The First Sunday After Epiphany January 11, 2009
134(1-4), 351, 129, 134(5)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
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.
Dear fellow-redeemed in Christ Jesus who is Lord of nations:
In the movie The Jazz Singer, a young Jewish cantor (the singer who led the synagogue worshipers) leads an odd double life. He would dress up in black-face and join a group of black jazz singers in a club across town. When the gig was finished, he would have to race back to the Jewish neighborhood in time to teach his grade-school Hebrew class. I wonder how it felt for him to go into a club and sing his first gig. Did he have an uncomfortable sensation about going some place he wasn’t supposed to go?
The apostle Peter had been joyfully and vigorously preaching the risen Jesus Christ among his own people for a few years. A series of events had brought him up to northern Palestine, near Caesarea, when he had a vision while praying on a housetop. The vision was of a large sheet that was let down from heaven. In the sheet there was a variety of animals that were not ceremonially clean for the Jews to eat. In the vision, Peter heard a voice:“Rise Peter, kill and eat.” Peter protests, “No, Lord, I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” The voice responded: “what God has cleansed you must not call common.” (Act. 10.13-14)
It was at this moment that messengers arrived from Caesarea. They were sent to bring Peter to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion who had become a worshiper of the true God.. Peter complied with the invitation, but he did so realizing that he was about to go somewhere he had never gone before—he was going to enter a Gentile’s home, a place which he had been taught from youth to think of as unclean. Peter was to speak to people with whom he had been taught it was sinful to associate because they were not among God’s people.
To be sent by the Lord to speak the Gospel to Gentiles was a dramatic shift in perspective for Peter. You might say it was an “epiphany.” For the first time in his ministry, the words of Jesus—“Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15)—were to take a real form in Peter’s actions.
These things were written for our sakes, and they were inspired by the Holy Spirit so that we too learn that God is to be “epiphanied” in every nation. I. In every nation, Jesus represents God’s impartial grace and II. In every nation, Jesus heals those oppressed by the Devil.
The first thing that Peter points out to Cornelius is that in every nation the proclamation of Jesus represents God’s impartial grace.
Peter may not often have thought in these terms before, but the truth is, God always was impartial. It was He who, as Paul later said, “made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17.26). All nations trace their origin back to Adam and Eve. God’s promise of a Redeemer wasn’t limited to just some of their children and not to others. It was meant for all of Adam’s family.
Later on, when the Lord chose Abram and announced His plans to bring forth the Savior from his family, it was a Savior who would be a blessing to all the nations. God was certainly showing no favoritism in the generations that followed, dealing with the Israelites and their continual disobedience. He was showing His faithfulness to His own word and covenant. It all led up to the fullness of the time and the ministry of Jesus. Peter would later announce to Cornelius, his family, and close friends: “to [Jesus] all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.” [v.43]
For Jesus to carry out the work He was sent to do, He pretty much moved within the circles of Jewish society. But He carried in His own heart the realization that His work would bring salvation far beyond the border of Israel or the race of the Jews.
During the last week of Jesus’ life on earth, while at the Passover festival, some Greeks who were there to worship the Lord wanted to see Jesus. When the request came before Jesus He saw something tragic and yet marvelous: “truly I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12.24). Jesus saw the day coming when His death and burial and resurrection would be proclaimed to God’s glory in all the nations for the gathering in of many souls.
Now Peter was in Cornelius’ home—a Roman soldier, a person with history and perspectives very different from Peter’s—to preach to Him the Savior who would make Cornelius and those in his home members of the household of God. Peter told Cornelius: “In every nation whoever fears him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.” [v.35] Peter points to saving faith in Jesus as it plays itself out in life: 1) A “fear” of God, not in the sense of terror because God punishes sin, but fear in the sense of an awe-filled respect, a holy regard for God that is underwritten with genuine love and devotion; and 2) “Working righteousness,” not with the thought that one’s deeds will win God’s approval, but every day turning away from our sins in repentance and willingly doing the will of God in faith.
The other thing Peter pointed out to Cornelius was that in every nation Jesus heals those oppressed by the Devil.
Peter continues with Cornelius: “The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ…that word you know.” [v.36f] The things Jesus had done in Israel were not done in a corner. His deeds had been told and retold by many people, and Gentiles like Cornelius who believed in the God of Israel and waited with the Jewish people for redemption, were undoubtedly hearing some of these things. But hearing a vague rumor about what might or might not have been done by a Jewish rabbi is a lot different than having someone come to you as an eyewitness of the risen Christ.
Cornelius represented the whole Gentile world, lost in sin and ignorant of God. Paul, writing to the Romans, makes the point that “there is no partiality with God, for as many as have sinned without the Law will perish without Law, and as many as have sinned in the Law will be judged by the Law” (Romans 2.11-12). In a way, he’s saying that with God, “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” The Jews, to whom God had given a land, delivered them from slavery, and sent them prophets and a priesthood, had every reason to be a faithful people obedient to the gracious God, but all too often they chose sin instead. The Gentiles, on the other hand, generally had no direct word of God about His holy law. But they had their natural knowledge of right and wrong—incomplete as it was—and their conscience, making them accountable to God’s commandments. In both cases, an impartial God would have to judge, condemn, and punish both Jew and Gentile for their disobedience.
But Jesus “went about doing good and healing those who were oppressed by the Devil,” Peter explained. [v.38] He did this in Israel so that Israel would know that the Lord had fulfilled His promise and come to their aid. But Jesus was put to death by unbelieving Jews, which brought about God’s real and total solution for sin: redemption through atonement. Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world won forgiveness for all people oppressed by the Devil.
So who are those oppressed by the Devil? Peter is probably referring to the more spectacular aspects of Jesus’ ministry when He cast out demons who physically possessed people. Jesus released people who suffered in this sinful world from the many diseases and afflictions that have come into this world because of sin.
If Jesus had only appeared in Israel as a miracle worker, He would have been of little comfort to Cornelius or to any of us today. But Jesus’ powerful miracles simply pointed to His greater work. By atoning for sin Jesus broke the Devil’s power over the sinner; the power he exercises through guilt and fear. It is the unforgiven sinner, of any land or language, who dreads and trembles under God’s judgment. No religious practice or mind-bending narcotic can take away the unholy dread that comes with unbelief. But where Jesus is preached, people are finding God, they find they are reconciled to God in Jesus’ blood, they find that they know God as the One whose Word is true and who has kept His promise of salvation. They find that He is Lord of all and is the joy of all who come to Him through faith in Jesus, the Savior.
In every nation, Jesus heals those oppressed by the Devil. What do we do with that? First, to thank the Lord that He brought us and our ancestors to know and worship the Lord. Thank the Lord that we are not out worshiping a tree in the woods or a gold idol surrounded with incense. Thank the Lord that He has opened a way for us to approach Him with a conscience cleansed of guilt and shame. Thank the Lord that in Jesus Christ He has revealed to us a God who is with us, not against us.
Then, like Peter, let us “perceive that God shows no partiality” [v.34] Let us go to those places in the world or in our own social circle where we wouldn’t ordinarily go. Let us reach out to those with whom we may seem to have little in common and realize that we have in common exactly the most important things: an immortal soul, a sinful nature and life of guilty sinning, the fear of eternity. But we also share the gift of a Savior, the offer of forgiveness, the hope of everlasting life for all who believe this gospel. Let this be our epiphany: that there is a whole world out there laboring under the curse of sin, a whole world redeemed by Jesus Chris and longing to hear it from our lips, a world waiting to benefit from our efforts as servants of the Lord longing to see the fruit of our offerings poured into our Lord and His kingdom. Amen
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