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Overcoming Prejudice and Segregation by the Power of God -- a study of Acts 10

Jesus accepts us; we must accept one another.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 10

Peter has seen enough miraculous signs to realize that God wants even Gentiles to be a part of His church. It took that much to overcome Peter’s deep-seated prejudices. Today, we continue to find prejudice in churches; let Peter’s experience be a challenge to us to let God chase them out of our lives!

Now I really understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, (10:34)

[This resource was originally a printed newsletter for teachers. I'm putting older resources on line for future reference.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Racism and Segregation.

I know this isn’t a fun or happy talk for an icebreaker(!) but this is a very important lesson for us. Like our country, Thomson is at a crossroads. If we cannot learn how to talk about racial and cultural divides, we will not move past them. But in Jesus Christ, we have the message that overcomes all divides, and that’s what this lesson is about. I know we have members in our churches who harbor racist sentiments, and we have to be able to deal with them—in a loving and gracious manner. For our kids and for those who work in the school system, this is an extremely present issue. This passage is a foundation for dealing with it. But . . .

“Sunday morning worship is the most segregated hour in our nation.” - MLK Jr.

King was appalled by worship segregation in the 60s because he believed that worshiping together was the best way to bring healing to our country. But that’s much easier said than done. A 2013 Lifeway survey found that 90% of American churches are nearly homogeneous, yet 67% believe they are doing what they can to be more ethnically diverse (and 53% believe that they need to be more ethnically diverse). Those are powerful numbers. Churches aren’t necessarily trying to be segregated, but that’s what has happened. The solution is not somehow to force integration in churches. I don’t even know how someone would do that with any biblical integrity. The solution is for individual church members to build relationships that are so strong that they overcome the cultural differences that keep us apart on Sundays (by preference of worship style and by family ties). And then the next step is for the church to be so welcoming and accepting that all people of all races and social classes truly feel welcome in that congregation. That’s the answer.


What makes that so much easier said than done is the ongoing presence of racism and segregation in our country. And yes, that’s a two-way street, but consider these statistics when we think about race relationships:

  • Blacks account for 13% of the population and 14% of drug users, but 37% of all drug arrests are of blacks.

  • In New York City, 85% of all blacks and Latinos pulled over or stopped by police are frisked. Only 8% of white people stopped are frisked.

  • In 2010, blacks received 10% longer sentences than whites for the same crime.

  • In 2009, blacks were 20% more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison.

  • In 2012, more than 50% of Americans surveyed expressed anti-black and anti-Latino sentiments. (sources at dosomething.org under “discrimination”)

We have a race problem in our country. We have a race problem in Georgia. The only real solution is true Christianity. God created and loves every human being equally, and Jesus proved that on the cross. Christians, of all people, should understand forgiveness and acceptance on a deeply personal level. I am much more “different” from God than I am a black man (or any combination of ethnicity, gender, and age!), and yet God chose to forgive and love and create a relationship with me. Do the math -- that means I can have a forgiving and loving relationship with any human, no matter how different they are from me.

 

This Week's Big Idea: Segregation Is Not Just about Race

Your leader guide uses the illustration of the Great Wall of China (and wisely points out the unintended consequence of such isolation reinforcing prejudice, but more on that later) to point out that not all segregation is racial. That wall was designed to keep out other Asian tribes who posed a physical threat. Think about all the different ways that we segregate in our society:

  • We’ve mentioned racial lines, but I truly believe that those differences are more about culture than skin color. Cultures have different customs and priorities and dress codes and what not. We tend to be comfortable around people of a similar culture (this informs every difference below).

  • Economics. Going all the way back to the Bible, income differences can create segregating lines. The fact that we have a range of incomes in our church is hopeful that we can overcome differences, but if anyone in our community thinks of us a “big white church”, that's something we have to prove wrong.

  • Music Preferences. Obviously tied to culture, something as superficial as music style has created segregating lines that some are unwilling to cross.

  • City vs. County. The fascinating differences between “city-folk” and “country-folk” will be with us longer than any other, I fear, and those differences play out strongly in churches. You can hear it in the way we make fun of different parts of the country or, say, Atlanta and Augusta.

  • Men and Women. Our inability to discuss gender discrimination has created many of the tensions that are now exploding our country. God created men and women to be different, but chauvinism and abuse has turned that into a bad thing. It has also made it harder to explain the dangers of, say, a married man having a close female relationship with someone other than his wife.

  • Past Sins. Here’s a hard one for a small community like ours: people tend to have longer memories than hope in God’s transforming power. Sins, particularly the really public ones, tend to isolate the sinner, driving that person into the company of other sinners. If you cannot forgive and accept the sinner, that one will never be welcome in your church the way he should be.

  • Segregation Reinforces Prejudice. Ultimately, this creates a spiral. The idea behind segregation is that we focus on our differences. And when we isolate ourselves from “others” we can’t learn what we might have in common.

Here’s my recommendation for your Sunday School hour: pick one or two of those areas that you think would open the eyes of your class in a healthy way to the fact that segregation exists in our community. And hopefully you can present statistics and stories to explain why that segregation is hard to overcome (i.e. everybody must share in the blame). But get to this point: First Baptist Church needs to be a leader in our community in overcoming any and all prejudices that exist in Thomson. [And if you're not a member of FBC Thomson, then substitute your church name. Every church must be a part of the solution.] God wants us to be a part of the solution. We talked about being bold in our prayers and actions last week—would any of you dare think that these community problems are too hard for God to overcome if we ask Him?

Where We Are in Acts

God is slowly pulling Peter further and further out of his comfort zone. Last week, we saw that Peter had gotten all the way out to the coast where he was part of a miraculous raising, and there he stayed with a tanner (not a Jewish-friendly place!). Now, God will pull him all the way out and make him confront his own deep-rooted prejudices. Luke introduces us to a Roman centurion named Cornelius. You might remember from my talk about centurions from the Gospel of Matthew that these guys were incredibly well-respected and even feared. They were enlisted men who worked through the ranks by dedication and ruthlessness to be put in charge of about 100 soldiers. To advance beyond that usually required being able to pull strings. Therefore, these men were the real faces of the Roman army in the local community. Cornelius was apparently even more well-respected than most because he was also a God-fearer. Others called him devout and upright and fair and a man devoted to prayer. But he was still a Gentile. By going into his home, Peter would pass a point of no return for this “Jewish sect” of Christ-followers.

 

Part 1: The Vision (10:9-15)

The next day, as they were traveling and nearing the city, Peter went up to pray on the housetop about noon. Then he became hungry and wanted to eat, but while they were preparing something, he went into a visionary state. He saw heaven opened and an object that resembled a large sheet coming down, being lowered by its four corners to the earth. In it were all the four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth, and the birds of the sky. Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” “No, Lord!” Peter said. “For I have never eaten anything common and ritually unclean!” Again, a second time, a voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call common.”

Why is it so hard to change long-standing, deep-rooted beliefs? No, that’s not rhetorical. This is the purpose of the lesson, so you want to keep it in front of your group. We are all programmed to think in certain ways about certain people, actions, and customs. So was Peter. It took God Himself to get in Peter’s brain and affect a change. Peter was still at Simon’s house. Cornelius’s delegation had been sent on the 30-mile trip at 3pm of the previous afternoon, and they were about to get to Joppa. Jews prayed at 9am, noon, and 3pm. The rooftop would have been ideal to get away from the sound and stench of Simon’s occupation. For some reason, Peter was hungry. Normal meals were a light brunch and a heavy early dinner, so this was not the time to be hungry. Clearly God was getting Peter’s attention! Peter went into a kind of trance (we get the word “ecstasy” from this Greek term) in which he had a strange vision. The types of animals that God told Noah to put on the ark (Gen 6:20) are all on a giant sail, certainly including clean and unclean animals (see below for discussion about “kosher”). If Peter was hungry, Peter should eat! But just like when Peter recoiled when Jesus tried to wash his feet (John 13:8), Peter misunderstood God’s point. This wasn’t about food but an attitude. I mention that the way Jews observed their kosher laws drove them into isolation from Gentiles, and that was not good. It made Jews think of Gentiles as being unclean in the sense of not worthy of the gospel.

Jesus had once said that what came out of a man made him unclean, not what went in him (Mark 7:18-23). Peter and the disciples had raised these laws to the level of deciding who could and could not be saved. God would correct that misunderstanding.

 

Aside: Caesarea by the Sea

For obvious reasons, “Caesarea” was a common name for towns in the Roman empire. But this town truly was important! (It also happened to be Philip’s home where he returned after meeting the Ethiopian.) It was build by Herod to get him on the good side of the emperor. Therefore, it had one of the largest harbors anywhere, allowing ships to dock safely for a spell (protected from the sea by massive breakwaters). It also had 5 major roads connecting it to every other major city in the region, making it a stopping point for sea and land commerce. It had a 4,000 seat theater, a 10,000 seat hippodrome, and numerous baths. It was so great that Rome took it as its capital in Judea in 6 AD.


The means that the “Italian Regiment” of which Cornelius was a centurion was Rome’s primary army in the entire region. When officials came from Rome, they stayed in Caesarea under the protection of this force. The war between Rome and the Jews would start here in 66 AD, but at this time, relationships between the two groups were fairly tolerable. I think it is safe to say that Caesarea was the most Roman city Peter had traveled to in his lifetime.

 

Part 2: The Declaration (10:43)

[34 Then Peter began to speak: “Now I really understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, 35 but in every nation the person who fears Him and does righteousness is acceptable to Him.] . . . All the prophets testify about Him that through His name everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins.”

The lesson skips over the verses that explain the action. When Cornelius’s delegation arrives for Peter, he immediately realizes that God was not just talking about food, but the people who eat the food. It would be against kosher law for Peter to go into Cornelius’s home, but God’s mission superseded manmade kosher law. When Cornelius explains that God Himself prompted the request for Peter, Peter says the verses I included in brackets above: he finally realizes that God can save Gentiles. Should it have taken this long for Peter to make that connection? No—but let’s be gracious, all of us have people we would be surprised to see saved because we would never think to share the gospel with them. But Peter shares the gospel with this crowd of Gentiles; verse 43 simply represents the entire presentation. The focus is of course on Jesus as it should be. What’s the point? I see two:

  1. God is working all the time to arrange circumstances for a chance to share the gospel—are we ready and willing? And

  2. salvation is for all people. We cannot stress this enough. There is no biblical basis for prejudice, segregation, or racism among believers.

And really, with unbelievers the Bible says our primary concern is that they not drag us down, not that we can’t have friendships with them.

 

What Is “Kosher”?

“Kosher” is basically the Yiddish word that means “made fit for Jewish consumption.” “Kashrut” is the name of the regulations for ritual cleanliness, which includes diet. The Jews believed that because God created the entire natural order, the rules He gave them for diet must be based on a deep connection with holiness. That certainly lined up with the idea that they were His chosen people, and that He wanted them to remain separate from the other peoples of the earth; one of the biggest expressions of being different is in what you eat (we can still tell that today!). For example, God said, “You shall not eat anything which dies of itself. You may give it to the alien who is in your town so that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner, for you are a holy people to the Lord your God” (Deut 14:21).


Here are the challenges with being “kosher” (I give you examples below): it’s a one-way street. Gentiles could come and share a Jewish meal as long as they respected the dietary and purity practices of a Jew, but Jews could never go into a Gentile home and eat because there was no way the Gentile could have followed every purity law. To a Jew, it wasn’t even safe to make physical contact with a Gentile because they likely had recently touched something ritually unclean (cf. what I said last week about Simon the tanner). That’s not a good way to build relationships with potential converts!


Ultimately, “kosher” laws were preventing early Christians from having meaningful relationships with any non-Jew, and that was severely hindering the Great Commission. How can you share the gospel with someone if you can’t eat together, visit a home, or even make contact? God had to make it clear that those laws were from a time when the nation was establishing its identity and were never meant to keep them forever separated from the outside world.

 

Part 3: The Sign (10:44-46)

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came down on all those who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speaking in other languages and declaring the greatness of God.

So God interrupts Peter’s gospel presentation with proof that his audience has not only been listening but has also believed. We know it was an interruption because in Acts 11:15 Peter said he was just getting started 😁. The action of God in the Holy Spirit was such that there could be no mistake: God had brought salvation to the Gentiles. The Jewish Christians (the “circumcised”) were “astounded.” That is the same word used of the crowd at Pentecost. [As an aside: this Sunday is Pentecost, so there’s your chance to acknowledge this most important Christian holiday!] This turn of events was amazing and perplexing all at the same time. Hopefully that explains why God allowed such a miraculous sign—the Jewish Christians truly didn’t believe that Gentiles could be saved. But there could be no mistake. These Gentiles were doing the very same thing the disciples did at Pentecost! (The parallels between this passage and Acts 2 are so impressive that this is sometimes called the “Gentile Pentecost.”) And since they knew that there was only one Spirit, they realized that these Gentiles had experienced the very same salvation that they had.


Now—how do we know that they were speaking in intelligible languages? Because the disciples knew that they were praising God (literally “declaring the greatness of God”). There is nothing babbling about that declaration! When the Holy Spirit filled them, God’s praise came out of them (this is very much in line with what Jesus meant when He said that what comes out of a man makes him clean). God was at work saving people that were previously thought unsavable. Yeah!

 

Aside: Gift of the Holy Spirit?

Because I don’t expect you to remember everything I write, here is a brief recap of my statements on this subject. Remember that in Acts 2, we had baptized disciples who then had the Holy Spirit poured out on them. In Acts 8, it happened to baptized Samaritans. In Acts 10, it happens to unbaptized Gentiles. ??? Remember that God used the physical sign of speaking in tongues (intelligible languages that the speaker could not have known) to publicly validate the miraculous coming of the Spirit in Acts 2 (to validate the disciples to the Jews) and Acts 8 (to validate the Samaritans to the disciples). That’s essentially what happens here in Acts 10 with the difference being that the Gentiles had not been baptized yet. Why not? Because Samaritans were in “Jesus territory” and had just enough in common with their neighbor Jews to be baptized. Not so the Gentiles! So, to make His point, God gave those Gentiles a visible and unmistakable manifestation of the Spirit (the same thing the apostles experienced) in the presence of Peter so there could be no doubt as to their salvation. We are never told that this is somehow normal for Gentiles. If anything, it is abundantly clear that this is a very unique experience in the history of the church. Therefore, it would be a huge mistake to use Acts 10 to defend the belief that speaking in tongues is necessary for salvation, or to argue that speaking in tongues is some kind of weird babbling (as some use this passage to mean). And Peter’s words make it clear that he and his Jewish friends needed this dramatic kind of an event to realize that God even loved Gentiles. Is it sad that that’s what it took? Maybe, but let’s check our own prejudices.

 

Part 4: The Acceptance (10:46-48)

Then Peter responded, “Can anyone withhold water and prevent these people from being baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for a few days.

One study guide used a filter as an illustration, and that gave me this idea. Bring in a HEPA filter—designed to extract 99.99% of pollutants. That sounds good, but you wouldn’t use it outside would you? In how many settings is it actually even useful? The truth is that we tend to want a stronger filter than we might actually need, and that applies to our life: we screen out more people than we should. Once Peter realized that he had been wrongly excluding Gentiles from God’s love, he changed his tune. [Big Note! Peter wasn’t perfect. It’s not like his heart was fully accepting all the time. Paul tells us in Galatians that Peter pulled back from the Gentiles after some pressure from Jerusalem, and that was wrong. We need to stay vigilant to make sure that we don’t drift back into old prejudices.]


To Peter, the evidence from God overrode old prejudice. These Gentiles were saved, and they should be accepted into full fellowship in the gospel into the church. That’s what baptism meant then (and what it is supposed to mean now). Attempting to deny someone baptism was essentially trying to keep them out of the church. Peter knew better than to oppose God. And Peter proved his acceptance by staying with them for a few days. There’s no way he could avoid eating with them! This acceptance meant no going back to the old ways of life.


So here are the big questions for your group: how accepting are you of people with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds into our church (or your small group)? Talk about the barriers that make it hard for you to enjoy true fellowship with someone else. Or, if you don’t have any such barriers (and ideally you don’t), talk about the barriers other people would have preventing them from wanting to worship with us at FBC. The leader guide uses an illustration of writing those on a piece of sheetrock and then smashing the sheetrock with a hammer (representing Jesus). I like that: make it clear that Jesus can overcome any difference or prejudice, use whatever illustration or exercise to show that Jesus breaks down every barrier. Ask your group to be honest: if a new believer from a different background (ethnic/cultural/religious) were to come into your group or our church this week, how would that person be received? What would you do to welcome that person? Pray that God would change perceptions in our community so more people would join us in worship.

 

Closing Thoughts: The Challenge of Kosher

Doesn’t it seem like Peter’s statement to God that he had never eaten anything unkosher is a bit of a boast? I don’t know a whole lot about the rules, but there seem to be a whole bunch of them. In the Bible, they are found in Lev 11 and Deut 14. Clean animals are those which chew the cud and have cleft hooves (yes: antelope, deer, goat, cow, sheep (herbivores), no: donkey, camel, bear, monkey, mouse, rabbit). Clean fish must have scales and fins (no: catfish, clam, octopus, seal, shark, eel, lobster). Clean birds must not be carnivores. Anything that crawls is unclean (basically all reptiles and amphibians and most insects).


But it’s more than just which animals can and cannot be eaten—it is also in food preparation. Blood must be completely drained before being cooked. And this is where things get strange: kosher laws include a lot of things not in the Bible that were added by Pharisees. For example, any meat slaughtered by a Gentile, a minor, or a disabled person could not be eaten. Any meat not soaked and salted for a certain period of time using only kosher utensils could not be eaten. Eggs boiled fewer than 3 at a time could not be eaten. For milk to be kosher, a Jew had to be present with it from milking to bottling. If milk ever dropped into a pot of meat, the pot had to be thrown out. (Today, the separation of meat and milk is counted off by hours, as in a Jew has to wait so many hours after eating meat before drinking milk to ensure they are not mixed in the stomach.)


There’s no way anyone could know for certain he has always been kosher because you are equally responsible for things beyond your control. However, it is possible that Peter was not talking about the kosher rules of his day but only the biblical rules. The problem is that Peter obviously took to heart the manmade rules about who someone can and cannot eat with! I think that Peter had lapsed into a “rich young ruler” mentality in his dream because what God was asking was so mind-blowing to him.

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