The Simple Complexity of Grace: ACTS 9:31-11:18

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ACTS 9:31-11:18

Over the holidays my oldest daughter asked me a question.  “Mama, how do you get on the naughty list?” Her brother and sister had gone off to play and she stayed behind, so I knew she was serious about resolving this bothersome question.   In our home we don’t demonize Santa Clause during the holidays, nor do we emphasize him, so her question puzzled me.  “I just want to know how you get on the naughty list?” she asked again.  Boy, isn’t this the question for the ages?  She knows she’s been in trouble before (earlier that day in fact), but by and large she really is a very well behaved child.  She’d been singing the Santa songs and watching the Christmas shows, so on the surface her question was related to whether or not she was getting presents.  Her deeper question however, the one that nags each of us in the back of our minds, is this…are we good enough?  I told her that when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, the naughty list disappeared forever.  And this is what we call grace.

IS GRACE IN THE OLD COVENANT?

Grace in the Bible is simple and yet so complex.  Often, we hear the New Covenant described as the Age of Grace and the Old Covenant as the Age of the Law, and it’s certainly a more convenient way to explain all the nuanced differences between the two.  But that can lead to the assumption that grace did not exist back then, and can we really say that the Old Testament held no grace?  No, I don’t think so.

God never actually told Israel that they would be saved, receive eternal life, or enter heaven if they faithfully kept his commandments.  He told them he would bless their obedience with peace and prosperity.  The commandments were given for this earthly economy and therefore the blessings were also within the earthly economy.  The commandments of the Old Covenant were not given to Israel to offer them a way of salvation; they were given to serve as a picture of the one true way of salvation.  An earthly picture of the heavenly reality.  Each and every time they sacrificed an unblemished lamb for their guilt offering, it was a picture of Jesus and his sacrifice for our guilt.  Those little lambs atoned nothing, but Jesus, heaven’s perfect lamb, atoned all.  Did Israel understand this?  As a whole, no they didn’t.  They claimed a number of false assumptions of the law, which God allowed, that eventually brought about the fulfillment of the law.  But what’s really interesting here is that this truth of grace was still available to them, despite the fact that many never had the eyes to see it.

Consider for a moment King David.  He committed sins worthy of stoning, and they certainly would have kept him from entering the courts of heaven, yet his sins were forgiven.  If grace were not available in the Old Covenant, then one would have to conclude that King David was forgiven because of his sacrifices prescribed by the law.  He had to provide an animal sacrifice as a sin offering to cleanse him from the sin of adultery and murder.  But take a close look at Psalm 51.  David wrote this passage soon after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband to cover it up.

Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves; then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.  Unseal my lips, O Lord, that my mouth may praise you.  You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.  You do not want a burnt offering.  The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.  You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. (Psalm 51:14-17 NLT)

David spells it out.  I believe he clearly understood the truth of grace.  And today we benefit from Paul’s teachings, because he offers further assurance there’s not a single thing we can do, nor an action can we take, to get us on the nice list.  That was completed by Jesus and Jesus alone, on the cross.

A GRACE FOR ALL PEOPLE FOR ALL TIME

The truth of grace is steadily being revealed all throughout Acts.  This particular passage covers the account of Peter and his sermon to the household of Cornelius.  It was the very first sermon to an all-Gentile group of people.  Back in chapter eight, the apostles seemed quite surprised to hear that the Samaritan’s had received the gospel message from Philip.  Then again, maybe they could accept it more easily since the Samaritan’s had a heavy Jewish influence despite their wayward past.  But this – this event with Cornelius was even more daring.  Peter entered a Gentile home.  The Jews, for centuries, had been instructed to exclude Gentiles.  He would have never done this unless he had been clearly instructed by God to do so.  God understood the cultural barrier Peter would have to overcome with his community as well as in his own mind, so he provided clear confirmation through a vision, a word from the Holy Spirit, and the message Cornelius received from God.  It was certainly controversial to go, but Peter obeyed.

I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism.  In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right. (Acts 10:34 NLT)

Non-favoritism didn’t just suddenly become God’s character.  This is a heavenly reality that has always existed.  A grace for all people.  Paul says in Colossians.

In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave or free, Christ is all that matters… (Colossians 3:11 NLT)

No favoritism.  Since God was, is, and always will be, we have to assume this is how it’s always been.  So you may ask, wasn’t Israel specifically told they were favored over others?  He said it to Moses.

The Lord has declared today that you are his people, his own special treasure, just as he promised, and that you must obey all his commands. (Deuteronomy 26:18 NLT)

It certainly seems like a contradiction, but not if you can discern these statements by their economy.  It’s interesting because if you look at Israel’s history, they were a lot rotten a lot of the time, and not very treasure-like.  Yet they were treasured because of God’s purpose for them in the earthly economy.  His purpose was to garner them as an example of his abundant love.  God is so abstract; he gave us something concrete, around which we could wrap our minds.   Israel’s purpose, the covenant and commands given to them, they were all a picture in this earthly economy, giving us a glimpse into the heavenly reality.  And for anyone who earnestly followed after God, he revealed much of this truth, like he did for David.

God’s timing is perfect.  All of the seeds were planted, the proofs written in scripture, and the pictures clearly showed Messiah’s plan for redemption.  So when the time came for Jesus to be crucified as predicted, it was also time to reveal the full truth of grace that would become the primary message of the New Covenant.  When we hear a word from God, we can be sure that scripture will confirm it in some way, exactly as we see here.  God provided a clear, tangible picture of grace in the crucifixion, and the Old Covenant scripture confirmed it over and over.  Although the truth of grace was unfolding every day for the early church, Peter and the others still didn’t grasp it completely.  In the coming chapters we are going to see them struggle with how to accept Gentile believers.  They will try to saddle the Gentiles with Jewish customs and ceremony as requirement, and we will see evidence of Paul’s relentless campaign for grace.

IS THE LAW IN THE NEW COVENANT?

While the Old Covenant wasn’t entirely absent of grace, the New Covenant isn’t entirely absent of the law either.  Wait…what?  Isn’t the Old Covenant now obsolete?

When God speaks of a “new” covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete.  It is now out of date and will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:13 NLT)

If you’ll look at the context of this scripture in Hebrews, it is referring specifically to the guilt and sin offerings under the law and relates it to the fact that Christ’s death is once and for all.  You see, the animal sacrifices were performed repeatedly every year because they didn’t actually do anything at all.  They were just a symbolic picture of what was to come.  So now that we have the picture of Christ and his crucifixion, it has made the old covenant indeed obsolete and unnecessary.  When Christ offered himself as the perfect sacrifice, it was perfect and therefore absolute.

So when I say that the new covenant wasn’t devoid of the law, what I’m actually talking about is the Spirit of law.  The law that is written on your heart like King David writes about.  Even to Jeremiah, the Lord tells him there will be a new covenant where the law will be written on our hearts.  The part of the law that describes God’s character and his desire for our life.  The Spirit of the law says that God does not like or condone sin.  God didn’t like stealing back then, and he doesn’t like stealing today.  He didn’t like murder back then, and he doesn’t like murder today.  He doesn’t like sin and he wants to see our lives defined by good works, not bad.  And that’s only because of his great love for us.  He knows the sorrow that follows sin.  The freedom that we are granted through grace is the freedom to do what’s right.    We’re no longer chained to sin and sorrow.  It’s the freedom to live a life of heaven on earth.

THE POINT IS WORSHIP

Every believer who lives within the constructs of the earthly, yet holds a citizenship in the heavenly, will have to face the tension between these two worlds.   This is the tension we see fleshing out in the early church when they begin to question Peter for entering Cornelius’s home.  Do I fellowship with a Gentile or do I not?  Do I eat meat that’s been offered to idols, or do I not?  Do I circumcise or do I not?  It’s a tension that can sometimes leave us confused like those early Christian pioneers, however if we remain plugged into the Holy Spirit, that tension can materialize into a beautiful understanding.  I believe the early builders of the Christian church suffered through the tension to find understanding.

After the book of Acts concludes, Paul continues to write of liberty through Christ to encourage all believers to continue pushing through the tension.  We can feel free to be immersed or sprinkled, take communion, speak in tongues and participate in any number of symbols that represent the truth of heaven.  And we can allow these things to usher us into worship with our Lord.  We can also feel just as free to not do those things and enter worship by other means.  These things that tend to separate us as believers are merely pictures of heaven.  They aren’t heaven.

“The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves.” (Hebrews 10:1 NLT)

An understanding of the heavenly economy and the earthly economy allows us the freedom to enjoy everything that God has provided all the while knowing the heavenly reality that supersedes this world.

The point of it all is our ability to worship God with all of our heart.  When we are humbled, and allow God to heal us, we will grow in our worship.  We will intimately walk in the Spirit.  And we will know a heaven on earth that empowers us day by day.