For the Sake of the Gospel
By Tom McCullough
Confession is good for the soul, or so James said in his brief New Testament letter, urging his readers to confess their sins to one another. So, I confess. I play favorites. I have preferences. I have prejudices. I have strong, negative feelings about some people. There it is, out in the open. Confession is good for the soul, or so James said in his brief New Testament letter, urging his readers to confess their sins to one another. So, I confess. I play favorites. I have preferences. I have prejudices. I have strong, negative feelings about some people. There it is, out in the open.
The truth is, we all play favorites. We all have preferences and prejudices hidden in the secret and sometimes dark places of our hearts. I’m not talking about a preference for neckties over bow ties (or no ties); for fried chicken and cornbread over black beans and rice; for the Detroit Tigers over the St. Louis Cardinals. (Who doesn’t have a favorite food or sports team, right?)The prejudice to which I refer goes much deeper than that. It divides the world into “us versus them.” When we allow preferences to go beyond a simple observation of the differences between cultures, people, and heritage to actually deem another person or culture inferior to us or to our own culture, we’ve gone too far.
It is not easy to maintain an objective viewpoint about people who aren’t like us. Sometimes, it seems more and more “thems” in the world would be quite content if “us” didn’t exist. Perhaps your temperature rises when you see interracial and intercultural tensions playing out in the streets, on the news, and at times, even within our churches. Do you, like me, sometimes find your “anti-everyone except me, mine, and ours” mentality rising higher?
In His great wisdom, the Father included in Scripture a breathtaking story about two men in an “us versus them” cultural stand off, a story recorded in Acts 10 about overcoming prejudice for the sake of the gospel.
Acts 9 closes with the Apostle Peter residing in the home of a man named Simon, a tanner, in a port city called Joppa. In chapter 10, we meet Cornelius, a Roman soldier living in Caesarea, some 30 miles up the coast from Joppa. Luke carefully points out what a fine man Cornelius was, describing him as a “God-fearer.”
While we don’t know exactly what this means, we know what it doesn’t. He wasn’t a polytheist, worshiping a pantheon of gods and goddesses like the majority of his countrymen. Neither was he a Jew; he had not submitted to the rite of circumcision that would have made him a proselyte. Nor was he a Christian. To this point, he had made no declaration of faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. Yet Cornelius worshiped the God of the Old Testament, kept the Old Testament ethical code, attended synagogue, and practiced the main requirements of Jewish piety, two of which Luke mentions by name: generous alms giving and continuous prayer. In short, Cornelius was quite religious. (How many pastors would have love to have a man like Cornelius in their congregations?) He looked righteous. He did holy things. But the whole story revolves around what God had to do in Peter’s heart so Cornelius could receive the information needed to follow Jesus.
One afternoon, Cornelius had a vision. In it, an angel instructed him to send for a man called Peter, providing specific instructions about what city and in which house he could be found. Cornelius obeyed without hesitation, sending three men from his household to find Peter.
Not long before the search party arrived at Simon’s home, Peter also experienced an incredible vision—a sheet-like cloth descended from Heaven with all manner of “unclean” animals forbidden by Jewish dietary laws. Yet, a voice invited Peter to arise, kill, and eat. Peter refused. He had never eaten anything unclean according the Jewish dietary restrictions. The vision was repeated two more times. Each time, when Peter refused, the voice reprimanded him firmly, saying, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”
Peter was perplexed, unable to understand the vision. No doubt, it disturbed him that the command contradicted everything he had been taught. Then, the Spirit of God told Peter three men were seeking him, that he should ask no questions but simply go with them. To Peter’s credit, he obeyed. The visitors arrived, and the next morning, they headed back to Caesarea with Peter.
In preparation for Peter’s arrival, Cornelius had invited the whole world to his home—family, friends, servants, and military subordinates. When Peter arrived, Cornelius went overboard, bowing before him. Peter quickly corrected the idea that he should be worshiped in any way and then came out with the most awkward response to an invitation ever: “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation.”
Ouch! Basically, Peter told Cornelius and his assembled friends and family, “You know I shouldn’t be here in this unclean, pagan house with you unclean, heathen people, right?” Not really a statement to win friends and influence people. Smacks of bigotry, prejudice, and yes, even racism.
However, Peter’s next words reveal he had been paying attention: “God hath shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. Therefore, came I unto you without gainsaying [complaining].” Good for Peter, but he spoils it by following up with a really dumb question: What do you want with me? Why am I here? The Apostle still had no clue that non-prosyletized Gentiles could be reached by the life-changing message of the cross. For Peter, the gospel was still for Jews only, with the off-hand possibility that an occasional Gentile might get caught in the net.
Yet, when Cornelius recounted his own vision, it finally dawned on Peter that God had sent him to declare the gospel of redemption. We read his paradigm-crushing declaration in verse 34: “Of a truth, I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.”
This simple yet profound statement pointed the focus of the Church’s mission in a new direction. It was the turning point of redemptive history, the decisive moment when the Church discovered the boundaries of the Kingdom of God are much larger than she ever could have imagined. Peter, and then other Jewish Christians through Peter’s testimony, finally understood the gospel is for the world, not just ethnic Israel. It was the moment Peter stopped seeing the world as “us versus them,” especially regarding salvation. He finally understood he was part of “them” in relationship to God’s “us.”
In God’s eyes, we are all “thems.” The Word of God is a global Word, a Word for all humanity. God is no respecter of persons, does not play favorites. He has no preferences, or prejudices. He offers grace without restrictions. We all get this, right? We all say a hearty amen? Thank you very much. Case closed…or is it?
Breaking the Pattern
What we say we believe about the global purposes of God to bring all men to Him through the gospel is often at cross-purposes with our behavior. This passage puts us face to face with a reality no one wants to admit: God doesn’t play favorites, but we sure do! When we allow ourselves to be driven by prejudice, we short-circuit the global dynamic of the gospel. And this does not necessarily mean prejudices against others, but prejudices for us. Perhaps at the moment Peter uttered verse 34 he recalled Deuteronomy 10:17-19: “For the LORD your God is God of gods…which regardeth not persons…and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Maybe he remembered how Luke recorded the words of Jesus when He commended two non-Jews for their faith: Namaan (a Syrian) and the widow of Zarephath.Perhaps Peter remembered Jesus’ words to another Roman centurion only a few short years earlier: “I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”
Or maybe he remembered the Lord’s last words before ascending to Heaven: “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
Maybe it dawned on him at that precise moment that God’s agenda had always been for the salvation message to go to the ends of the earth, “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).
Whatever Peter’s thoughts, the primary teaching of Acts 10, 11, and 15 is God’s impartiality in terms of ethnicity, social status, religious background, language, race, and any other category by which we tend to divide people. The whole point of Peter’s dilemma is to emphasize how natural it is to categorize other people and cultures into compartments of clean and unclean. Too often, we think of clean as acceptable, within God’s reach of redemption. Our actions communicate that “clean folks” should avoid those who are unclean, because they lie outside God’s reach of redemption.
Peter learned that while an “us versus them” world is natural, it also isn’t right. God made it clear everything Peter believed and held dear about the superiority of his favorite people was false and needed to change. And, truthfully, Peter wasn’t thrilled.
In chapter 11, Peter was “called on the carpet” to explain to other Jewish leaders why he would visit an unclean Gentile’s house. He recounted the story of his vision, then threw up his hands (at least it feels that way) and said, “Who was I to stand in the way?” Certainly, Acts 10:34 was great news for Cornelius, but it was disturbing news for Peter. Giving up his “us versus them” mentality was a bitter pill to swallow.
Peril of Patriotic Prejudice
It’s one thing to value the heritage and customs of the culture in which you were raised. It is quite another to judge the value and worth of other people as inferior based on our own cultural standards. People aren’t stupid because they drive on the left side of the road, eat sushi and drink mare’s milk, or speak a less-refined language than English.
When we take these types of preferences and apply them to other people, we build emotional and spiritual barriers to redemptive relationships with people from other cultures. When we use someone’s ethnic, cultural, linguistic, social, economic, or racial background to decide if he or she is worthy of respect, time, service, or love, we cross the line to prejudice, perhaps even racism. Based on Acts 10, we can categorically identify this behavior as sin—sin that needs to be addressed and confessed.
When we embrace prejudice, we draw boundaries around the grace of God where God doesn’t draw boundaries. Whether subconsciously or consciously, we build barriers instead of bridges and limit the availability of the gospel. Honestly, if Acts 10 depended on us, would we make the 30-mile journey from Joppa to Caesarea and enter the home of an ethnic outcast?
I love America. I love being an American. I thank God both privately and publicly that I was born in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I get goose bumps when I sing the national anthem at a ball game, and I sing every word, much to the chagrin of those with me. Yet, as an American, a citizen of a nation with recognizable physical borders, a rich history, and firm beliefs about justice, it is natural to have an “us versus them” mentality about those whose experiences have not been the same, who don’t see things the way I do.
Few American citizens would argue whether it is possible to be an American and a Christian. But many cringe to hear you don’t have to be an American, or sympathize with American values, to be a Christian. Far too many of us associate American culture with Christian culture, yet the two are not the same. If America ceases to exist, the Church will live on.
God is not American or Mexican. God is not Republican. God isn’t even a capitalist. God does not salute the American flag (although that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t). God does not speak English or Spanish. He is not white, brown, or black. He does not play favorites. God is God, and He has no political agenda. He cares nothing about the color of a man’s skin but about the condition of his heart.
When our speech, tweets, or posts demonstrate more concern about a political agenda or run down others because they don’t look, believe, or act like us, we limit access to grace. We alienate those who do not share our political, economic, and social views. We trade the pearl of great price (the Kingdom of God) for a scaled down, deformed view of whom and what we think God should favor.
Pointers From Peter
Today, immigration has brought a “great sheet” of people before us like never before. For years, we have sent missionaries gifted by God to work with the “heathen,” yet, many would say, “Don’t let those foreigners in my neighborhood.” The truth is, our world has become too small for insular, parochial, homogenous communities. The nations are here: Iranians, Kazakhs, Pakistanis, Albanians, Indians, Chinese, Sudanese, and the list goes on. They look different, speak differently, smell differently, eat different food, and practice different religions. They aren’t like us, yet they are all in God’s great sheet. Maybe they are not in His “going to Heaven” sheet, but they are always in His “within the reach of redemption” sheet. It’s our job to reach out and bring them into God’s great family of grace.
This is not easy. It is so hard. I like PB&J; they like black beans and rice. I like pot roast and mashed potatoes; they like curry rice and tortillas. I like fried chicken and barbecue pork; they like sushi and kimshi. I like organ and piano; they like guitar and marimbas. I like Wesley and Watts; they like U2 and Coldplay.
Take a lesson from Peter. Unlearning prejudice is not easy. God shared the vision with him three times, and Peter still didn’t get it. It took the simple words of a Roman soldier to make it clear, but Peter finally understood the gospel was for every man, regardless of language, nationality, or social status. The cross stands as the great equalizer. God came to me in grace without restrictions. He didn’t care about the color of my skin, the sound of my language, the color of my eyes, my political views, the clothes I wear, the flag I hold, the government I support, my voting record, or the fact that I believe in democracy.
Rooting out prejudice is hard, because pride is central to our fallen nature. We want to be special, different, above the ordinary. The solution? We must find our primary identity in Christ, not culture. Followers of Jesus hold citizenship in the Kingdom of God. We must not settle for a lesser kingdom that robs us of the joy of being sons and daughters of the King, fellow citizens with the other “thems” of the world. Let us not allow the concerns of a lesser kingdom keep us from serving and inviting others into God’s Kingdom. We must not make the values, positions, and politics of a lesser kingdom the minimum requirements to enter the heavenly Kingdom. It is not necessary for you to be like me for God to extend His grace.
Ask the Father to reveal those we’ve excluded from our category of “clean.” Write them down. Pray for them by name and ask God to give you His heart for them. Understand you rest secure in salvation, not because you’re an American, but because you’re God’s child. Ask Him to give you a heart for unreached foreigners living within a five-mile radius. And then be slow to speak and quick to listen to their needs.
Ask God to help Free Will Baptists take advantage of the open doors around the world, and to minister to the non-English-speaking people of the globe. Then take part yourself through active witness and generous support.Invite a neighbor or co-worker of a different ethnic origin over for a cookout, Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas coffee and cookies. Then accept his invitation to visit his home.
Why do these things matter? Paul explained to the Ephesians that God’s agenda took two opposite peoples—Jew and Gentile—and made one new nation. He broke down the wall that divides those who are alienated, strangers to grace. He brought unity in the midst of diversity by showing that “through Jesus all men have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).
The Church should be the one place where a spirit of grace and unity reigns among all peoples of the earth. But how will this ever happen if we close our eyes and hearts to “thems” all around us. The problem of prejudice is not out there. It’s in here…in me.
In 1908, William Dunkerly was asked by the London Missionary Society to write a hymn based upon more than 100 years of missionary effort around the world. Dunkerly looked out over the vast diversity in the Church across Asia, Africa, and beyond, and penned these lines: “In Christ, there is no East or West, in Him no North or South; join hands then brothers of the faith, whate’er your race may be; who serves my Father as a son is surely kin to me.”
If Dunkerly looked out across this denomination, would he be inspired by the great numbers of peoples of every kindred, tribe, tongue, and nation in our pulpits and congregations?
May we repent today of fostering prejudice, an “us versus them” mentality that restricts access to the gospel.
It’s the least we can do for the sake of the gospel.
About the Writer:Tom McCullough spent his life serving others as a missionary, pastor, educator, and mentor. He lost his battle with cancer not long after sharing this article with PULP1T Magazine.