In 2021 Lord Jonathan Sumption, who is a former UK Supreme Court justice, was on TV debating the pros and cons of the COVID lockdown. He questioned the benefit of the British lockdown — they really locked down — because of its adverse impact on young people. And someone asked him,
“If you do not lock down, are the elderly to be sacrificed for the good of the young?”
And this prompted him to respond,
“My children’s and my grandchildren’s lives are worth much more than mine because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead.”
Then he went on to make a statement that triggered an avalanche of rage.
“I don’t accept that all lives are of equal value.”
Well, a woman with cancer who is vulnerable to COVID named Deborah James was there and responded,
“With all due respect, I am the person who you say their life is not valuable.”
Sumption stopped her and clarified.
“I didn’t say your life was not valuable. I said it was less valuable.”
Wow! That was super helpful. As Glen Scrivener summarizes,
“Not worthless, worth less.”
Now, please, I’m not interested in debating lockdowns at this moment, but what fascinates me about this is to watch a nation that is desperately trying to rid itself of all the vestiges of Christianity, yet at the very same time desperately trying to retain equality and human rights. And it’s a vivid picture of the classic cutting off the branch you’re currently sitting on, or of craving a kingdom, just not the king.
As Yuval Noah Harari wrote,
“Most legal systems in the world today are based on a belief in human rights. But what are human rights? Human rights … like God in heaven, are just a story we’ve invented. [He’s an atheist.] They’re not an objective reality. They’re not a biological fact about Homo sapiens. Take a human being, cut him open, look inside; you will find the heart, kidneys, neurons, hormones, DNA. But you won’t find any rights. The only place you find rights is in the stories that we have invented and spread.”
Now, Harari is right about human rights, that they’re not intrinsic. You’re not going to find them in your blood. You’re not going to find them in your bones. You’re going to find them in your stories. As Scrivener writes,
“Our human worth cannot be discovered via scientific experiments. We share 40% of our DNA with bananas. This fact reveals very little about the value of humans, or of bananas. DNA does not and cannot confer moral worth.”
So what does? Well, it all hinges on how you answer one question — did we make God, or did God make us? Because what if we are actually made, not in the image of a banana, but in the image of our Creator and endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights? Therefore, what if you cannot determine someone’s value or dignity based on their IQ or their age or their skin color or their nationality or their ability?
As Claude Atcho writes,
“is not earned; it is given by the very hand and heart of God.”
In Acts 10, this truth explodes upon the Roman world. The Romans didn’t believe that all men, women, children are created equal. Didn’t believe it. The Greeks didn’t believe that all men, women, children were created equal. What we find in Acts 10 is absolutely revolutionary. And so, on this weekend, when we as a nation pause to reflect upon the vision of Dr. King, who was simply calling our country to practice what we preached, it’s a good thing to go back to where it all began. It didn’t start with the Declaration of Independence.
Acts 10 — you’ll see two visions, two places, two groups, one gift. Two visions — so that we can see what we can’t see. Vision number one in verses 1-8, as we read earlier, was seen by Cornelius, who was a God-fearing Roman centurion who was stationed at Caesarea. Around 3 pm he had a vision, and an angel told him to send some of his men to Joppa to find a man called Peter. So, Cornelius did. That’s vision number one.
Vision number two, 9-16. Peter was in Joppa, and around noon the next day, he was hungry, and while he was waiting for the food, he fell into a trance. And he saw this vision of this great sheet descending, the four corners communicating like the four points on a compass in verse 11. Then verse 12,
“In it were all kinds of animals”
In this sheet were all kinds of animals. You know how dreams are kind of curious.
“Reptiles, birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I’ve never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.”
Two places — so that we can go where we haven’t gone. Place number one is Joppa. In verses 17-23, while Peter is still totally confused, Cornelius’s servants show up at the gate and call out to him, and the Spirit tells Peter to go with them. He invites them in. And I find it fascinating that this happened in Joppa.
When we fly to Israel, we land in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was built on the outskirts of Joppa. Joppa has a harbor that is over four thousand years old. When the prophet Jonah received the call to go preach repentance and the mercy of God to Nineveh in Assyria (capital of Assyria), he went the opposite direction to where? Joppa, which is the port where he got on a ship intending to head to Tarshish.
Now, why is this a big deal? Well, this happened in the eighth century BC. The Jewish people at that time hated the Assyrians because about one hundred years earlier, the Assyrians had forced Israel to pay them tribute. They crushed them under their financial boot. So, Jonah both feared and loathed the Assyrians, and here God was calling him to go preach to them. It’s kind of a mixture between spiritual narcissism, viewing those people as a different kind of people, and hyper nationalism — God would show mercy to us; that makes sense to me. But God would show mercy to them? That doesn’t make any sense. And so, he fled. Jonah fled to Joppa to run away from God’s call. Peter is in Joppa; the very place Jonah went to flee from the call to show mercy to the Gentiles. Joppa.
Caesarea, second place. Verse 24 — The following day, this diverse group of Jews and Romans and servants, soldiers, and apostles … what a motley crew! … head up from Joppa to Caesarea. It’s a thirty-mile trip. They probably took about ten to twelve hours. They split it into two days. And when they got to Caesarea, Cornelius had a welcoming party waiting. Friends and relatives and many others were eager to hear Peter, and Cornelius. When Peter came in, Cornelius bowed and Peter lifted him up and said (verse 26),
“I too am a man.”
I am likewise 40% banana, no different. Two image bearers, both sinners, both need a savior. The places are significant. Peter has traveled from Joppa, the harbor that launched Jonah away from Gentile ministry, to Caesarea, the harbor that launches Peter and Paul into Gentile ministry.
Let me give you a little background on this harbor. Caesarea Maritima or Caesarea on the Sea was built by Herod the Great from 22-10 BC over the remains of a Sidonian village. Caesarea became the Roman capital of Judea when Rome began governing in AD 6. Herod had built at that time an amphitheater. And this is us about a month and a half ago, our group in that amphitheater, and I just noticed this morning I’m wearing the same shirt. Yes, it’s pitiful. He built an amphitheater, a hippodrome, a temple, aqueducts to transport the water from the springs up north at the base of Mount Carmel, all the way down to Caesarea. He built a royal palace out on the water. It’s fascinating.
Most remarkable though was this artificial harbor. It is the first artificial harbor in the world, especially of this magnitude. It is an engineering masterpiece consisting approximately of three-and-a-half acres of water, semi-encircled by two barriers made up of foundation stones, the size of shipping containers. So, they had to get these massive stones out into the water up to one hundred twenty feet below the surface of the water. And then under the water they constructed, with hydraulic concrete formed with a specific kind of volcanic ash, pozzolana, shipped from Naples. You can imagine hundreds of shiploads bringing in this volcanic ash, forming the concrete below the water. Unfortunately, the harbor was destroyed a little over one hundred years later in an earthquake. But this harbor was a missional symbol of a couple of things.
One, it was a symbol of protecting and propelling. Protecting, because Paul, at the beginning of his ministry and the end of his ministry, fled from Jerusalem, where the Jews were trying to kill him, to Caesarea. Propelling, because it was from the harbor, this harbor we just looked at, where Paul often launched his missionary journeys or returned from his missionary journey. So, Caesarea became this symbol of propelling the gospel around the world to Gentiles. Two places. They’re really important here in Acts 10.
Two groups. I don’t think most of us understand just how miraculous this meeting really is. At the time, many Jews viewed Gentiles merely as invaders to be expelled or fuel for hell. Gentiles viewed Jews as haters of humanity to be despised and enslaved. There was a mutual disdain. And yet look at verses 30-33. When Peter asked Cornelius why he had sent for him, Cornelius described his vision and then look at his response. Verse 33,
“So I sent for you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here in the presence of God to hear all you have been commanded by the Lord.”
Two groups who naturally hate each other are miraculously listening and speaking. Verse 34,
“So Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of al), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed:”
So, Peter goes on to summarize the life and the ministry of Jesus, the help and the healing he provided, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and then look at the climax in verse 42.
“He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes, everyone who believes in him, receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Two visions, two places, two groups.
One gift. Look at verse 44. One gift.
“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”
This is often called the Gentile Pentecost. Remember, Pentecost occurred in Jerusalem, and Jews from all over the world were there. But the Gentiles (this is years later) … The Gentiles had not experienced that. This is the undoing of the judgment at Babel. Remember, where the people were scattered, the languages changed so that people couldn’t communicate. Now, you have where the Spirit of the Lord is, they can understand each other. What unites them is not the same culture or even the same language apart from the Spirit. And so, you see this exploding of the gospel into the Gentile world, which is why we’re gathering here today, two thousand years later, because of this. I think it’s really important to also note that … And you’ll notice if you look at Acts as a whole, this same experience didn’t happen every time people believed. It happened at key junctures, this kind of Pentecostal explosion of languages that can be understood that people hadn’t spoken before, like actual languages. It didn’t happen every time. Why does it happen here? Because God is communicating that my gospel is so valuable there is not one language that’s the only language, like you have to speak Hebrew to really know God or Greek or King James. He is decimating that. Where the Spirit of the Lord is that gospel will go all around the world to be communicated to all people.
And look at what Peter declares in verse 47,
“‘Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, 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 remain for some days.”
So, Peter stayed to disciple, to plant a church.
Now look back at verse 34. Let’s drill down into this. Verse 34, “Truly,” Peter says, “I understand that God shows no partiality.” That’s a long word. It’s a combination of two words — “prosopolemptes.” It’s a combination of “prosopon,” which is “face” when you’re referring to people, “surface” when it’s referring to things, combined with the word “lambano,” which means “to receive,” literally “a receiver of a face,” or accepting people based on surface characteristics.
James uses a similar word, same root, different form when he warns us in James 2:1,
“My brothers [here it is] show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘Sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
Like that person’s more valuable than that person. And as James goes on to emphasize and as Peter is highlighting in Acts 10:34, the greatest damage inflicted when we show partiality is not just to the person who is harmed but to the glory of the God whose image that person is made in. We are creating a god in our own image when we show partiality as if the God of heaven and earth is just like me. That’s heresy. And James, Peter, who were steeped in that before they knew Jesus, are calling us to turn from that. Followers of Jesus must repent of partiality.
Many years ago, like thirty when our church was first starting …. so, I was pastoring and painting … some jobs never ended, and I remember my crew and I were doing several big, giant houses that punch lists and add-ons just never seemed to end. And finally, one night, it was just Curt Finnamore (some of you know Curt) and I were finishing up this giant house way out at the end of Pelham Road, when that used to be in the frontiers, and we jumped in my old van. I had a van at the time. You had to park it on a slope and push it and pop the clutch to get it started — old white painting van. And it was Christmas; so, we’re driving along, singing. We’re just so happy to be done with that house.
And we stopped to get gas, and as I’m filling the tank, Curt gets out, we’re chatting, we’re very happy. And this lady pulls up on the other side of the pump in a super nice car. I can’t remember what it was — Mercedes, something. She jumps out, and she asks for directions to a particular hotel, and we started to give her directions. “You go down 85, you pick up 385, go downtown, it’s off to the right. Wait. Whoa. There’s another one. Are you looking for the one downtown?” (By the way, young people, this was pre-GPS; so, you actually had to communicate with a human being about where to go.) And when we said that — “whoa, like, there’s one out here, too,” I think she must of at that moment thought we were playing with her or something, but she stopped suddenly, looked at us, scowled, and said, “Why am I listening to you? You’re just a couple of painters.” And she got back in her car and drove off. Merry Christmas! Now, we may have had paint on our faces. I wasn’t wearing this shirt, but to look at someone and to assess the value of their directions purely on their external, that’s partiality. That’s a silly example. Let me give you a serious example.
On February 12th, 1968, thirteen hundred black sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis because of low pay — $0.65 an hour — and dangerous conditions. Two of their coworkers two weeks earlier had been crushed to death due to an equipment malfunction, and the city refused to pay compensation to the family of the deceased. A month later Dr. King joined the protest, and on April 3rd, he delivered his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The next day he was assassinated. The strike made famous the slogan, I Am a Man. Now, when you first look at that slogan, you think “Duh. Why would someone have to say that?” It’s interesting that Peter said the same thing for the opposite reasons. “I too am a man.” Whether we elevate people or denigrate people, we need to be reminded who we are in the presence of the God who made us in his own image. That’s what these men are saying. As one worker said later, “We felt we would have to let the city know that because we were sanitation workers, we were human beings.”
When Peter saw the vision in Acts 10 of a sheet full of animals he called unclean, God was redeeming Peter’s vision, and ultimately it wasn’t about the animals. It took three times for him to get it. Is that not encouraging? It should be. He’s an apostle. Three times he didn’t get it. If we think we’re going to get everything right away, we’re clueless. But then he got it. And when he traveled from Joppa to Caesarea, he said when he arrived in Caesarea, verse 28, let’s look at it again. “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”
I wonder if God were to give us a vision today when you’re in your Sunday afternoon nap, and a sheet is descending, who would be on your sheet? Who do you tend to view as unacceptable, unapproachable, unforgivable, unredeemable? Peter’s not denying that we are sinners and that sinners need to repent of their sin. You notice Cornelius was a righteous man, but he was still called to repent and believe the gospel. But what Acts 10 is getting at is this tendency we all have. We tend to categorize people. And once someone or a group of people get on that sheet of ours, we tend to treat them differently.
This is particularly important, I believe, in light of the political air we breathe today. What’s happening … I’m going to oversimplify it, but it’s real … in the political narrative regarding race is you’re watching on the far left this constant push that if you don’t look at racial differences through a Critical Race Theory and adhere to what is now called anti-racism words and policies, then you’re a racist. And so, then many on the right flee to the far side and view it kind of like non-racism, like anyone who believes that we could possibly be racist post-1960 is woke and needs to be written off. And both of these views are not in the way of Jesus. So, we as the people of God need to go back to the beginning and not develop our framework from man’s philosophy. But God made this clear who we are, who we are.
Claude Atcho, who is a pastor in Charlottesville, summarizes this so well. He writes,
“The test of our commitment to the imago dei”
What’s the imago dei? Yeah, it’s the Latin translation of Genesis 1:27 that we are made in the image of God.
“The test of our commitment to the imago dei” The test. Get that.
“The test of our commitment to the imago dei is not what we believe about the doctrine of the image of God, but how we view, treat, and relate to our fellow image bearers — particularly those most prone to be rendered invisible. Our doctrine is not tested by its rational precision but by its lived application.”
Let that sink in because tragically the church of Jesus has often been hypothetically against racism, but daily and actually proponents of it. When we view … He’s going to give some examples because this is far bigger.
“When we view children as a drain and a nuisance, coworkers as foot stools to our advancement, significant others as receptacles for our frustrations and dispensers of our happiness, we walk in the tragic tradition of fallen humanity, seeing God’s visible image bearers not through the true lens of their dignity but selectively as commodities. We render them invisible.”
And what he means by that is we don’t see who they really are. We’re caught up with an external utilitarianism.
“Our sight, [he writes] needs redemption, which requires both repentance and a Redeemer who draws us back to the purpose for which we were made. Christ — the image of God — must be the center of our vision, as the image of true humanity and the redeemer of broken humanity. He is the one who seeks the invisible, comforts the outcast, and dissolves the hostilities between those who have seen each other through the lens of hatred, exploitation, and invisibility. It is Christ, the image of the invisible God, who mends and heals broken image bearers — body, soul, eyes and all — so that we might grow to behold one another rightly as we image our Creator under the Spirit’s powerful, loving sway.”
Our Father, as we look to you, we humbly respond to your Word, as we repent and believe what you say over what we feel or what we’ve experienced or how we’re reacting, please, wash our hearts, redeem our eyes. May we see you as you really are and people as they really are. They’re not tools to be used. They’re not cargo to be carried. They’re not scraps to be discarded or debris to be overlooked or despised. They are fearfully and wonderfully made; broken, yes. We need you. Redeem our eyes, we pray. Fill our hearts with your love. Expand our vision for the lost, for the lonely, for the different. May we be on the lookout to display the gospel in the way we think about and treat our neighbors. We pray this in Jesus’s name. Amen.