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Lesson 27: How God Changes Our Thinking (Acts 11:1-18)

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I have a book on creative thinking that is titled, A Whack on the Side of the Head (by Roger von Oech [Warner Books]). We all get into mental ruts and often need a whack on the side of the head to jar us into new and better ways of thinking. Also, we all bring a lot of wrong-thinking baggage with us into the Christian life. If we are to grow into being more like Jesus, every once in a while God has to take a 2x4 and gently whack us on the side of the head to help us change our thinking.

We’ve seen how the Lord whacked Peter in preparation for his going to the house of the Gentile centurion, Cornelius. No Jew would think of going into a Gentile home, much less eating with Gentiles, for fear of contracting ceremonial defilement. The Lord Jesus had clearly told the apostles to go into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature. But in their centuries-old Jewish way of thinking, the disciples thought that Jesus meant for them to go and preach to Jews who were scattered all over the world. But the thought of preaching the gospel to pagan Gentiles and of those Gentiles coming to salvation without first becoming religious Jews was simply unthinkable.

But now the unthinkable has happened for Peter. He wisely had taken six Jewish believers with him to Cornelius’ house, who witnessed what God was doing. They all saw the Holy Spirit fall upon the Gentiles in just the same way as He had fallen upon the believing Jews on the Day of Pentecost. But now Peter goes back to Jerusalem and the Jewish believers there call him on the carpet because he “went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:3).

A lot of pastors just skip over these verses, since they repeat the story of chapter 10. But whenever Scripture repeats something, we need to take notice. There is an important lesson here that we might be prone to miss. Our text shows how God changed the thinking of these Christians on a matter that was essential for the spread of the gospel. If the Gentiles had been required to adopt Jewish rituals and ceremonies to be saved, the gospel would not have spread around the Gentile world as it did, and it would be a different “gospel.” The Holy Spirit inspired Luke to include this story twice so that the Jewish believers especially would see that salvation is not a matter of adopting Jewish rituals, but rather of God saving people of every race through faith in Christ alone.

But these Jewish Christians needed to change their thinking. The story shows how God began that process, and how He works to change our thinking:

To accomplish His sovereign purpose in salvation, God has to change the wrong thinking of His people.

First we need to understand God’s sovereign purpose:

1. God’s sovereign purpose includes the salvation of some from every nation for His glory.

God prophesied His purpose to Abraham in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 12:3, where He told him, “And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Later God told him, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). That seed of Abraham was not just the Jewish race, but specifically Jesus Christ, God’s promised Redeemer. In the last book of the Bible, the four living creatures and the 24 elders fall down before the Lamb and sing, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign upon the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10). Thus God’s purpose is to glorify Himself through the salvation of His elect from every nation through the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ.

That purpose in its beginning stage is acknowledged in 11:18, where the Jewish believers say, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” The Greek word for “Gentiles” is ethne, often translated “nations.” While the Jewish Christians did not yet grasp the full ramifications of what God was doing, the apostle Paul would later expound on it in Ephesians 2 & 3. He calls it “the mystery of Christ,” and acknowledges that it was not made known in previous generations. But now it has “been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit, to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:5-6). While for 2,000 years the nation of Israel had been God’s chosen people, now all the nations are on equal standing before God through the cross of Jesus Christ. Everyone who comes in faith and repentance to Christ becomes a part of God’s kingdom of priests, made up of Jew and Gentile in the body. This concept was nothing short of revolutionary!

I could spend the rest of the message elaborating on what I am about to tell you, but I will limit myself to three brief implications that you can chew on more on your own:

1) Concerning God’s purpose, it is fundamental to understand that salvation is God’s program and God’s doing, but He uses us in the process.

A major theme in this story is that God took the initiative in the salvation of the Gentiles. It’s all through the story: God gave the vision to Peter of the sheet being lowered from heaven with the unclean animals and the command to eat. Peter wasn’t trying to come up with some new theology. God, not Peter, originated this process. Further, God sent His angel to Cornelius with instructions as to how to get in contact with Peter. He orchestrated the arrival of the Gentile messengers from Cornelius with Peter’s vision, and specifically told Peter to go with them without any misgivings. He sovereignly saved the Gentiles and sent the Holy Spirit upon them even before Peter finished his sermon. As verse 18 states, He granted to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life. No one can work up or will repentance by his own free choice. God must grant it as His gift to sinners who do not deserve it. Thus salvation comes totally from the Lord.

At the same time, He uses us fallible humans to further the gospel. The angel did not preach the gospel to Cornelius, but rather told him that Peter would speak words by which he would be saved (11:14). We see this same emphasis in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, where Paul makes it clear that salvation is due to God’s choosing and God’s working, and yet He is pleased to use the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. This point is important because some wrongly conclude that if salvation depends on God’s sovereignty, then we don’t have to do anything. That is simply unbiblical! God sovereignly takes the initiative and He sovereignly grants repentance to those whom He chose before the foundation of the world. But He does it through His people obediently preaching the gospel.

2) If you are not in some way involved in getting the gospel to the nations, you’re not involved in God’s purpose.

World missions is not just an optional program in the church for some to be involved in. Missions is what God is doing! Not all are called to go, but every believer should be interested and concerned enough to educate himself or herself about the task. Out of that interest, we all can and should be praying for missions. We all should be giving to missions. If world missions is at the heart of God’s purpose, then apathy about missions is inexcusable!

3) The local church should be as racially diverse as the local population.

If God’s purpose is to save some from every nation (ethnic group), and we have many diverse nations (ethnic groups) in our city, then we are not fulfilling God’s purpose if our church is not reaching some from every group. As a church, we should be thinking of ways that we can reach across cultural barriers and see people from different racial and cultural backgrounds coming to faith in Jesus Christ.

As I said, I could spend the whole message on this point, but hopefully I’ve said enough for you to get a glimpse of God’s purpose. Maybe also you have begun to see how your thinking needs to change. But I need to say more on that:

2. We all bring wrong thinking into the Christian life.

By nature, we all are ethnocentric. We all bring wrong theological views into our Christian experience. Spurgeon (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:164) said that we’re all by nature born Arminians, so that at first we think that we came to the Lord ourselves. Only later we learn from God’s Word that He first sought us. Part of the process of sanctification is God’s transforming our minds (Rom. 12:2) as we begin to assimilate the truths of His Word. Here are three ways that Peter’s critics in Jerusalem were thinking wrongly:

1) Wrong thinking: human traditions are more important than salvation.

Peter had seen this remarkable response, as a whole house full of Gentiles had believed in Christ and were saved. But rather than rejoicing over what God had done, these saints were grumbling about the matter of Peter’s eating with Gentiles! The Old Testament did not forbid Jews from having social contact with Gentiles, although it did specify what sorts of foods they could eat. But these Jewish Christians were more concerned about Peter violating kosher laws than they were happy about the Gentiles getting saved!

But before we try to remove the mote in their eye, let’s deal with the beam in our own eye! We often do the same thing. We elevate certain traditions or ways of doing things above the salvation of lost souls. We are all for seeing young people getting saved, but they had better make sure that they not delay in looking and acting like those who have been in the church for 50 years!

When Marla was a young believer, she went to a church of hippies that met in a park. (She was the only non-hippie in the church, of course!) They met in a park because a youth pastor had seen a large number of young people from the counter-culture come to faith in Christ, but the church he served did not want that sort of young person coming to that church. After all, they might wrongly influence our clean-cut (but spiritually dead) youth! Sadly, he went to several churches in the area, asking if he could bring these young people into these churches, but he was refused. Finally, he took them and started meeting in the park.

If any of your cultural baggage (and I’m including your spiritual culture) is getting in the way of your enthusiastic commitment to reaching people from different cultures with the gospel, drop your baggage! Our main focus should be the salvation of lost people to the glory of God. If you see someone come into church who is not “your kind of person” and you don’t go out of your way to make that person feel welcome, your heart is in the wrong place! In the early 1970’s, I was able to visit Peninsula Bible Church where Ray Stedman was pastor. You would see little old grandmas sitting next to long-haired hippies worshiping together. That’s how the local church should be!

2) Wrong thinking: the church should consist of “my kind” of people.

We all are prone to think that the church is for folks just like us, but not for those who are much different than we are. There is even a principle espoused by the Church Growth movement, “the homogeneous unit” principle. It states that people are attracted to churches that have “their kind of people,” and advocates that we should be targeting a certain segment of the society. So you have churches that state that their target is to reach the Baby Boomers, or the Generation Xers. They aim their whole church service to make these kinds of people feel comfortable.

I believe that this approach undermines God’s purpose for the church (see Eph. 3:4-11). God is most glorified when a local church is made up of culturally and racially diverse people who would never get together apart from the saving grace of Jesus Christ. I think it’s biblically wrong to have a contemporary service for the younger generation and a traditional service for the older folks. We all need to learn from one another and learn to get along with one another. The church is God’s adopted family, made up of children from every conceivable background, to His glory.

3) Wrong thinking: God has to do things my way.

These Jewish Christians probably would have said that it’s okay for God to save the Gentiles, but first they need to become Jews. But for God to save them just as they are? That doesn’t fit with my way of thinking! He has to do it my way!

Church members are notorious for saying, “We’ve never done it that way before!” For example, there are many in evangelical churches who think that if you don’t give an altar call, you haven’t preached the gospel. Yet neither John Wesley nor George Whitefield nor Charles Spurgeon gave altar calls, and they were some of the most effective evangelists in the history of the church. It was Charles Finney who popularized the idea, based on some bad theology. But because it is the dominant method in our day, people think that we have to do it that way. The test of any method or any way of thinking must be God’s Word, properly interpreted and applied.

Sometimes God surprises us as He surprised Peter by saving people even before we finish our sermon and give an invitation! And the people He saves aren’t the kind of folks we would think He would save! We need to allow God’s Word to confront our wrong thinking so that we can grow in Christ and be more usable in His purpose.

3. God changes our wrong thinking so that we can be His instruments in His work.

If Peter had stuck to his protest, “By no means, Lord,” God couldn’t have used him to preach to Cornelius’ household. If we want God to use us in His great purpose of being glorified through the salvation of the nations, we must let Him change us. How does He do it? In many ways, but here are six from our text:

1) God changes us as we seek to walk with Him.

It was while Peter was praying that the Lord gave him this life-changing vision. If Peter had skipped his prayer time, he might have missed what God wanted to do through him. God will not change your thinking if you rarely spend time alone with Him.

2) God changes us by jarring us through uncomfortable circumstances.

Peter didn’t start out his prayer time thinking that he needed to come up with a creative new ministry idea. Rather, God sovereignly intervened with His ideas and His agenda! And God’s agenda shocked Peter, as seen by his startled reply, “By no means, Lord!” It was the Lord’s whack on the side of Peter’s head!

The Lord often has to whack us to get us to change. If we’re comfortable, we don’t feel any need to change. But if we’re suddenly hit with a new situation that’s outside our comfort zone, we realize that our old ways of thinking won’t do. We have to listen to the Lord and trust Him to do something we can’t do in our own strength.

3) God changes us by repeating the lesson until it sinks in.

The Lord had to repeat the vision three times for Peter. He repeats this story twice for every reader of Scripture, so that we get the point. And, the process of God’s changing their thinking was not finished with Peter’s explanation here. A party of Jews who professed to be Christians insisted that a person had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses to be saved. The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) had to work through this important issue, and Paul wrote Galatians to refute this serious error. Even Peter later fell into this wrong thinking, as Paul mentions in Galatians 2:11-15. But God often has to whack us again and again until the truth sinks in. In my own life, I’ve looked back on some issues and thought, “Why didn’t I see it sooner?”

4) God changes us by appealing to our thinking with His Word of truth.

Peter wins over his critics by relating in orderly fashion his experiences of how God worked. He could have asserted his apostolic authority: “I’m an apostle and you all need to submit to what I did.” But he would not have convinced the thinking of those who needed to change. Lasting change has to take place in the mind, and we must be convinced that the new way of thinking is in line with Scripture. So he shared the process that God took him through to change his thinking.

But if Peter’s experiences had contradicted Scripture, then they would not have been from the Lord. Granted, he had to take a new look at Scripture (such as the Abrahamic Covenant), because he thought that he understood it before. The Old Testament has much to say about the Gentiles sharing in God’s salvation, but Peter had missed it. Here, as far as what is recorded, he does not go into a biblical defense. But he does square his experience of the Gentiles receiving the Spirit with what the Lord had said about that subject (11:16). No doubt Peter became even more clear as he later read and interacted with Paul’s epistles. But change comes as our thinking changes through God’s Word.

5) God changes us by getting us to see that He is sovereign and we are not.

There is a basic lesson that we all need to learn, although we’re all slow to learn it. Repeat it after me: “I am not the Lord of the church; Jesus is!” This is not my church; it’s His church. He is in charge and He can do as He pleases, and He doesn’t even need to consult with me! If we’re not careful, we can end up standing in God’s way (11:17).

6) God changes us so that He can use us in greater ways to fulfill His sovereign purpose in saving the lost.

These things happened about seven years after the Day of Pentecost, and the gospel was still bottled up pretty much among the Jews! Philip had seen the Samaritans get saved and the Ethiopian eunuch. But the apostles were pretty much still in Jerusalem ministering to the Jews. God had to jar Peter and use some persecution (11:19) to get the message flowing to the Gentiles.

But, sadly, the Jerusalem church never really caught on. Their Jewish identity was so dominant that they did not launch a mission to the Gentiles, even after Peter’s experience. Maybe they figured that the Cornelius experience was an interesting one-time event, but they didn’t take it beyond there. In time, the significance of the Jerusalem church waned. The rest of Acts is mostly taken up with the Gentile mission through the church at Antioch and the missionary journeys of Paul. The lesson for us is that if we do not respond to the opportunities that God gives us, He will set us aside and use others.

Conclusion

The reason that the Trout family is in our church is that I received a phone call from a man in Phoenix working with the Southwest CBA. He said that he had a man in Flagstaff who wanted to reach out to the Spanish speaking community here, but he couldn’t find a church that would share that vision. I asked him how much financial support we had to commit to. He said, “None. They just need a church to be behind their vision and to provide a place where they can meet.” I said, “Send him here!” I knew that if we shut the door to reaching out to this segment of our city, the Lord would not bless this church.

God’s purpose is to be glorified as His people reach out to those from every people group with the good news of His saving grace. If your thinking is not in line with God’s purpose, I pray that He will use this message to whack you on the side of the head!

Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss: Missions is not a program in the church; it is the program of the church.
  2. Why is a mono-cultural church (“Baby Boomers,” etc.) not biblical? Why should the church be multi-cultural/racial?
  3. What are some American church traditions that may hinder our outreach to this culture?
  4. Is there any wrong thinking that we as a church (or you as an individual) need to change to conform to God’s Word?

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

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Predestination