God’s Power for God’s Purpose
Making Room for the Gentiles
Dr. Jim Denison
Jacob Walker was a lighthouse keeper on Robbin’s Reef, off the rocky shore of New England. After years of faithfully minding the light, he became ill and died. His wife buried his body on the mainland, in view of the lighthouse.
Later Mrs. Walker received appointment as the keeper of their lighthouse. For 20 years she carried on alone, and then a New York reporter went out to get her story. She told him, “Every evening I stand in the door of the lighthouse and look across the water to the hillside where my husband’s body is buried. I always seem to hear his voice saying, ‘Mind the light! Mind the light!'”
This weekend, Christians the world over will celebrate Palm Sunday, that marvelous and miraculous day which began the holiest week in human history. This was the day with the Light of the world came to bring that light to the darkest place in the world—the cross of humanity’s sin. He came to be rejected by his Father, that we might be accepted by him. He came to be made sin for us, that we might be made righteous. He came to die, that we might live.
Now we are called to “mind the light.” We are keepers of the light he brought, warning spiritual ships away from the rocky shores of sin and hell. We are to be as faithful to this task as was our Lord. Someone needs your light this week. Who comes to mind?
Defend the grace of God (vs. 1-18)
An insightful artist painted his subject, “A Dying Church,” in an unusual way. He pictured a beautiful sanctuary, sunlight streaming through stained glass windows, pews filled with worshipers, the pastor behind the pulpit and the choir in the loft. All looked healthy, even vibrant. But in the corner of the painting, on a table in the vestibule outside the sanctuary, he pictured a box with the sign, “Offerings for Missions.” There was a cobweb over the box. A dying church, indeed.
Not everyone agrees with the Great Commission. The church in America spends less than 1% to reach the unreached peoples of the world. It is true that the lighthouse which shines farthest, shines brightest at home. But it is also true that it must shine into the darkness to be a lighthouse at all.
After Peter’s remarkable experience with Cornelius, it is no surprise that the enemy would attack yet again. Remember that he prefers to strike at the point of unity, creating the greatest chaos for the least effort. The Gentile mission threatens his hold over the entire pagan world. We should not expect him to yield easily.
Peter had just returned to Jerusalem when “the circumcised believers” accused him of going into an “uncircumcised” home for a meal (v. 3). Note that these Jewish Christians made no mention of Cornelius’s conversion or baptism. Their first concern appears to be Peter’s apparent breach of legalistic etiquette.
The threat to Peter’s integrity and mission was very real. Paul would later recount to the Galatians the time in Antioch when Peter and even Barnabas withdrew from Gentile hospitality under threat of rejection from Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11-13). Clearly “Simon” (sand) was still part of “Peter” (rock). As it is in us all.
But this time, “Peter” won out. He recounted specifically and clearly exactly his experience with the Spirit (vs. 5-17). He told the story just as it happened, leaving his critics to deal with the Lord. He made clear that it was not about him, stepping out of the conflict. With this result: “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life'” (v. 18).
This would not be the last time the Jerusalem church would wrestle with Gentile conversion (cf. Acts 15:1-35). Paul would later speak of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10); some scholars believe he was referring to the Judaizers, a group of Jewish Christians who followed him wherever he went and told his Gentile converts that they must become Jews to be Christians. But while the battle did not end with Peter’s testimony, the victory began. In time, the Church universal would adopt his position that God intends all to come to faith in his Son (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).
Now God calls you and me to defend and extend his grace to those who stand outside his love. We may believe that he intends all to come to Christ. But unless we tell them, the practical consequence is that the Judaizers win. The decision is ours.
Move to Antioch (vs. 19-21)
The Church is moving today from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern, and from the First World to the Third. The number of conversions in Communist China and sub-Saharan Africa are astounding, in the tens of thousands a day. More than a third (some say more than half) of South Korea is evangelical Christian. Many missiologists say that the center of the Christian movement has already shifted from America to Africa. The Fifth Great Awakening is occurring in countries all over the world.
This is not the first time the Church has shifted its missions headquarters. In the verses before us, the Christian movement will make a dramatic change from Jerusalem to Antioch of Syria. From the Holy City to one of the most pagan. From the capital of the Jewish world to one of the capitals of the Gentile. Such a significant city and movement is worth a moment of exploration.
At one time, at least five cities in Syria were named “Antioch,” before the city we are touring today was established. Nicanor I, the first ruler of the Seleucid dynasty, built the city around 500 B.C., naming it for his father Antiochus. Today it is the city of Antakya in the Hatay province of Turkey. In Luke’s day, its population numbered more than half a million.