Sermon title:

A Key to Understanding the Bible

Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, January 31, 2021

 

 

We’re going to talk this morning about

a key to understanding the Bible.

And, since the Bible is a key to understanding

our own lives in this world,

it is vitally important that we read

and grasp the meaning

of that written Word of God.

 

The 11th Chapter of Acts

is a key chapter that helps us

understand the rest of the New Testament

that follows.

 

In fact, the 11th Chapter of Acts is a key

to helping us understand why we have

an Old Testament and a New Testament,

and how the Old and New Testaments

relate to each other.

 

In the previous chapter—the 10th Chapter of Acts—

the Apostle Peter visited the home of Cornelius,

a Roman army officer of the Italian Regiment.

 

It was a divinely arranged visit.

 

And, when Peter preached the Gospel

to Cornelius and his household

and relatives and friends

that was the very first time

the Gospel of Christ was ever preached

to a group of non-Jewish people.

 

And now the 11th Chapter of Acts tells us

how that came as a shock to the rest of the Church,

since, up until that point,

only Jews had joined the Church.

 

The integration of non-Jews into the Church,

and the change-over from the Jewish

to the Christian arrangement

would prove to be a real struggle.

 

And understanding that struggle helps us

understand the rest of the New Testament.

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At his Last Supper with the disciples

before going to the cross,

our Lord Jesus instituted the New Covenant—

the new arrangement between God and man.

 

Luke 22:20 tells us,

Likewise, he took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

 

That New Covenant was meant to replace

the Old Covenant—the arrangement God made

with the Jewish people through Moses.

 

The Apostles heard Jesus make that announcement

when he passed the cup among them

for each one to drink, symbolically, of his blood.

 

But they had no idea, at that point,

how the New Covenant would change their lives.

 

They were all Jews, born and raised

in the Laws of the Old Covenant.

 

And that Old Covenant instituted by God through Moses

included more than 600 laws—

laws that guided the Jews in their walk with God,

in their worship,

in their dress and grooming,

in their Kosher diet

and in every aspect of their daily lives.

 

The New Covenant Jesus spoke of at the Last Supper

was about to replace those 600-plus laws

with the Law of Christ, instead.

 

Instead of following the Law of Moses,

Christians were going to be guided in life

by everything Jesus taught and commanded.

 

Paul refers to this in his letter to the Galatians

and in his First letter to the Corinthians

as “the Law of Christ.”

 

Our Lord made that clear in his final words

before leaving the disciples and ascending to heaven.

 

At Matthew 28:19 he said,

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

 

Each new convert to Christianity

would need to be taught

to obey everything I have commanded you.

 

Pagan men converting to Judaism

had to be circumcised and taught to obey

the Laws of Moses.

 

But everyone converting to Christianity

had to be baptized and taught to obey

everything Jesus taught and commanded.

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This change in God’s way of dealing with mankind

was planned long in advance.

More than 500 years before Christ

God announced through his prophet Jeremiah

that he would eventually replace

the covenant he made through Moses

when he led the Jews out of Egypt.

 

At Jeremiah 31:31, we read

31 Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt—-a covenant they broke, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD.

 

The Old Covenant included a Kosher diet.

 

God commanded the Jewish people not to eat

pork, ham, shellfish, and many other foods

that were eaten by their non-Jewish neighbors.

 

The Old Covenant through Moses required

that Jewish men to be circumcised

and dress and groom differently.

 

That Old Covenant was part of God’s plan

to keep the Jewish people separate from everyone else,

to preserve them as a unique Chosen People

for thousands of years.

 

But that Old Covenant was not God’s

permanent way of dealing with mankind.

 

It was a temporary arrangement

designed to prepare people

for the coming of Christ and the New Covenant.

 

Galatians 3 explains it.

 

Referring to the Old Covenant’s Law of Moses,

Galatians 3:23 says,

23 The Law controlled us and kept us under its power until the time came when we would have faith. 24 In fact, the Law was to be our teacher until Christ came. Then we could have faith and be acceptable to God. 25 But once a person has learned to have faith, there is no more need to have the Law as a teacher.

 

So, the Law of Moses was

just a tutor leading to Christ.

 

Under the New Covenant

faith in Christ would make us acceptable to God.

 

There was no longer any need

to follow the Old Covenant’s Kosher diet,

or its circumcision requirement,

or its odd style of dress and grooming.

 

God did not impose that Law of Moses

upon those who put faith in Christ.

 

That made it easier for non-Jews to become Christians.

 

But the changeover was difficult

for the Jews who made up

the initial Christian congregation in Jerusalem.

 

This change from the Jewish arrangement

to the Christian arrangement

was a real challenge for the early Church.

 

The Twelve Apostles were all Jewish

and so were the thousands who made up

the early Christian Church in Jerusalem.

 

And it was going to be a challenge for the Church

to start including non-Jews.

 

For the first time in their lives

the Jewish believers in Christ would start socializing

with non-Jews who also came to believe in Jesus.

 

For the first time in their lives, the Jewish Christians

would associate with people who ate non-Kosher food

and who didn’t follow

the other customs of the Jews.

 

Working out the details

generated a lot of controversy in the early churches.

 

A lot is written in the Book of Acts

and in the letters of the Apostles

about controversy over circumcision,

controversy over the Jewish holidays

and the Jewish Sabbath,

and controversy over diet.

 

All of that, put together, really amounted to

a controversy over

whether people had to become Jews

in order to become Christians.

 

Many people in the early Church

actually thought that was necessary.

 

They thought you had to become Jewish

in order to belong to Christ.

 

Jesus was the Jewish Messiah—

the one promised and prophesied

by all the Jewish Old Testament prophets.

 

And all the 12 Apostles and early disciples

were Jews—every last one of them.

 

The early Christian Church was all Jewish,

and they apparently assumed

that preaching the Gospel to all the nations

meant converting the Gentiles

to become Messianic Jews—

Jews who followed Jesus.

 

They assumed the only way

to follow Christ, the Jewish Messiah,

was to become Jewish yourself

—to become a Jewish Christian—

since that’s the only kind of Christian

anyone had ever seen,

up to that point in time.

 

But God intervened,

to set them straight.

 

Through a supernatural vision

God revealed to the Apostle Peter

that Gentiles could become Christians

without also becoming Jews.

 

God showed Peter that people of all nationalities

could accept the Gospel and follow Jesus

without the men getting circumcised,

without the women cooking Kosher food,

and without the new Christians

coming under the Law of Moses.

 

In fact, God showed Peter

that Peter himself was set free from the Law of Moses—

that Peter himself could now eat non-Kosher food,

that Peter himself could now

embrace Gentiles as brothers in the faith,

instead of avoiding them as “unclean.”

 

And that’s when the controversies began.

 

We get the first hint or inkling of those controversies

right after the Apostle Peter visited the home

of a Roman centurion named Cornelius—

a military leader in the Italian Regiment.

 

Peter preached the Gospel of Christ

to a crowd of non-Jews gathered in Cornelius’s home,

and those Gentiles all became Christians—

the very first non-Jewish Christians.

 

It took a miraculous vision from heaven

for Peter to take that bold step

of inviting the first non-Jews into the Church.

 

And, when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem

and met there with the church and its leadership,

word of what Peter had done

had already reached them.

 

And they were outraged!

 

Why did Peter dare violate the Law of Moses

by visiting and eating

with those non-Kosher Gentiles?

 

That’s what everyone in the Church demanded to know

as soon as Peter arrived back home.

 

We read about it in Acts Chapter 11,

beginning with the first Verse.

 

1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. 2 When Peter had come up to Jerusalem, those who were of the circumcision contended with him, 3 saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men, and ate with them!”

 

Another translation puts it this way,

1Soon the news reached the apostles and other believers in Judea that the Gentiles had received the word of God. 2But when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, the Jewish believers criticized him. 3“You entered the home of Gentiles and even ate with them!” they said.

 

Peter was a respected leader in the early Church.

 

But they must have thought he lost his mind

to enter a Gentile home

and to eat non-Kosher meals with those Gentiles.

 

How could he do such a thing?

 

It was unthinkable!

 

This was the beginning of a controversy

that would rage, not only in the Jerusalem church,

but also in the new Christian churches

that would spring up

all around the ancient world..

 

Peter went on to explain to the Jerusalem church

why he had acted in a way

that seemed so bizarre to them.

 

Reading from Acts 11:4,

4 But Peter began, and explained to them in order, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision: a certain container descending, like it was a great sheet let down from heaven by four corners. It came as far as me. 6 When I had looked intently at it, I considered, and saw the four-footed animals of the earth, wild animals, creeping things, and birds of the sky. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter, kill and eat!’ 8 But I said, ‘Not so, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered into my mouth.’ 9 But a voice answered me a second time out of heaven, ‘What God has cleansed, don’t you call unclean.’ 10 This was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven.

11 Behold, immediately three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent from Caesarea to me. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them, without discriminating. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying to him, ‘Send to Joppa, and get Simon, who is called Peter, 14 who will speak to you words by which you will be saved, you and all your house.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning. 16 I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave to them the same gift as us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?”

 

Peter made it very clear to them

that this was a move of God

not an indiscretion on Peter’s part.

A heavenly vision had appeared to Peter,

along with a voice from heaven

telling him what it meant.

 

And another heavenly vision had appeared to Cornelius,

commanding him to send for Peter

and listen to him.

 

Those two visions corroborated each other

and proved conclusively

that it was God who directed that encounter.

 

And then, to clinch it,

after Peter preached to those in Cornelius’s house,

God poured out his Holy Spirit on those Gentiles

and caused them miraculously

to speak in tongues.

 

The whole thing was unmistakably a move of God

to bring non-Jews, Gentiles, into the Church.

 

And the Jewish Christians in the Jerusalem Church

who had initially objected

to Peter’s consorting with Gentiles,

now believed Peter’s explanation.

 

They got the point.

 

Verse 18 says,

18 When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life!”

 

So, the Jewish Christians

who made up the Jerusalem church

accepted Peter’s explanation.

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But that didn’t settle all the issues

and end the controversies.

 

In fact, the controversies were just beginning.

 

Arguments over circumcision and Kosher diet

and Jewish holidays and Sabbath-keeping

appear throughout the rest of the New Testament.

Peter has to address it again and again.

 

And so does the Apostle Paul

in his missionary work around the Mediterranean,

in his visits back to Jerusalem

and in his letters that make up

so much of the New Testament.

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It was a real challenge for people

who had lived all their lives

following Jewish laws and customs

to suddenly give up all those traditions.

 

At first, many in the Church were truly uncertain as to

how to handle the move

from the Old Covenant to the New.

 

But some false teachers also arose in the churches,

who tried to force new Gentile Christians

to be circumcised

and to follow the Laws of Moses.

These false teachers who kept trying

to impose elements of the Old Covenant

came to be called Judaizers

because they were trying to bring

elements of Judaism into Christianity.

 

On one occasion

even Peter himself got tripped up over these issues,

and had to be publicly corrected by Paul.

 

It was a long time after Peter’s visit to Cornelius.

 

Paul tells about the incident in his letter to the Galatians

at Galatians 2:11.

 

He writes,

11But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. 12When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. 13As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

 

14When I saw that they were not following the truth of the gospel message, I said to Peter in front of all the others, “Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you now trying to make these Gentiles follow the Jewish traditions?

 

It was clear from Peter’s visit to Cornelius onward

that the New Covenant through Christ

totally replaced the Old Covenant through Moses.

 

But it was difficult to get accustomed to this change—

especially for those who had spent their whole lives

eating a Kosher diet

and associating only with other Jews.

 

They had to get used to the fact

that the old Jewish Laws and customs

had no place in the new Christian arrangement.

 

But sinful human nature

made this transition difficult.

 

And false teachers—the Judaizers—exploited the situation

to gain a personal following for themselves.

 

If we understand the difficulty of this transition,

it will help in our understanding

of the rest of the New Testament—

the rest of the Book of Acts,

and the letters that make up

the rest of the New Testament.

 

And, since the Bible is a key to understanding

our own lives in this world,

it is vitally important that we read

and grasp the meaning

of that written Word of God.