Sermon on Acts 11:1-18 – “Happy for Others”

Sermon for Sunday Evening, January 1st, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Scripture reading:

[Act 11:1-18 ESV] 1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” 4 But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. 6 Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. 7 And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11 And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

I. Grace for the Gentiles

“Gentile” is not a word we use in the standard American English vocabulary, except within the Biblical context. So it is important that we understand what it means. Sometimes in the Scriptures, “Gentile” is a reference the Greeks. That language most spoken in the ancient world in the time of Christ was that of Greek. More specifically, it was a dialect of Macedonian. Why Macedonian, and not Doric, Ionian, Attic or some other form of Greek? Well, Alexander the Great, the son of Philip II of Macedon led armies across much of the world, conquering it, and effectively making them Greek-speaking. This Greek was Macedonian because of Alexander and many others from that area. But it was also “Koine” or “common” because there were soldiers in the army from various Greek states and cities. Because of all of this, the most common foreign language spoken was Greek. They spoke it not only in Greece, but in Egypt, Israel, and the Middle East; places where Greek-speaking Kings had reigned in centuries past.

But while “Gentile” is often associated with “Greek” it really is a broader term referring to every non-Jewish person. So the Romans were Gentiles. The Persians were Gentiles. Even the Ethiopians were Gentiles.

Everyone was a Gentile, except for the Jews.

The Jews considered themselves different. They were the chosen people of God. And certainly, they would not associated with Gentiles.

We see two terms in the text are essentially derogatory towards Gentiles. First, they are described as uncircumcised. This is an example where “The Greeks” seems to be more in mind, as some of the Middle Eastern tribes did practice circumcision, but the Greeks did not. Then there is another term derogatory towards the Gentiles. It is not explicit in the text, but it is implied. Like some foods, they are “unclean.”

But the acceptability of all foods has been declared by God in the previous chapter as well as in others places in the New Testament. In Mark 7:19 it says of Jesus “Thus he declared all foods clean.”

Just as all foods have been declared clean, so now have all peoples been declared clean.

This is a declaration as a group.

All types of food are now clean. This doesn’t mean that each and every individual item is clean. Some meat might be rotten and therefore not healthy to eat. Other food may have fallen on the floor, and they had not yet invented the 5-second rule.

Likewise, all types of people are now clean. Jew and non-Jew. Jew and Gentile. Paul elsewhere expands on the phrase and says “Jew, Greek, Barbarian, or Scythian.” That is, no matter how far away you are, and what language you speak, the call of the Gospel is to all peoples.

Still this does not mean that every individual person is clean. The text is not preaching “universalism.” There are many “unclean” persons, both Jews and Gentiles, who despise the Lord, do not have faith in Him, and therefore have not been CLEANSED of their sins.

True uncleanness is because of SIN not because of who your parents were.

The Gentiles — and this is a major point of the Book of Acts as well as the New Testament — the Gentiles are being “grafted in.”

And I’ve always loved that fact. Not only because I’m a Gentile, but because it shows the expansive Love of God and His Grace, even to people you might not think He would be gracious to.

But this is something else going on as well. Something that has come to my attention more recently.

There is another great purpose in the conversion of the Gentiles. IT IS TO MAKE THE JEWS JEALOUS and therefore ultimately to get the Jews to come to Christ.

II. Jealousy for the Jews

One writers calls this “The Jealousy Narrative” and notes that it is seen throughout Scripture.

He says “What we find in our analysis of Scripture is a consistent narrative from Moses to Paul in which the Jews are driven to jealousy by the transference of what were ostensibly Jewish blessings to Gentile recipients.”

The Jews (many of them, perhaps not all) that they were THE people of God. What then when we see Gentiles coming to faith?

When Jesus encountered a believing Roman Centurion (Mathew 8:5-10), He marveled, “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”

The parable of the Good Samaritan shows that this foreigner is greater at loving his neighbor (and therefore obeying God) than a Pharisee and a Levite.

In the Parable of the Laborers (Matthew 20), the early laborers (Jews) are made jealous by the compensation received by the late workers (Gentiles).

The author concludes: “Jesus clearly invested a great deal of His time making the Jews jealous by portraying believing Gentiles as if they were the chosen people of God, and portraying unbelieving Jews as if they were Gentiles. The sinners, tax collectors, harlots, lepers, Samaritans, and Gentiles —even the Roman occupiers—are better than the Jews at everything: glorifying God, loving God, loving their neighbor, repenting, obeying the law, and importantly, believing in Jesus.”

Because God loves the Gentiles, this stirs up jealousy among the Jews.

And to good end. Some Jews—even Pharisees— we are told, came to faith in Jesus Christ through jealousy.

Jesus had said to Nicodemus that “WHOEVER (Jew or Gentile) believes in him is not condemned.” And Nicodemus came to faith.

And, in a time when many Gentiles were coming to the faith, we find in Acts 6:7 that “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”

We can’t know for certain that jealousy was a major reason for this, but it may have been a factor.

Jews WANT what Gentiles are getting: a new heart; justification by faith alone.

The clearest prooftext for this idea of God working jealousy among the Jews for a good purpose is found in Romans 11 where Paul says “Through their trespass (that of the Jews) salvation has come to the Gentiles, SO AS TO MAKE ISREAL JEALOUS.” And few verses later he says, “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I magnify my ministry IN ORDER SOMEHOW TO MAKE MY FELLOW JEWS JEALOUS, AND THUS SAVE SOME OF THEM.”

So this message is propounded throughout the New Testament: the Gentiles are included in the people of God. It is certainly a benefit for the Gentiles to hear this; to hear that they are welcome. But it is also for the benefit of the Jews, to make them jealous and therefore to seek the Lord.

So we find Luke (our author) in Acts 11 speaking about the Gentiles coming to faith.

Peter ate with Gentiles. And some Jews complained. But he explained that God has made them clean.

And this work of God is broadcasted so prominently in having the Holy Spirit come to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.

Peter declares, “If then God gave the same gift (baptism of the Holy Spirit) to THEM(the Gentiles) as he gave US (the Jews) when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, WHO WAS I that I could stand in God’s way?”

In modern english: IF THEY ARE GOOD ENOUGH FOR GOD, THEY ARE GOOD ENOUGH FOR US!

What a powerful statement of Peter.

So powerful that it ended the discussion.

“When they heard these things they fell silent.”

There was no Jewish opposition to the work of God. These were believing Jews who saw the work of God, even the salvation of the Gentiles, being done in their midst.

This is a good example of Jews who were NOT jealous for what the Gentiles had received! These Jews – the disciples – were happy for the Gentiles. And so “they glorified God, saying ‘then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

III. Our Happiness for Others.

And this is a good takeaway for us.

LET US DO AWAY WITH JEALOUSY.

When something good happens to another, let us praise God for that good thing.

Jealousy does the opposite. It takes a GOOD situation and brings out EVIL.

Now, incidentally, I think when I was younger I didn’t know what “jealousy” meant. It just sounded like “jelly” and I knew what jelly was. Strawberry especially. Later I heard the word “zealous” and thought someone must have been mis-speaking the word “jealous.” There was much confusion in this young child’s mind!

Anyways, consider this:

A man’s crops have succeeded. Isn’t that a good thing? So what if your crops have failed. Your neighbor’s success is not the cause of your failure.

A person is better looking that you. (I know that is hard to believe!) (Maybe someday I’ll have a sermon against Vanity)

A person is richer than you are.

A person is blessed with more children than you. Or a believing family. Or a better car. Or a better job. Or more talents and abilities.

What should your response be?

PRAISE THE LORD

Let us SEE the goodness of God, not only when it comes to ourselves, but when it is lavished on others. All good things come from God, and God is to be praised. So we should praise when He blesses others.

The sin of jealousy – like all sins – is to be mortified. It is to be killed. To be thrown out. And let us replace with something else. Let us replace it with glorifying God.

Sadly, entire economic systems works on jealousy. Communism teaches that we should all have the same amount of everything. “To each according to his need” is a well-known Marxian slogan.

Marxism goes something like this. … Someone else has something better than me; therefore they have cheated me or are cheating me. And I deserve part of that thing.

An old journalist, Henry Hazlitt, wrote “The whole (false) gospel of Karl Marx can be summed up in a single sentence: Hate the man who is better off than you are.”

Isn’t this what jealousy brings? Hatred.

The jealous person hates that someone else has something HE wants. Or something He wants exclusively, not willing to share.

So we should put away all envy and jealousy.

Instead, as our passage shows, we should be thankful, we should praise God, when good things come to others.

Especially should we praise God that He has made the way of salvation open to all peoples.

And so we should praise the Lord when He brings faith to anyone, even if they are not like us. There are — and few would contest this — there are believers outside of the Presbyterian church. The Lord has greatest blessed our church. At one point this was the largest denomination in America. And we have genuine disagreements with groups. But when a person in another church— be it Baptist, Lutheran, or even Pentecostal, or Roman Catholic—when a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, let us praise God. This doesn’t erase our concerns with certain churches and their doctrines, nor even our doubts whether they are “true churches” but it recognizes that God’s work is wonderful. Imagine the surprise when the Jews found that GENTILES were coming to the faith.

Let us be joyful in hearing that ANYONE is coming to the faith. For saving faith in Jesus Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit; that same Holy Spirit which works in us.