temple and keeping the Sabbath laws and the Jewish food laws.

Yet for all his religious zeal and piety, Saul did not know Jesus. If anything, his religious upbringing had only served to turn Saul against Jesus. It had made him reject any notion whatsoever that Jesus could be God’s chosen king, much less, that Jesus could ever be God in the flesh.

It was only when Saul met with the risen Christ personally did he learn the truth of his ignorance and the folly of his rebellion. The encounter left Saul blind for three days, indicative of the sorry state of spiritual blindness Saul had experienced his entire life up to that point.

No amount of religious exposure can take the place of a personal encounter with Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. The bible clearly teaches that the Old Testament scriptures are able to “make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). Yet, Jesus says warns those who search the scriptures diligently thinking that in them have eternal life. To such diligent and able bible scholars, Jesus can say, “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)

When teaching the Scriptures in our church, bible studies and Sunday schools, we must pray for our friends to meet with the Jesus of the Scriptures; to encounter the one whom Scriptures testify to. Those of us responsible for teaching the Scriptures must take special care not to “innoculate” our hearers against Christ, that is, to give them just a small taste of religion - just a small dose of spirituality - but just enough to build up their resistance against the real thing. We want our friends, we want our bible study group members and we want our Sunday School kids to know Jesus. That’s why we open up our bibles because the bible is God’s word to us speaking about who Jesus is; about what Jesus came to do.

It means that when someone does meet Jesus for the very first time, they may have more questions than answers. “Who are you, Lord?” is an excellent question to ask because it is such an honest question. It is the question of a man humbled before his Lord. It is a question the Lord Jesus himself answers is such a personal and powerful way. Jesus chose to reveal himself to Saul. It was an act of great mercy and condescension but most of all, it was an act of revelation.

In answering Saul’s question, Jesus was revealing what it meant for Saul to address him as his lord. It meant seeing Christ’s glory revealed through his suffering. It meant understanding that Jesus became Lord through his death on the cross.

2. Jesus is Lord through his death on the cross

In his first public sermon at Pentecost, the apostle Peter stood before a crowd of thousands of his fellow Jews in Jerusalem and said these words:

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
Acts 2:36

Peter claims that Jesus entered into his Lordship by dying on the cross. In fact, what he says to all Israel is that they crucified Jesus - they killed him by publicly executing Jesus on the cross - but God made him Lord and Christ. The two events - the crucifixion and the coronation, as it were - are not independent of one another. God planned for both to coincide on the cross. Jesus was rejected. Jesus was raised.

When Saul meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, he encounters his Lord in magnificent glory and awesome power as light from heaven envelopes him and even blinds him. Saul has no choice but to fall to the ground in submission before Jesus’ majestic presence. This is the risen Christ who stands in the presence of God the Father, descending from heaven to meet personally with a mere mortal, this persecutor of Christians, this destroyer of the church (Acts 8:3) named Saul.

And yet, how does Jesus introduce himself to Saul?

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Acts 9:4

Jesus speaks to Saul, calling him by name. He knows Saul. Jesus has seen all that Saul has done and tried to do. He knows of Saul’s deep hatred of Christians (Acts (9:1). He knows Saul was there when the mob killed Stephen in cold blood (Acts 8:1). Jesus knows of Saul’s master plan to round up all the Christians in Damascus and transport them back to Jerusalem to face punishment and perhaps even, death (Acts 8:2).

But Jesus does not say to Saul, “Why are you destroying my church?” “Why do you hate Christians so much?” No. What Jesus says to him is, “Why do you persecute me?”

Such is the connection between Jesus and the church - particularly through their suffering - that Jesus can say that he is being persecuted. That, in a sense, he is being killed. That should not come as any surprise to those of us who know Jesus through his death on the cross. That’s how we first came to know him as Lord. He gave his life as the ransom for our freedom. His death was the means by which all the debt of our sin was fully paid. And the bible tells us that Christians become united with Jesus through the cross, as if to say, when Jesus died, I died. When Jesus was raised, I was raised. We are united to him - joined to him - through his death and resurrection on the cross.

What is so striking about this passage is that it reveals how Jesus is united with us in our suffering. As the church is persecuted, so Jesus is being persecuted. As we are rejected by the world, it is but an extension of the world’s rejection of Jesus as Lord.

To be clear, Jesus’ death on the cross was a once-for-all event in history. “Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:26)

And yet, Saul (who was later, better known as Paul) can write to the Colossian Christians, saying, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24) Our suffering does not pay for the sins of the world the way Christ’s did. But what our suffering does is display the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross. His suffering means my suffering is not wasted. His suffering means my suffering is not because I’m being punished, even though I know deserve to be punished for my sins, but that he has taken all my punishment upon himself once for all on the cross. His suffering means I can suffer - and I will suffer in this lifetime - but continue to boast in the midst of my suffering, knowing that it produces perseverance, character and hope, being reassured of God’s love for me every step of the way (Romans 5:1-5)

On the road to Damascus, Jesus reveals himself to Saul the persecutor as the Lord who is persecuted. And later on, Jesus says of Saul, “I will show him how much he (meaning Saul) must suffer for my name.” Anyone reading this would be forgiven for thinking that Jesus was punishing Saul for his past deeds - “He must suffer,” Jesus says. But unless we forget, Jesus reveals the reason for Saul’s suffering. It is for his name. Saul would become Jesus’ chief messenger of the gospel to the Gentiles. Saul would proclaim Jesus as Lord to the nations; as Lord over the nations. But with that privilege of proclaiming salvation in Jesus’ name comes the privilege of suffering for that name.

“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him,” Paul writes to the Philippians (Philippians 1:29), understanding how the core of our witness to Christ is our witness to Christ’s suffering on the cross, and the core to our witness to his suffering is our suffering for his namesake.

3. Jesus is Lord over the church

But finally, we see that Jesus is Lord over the church. For the focus is not solely, or I would argue, even primarily on Saul of Tarsus, despite the personal encounter and vision he has of the risen Christ.

The immediate next section (verse 10 onwards) focuses on Ananias, to whom the Lord also appears, to whom Jesus also speaks and gives specific instructions, this time to Ananias to go to Saul in order to heal him of his blindness and welcome Saul as a brother into the church.

And while Saul is featured again (verse 20 onwards) preaching and teaching in the synagogues at Damascus, escaping an assassination attempt at the city gates, then going down to Jerusalem, where he is viewed with suspicion but thanks to Barnabas, is eventually introduced to the apostles and gains the trust of the believers there, only to have the assassination attempt made on his life, this time by the Grecian Jews - while Saul is clearly the the focus of Acts here, notice that Saul quickly fades into the background again. By verse 30, Saul is shipped out of Jerusalem, back to his hometown in Tarsus, never to be heard of again till Chapter 11.

Why? Because, Acts wants to bring our focus back to the church.

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
Acts 9:31

The account of the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem beginning with Saul attacking the church in Acts 8 ends with peace, blessing and growth. Despite the difficult circumstances, God actually uses the persecution of Christians to spread the gospel across the country, such that the church expands to include the whole nation of Israel (Judea, Galilee and Samaria). God does this, not so much by punishing Saul, the person chiefly responsible for the outbreak of trouble, but by showing him mercy. Jesus reveals himself to Saul, graciously giving him of his Spirit (Acts 9:17) and commissioning him as his apostle to the nations (Acts 9:15).

It isn’t only to Saul that Jesus reveals himself as Lord, but also to his church, which enjoys a time of peace, which is strengthened, which is encouraged by the Holy Spirit, which increases in numbers. What a wonderful reminder of the sovereignty of Christ. Jesus has received all authority in heaven and earth from his Father and he is in fully control of the situation, using even the persecution of Saul to bring blessing and peace to his people.

Yet that isn’t all that verse 31 says was a result of Christ’s lordship. You see, it also says that the church lived in fear of the Lord. Did you notice that? There was a deep awareness amongst the believers of what it meant to call Jesus Lord, of what his Lordship is meant to look like here in the church. It is seen in our growing submission to his authority. It is seen in the spread of the gospel.

Jesus said to his followers in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I think there was a fresh understanding of these words then in the church as they saw Jesus carrying out his mission to the nations through their obedience and disobedience, through their growth and decline, through men like Saul and through martyrs like Stephen. Jesus was demonstrating his Lordship through the building of his church, which is his body. Jesus was demonstrating the unstoppable power of the gospel going out to the nations and establishing his kingdom here on earth.

One day, all creation will see him again and every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess him as Lord (Phil 2:10). But you see, Acts 9:31 gives us a glimpse of that reality today. It is seen right now, right here in the church, as men and women live under the Lordship of Christ, empowered by His Spirit, and they are sent out to proclaim salvation in Jesus’ name.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Healing (Acts 9:32-43)

In today’s passage, the apostle Peter heals a man who hasn’t been able to walk for eight years and he raises a woman who has just died. Today’s passage is about miraculous healing.

I wonder if you are surprised to read this in the bible today? Are we seriously going to study a passage which teaches us that God can heal a serious illness? Isn’t that embarrassing in this day and age? Isn’t that irresponsible?

In part, our skepticism in reading such records of miraculous, seemingly unexplainable, incidences of healing flow from our skepticism of God. Some of us simply don’t believe that there is a God.

But some of us are cynical, not because we don’t believe in God or that God can’t heal miraculously - we do - but we’re cynical because we don’t see God healing people today (at least, not in such miraculous ways).

Now if that is you, I just want to say that in both cases, the focus seems to be on miracles as proof of God’s existence: The evidence of miracles is the evidence of God. But that is not the focus of the passage. It’s not the connection the bible wants us to make. Indeed, Jesus, himself, who performed miracles and healed people and raised people from the dead, cautioned us against believing in the miracles. No, the miracles were pointing us to something else. The miracles were meant to make us ask: Why has God done this? Why were they healed?

That is the real surprise in this passage. Not that God heals, but why. Why did God use Peter to heal these two individuals in Lydda and then in Joppa. The simple answer is: these two healings foreshadow the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is, they point us to a greater problem than falling sick and going to the hospital. And they point us to a greater solution than God making us feel better so we that can get on with our day. They point us to the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

That is the direction we are heading in as we look at three points from our passage: the raising, the turning and the staying: The raising of Aeneas and Dorcas, the turning of the crowd resulting finally in Peter staying in this place called Joppa.

1. The raising

We begin with the raising. Peter heals two individuals - Aeneas and Dorcas. In both instances the healings are miraculous. In both cases, the healings are instantaneous - Aeneas gets up and walks; Dorcas gets up from the dead - that is, there is no long recovery period during which they progressively get better and better. Both are healed instantly, completely and miraculously.

But also, notice, both are raised. To Aeneas, Peter says to him, in verse 34, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and tidy your mat.” He says the same thing to Dorcas, in verse 40, “Dorcas, get up.” Peter speaks a command and they obey: “Rise up!”

There is something bigger going on here than healing. Healing might even be the wrong word. Healing is what happens when your health improves after an illness; when you get better or feel better after falling ill. No, what God does is radically change the status of these two individuals - from inability to obedience, from death to life. This is a radical complete transformation.

We meet Aeneas: who is a paralytic, bedridden for eight years. To him, Peter says, “Get up!” but also, “Tidy up your mat.” This is a complete reversal of his previous condition: from being paralysed to walking on his own two feet; from laying on his mat all day long to picking it up and putting it away. Peter is saying to him, “That life is done. That old condition you have been in for eight years. Pack it up. Put it away.”

It is a complete reversal from helplessness to obedience. Notice, it is Jesus who heals him, not Peter (verse 34), and it is Jesus who commands Aeneas to rise. The power of his command is seen in the act of healing, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up!” It is also seen in the obedience to that command, “Immediately Aeneas got up.”

This is especially important in the case of Dorcas. The call of Jesus goes beyond the grave.

We learn that her name is Tabitha, or Dorcas (Both names mean “gazelle” or “deer”). She is described as someone who was always doing good and helping the poor. It is why so many of the poor are mourning her death at the funeral. Many of them are widows (verse 39).

Here was a woman who spent her life serving other women in need. Widows in the ancient world were especially vulnerable in their society. They didn’t own property (it was all in the husband’s name) and if they were childless, these women were without any financial safety net. The “robes and the clothing” which Dorcas made for them, mentioned in verse 39 tells us that Dorcas looked out for their physical well-being. These weren’t knitted jumpers you got from your gran for Christmas. Dorcas generously provided for their basic needs, even their clothing.

So, when they hear that Peter was in the neighbouring town - verse 38, says “Lydda was near Joppa,” - they quickly send two men to urge him, “Please come at once.” Peter follows them to Joppa where he meets the widows in the upper room. Again, the reason why Acts records this is not simply to show us what an outstanding woman Dorcas is, but more so, to show us how much these widows loved her and depended upon her. That’s important because right at the end, in verse 41, he “presented her alive.” That is, this miracle was done partly for their sake - to return Dorcas alive to the believers and widows who loved her so much.

But for now, Peter sends them all out of the room (verse 40). He gets down on his knees. And he prays. You might remember another incident remarkably similar to this one, involving Jesus raising a little girl from death (recorded in Mark 5 and Luke 8) where there were also mourners around the body. When Jesus says to the mourners, “This child is not dead but asleep,” they laugh at him and Jesus is forced to put them out of the room and close the door. What is so interesting in the episode involving Jesus in Mark Chapter 5 is what he says to that little girl.

He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”)
Mark 5:41

Now look at what Peter says to Tabitha.

Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet.
Acts 9:40-41

The remarkable similarities between the mourners being sent out of the room and the command given to a dead body to “Get up!” - even the the similarity between “Talitha” and “Tabitha” - are there to draw a connection between Peter and Jesus’ ministry, they authenticate Peter’s apostolic authority, they signal a continuation of Jesus’ work on earth, but most of all, they remind us this is a call all of us will hear one day and respond to, even from the grave. One day, Jesus will return. We will all hear his voice. And he will command the dead to rise again to face him either as our Saviour or our Judge.

In other words, what we see are foreshadowings of the resurrection. In the same way that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead after his crucifixion so one day, we will be raised - some to eternal life, others to everlasting condemnation. But make no mistake of this, all of us will be raised. Jesus will raise his voice and command the living and the dead to rise up and acknowledge him as Lord.

2. The turning

This bring us to our second point: The turning. The reason why these miracles happened in Lydda and Joppa was to enable the people in these cities to respond to Jesus now before that final day.

All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
Acts 9:35

This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.
Acts 9:42

Two different words are used to describe the same response - turned and believe. To turn is synonymous with repenting. In fact, it is a better word, I think, than repenting, because many people think that you repent by feeling sorry and awful about the horrible things you’ve done in your life. Not that you shouldn’t feel sorry about the horrible things you’ve done, but that isn’t repenting. That’s feeling remorseful; sorry. To repent is to turn and face God to whom you should say sorry. To repent is to turn away from doing those horrible things and to face God to serve him instead. When Christians repent from their sins, what they are doing is saying sorry to God, asking him to forgive their sins and change them so that they will serve him instead of continuing on in their sin.

The second word is “believe”. Today, someone might say, “I believe there is a God,” but that’s not what happened in Joppa. It wasn’t a general awareness that there is a powerful being who can heal terrible illnesses and therefore I’m going to pray to him whenever I have the flu. No, the people of Joppe “believed in the Lord,” which means that the incident about Dorcas’ being brought back from the dead made them pay attention to what the Christians were saying about Jesus and his death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead and his offer of forgiveness and new life for all who trust (or believe) in him, and they responded, “I, too, trust in Jesus who died on the cross for my sins.” That’s what it means. In short, it means they became Christians.

More importantly, it means they understood the reason why Aeneas and Dorcas were raised - not as a guarantee that Christians will automatically get well if they pray for healing - but that these events were pointers to bigger event when all of us will be raised at the voice of Christ: The Resurrection.

If you understand this, you understand the reason why many don’t get healed. The bible tells us that all illness, all ageing, all pain are but symptoms of a bigger problem: death. We tend to wait till things get really bad before we face up to the reality of death. But death is not just a one-off event that happens at the end of life. No, death is curse we all live with every day. It’s in the air that we breath. It’s on the toothaches, the wrinkles, the hair-loss, the sun-burn. Death reminds us that life is not as it should be.

And the bible tells us the reason for death is sin. We have all sinned, that is, we have all turned our backs against God. We reject him and we don’t want anything whatsoever to do with him. And as a result of that rejection - of that sin - God punishes us with a curse called death.

Death in the bible is separation. We remove God from our lives. In turn God removes us - he separates us - from himself, the source of life. When you understand that, you begin to see that death goes beyond being something physical to being something that is essentially relational. This is why physical death is so painful even for the living. This is why we mourn over our loved ones, why the pain still lingers for years and years. Death separates us from life; from those we love. It separates us from God.

The resurrection is a reversal of death. Now get this, it is not simply the removal of death, but a complete reversal of death. On the cross, Jesus Christ took our death upon himself. He took our punishment of sin upon himself by dying in our place. God treated Jesus the way he should have treated us: by sending him to the cross. But when God raised him from the dead, the bible says that we were also raised with Jesus from the dead. What this means is, for the Christian, the resurrection is not simply a hope for future, it is a living reality for today. Christians live free from the curse (or control) of death. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)

A reversal means we live a new life empowered by God’s Spirit. We have a relationship with God that is reconciled. We have a relationship with one another that can never be separated.

3. The staying

And this brings us to our final point, which I call: the staying. What does this new resurrection life look like now? We see this in Peter’s journey which ends up with him staying “for some time” in Joppa. Don’t forget that in reading about Aeneas and Dorcas, what we are really reading is the account of God leading Peter step-by-step in his mission. These events are there for his benefit as well, to show Peter how God is making known this new reality of the resurrection age in this age. He does this through gospel.

Right from the beginning, in verse 32, Peter is travelling about the country with the intention of visiting the Christians in Lydda. At this point the gospel has spread beyond the borders of Jerusalem, such that there are now Christians all over Israel - in Judea, Galilee and Samaria (which we saw last week in Acts 9:31). Peter is visiting some of these churches to strengthen them and encourage them as brothers and sisters in Christ. At least, that is his plan for making this trip around the country.

But pretty soon, we realise that Peter is not in full control of his itinerary. He heals Aeneas and the whole town of Lydda becomes Christian. Then the widows hear about him and urgently send two guys to bring him to Joppa, where Peter heals Dorcas, which, in turn, results in many people becoming Christians in Joppa. Do you see? The events themselves are pulling Peter in a particular direction - out of Jerusalem to Lydda and finally to Joppa.

Now look at how the Chapter ends in verse 43.

Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.
Acts 9:43

Contrary to our modern usage of the word “tanner”, Simon the tanner does not operate a shop where you can get fake tans and end up looking like George Clooney with a curry-coloured complexion. A tanner is someone who skins animals to make leather, meaning he works with a lot of dead animals in his backyard, meaning that when it says that Peter lived in Simon’s house “for many days” (ESV), Peter would have been breaking Jewish social taboos and Old Testament laws which forbade touching dead animal carcasses.

But God led him to that city in Joppa. Next week we will see that God led him there so that he can tell the gospel to a Gentile named Cornelius, and by doing so, Peter was breaking one of the biggest no-no’s in Jewish etiquette: mixing with an unclean outsider. But the point is, God led him there, step-by-step, to show him that the resurrection of Jesus Christ breaks down the barrier between life and death but also between Jew and Gentile. God raises the dead. He forgives the sinner. He welcomes the outsider. If death means separation, new life in Jesus Christ means reconciliation with God and with one another.

That is something we will look at in more detail next week. But for now, I just wanted us to notice that Peter staying in Joppa with Simon the tanner was no accident. In the same way that Aeneas was healed and Dorcas was raised was no accident, but these were events put into place by God to point us to one single reality: Jesus Christ is Lord.

Peter makes it clear to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you.” Whether or how or when such healing takes place today is in the hands of Jesus Christ, not ours. And before the dead body of Dorcas, Peter bows down on his knees and prays. He cannot do this, only God can.

Friends, what would it take for us to acknowledge Jesus as Lord; to submit our lives and the lives of those we love into his hands. Some of us think that it is only when faced with a real situation of death and despair. When we are in the halls of the cancer ward or before the coffin in the funeral home. Now, that may have been the reaction of the mourners at Dorcas’ funeral, but I want you to see that it isn’t Peter’s. In Chinese we say, “Boh Pian” - “No choice. Haiii, I guess, we should pray about it.”

That wasn’t Peter’s attitude in submitting to Jesus. No, rather it was trust in the completed work of Jesus Christ in taking our death and our suffering upon himself. It was the knowledge that Jesus is Lord because he took our death and suffering upon himself.

Am I saying that we should not pray for healing? Quite the contrary. There can be no doubt that the God who made the universe and sustains every single living being by his will can heal us. In an instant. To say otherwise is just plain silly. He, otherwise, would not be God.

But we reveal something about what we really know about this God when all we pray for is healing. We reveal that we don’t need anything else, but healing. If all we pray for is healing, then we reveal quite clearly that Jesus Christ is not our Lord.

Why was Peter in Lydda and then Joppa? It tells us right from the beginning. He was there to see the believers, to encourage them, to remind them to stay faithful in Jesus. And that’s just what he did - through the healing, which resulted in many turning to Jesus - yes, but then by pointing them back to Jesus. He pointed them to Jesus, the one who heals, the one who sustains, the one who forgives and the one who raises even the dead to new life.