Have you ever noticed that the guy driving slower than you is always a jerk, whereas the guy driving faster than you is always a maniac? By fallen nature, we’re all prone to justify ourselves and to condemn those who are different than we are. We’re prone to judge others according to outward characteristics, rather than to accept them as individual human beings on an equal par with us.
The ancient Greeks divided up the human race into two categories: Greeks and barbarians. The barbarian was literally a man who could not speak Greek, and so his words sounded to the Greek ear like “bar bar.” One Greek historian asked rhetorically, “How can men who can only bark ever rule the world?” Prejudice is not eradicated with brilliance, since Aristotle believed that the world’s climate maintained the difference between Greeks and barbarians. He explained that those who lived in the cold lands to the north had plenty of courage and spirit, but little skill and intelligence. Those who lived in the warm south had plenty of skill, intelligence, and culture, but little spirit and courage. Only the Greeks lived in a climate designed by nature to produce the perfectly blended character (Aristotle, Politics [7:7:2], cited by William Barclay, Flesh and Spirit [Baker], pp. 40-41).
We may chuckle at Aristotle’s theory, but we’re all prone toward prejudice in some form or another. But for God to use us effectively in His purpose, He must break us of our prejudices. To be prejudiced is to pre-judge someone without sufficient information. The story of the gospel spreading beyond Jewish boundaries toward the Gentiles teaches us from the life of Peter that …
We all have built-in prejudices that God must break down if we are going to be effective in His service.
Peter was staying at Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. It was the city where the prophet Jonah had fled to board a ship to Tarshish. He was trying to run from the Lord’s command to go and preach at Ninevah, the capital city of Israel’s arch-enemy, Assyria. About 30 miles north of Joppa and some 65 miles northwest of Jerusalem, was the Roman provincial capital, Caesarea, where the governor lived. Under his authority were some 3,000 troops, including the Italian cohort. Serving with this unit was Cornelius, a centurion who commanded 100 soldiers. The Jews despised the Roman occupation of Palestine; they hoped that Messiah would come and deliver them from the Roman oppression.
And so the stage is set: you have a Gentile Roman soldier, representing the despised occupation of Israel, residing in the main city of the Roman occupation. Thirty miles south you have a Jewish apostle, temporarily residing at the spot where Jonah had taken off in disobedience to his commission to preach to Israel’s enemy. And behind the scenes, God is orchestrating the events to bring these two men together in a way that shocked both of them by breaking down the wall of prejudice between them. The result of the story is that today you and I who are Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the church with the Jews, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph. 3:6). The story brings out five lessons:
I know what you’re thinking: “Yes, Steve, you’re right. Most people are prone to prejudice. But, thank God, that’s not one of my weaknesses! I am very unbiased, accepting, and loving.” But the fact is, even committed Christians, even godly men like Peter, have prejudices. Like Peter, we’re probably blind to those prejudices until the Lord shocks us into seeing them.
To prepare Peter to go to Cornelius’ house, He gave him a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven. In the sheet were all kinds of animals and insects and birds that the Old Testament forbade the Jews from eating. Peter was hungry, waiting for his lunch. A voice said, “Arise, Peter, kill and eat.” But Peter was shocked, as seen by his reply, “By no means Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean” (10:14).
I thought about shocking you into seeing some of your prejudices by putting a cigar into my mouth, but I was afraid that we would have to call the paramedics to revive a few souls, and that some might actually pass from this life into glory at the sight! But the fact is, many godly men of past generations smoked. They did not have the modern knowledge that we possess about the health risks of smoking. But the godly pastors Charles Spurgeon and G. Campbell Morgan both smoked cigars. Jonathan Edwards smoked a pipe. Martyn Lloyd-Jones smoked cigarettes early in his ministry, as did C. S. Lewis all through his life. Many American Christians would question the spirituality of a man who smoked, if not his salvation: “Doesn’t he know that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?” Yet many of these judgmental American “temples” are noticeably overfed and under-exercised!
Many American Christians also would say that a Christian who drinks beer could not be spiritually mature, even if he never disobeys Scripture by getting drunk. My parents used to know a German Christian who lived here in America who would say in disgust, “You Americans say that we should not drink beer, and yet you go to bowling alleys!” For him, to go into a bowling alley was the epitome of worldliness, but drinking beer was something all Germans did. I am not endorsing drinking alcohol or smoking; in fact, I would advise against such practices. But I am pointing out how we are quick to judge those who do things we do not approve of, and yet we do not judge ourselves for things we do that may be harmful to our health. Sometimes, like Peter, we are more scrupulous than the Lord is!
I could point out many other ways that we are prone to be prejudiced. We all tend to group people by race or occupation, and then we pigeonhole individuals and judge them because they belong to the group. Peter easily could have thought, “Centurions are Roman soldiers and are wicked, sensual, worldly pagans.” He would have badly misjudged Cornelius. Cornelius could have thought, “I’m supposed to learn from an uneducated Jewish man who is staying with a tanner? He probably has never been outside of Palestine. What could he teach a well-traveled Roman like me?” He would have missed God’s blessing.
Like Peter, most of us use the Bible to justify our prejudices and to read it through the lens of our prejudices. After all, the Bible warned Israel about associating with the pagan idolaters of the nations around them. The Bible showed them that they would be contaminated by contact with these “uncircumcised dogs.” Peter and the other apostles had heard Jesus give the Great Commission on more than one occasion. Yet up to this time, they were still reaching out primarily to Jews. They probably thought that reaching those in the uttermost parts of the earth referred to Jewish families who were scattered abroad. But to reach out to pagan Gentiles was simply unthinkable! They could quote chapter and verse out of the Old Testament to back up their views.
Don’t miss my point: I am not saying that we should be tolerant or accepting of practices the Bible calls sin. Neither am I saying that we should join in carousing with sinful people as if there is no difference between them and us. But I am suggesting that if we do not face our prejudices and allow God to root them out, we will not be effective in reaching across cultural and personal barriers with the gospel. If you are prejudiced against Native Americans or blacks, how will you reach them with the gospel? If you hate homosexuals (the people, not the sin), how will you lead them to Jesus Christ? If you steer clear of young people with body piercings and tattoos, how can God use you to bring the gospel to them?
God sent an angel to Cornelius, and the angel knew the gospel perfectly well. He could have explained the way of salvation to Cornelius and left Peter out of the loop. But instead, he gave instructions to Cornelius on how to contact Peter so that Peter could go and preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Isn’t it just like God, that when He is pleased to open the gospel to the Gentiles, He picks a Gentile who represents something that every loyal Jew hated—a military commander from the occupying Roman forces! Peter had to break out of his comfort zone in order to obey God. And Cornelius would have had to overcome any prejudice that he may have had against contacting an uneducated Jew to explain spiritual truth to him. He might rather have had a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin come, but he would have missed the way of salvation.
Note also how the Lord worked gradually with Peter. First, as we saw last week, Peter was staying at the home of a Christian brother who was a tanner. The Jews viewed tanners as unclean, since they had daily contact with dead animal skins. And, their houses were smelly places. The party from Cornelius easily could have found Simon the tanner’s house: Go to Joppa and follow your nose! But Peter was staying there.
Then, the Lord repeated the vision three times for Peter, in order to impress the point on him. No sooner had the vision ended than the three visitors from Caesarea arrived. Peter could have told them where the local Gentile motel was located, but he invited them in and gave them lodging (10:23). The prejudices were coming down gradually. When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, he was surprised not only to find just a handful of Gentiles, but a whole house full! Peter’s opening comment, about it being unlawful for a Jew to associate with a foreigner (10:28) was not a rude comment, as some think. Rather, he was just acknowledging the obvious and explaining why he was deliberately violating the commonly understood customs.
Later, of course, Peter fell into the sin of prejudice again in Antioch, the first prominent multi-racial church. When he visited there, he commonly ate with the Gentile Christians until certain Jewish men came from Jerusalem. Then he withdrew and ate with the Jews only. The apostle Paul had to confront him in front of the church, and Peter repented (Gal. 2:11-14).
Thankfully, the Lord works gradually and gently with us in spite of our many shortcomings and sins. He teaches us by putting us in uncomfortable situations, where we have to challenge our blind assumptions and grow to be more like the Lord Jesus, who was the friend of sinners that others were prejudiced against.
It is obvious that God was the prime mover in this story. His purpose is to be glorified among the nations, and He accomplishes that purpose by preparing both the hearers and His preachers. He revealed Himself to Cornelius, and just at the right moment, gave Peter the necessary vision to prepare him.
It would be against other Scriptures to conclude that Cornelius was a basically good man who was naturally inclined to seek after God, and that because Cornelius sought God, God responded by revealing Himself. The Bible is clear that there are none who seek after God (Rom. 3:10). Any time you find a person like Cornelius who seeks after God, you can know that God is first seeking the person. We don’t know for how long Cornelius had been a devout man, but we do know that the timing of this event was according to God’s purpose.
I confess that one of the mysteries of God’s ways for me is why He allows whole nations to go on in their spiritual darkness for centuries, but then in His timing opens them up to the gospel. Until 12 years ago, Mongolia was a closed, completely unevangelized country. Then the Communist government fell and missionaries were able to get into the country. Now there are many churches throughout the country, and people are coming to the Savior daily. We know that around His throne in heaven there will be some from every tribe and tongue and people and nation that the Savior purchased with His blood (Rev. 5:9). If we do not have a heart to reach out with the gospel across cultural, racial, and national barriers, we do not have the heart of the Lord Jesus.
So what are we to do when God confronts our prejudice?
At first Peter was a bit confused by the meaning of the vision, since it was so shocking to his understanding of biblical matters. His response was the oxymoronic phrase, “By no means, Lord!” (10:14). In his defense, Peter was responding as the prophet Ezekiel had done when the Lord commanded him to eat unclean food as a prophetic drama to show Israel how terrible the captivity would be (Ezek. 4:14). When the prophet protested, the Lord allowed him to substitute another method of preparing the food. But here, the Lord followed Peter’s protest by saying, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (10:15). After the vision was repeated three times, Peter was left greatly perplexed as to what it all meant. But as soon as he was clear about the fact that God had done away with the ceremonial laws of defilement for eating unclean food, Peter overcame his lifelong scruples and obeyed the Lord.
Jesus had taught that the Jewish laws of ceremonial defilement were fulfilled in Him, but this was such a radical thing that the disciples did not fully understand it until after Peter’s vision. In Mark 7, some Pharisees observed that Jesus and the disciples did not observe the traditional hand washing ceremonies before their meal. Jesus exposed their hypocrisy for their fastidious outward washing when their hearts were full of sin. Then privately He explained to the disciples that it is not what goes into a man’s stomach that defiles him, but rather that which comes out of a man’s heart. Mark adds the parenthetical comment, probably supplied by Peter, “Thus He declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). But now Peter had to make the logical step from the fact that Gentile food would not defile him to the fact that neither would the Gentiles themselves defile him. For a Jew, it was a radical concept!
But, as I said, Peter put it to immediate application by offering food and lodging to the three Gentile visitors, and then by accompanying them to Caesarea in obedience to the Spirit’s direction. He took with him six brethren from Joppa (11:12), who later could testify to what God had done among this group of Gentiles. As we will see, some in Jerusalem called Peter on the carpet because he ate with these Gentiles. They were more concerned about his keeping the Jewish ceremonial law than they were pleased with the fact that these Gentiles had gotten saved! But Peter did what he did in obedience to the Lord, and we must do the same.
The first thing he encountered in Caesarea was this Gentile centurion falling at his feet in worship. Peter did not say, “Thank you for recognizing my high spiritual office,” and offer him his ring to kiss! Rather, he pulled Cornelius to his feet and said, “Stand up; I too am just a man” (10:26). One way to overcome prejudice is to treat other people, whatever their race or background, as equals. We should view ourselves as beggars whose job is to show other beggars where to find God’s free bread.
Thus we’ve seen that we all are prone to prejudice, but that God is gracious to gently break us of this sin so that He can work through us. His purpose is to spread the gospel among the nations for His glory, and He does it through His servants who are willing to cross cultural barriers. When He confronts our prejudice, we must yield in obedience to Him. What is the result?
As we’ve seen, God had prepared the listeners and He had prepared the preacher. Cornelius had invited in all of his friends and neighbors, who had gathered, as Cornelius puts it (10:33), “before God to hear all that [Peter] had been commanded by the Lord” to say. That’s a ready situation for God to work, when the hearts of the people are prepared and the heart of the speaker is prepared and they gather in God’s presence to hear a message that God commanded him to give! As we’ll see, Peter didn’t even get a chance to finish his message before the Holy Spirit fell upon everyone there and they all got saved. And, of course, this was just the beginning of the gospel moving out into Gentile territory. The same gospel that saved the apostles was mighty to save the Gentiles who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of Peter’s obedience in putting to death his prejudice, the gospel has come to us who otherwise never would have known God.
As you know, in the late 1960’s there was a lot of cultural upheaval that resulted in a wide gap between the younger and older generations, both in attitude and appearance. Hudson Armerding was the president of Wheaton College at the time. He had fought for our country’s liberty during World War II, and as a member of that generation, was conservative in his grooming and attire. He also despised the counter-culture movement, because to him it represented unpatriotic draft-resisters, flag burners, and the like. So he did not like it when students dressed in the grubby counter-cultural fashion. Also, he thought that it was biblically inappropriate for men to have long hair. But the staff at Wheaton was trying to permit a degree of liberty among the students on this matter.
One day Armerding was scheduled to speak in chapel. Just before the service, they gathered for prayer. Just before they began, a young man walked in who had a beard and long hair, and was wearing a sash around his waist, with sandals on his feet. Armerding looked at him and was sorry that he had come in. Worse yet, the student sat down right next to the president. When they started praying, Armerding did not have a very good attitude.
Then the young man began to pray: “Dear Lord, you know how much I admire Dr. Armerding, how I appreciate his walk with you. I am grateful for what a man of God he is, and how he loves you and loves your people. Lord, bless him today. Give him liberty in the Holy Spirit and make him a real blessing to all of us in the student body. Help us to have open hearts to hear what he has to say, and may we do what you want us to do.”
As Armerding walked down the steps to go into the chapel, the Lord spoke to him about his attitude. After giving his message, he asked the young man to come to the platform. A ripple of whispering went through the students, many of whom thought that the president was going to dismiss the young man from school as an example to the rest of the students. But rather than rebuking him or dismissing him, everyone including the young man was surprised when Dr. Armerding put his arms around him and embraced him as a brother in Christ. It broke up the chapel service, as students stood and applauded, cried and embraced one another. God used that simple act of one man laying aside his prejudice to turn the mood on campus to greater love and acceptance of one another. Dr. Armerding later learned that this young man had adopted his appearance in order to reach some of his generation who were alienated from God and the church (Hudson Armerding, Leadership [Tyndale], pp. 166-168).
Here’s a radical prayer request: Ask God to show you your prejudices. When He does, obey Him by putting your prejudices to death and by showing His love and offering His gospel to those whom you might not naturally be inclined to like. He will use it to exalt His name among the nations!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation