Sometimes we are too familiar with the Bible, we read it, we know what’s coming. And because we do we content ourselves with the surface story and fail to notice what’s going on underneath.
Acts is just such a book. We are used to Pentecost and the various outpourings of the Spirit, to Peter and Paul’s missionary activities etc. but do we know how God leads his people from one stage, to, and through another?
Acts is full of it, but especially around the end of chapter 9 through 15 there is a huge change takes place that sees the focus move from Jerusalem and the Jews to Antioch and the Gentiles, from the land of Israel to the §lands of Europe. It kind-of happens, but there is more to it than that, there is a story that runs underneath it, or parallel to it, a story that reveals a process of challenge and change, both personally and corporately.
Following the persecution (that God sent) upon the church in Jerusalem people have moved up country and there is a different kind of fledgling church forming in Antioch – more on that later (Acts 8:1-3; 11:18-21). Meanwhile Peter is traversing the country preaching the gospel, healing the sick and raising the dead. Following a large response to the gospel in Joppa he ends up staying there for a long time (9).
Meanwhile God is at work (isn’t he always at work?) on a Roman army captain by the name of Cornelius in Caesarea some 30 miles away. God loves him and speaks to him through an angel in a vision. He’s a God-fearing man, but he’s not saved, he needs the good news of Jesus Christ.
Not long after back in Joppa Peter goes up on the roof to pray and falls into a trance, an ecstatic state in which he sees a vision of all sorts of animals being let down in a large sheet accompanied by a voice that says, “Get up Peter, kill and eat them.” Peter doesn’t understand and says, “I have never eaten anything unclean,” but the Voice says he should not call unclean what God has made clean. Not once, not twice, but three times. We think surely Peter it was obvious the first time, certainly by the second, but three times? Come on, get with it. But we are no different, prophetic words are not always easy to comprehend especially when they challenge our preconceptions.
In fact, it tells us (10:17,19) that Peter was perplexed, puzzled, and was trying to work out what it meant – you see God was taking him on a revolutionary journey, he was prepping him for what was to come, but he was still bound by his old thinking, locked in his old ways and for God to take his purposes forward Peter needed to change. Maybe he’s wanting to do more through you, but you need to hear what he’s saying and be changed?
Then, while he’s trying to figure it all out some visitors arrive and God says there’s three men looking for you, go with them.
Next day they’re off.
He arrives at the home of the Roman captain in Caesarea, meets and greets those assembled, shares with them the journey God has taken him on, and then preaches Jesus to them.
Then while Peter is preaching the Holy Spirit falls on them and they speak in tongues – conclusion? “can anyone object to them being baptised since they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?”
Wow! Peter has come a long way. He’s gone into a Gentile home, eaten with them, spoken of Jesus to them. When he later explains to the Jew’s in Jerusalem what was taking place he’s 100% convinced God is for the Gentiles (11:17).
Meanwhile, back in Antioch (11:19-30), God has been building his church, a church of Jews and Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas went there and taught them the Word for a whole year, upon which some prophets arrive and one of them prophesies about a famine coming to the whole Roman world. The believers at Antioch consider the prophesy and decide to give generously to the church in Judea, a people with whom they were not connected. God has shaped their culture. The expounded Word prepares them for the ‘spontaneous’ prophetic word.
Meanwhile Peter gets arrested and then miraculously set free from prison.
Then in chapter 13 we are back at Antioch and we discover that there are now recognised prophets and teachers in the church and on this occasion they are worshipping and fasting, and as they do so, God speaks, and says, “Dedicate Paul and Barnabas for the special work to which I have called them.” That’s all the detail, not much to go on, nothing specific. They continue to fast pray and then they are sent off. And so Paul’s first missionary journey begins taking us through the next couple of chapters. Worship/prayer/fasting sets them up for the ‘spontaneous’ voice of the Spirit.
Then in chapter 15 we find Peter in Jerusalem at an important meeting. It follows a big discussion at Antioch in which which some people from Judea had arrived and suggested that maybe these people weren’t saved after all, or not completely saved because they hadn’t been circumcised. A big argument follows. Paul and Barnabas disagree with them vehemently. There’s no agreement so the church ends up sending them to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the apostles and elders. In Jerusalem after much discussion Peter stands up and shares how God chose him to go to the Gentiles and how God confirmed his acceptance of them by giving them the Holy Spirit in exactly the same way as they did. Full stop?
No, there’s more. Peter then talks about the yoke that they as Jews were unable to bear, and that now both Jew and Gentile are “saved in exactly the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.” (15:10,11). The yoke was no longer relevant for Jew or Gentile, full stop! Things are now set up for the advance of the gospel into Europe and the nations! God has led individuals and a church community on a journey that has brought challenge and change in thinking and practice.
What do we learn:
- Prayer is vitally important – it’s too easy to think of the Spirit’s activity, whether in speaking or otherwise, as entirely spontaneous. Prayer preceded Pentecost. Peter prayed. The prophets and teachers worshipped and prayed. In charismatic circles it’s too easy to think of regular prayer as legalistic and religious, it’s not. The apostles and early church continued to follow the regular patterns of prayer. Such praying set them up to hear and encounter God.
- The Word plays an important role – Peter was a man of the Word, his Pentecost sermon is full of it. The taught/expounded word prepared the church at Antioch to receive the prophetic word and see the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas to take the gospel to the nations.
- It’s one thing to receive a word from God, it’s quite another to understand and respond to it in the right way. Time, thought, reflection and more prayer are necessary. We should be careful not to jump to an immediate conclusion. Maybe you have a word but you’ve heard it within the confines of your present reality and attempted to interpret it as such but it’s not worked out. Perhaps you need to revisit it and ask God for further insight.
- God shapes communities. He shaped and prepared Antioch for the purposes he had for them. What is he doing in yours?
- The importance of discussion and dialogue in hearing and understanding what God is saying and doing. The early church struggled at times to understand, so will we, and seeking counsel and wisdom from others is an important part.
- Obedience is key. Without it there is no ongoing revelation. They heard, reflected, prayed and acted.
- The Spirit is present and active. Throughout Acts we see the Spirit poured out and present to the people of God. We see fellowship with the Spirit, empowering by the Spirit, listening to and responding to the Spirit. We must be people of the Spirit.