We're turning in our Bibles tonight to Acts chapter 10 - well, we've covered a lot, haven't we, these nights? We've been looking at the book of Acts - “When God ACTS!” has been our title, what happens when God does His work His way. On Sunday evening we embarked on that by looking at how, when God does His work, He releases the Holy Spirit. On Monday night we looked at how there will be 'Boldness in Witness', the church will witness boldly to the saving work of Christ when God is at work. Then we saw on Tuesday that 'The Miraculous Is Displayed' when God is doing His work, and we saw on Wednesday that there will be 'Unity in the Body', in the church of Jesus. Last night we saw that there will be 'Missionary Expansion' - whenever God is doing a new thing among His people, there is always a missionary endeavour, and a new vision to reach the four corners of the world with the good news of the Gospel.
Tonight is: when God does His work His way 'Convention Is Challenged' - that might seem an unusual one to you, but I believe it is central to everything God does, and especially when He is doing a new thing - convention is challenged. We will see this tonight from Acts chapter 10 - it's quite a lengthy reading, but we make no apology for reading God's word together. Verse 1, reading the whole chapter, and a couple of verses into chapter 11: "There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, 'Cornelius!'. And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, 'What is it, lord?' So he said to him, 'Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do'. And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa. The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of fourfooted animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, 'Rise, Peter; kill and eat'. But Peter said, 'Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean'. And a voice spoke to him again the second time, 'What God has cleansed you must not call common'. This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again. Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon's house, and stood before the gate. And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, 'Behold, three men are seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them'. Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, 'Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?'. And they said, 'Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you'. Then he invited them in and lodged them. On the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him. And the following day they entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. But Peter lifted him up, saying, 'Stand up; I myself am also a man'. And as he talked with him, he went in and found many who had come together. Then he said to them, 'You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean'" - what a statement! "'Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. I ask, then, for what reason have you sent for me?'. So Cornelius said, 'Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa and call Simon here, whose surname is Peter. He is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the sea. When he comes, he will speak to you'. So I sent to you immediately, and you have done well to come. Now therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things commanded you by God'. Then Peter opened his mouth and said: 'In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ; He is Lord of all; that word you know, which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him'" - that is the ministry of Jesus, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, summed up in one sentence. "'God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him'" - brilliant! "'And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree. Him God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission'", or forgiveness, "'of sins'. While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision", that is, the Jews, "who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, 'Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?'. And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days".
Now, just a few verses of chapter 11, verse 1: "Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision", the Jews, "contended with him, saying, 'You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!'. But Peter explained it to them in order from the beginning, saying..." - and then he recounts what we've just read. Look at the reaction in verse 18, after he has retold the story that we have been given account of tonight, verse 18: 'When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, 'Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life'". Amen.
Let's pray together briefly, and I will ask you again tonight to pray for yourself that God might speak to you. I believe God has been speaking very definitely in these meetings, He has certainly been speaking to my heart, and I believe that there is a revelation from the Father heart tonight to the church and the folk gathered here, and even the church at large. I don't know who will be listening to this recording, but I believe there is a message for our land tonight - and it's important that you have a heart to receive. I don't know what your state is, you mightn't even be converted, you might be a backslider, you might be a cold Christian - but come to the Lord, would you do that? Say right away: 'Lord, please speak to me, let me hear Your voice tonight'.
Abba Father, we bless Your holy name, Your thrice holy name. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we come into Your presence in prayer. Lord, we bless You that You are the Holy God of Heaven, You have become our Father through our Lord Jesus Christ. We thank You for the Spirit of your Son that rises up within us crying, 'Abba Father!'. We thank You that we have no longer a spirit of bondage to fear, but the Spirit of your Son that cries 'Abba!'. Lord, may we all in this place tonight know what it is to have the remission of sins. Those who are oppressed by the devil tonight, in the name of Jesus we pray that they will be released and delivered and transformed - sins forgiven would be theirs, they would know what it is to be emancipated from the shackles of the evil one. But Lord, all of us need a touch from Yourself tonight, we all need You to come and really take a dealing with us, and do divine surgery in the depths of our hearts this evening. Lord, challenge convention in our lives, challenge convention in the church, in this church, in every church, in the church in Northern Ireland, the church in the island of Ireland, the church of the United Kingdom, the church in Western Europe - oh Lord, we pray, according to Your word, that You would pour out Your Spirit upon all flesh. So come to us tonight, we take authority in the name of the Lord Jesus over those forces that would seek to thwart the power and the work of the Holy Spirit and the Kingdom of God. We rebuke them, we say: 'The Lord rebuke you in Jesus' name'. We bind you and say: 'You have no authority here'. We ask, our Father tonight, that the full power of the Gospel would be dispensed to us, and we would see what it is as it was in the book of Acts for signs to follow the preaching of the word - Lord, that this meeting would be different tonight, and that You would do something that would have lasting effect in the annals of eternity, not for anyone's glory, but our Lord Jesus Christ - in whose name we pray. Amen.
What is often overlooked by Christians, modern day Christians, is that the first Christians were Jewish - you do know that? The first church was Jewish, and at the beginning it was assumed that the special character of the Jewish ceremonies and their identity as Jews would continue. The sect of 'The Way', early Christianity, was seen to be a Jewish society. Of course Jesus was a Jew, and He is the Jewish Messiah. The Gospel was to be preached to the Jew first, for salvation is of the Jews - Jesus said that. So when the Gentiles got born again, and got filled with the Holy Spirit, this idea of the essential Jewish character of the church was challenged. This was a new thing to the Jewish psyche, the Hebrew mind - it challenged convention. We're going to see tonight - and I believe if you have any experience of God working in your life, you will know - that the status quo has to go. You will know that God comes, and He challenges many things that we feel are concrete and immovable in our lives. We've been praying in these prayer meetings: 'Oh, that You would rend the heavens, and You would come down' - that's what Isaiah prayed, that the mountains might flow at Your presence. The mountains are those insurmountable obstacles that seem to have been there forever, but when God comes things that have been eternal obstacles have to melt and have to move.
So, when the Gentiles, the non-Jews, started to convert there were questions being asked by the Jews. Such as: must these Gentiles become Jews? Must they observe Judaism? Must they be circumcised? Must they celebrate the rites, the rituals, the feasts of Judaism? Then another difficult question, a hot potato, was: how should Jews relate to these Gentiles - because the Jews had very strict laws, social and dietary laws for instance, even about who they could eat with. So if these people were coming to Christ, and the Holy Spirit was falling upon them like the Holy Spirit did upon the Jews at Pentecost, how do they relate to them?
So God had to speak, and God did speak. As we read tonight from Acts 10, God spoke to the apostle Peter as he was on the top of a house in Joppa praying, and he got a vision. He got this vision of a big sheet that dropped down from heaven, and covering this sheet were myriad unclean animals - that means animals that were forbidden to the Jew to eat, unclean according to the Hebrew dietary laws. You can read that in verses 13 to 15 of chapter 10. But the voice of God came to him - OK? He's seeing this graphic vision of things that every Jew abhors, and then he hears a voice, and it is the voice of God, and God says: 'Kill and eat! Do not call anything impure that God has made clean'. It says here that he heard that voice three times, the sheet came down three times, and he heard God say three times: 'Kill and eat. Do not call unclean or common what I have cleansed'.
I think it's in Matthew 16 that Jesus gave the keys of the Kingdom to Peter, to open the door of the kingdom to both the Jews and the Gentiles. I believe he did that to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost, and I believe he did it for the Gentiles here in Cornelius' house. He was just the instrument that God was going to use to open the way to allow the Gentile world - that's you and me - to receive salvation, and to know this holy baptism of the Spirit whereby we can know the very power of God to live. Here in Cornelius' house, Peter preached Christ to him and all his servants and his family. He preached to him words whereby he could be saved, and while he was still preaching about Jesus of Nazareth, and how He delivered people from the oppression of the devil, how God was with Him, how He was crucified on the cross for our sins, He was buried and He rose again the third day - while he was still talking, the Holy Spirit fell on the company. They received Christ, they repented, and believed while he was preaching - and the Holy Spirit fell on them.
Look at verses 45-47: 'Those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, 'Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?'' - this was a new thing! Something completely new! Something foreign! This was a new creation entirely, convention was being challenged. Now think about this: the ancient theology of Judaism was being challenged. They believed that they alone were God's elect and chosen people, and now here were non-Jews, Gentiles, being gathered into the Kingdom. This challenged the core of their theology, this challenged their biblical interpretation for millennia. Think about it: even etiquette, social etiquette, order and decency was being debunked!
You see, when God acts He challenges convention. He tends to push our boundaries. He squeezes us out of our comfort zones. He confronts our concrete mindsets that are well set. He provokes our prejudices. Listen folks: if you're a believer tonight, you would do well to ever remind yourself that Almighty God, the Holy, Holy, Holy God of Heaven, is not restricted to your convictions or to mine! He doesn't have to have your tastes or your ideas. In Isaiah 55 verses 8 and 9 God says: ''My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways', says the LORD. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts''. Paul says in Romans 11: 'Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?'. Listen to me tonight: you cannot put God in a box. He is not restricted to your theology. He wasn't restricted to the Hebrew mind, and He'll not be restricted to the Ulster, Protestant, or evangelical mind either! God is bigger.
There is a wonderful little paraphrased translation of the New Testament by J.B. Phillips - but J.B. Phillips also wrote several books, and one of them is called: 'Your God Is Too Small'. Our God is too small, the concepts that we have Him confined into, restricted by. We have made a God in our own image, and we try to control Him. I'm trying my best not to, in any shape or form, be irreverent - but we think that we can just call God at our beck and call. It's as if we have our God as our servant to us, rather than us being His servants and doing His bidding. Whenever God moves convention is challenged - and, indeed, I believe that every move of God's Holy Spirit that there has been in the history of mankind has been opposed. I believe that. In fact, Arthur Wallace, in his little book about revival, says: 'If we find a revival that is not spoken against, we had better look again to ensure that it is revival'. Every awakening, every renewal of God's people, has been spoken against - and the irony is: it is often those who consider themselves to be the most biblically literate that are against what God is doing in the new thing.
In fact, opposition is probably the dominant theme in the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. When you think about it, it's all about Christ's rejection by His own, the Jews. He came to His own, and His own received Him not. Why did they not receive Him? Think about it? They didn't receive Him primarily because He didn't measure up to their expectations of what Messiah should be. They imagined Him riding in on a big stately horse covered in armour, with an army behind Him ready to destroy the Roman Empire - but here He came, meekly, on a donkey, preaching: 'Love your enemy! Turn the other cheek! Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!'. This was a new thing, and it threw the Scribes of Scripture off the scent completely. The biggest opponents to this new thing, Jesus Christ, where the Pharisees. Do you know who the Pharisees were? They were a Jewish sect that were effectively a revival movement. They were the fundamentalists of Judaism. They believed that theology had become liberal, mainly through the Sadducees. The Sadducees didn't believe in resurrection, they didn't believe in angels or spirits, and so the Pharisees came in and they decided: 'We're going to bring every facet of Jewish life into harmony with the Law. We believe the Bible from back to front' - that's the Pharisees.
The tragedy is that they knew their Bibles, but they didn't recognise their God when He turned up in human flesh. Jesus had to say to them in John 5: 'You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life'. They knew the Bible inside out, the Old Testament, they had memorised most of it if not all of it, and yet when the One that the Bible points to and speaks about in prophecies, types, and pictures, He arrived in the flesh - they didn't know Him, and they rejected Him. Ultimately they accused Him of being demon-possessed - the depths that religion can fall to! They saw the miracles, and they are saying: 'The devil made Him do it, He casts out demons by the prince of demons, Beelzebub'. Eventually their hardened hearts led them to crucify the Prince of Life.
Can I tell you tonight: I believe that those who will oppose the new thing that God wants to do in this land, those who will oppose it are the most biblically literate, who think that they know their Bibles back to front - but they don't know the heart of God. John White, in his book 'When the Spirit Comes in Power', a study of revival, says this: 'The hostility to revivals is never to the idea of revival' - what he means is, every Christian worth their salt would like a revival conceptually, the idea of it - he says, 'The idea of revival is ardently prayed for, but the opposition is to God's answer to our prayers and the unexpected form it may take'. He goes on to say: 'To recognise the divine visitation, we must view it through the twin lenses of discernment' - we need to know our Bibles - 'but also humility'. He says: 'It is easy to recognise it in books, or in retrospect, since we are usually accepting the view of the writer of a particular history. To recognise it when it occurs is a more difficult thing'. Listen to this: 'During the revivals of the past 300 years, many Christians were too confused by their wrong expectations to perceive what God was doing'. In other words, when the revival broke onto the scene, those who prayed for revival, longed for revival, and looked for it, didn't see it because it didn't take the form that they had in their preconceived ideas!
You see, whenever we think that we can second-guess God, God scraps the blueprint and He surprises us again. If you know God - and all you need to do is look out of your window one day and see the myriad of colour, the spectrum on the palette of God's creation, the wonderful variety in this natural world - you realise that God is not bound to any scheme, any strategy, any model. He is the God of ultimate variety! He is the God of never-ending new things!
Now, Peter struggled with this new thing - he really did, didn't he? Verse 14 of chapter 10, if you look at it - the Lord showed him this big sheet with all these unclean animals, and the Lord says to him, 'Rise, Peter; kill and eat'. Look at verse 14, his reaction: 'Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean'. Have you ever had an argument with the Lord? That's what he was doing, in a sense: 'Not so, Lord!'. You can't say, 'Not so, Lord', you can't say that! You say: 'Well, he did say it' - but what I mean is, you can't really mean that statement, 'Not so, Lord'. There was once a girl came to quite a famous preacher on one occasion, and I'm not sure whether it was a relationship that was in her life that was ungodly, an unequal yoke, or whether it was a career that she was following when she knew the call of God was on her life as we saw it can be upon people's lives last night. But she was struggling with the will of God in one way or another, and this preacher opened his Bible here to Acts 10:14, and he gave this girl a pen, and he says: 'Now, I want you to cross out one of these words. You either cross out the word 'Lord', so it just reads 'Not so'; or you cross out the word 'Not', and you say 'So, Lord'' - but you cannot say, as Peter said here, 'Not so, Lord'. He is either Lord of all, or He's not Lord at all.
For too long we have had this shallow profession in Ulster in particular, Sunday-go-to-meeting Christianity one day a week, and maybe a prayer meeting if you're extra special - but day by day there is nothing to separate you out from the man or woman next door. It's time that we realise we are not our own. You're freed from the dominion of Satan - praise God - that slave master, but you're not free as a bird to do what you like, you are bought with the precious blood of Christ, you're the temple of the Holy Spirit, He has set you free to serve Him. The wonderful thing about that is: it's not drudgery, it is true freedom! It's the best life of all! But so many believers are not there: they think that they can have one foot in Christ's Kingdom, and one foot in the world - that's not the way it works, that's why you're miserable tonight!
It was Jim Elliot who I mentioned, that missionary who was martyred for the Lord, who said: 'God always gives His best to those who leave the choice with Him'. Peter struggled with this: 'Not so, Lord! I've never eaten anything that is unclean'. The church, remember it was the Jewish church, struggled with this new thing. It was against everything they had ever known to be true and right. I'm trying my best here tonight, but I don't think we really appreciate the stretch that this was for these Jews. I mean, the Samaritans were unclean to the Jews, and yet the Samaritans were like half-Jews, half-bred Jews. They were seen by the Jews as apostates, they worshipped false gods in another place, in another way - and so it was hard for the Jews to hear Jesus talk about the 'Good Samaritan', that the Samaritan man showed greater characteristics than the Jewish priests who walked by on the other side. It was hard for the Jews to listen to Jesus talk about the one Samaritan leper who came back to thank Jesus for being healed, when the other Jews walked away. It was hard to watch Jesus telling a Samaritan woman who was married five times and living with a fellow, who was untouchable morally, not only religiously but morally and socially, it was hard to hear how she was given living water so that she would never thirst again, and she went home to the men she knew and told them about this Man who told her all things that ever she did, who was the Christ, and the whole town came to Jesus. It was hard for those Jews to comprehend that - but this was another light-year step ahead: true, complete, utter Gentiles, the heathen, the unclean. 'This couldn't be right! I mean, anybody that knows their Bible would know that this is not right!' - you can hear them talking, can't you?
But, you see, they had their prejudicial interpretive spectacles on, that had been forged for thousands of years. They couldn't see the Bible any other way, and they couldn't see God's heart. I want to say this tonight, and it can be taken the wrong way, and people can misquote you and misinterpret you - but it has to be said: a knowledge of the Bible without a personal knowledge of God becomes perverted! God is His own interpreter, and this book has been used to do atrocious things, because people have known, or thought they have known the words, but have not known the Author and His heart.
I know this is maybe new to some of you. Let me take you back, press rewind, and we will go back to Genesis 22 - do you know what happened there? Abraham is told by God: 'Take now your son, your only son Isaac, take him up to Mount Moriah, and sacrifice him there, and give a burnt offering to Me'. You know the story, don't you? Let's just say you were around in those days, and you were a good Jew, and you knew your Bible. I don't know what you're doing at the bottom of Mount Moriah, maybe you're herding some of your sheep or something like that, or out for a ramble. You notice old Abraham coming along, and young Isaac - he's probably a strapping lad now, a young adult. There is wood and there is fire, and you say: 'How are you doing, Abraham? How's things doing with you and the family?'. You have a bit of a chat, and then you say: 'What are you doing here?'. Abraham says to you: 'Well, God has told me' - wait for it - 'God has told me to take my son, my only son - the son, by the way, who God promised to give me so that out of him would come nations of the world - God has told me to take him up there to that mountain and kill him'. What would you say? I know what I'd say, I'd say: 'Hold on a wee minute, Abraham! Come with me please to Exodus chapter 20, there are ten commands that God gave us, the people of Israel, and one of them is 'You shall not kill'. So there is no way, Abraham, the devil must be speaking to you, or you must be hearing your own voice, because there ain't any way that God would contradict His word, and God would tell you to do something that His word plainly says is wrong'.
Now I'm not trying to bamboozle you or confuse you, is this not in the Bible? You say, 'But hold on a minute, I thought the Scripture was a plumbline, and we hold it up' - that's right, and you would have been right to say 'You shall not kill', because ultimately the Lord didn't allow Abraham to kill his son, He spared his son and provided a lamb, a substitute that pictured Jesus as our substitute. But what I'm trying to get you to see is: you didn't know the end of the story, you didn't know what was in the heart of God, you had a blind spot to what God was doing behind-the-scenes - and we all do! But we're all so quick to judge - we don't know what God is doing, and we have a wee pinhead of knowledge, and we think we know it all. I put myself in there with that. We're very quick to judge, especially when we get a bit of the Bible.
Turn with me to Acts 15, because this did start a controversy in the church. Verse 1, we're reading a few verses here again, Acts 15:1: 'And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved'. Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up', these are boys who were Pharisees and got converted, but they've got this religion still in them, 'saying, 'It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses'. Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter. And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: 'Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they'. Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, 'Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name''.
Now go down a wee bit further with me to verses 19 and 20: 'Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood'. The NIV says in verse 19: 'We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God'. Now let me ask you a question: these ex-Pharisees, these Jews, were making it difficult for the Gentiles - have we, as the church of Jesus Christ, made it difficult for anybody who is unchurched to get into the Kingdom of God? Have we not? Have we not? Or let me put it another way: have we who have had the Gospel for hundreds of years in this land of Ireland, made it difficult for the Catholic people to come into the Kingdom of God?
Now I know we can play ping-pong, and we can say: 'Ah, but the church, they were hard, and they wouldn't take the Gospel' - the Church of Rome and all that. We can do all that, we can do all that - it's you and me! It's you and me we need to look at tonight, it's the church, judgement must begin in the house of God - the standards for us are higher than for anyone else. How have we made it difficult for people to come to Christ? The only restrictions that the apostle put on these Gentiles were that they wouldn't eat food polluted by idol worship, they wouldn't engage in fornication, they wouldn't eat anything strangled or with blood. It says here, look at verses 28 and 29, this was a letter they wrote to bring closure to this issue: 'It seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you', Gentiles, 'no greater burden than these necessary things', and he delineates them there - but do you see that statement, 'It seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us', and the Holy Spirit came first!
It's not what seems good to us, but what the Holy Spirit says, and He doesn't lay any unnecessary burdens on these new believers. I'm going to tell you tonight: religion, even the 'Christian' form, is a thing of burdens - but Jesus never came to give us burdens, Jesus came to set us free from burdens. In Matthew 23, Jesus said of the Pharisees: 'They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers'. The New Living Translation translates it: 'They crush people with unbearable religious demands, and never lift a finger to ease the burden'. As the apostle said: they couldn't even bear the burdens themselves. You see, that's the thing about religion, it's always inconsistent, it's always hypocritical, because the ones who are pontificating don't even live up to it themselves, because they can't! Jesus Christ came to set us free from burdens, even the religious ones, that's why He stood in Matthew 11 and He said: 'Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest'. He was talking to people who were laden down with religion. Listen to how The Message renders it: 'Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to Me. Get away with Me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with Me and work with Me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with Me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly'. Christianity is meant to make you free. Jesus said: 'You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. Whom the Son sets free, shall be free indeed'. Paul wrote to the Galatians in Galatians chapter 5 and verse 1 and said: 'It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery'.
But, you see, there is a legalist in all of us, it's part of Adam, part of our flesh - we want to contribute. In the Galatian church, in the book of Galatians, this was becoming a real problem - because some of these Judaisers travelled to Galatia and started to poison them with this teaching that they needed to become like Jews, these Gentiles. But do you know what the tragedy is? Peter, who took the key that Christ give him to open the door of the Kingdom to the Gentiles, Peter who was the instrument to usher in this new thing; he himself actually stumbled at the offence! Isn't that incredible? Look at Galatians quickly with me, Galatians chapter 2 verse 11, Paul is writing and he says of Peter: 'Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James', that's in Jerusalem, 'he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision' - that's the fear of man. 'And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, 'If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles'' - in other words, if Christ has set you free from the Law and all that it means, and you don't live as Jews any more yourselves - ''why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?''.
Isn't it incredible that a man who God used to usher in this new thing, to challenge convention, actually got sucked into that religious spirit again? It's not really a surprise. Do you know, there are many people who have seen the blessing of God in their own personal life, or indeed on their church or on the community, but ended up speaking against and working against the new thing that God was doing. George Whitefield, that great evangelist, had tracts written against him in a place called Cambuslang in Scotland, some of you may have heard of it. Cambuslang was a place that was known for revival, and yet George Whitefield - one of the greatest torches for revival that the English-speaking world has ever known - was spoken against because he was Church of England! He was called 'a limb of antichrist' by these believers who had known the fresh Spirit coming from heaven in awakening - imagine that!
Sometimes those who have known revival are the worst, or those who pray for revival, or want revival are the worst in requiring God to work in the same way that He did before. So they don't recognise the new thing that He is breaking on the scene. Evan Roberts, in the Welsh revival of 1904-1905, was denounced by a Congregational minister by the name of Peter Price as 'a sham, a mockery, a blasphemous travesty of the real thing' - that's what he said about the revival! What makes this even more sad was the fact that Price's own church at Dowlais had been blessed with revival, and the addition of hundreds of converts, a few months previously in 1904. He had revival, and yet he didn't appreciate the new thing that God was doing in another brother, in another church.
Now certain cardinal truths and characteristics of revival will always be the same, but we've got to waken up to the fact that revival will wear new clothes - and God's new thing will not look the way it did a century ago, or in 1859, or however far back you want to go. I like lobster, but I learned something about lobster recently - that it grows by shedding its skin, did you know that? Before it sheds the old skin, it has to grow a thin, new layer of skin beneath the old shell. It moults 25 times in the first 5 to 7 years of its life. So you might say that, for the lobster, the skin changes, but the DNA, or the nature of the lobster is the same - it's always a lobster. In the same way, the skin of the church has to change as it grows, as it adapts to the age that God has birthed it for in the present day and generation. The DNA still is the same, the cardinal truths of the Gospel are still the same, but if the church does not shed its old skin - like the lobster - she will die!
I believe the old skin of the church in Ulster is dying. It's not completely gone yet, and people are trying to hang on to it, they're trying to breathe life into a corpse. It never ceases to amaze me how people can tell you: 'Oh, the Lord started this work in', whatever date, 'and this is how it started'. You never hear anybody saying: 'The Lord told us in 2000 and whatever to finish the work'. Nothing ever finishes, they start a work and they do everything to keep the doors open - and it's like breathing life into a corpse. Many works and churches have a name that they live, but they are dead! I want to say to you tonight, and I believe this: the sooner we let some of these works die out, the faster we would have a resurrection!
A popular definition of insanity is: insanity is doing the same thing you've always done the same way you've always done it, and yet expecting a different result. I believe - and I have cause to believe - that there is a new layer of skin growing beneath the old skin. It's thin, and it's not strong enough to come to the fore, but it's growing. This is biblical, you know. Turn with me quickly to Mark chapter 2 - I'll not keep you much longer - Jesus, our Lord, verse 21, speaking to Judaism said: 'No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth', that's a piece of new cloth, 'on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse'. That simply means that if you put new cloth, sew it on to old, and you put it in the washing machine - the new will pull away and rip a hole as it shrinks. Verse 22: 'And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins'. What Jesus was saying to the Jews is: the old form of Judaism will not be fit for the new wine of the Spirit that's about to be poured out at Pentecost.
There's nothing wrong with the laws of God in the Old Testament, but Judaism had perverted God's laws by the traditions of the elders and by religious hypocrisy. Anyway, Jesus had to come to fulfil those laws, we no longer are under the old covenant, but the new covenant - the life of the Spirit of Christ Jesus has made us free from the law of sin and death. But Judaism wasn't fit for purpose, there needed to be new wineskins - and I believe the old wineskins of the church are not sufficient for the new thing that God wants to break out among us.
But would you consider something for me tonight: some people have attempted to put the old wine into new wineskins. What do I mean? Well, they're just revamping church without new wine, without the release of the Spirit, without repentance, without faith and seeking the Lord, without surrender, without breaking up the fallow ground, without spiritual exercise. They know that something needs to happen, so they attempt to put the old wine into new wineskins, they promote a model to accelerate church growth, to have a mega-church. They use marketing principles, business acumen, they hold seminars and conferences, and have promotional drives telling us how to make our churches more successful and appealing - and what we're doing is, we are becoming like chameleons, changing to suit our environment. We find the church becoming more contemporary today. Don't misunderstand me, I love new praise - because when God does a new thing, by the way, there is a new song, with every revival there has always been a new hymn book, new expressions of praise. Don't say that I'm against things that are new, I'm not - but just new wineskins and old wine will not do. There must be new wine and new wineskins. Just to be contemporary - we look at it and we see that much of the church has become contemporary - but they have become less effective, and they have actually lost their identity. You can go to plenty of contemporary places, and you can walk in in your sin and walk out and not know one iota how to get right with God.
You see, the church was meant to be distinctive. The church was not meant to blend in like a chameleon. The church was meant to be a light on a hill, Jesus said. Whenever we have a church that society is happy with, and they are looking for, and whenever we go round door-to-door with a questionnaire asking: 'What kind of church would you like?' - when we do that for them, we've got the opposite of what God wants in His church! I'm not saying we don't be open to the people around us - you know from my preaching these nights that we need to be churches that reach out to our community - but we need to have what they need, the light of the Gospel. I'm not espousing having a church stuck in the dark ages. There are some of our churches, and we could put a fence round them and sell tickets as a museum of how things were done a hundred years ago! A man came to me the other day, I was preaching on 'a new song' - and he come to me the other day, he says: 'Last Sunday in our church, the newest song we sung was written in 1854!' - and he was depressed, because he's a man of today, the 21st-century. Whilst these old hymns, many of them, are timeless - some of them aren't. But there's a new song as well, and it's a balance we need: connected with the past, but also expressing what God is doing in this present generation the way they express themselves - with balance, of course.
Modernising the church is not the answer, if it's only new wineskins for old wine. If all we do is superimpose new paradigms on old problems, we're going to get nowhere. It's not innovation we need, it's a radical reformation of heart - in fact, we need more than a reformation, we need renewal, we need revival. One thing is sure, we need something radical, and we need something now! In Isaiah 43, the Israelites, who always looked back to the Red Sea deliverance, the exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea and eventually into the wilderness and Canaan Land, they celebrated it by the Passover. Now they find themselves in captivity in Babylon, but they are still looking back to the exodus in Egypt - and God comes to them and He says: 'Forget the former things, do not dwell in the past. See, I am doing a new thing, now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness, and streams in the wasteland'. What He's saying is: 'You've got a crick in your neck. You're looking to the past about what I used to do, and you're not realising that I am a God who could give you an exodus now out of Babylon to your own land. I'm still the same!'.
If ever we have learnt that God is the same, it's this week. That's what this book of Acts teaches us: we must not confine God to our sphere of knowledge of Him, or our expectations of Him, because we can actually miss the new things that He is doing. See how the NIV renders it: 'Do you not perceive it? Now it springs up'. He's doing it now! I believe God is doing something, I believe He has been doing something this week in these meetings. I believe there is a new thing breaking forth, it's that thin skin of the lobster - it hasn't come to the fore yet, but God is preparing: there are yet 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal - and He is preparing a remnant for something that He wants to do, I believe, in the heart of God. Surely the Lord never intended your biblical convictions to become restrictions to Him doing His will in your life?
See God's new thing, quickly, as we bring this to a close - Ephesians chapter 2. God's new thing is a new man, God's new thing is a new man. Ephesians 2 verses 14-15: 'For He', Christ, 'Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity'. Isn't that wonderful? God's vision, God's heart was to bring the Jew and the Gentile together in Jesus Christ. I want to tell you tonight, God's heart is to bring the unionist and nationalist, the loyalist and republican, the Protestant and the Catholic together under the banner of the blood of Jesus Christ. That's God's new man, and it's about time the church got out of the way and let Him at it!
What a challenge God is to convention when He acts. Vance Havner said: 'Sunday morning Christianity is the greatest hindrance to true revival'. Tongue-in-cheek, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was no raving modernist, said: 'Fancy upsetting the clock-like mechanical perfection of a great service with an outpouring of the Spirit - the thing is unthinkable!'. Oh, that's what we need, that's what we need. The new thing, in a sense, is nothing new at all. Some people say to me: 'Oh, we need to get back to the days of Whitefield and Wesley' - no. Some say: 'Oh, we need to get back to the day of the 1859 revival' - no. Some folk say: 'We need to get back to the reformers' - no. We need to get back to the Acts. The church needs to return to the ways which God originally intended for His people: Acts, when He does His work His way.
Let us pray. I'm conscious of the presence of God here tonight, I hope you are too. I don't know what your state is before God, you mightn't even be a Christian. I know I haven't been preaching an evangelistic message as such, but I think there's enough in the message tonight for you to realise your need of Christ, and that you can have Him tonight. You've maybe encountered the Power of God here this evening. I want to challenge you just now, before I address the Christians: would you come to Christ tonight? Would you repent of your sin? That means change your mind and your heart about what is destroying your life, what is going to damn your soul, and turn from it with the power of God, and turn to Christ for salvation. I'm talking to you tonight who has never been born again, you've never been saved. I don't care how long you've been in the church, I don't care if you were baptised and catechised, I don't care a bit - and God doesn't care either. If you're not born again by the Spirit of God, Jesus says you will never see the Kingdom of God. Will you be saved tonight? Who here this evening in the meeting will say, 'I will come to Christ'? Just where you're sitting, if you raise your hand we will give you a prayer to pray - confess Christ and your need of Him by acknowledging that you want to be a Christian tonight. Would you raise your hand just where you're seated, young or old? Heads bowed and eyes closed. Pray, believers, for those who are in the balance tonight. Is there anyone tonight, before this week of meetings is over - you've been in God's presence perhaps on previous evenings - is there anyone who will say, 'I'm going to make it right with God tonight'? Is there anyone, just raise your hand and confess Jesus Christ and your need of Him. Is there anyone?
Is there a backslider? Is there someone who has wandered away from the Lord, you've grown cold, and you want to come back to the Lord tonight? You don't want to miss what God's doing - is there anyone who wants to come back to the Lord tonight, just raise your hand to acknowledge it where you're sitting. Is there anyone? Slip it up and down and I'll see it, and we will pray with you and for you.
Now we will pray in just a moment, but I want to address everyone in these closing moments. Listen, I really am not about saying, 'Oh, there was one, or two, or three did this or that or the other' - it's not about that, we want to give you an opening to respond to what the Spirit is saying in your heart. Is there anybody, specifically with the message tonight, that needs to repent of putting God in a box, needs to repent of the tradition of the elders which has made null and void the very word of God? Is there anybody who needs to confess that they have put their doctrine over devotion to Jesus Christ? Is there anybody that needs to confess they are a bigot? Is there anybody that needs to confess prejudice and hatred in their heart? Is there anybody that needs to confess that they have put obstacles in front of people coming to Jesus - maybe they have been an obstacle, maybe you have been an obstacle to a husband or wife, or to a brother or sister, or to an employee? Now I'm not going to ask you to respond to that - you respond to the Lord - but what I will do tonight is: in the light of the ministry that has been given this week - and I know, but I know, but I know, that it's from the heart of God - if I was to tell you how I got it all, I got it all in a matter of maybe an hour or two, lying on the settee listening to the Acts of the Apostles. Now I had to work it all out, but I got every subject and the outlines for most of them - it's from the heart of God.
At the end of it all, at the end of it all, are there folk here who will say: 'I will not let this series of meetings pass by without surrendering completely to the Lord; without repenting of that sin that has been a hold and a bondage of my life; without deciding that it's not about religion, it's not about churchianity, it's about my relationship with Jesus, and my relationship with my brothers and sisters, and even my enemies'. Is there anybody here tonight who will say, 'I want to be a part of this new thing, I don't want to miss it! I don't want to be stuck in the annals of history. I want to see what God is doing today, I want to be in the middle of when God acts and does things His way'. If that's you tonight - and I really do want every head bowed and eye closed, this is between God and you, nobody else, so if you're not interested in this mind your own business - but between you and the Lord, will you stand to your feet tonight, and will you say: 'This is a line in the sand, and I want God to act in me and through me, I want filled and immersed in the Holy Spirit, I want everything that God has for me. I am deciding to follow Him, no turning back, whatever the cost might be I'm following Jesus' - just stand to your feet tonight. I'm already standing, if I were sitting I would be standing myself, because it's a daily thing for me - it has to be a daily thing if it's worth anything. Take up your cross and follow Him daily. If you really mean it, stand to your feet - and you talk to the Lord, I'm not going to even tell you what to pray.
If you need to get saved, just confess your sins. If you want to come back to the Lord, confess sin, repent of it, thank Jesus for dying for you. Ask Him to receive you, and cleanse you, and save you, and fill you with the Holy Spirit - just do that where you're sitting, the same if you're a backslider. But you tonight, as a believer dealing with God, now do not vow to the Lord and not repay. It would be better not to vow as to vow and not pay. Do not utter anything out of your mouth rashly. There might be a cost for what you're doing, you might have to remove idols in your heart, you might have to remove idols in the church. There are idols in the church, Israel had idols in the very court of the Temple of God in the book of Ezekiel - an idol to an unclean, sexual god in the Temple! They put up with it, they accommodated it - it's time that there was a clear out of the rubbish out of the house of God, as in the days of Hezekiah. Take the rubbish out and dump it. You talk to the Lord as you stand tonight, just talk to the Lord - even those who can't stand or haven't, but are dealing with God, you talk to the Lord, tell Him your heart.
Father, I want to thank You for visiting us this week - we do not take it for granted. In a dry and thirsty land where no water is, we thank You that You have walked with us and You have talked with us, and we have had the Lord Jesus reveal Himself to us from the scriptures. But more, we believe You have revealed Yourself in us, and You have penetrated our hearts - we want, Lord, there to be a lasting work. O God, let there be a mighty, mighty seismic change in our lives, and in our homes, and in this church, and in this town, and in the churches in this town, and the community. Lord, as we prayed the other night, let Your glory fall on this room, let it go forth from here to the nations. We want, Lord, there to be no limit, because You are the God who is able to do exceeding abundantly more than we ask or think. You are the God who is able to make all grace abound. So, Lord, do Your work, do it Your way, for Your glory. Amen.
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This sermon was delivered at Union Road Presbyterian Church in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, by David Legge. It was transcribed from the sixth recording in his 'When God ACTS!' series, entitled "Convention Is Challenged" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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