One reason I think the church often fails on this earth is because her vision is so small. Because I make that statement, I also have to state that even when the church fails in its mission, God does not. He succeeds in everything He does and He accomplishes the work that He has set forth from the foundation of the world. We read that explicitly in Acts 4:28. We could point out, then, a multitude of ways in which every church fails because the people are a depraved people who, because of their sinfulness, fall and fall and fall. It is only because of God’s faithfulness that we can rise and be used of God to any degree in the plan and purpose that God has.
I have a friend who pastors a church. He has been there for a few years and still some of the key people in the church have some of the same heart-problems that they had early on. He is frustrated, to say the least, and feels like he has accomplished nothing and like the church body hasn’t moved forward at all. God, though, is working out precisely what He means to work out according to the book of Acts, even if at times we don’t see it or our local churches choose not to have a place in that work. God is faithful and our work for the Gospel always means something significant because God is the one working all things together as we labor for His glory.
We are all the same in this way, aren’t we? We look at visible results and we are greatly discouraged or encouraged based on those visible results. Most of the time, that means discouragement for us. In the book of Acts, after we are promised that God will accomplish everything that He has predestined by His hand and His will (Acts 4:28), there is a great persecution that breaks out against the church. All of the progress that the apostles made in Jerusalem is torn apart by the ravaging persecution of a guy named Saul. The local church there is almost destroyed. Virtually all of her members are forced to leave Jerusalem. The work of the people was undone, but God’s vision was much greater. Have you ever felt like you did all of this work and it meant nothing? Yeah, me too. Let us gaze into the faithfulness of God as He works all things together. Perhaps our hearts will be prepared to think about missions on this earth and the work that God has forever as He establishes the world that He has formed.
We remember that every story has a context. Before we arrive in Acts 10, there is a scene being set in the previous chapters and even in the Old Testament. Can I share with you how small our vision is? We want to think about how we are reaching people in our city, how we are progressing the gospel now, and how we are honoring God in our time. We limit ourselves to thinking about weeks or even months in advance. God, who is omnipresent in space and time has worked all things together throughout all space and time to accomplish one plan and purpose: that creation would be filled with His image and that all of creation would be cultivated for His glory (Genesis 1-2). He forms the world to also establish it (Jeremiah 33:2). Let’s remind ourselves about what God is doing through the story in the Scriptures.
Genesis 1- God creates people with a purpose; to fill the earth with His image and cultivate the earth for His glory.
Genesis 3- People rebel against God by breaking God’s command. God promises that the seed (singular) of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. His promise is to essentially win victory for humankind.
Genesis 15- God promises that all nations will be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. The Hebrew people become the keepers of this promise. God chose the Hebrews because they were the least of all peoples (Deuteronomy 7:7), and so that He would be recognized as the faithful one (Deuteronomy 7:9). He did not choose them because of their righteousness because they were a stiff-necked people (Deuteronomy 9:5). God wanted to be sure that humanity knew He was the one doing this work. This is the reason, though all nations received the promise (we see this with Adam and Eve), the promise would be fulfilled through the Jews- because the Jews were the least of all people and a stiff-necked people and God’s strength and faithfulness would be made evident.
Gospels- Jesus was born a Jew in the house of David and in Bethlehem and fulfilled the Law, and God’s promise, being pierced for humanity’s transgressions.
Acts 2- The promise of restoration is fulfilled first to the Jews at Pentecost through the giving of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 8:4- Jewish believers were scattered because of persecution, preaching God’s word wherever they went and beginning to take the Gospel to the nations.
Acts 8:9-40- We read of Gentiles (the nations) accepting Jesus as the Messiah and the fulfillment of the promise God made to Adam and Eve, though they are not yet given the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion.
Acts 9:15-16- God selects Paul to be His chosen instrument to take His name to the Gentiles (all nations other than that of the Jews).
Acts 10:1-15- Peter has a vision of the Gentiles being grafted into God’s kingdom on this earth.
Acts 10:34-36- “Then Peter began to speak: ‘Now I really understand that God doesn’t show favoritism, but in every nation the person who fears Him and does righteousness is acceptable to Him. He sent the message to the Israelites, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ — He is Lord of all.’”
Acts 10:44-48- The Holy Spirit comes to the Gentiles just as it had to the Jews. This could be seen as the Gentile Pentecost. God had fulfilled His promise, and was continuing to fulfill His own plan and purpose just as He set forth to do. His promise of restoration was now fulfilled, first for the Jews and also for the Gentiles in a way that God would be shown as faithful and recognized as the only one who could accomplish this work, that no one can boast.
God was working this great persecution in Jerusalem, what seemed to the apostles to be a great loss, to fulfill a promise that He made in Genesis 3 and to work His plan and purpose that was in place from the foundation of the world. Peter’s vision was even small. In Acts 10:34, he had to admit that he really, at that time, understood what God was doing (something he did not previously understand). What seemed to be a loss to people, was actually a victory that God had been working together from the foundation of the world. If God works like this and has a grander vision than I have, I do not have to fear failure and I do not have to always see human progress to be where God wants me to be. I think there is great comfort to be received, here. It will be the case, even at the resurrection, that I am insufficient. That does not mean imperfect. I will always need God’s sustaining power in my life. God has a great heart for the nations and His vision is much more comprehensive than ours. I just want to spend the rest of our time together considering God’s heart for the nations, from Genesis 1 through all of discrete time. For, God is unchanging in both an eternal and everlasting manner.
What I perceive as my failure, God is working for His purpose.
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.
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.
It is easy to see through Scripture that God has always had a heart for the nations, all people. All the peoples of the earth are to receive the promise. God redeems from all peoples. In the giving of the Holy Spirit, God’s kingdom has come to all peoples. It was never merely about the Jews. God chose the Jews nationally because they were the least of all peoples. God’s heart is for every nationality, every skin color, people of every language, people of every culture, people of every religion, every generation, both men and women. In His great commission, Jesus instructed His disciples, and us, to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that He commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus was urging His followers to share God’s heart for all people. This whole narrative, this story in Scripture, it is about the work of God for all people, not simply one group or another. In the coming of the Holy Spirit, God’s kingdom actually has come down to us. We aren’t only recipients of Christ’s redemption, but of the kingdom. It is a kingdom of God for all people who would accept Jesus. This is God’s heart. I want to do everything I can to inspire within us this heart that God has for the people. A heart that, through discipleship in the church, is shared with people- that everyone might repent and receive life abundant.
I remember working on a paper while I was in the university. I was almost finished. I worked hard and I was excited to turn it in the next day. I did not back up my work (some of you have had a similar experience). Something happened and the program crashed. There was no backup data. My work was gone. I could not recover it. My heart sank. At that moment, all I could do was try and try to find a way to bring my work back to life. I did not. I would have paid to get that work back. God’s heart for people is not like my heart for my lost work. Let me try again, or perhaps I shouldn’t. I could try and draw a parallel between God’s love for us and our love for someone else, but I don’t think I have ever had the sort of severe love that God has for all people. I could describe the love a father has for his son, but it wouldn’t come close. A man’s love for his wife is not the same eternal and unconditional love that God has for people. Jesus, I think, is the one who came the closest to describing this sort of love.
In Luke 15:11-32, we witness Jesus tell of a Father who had two sons:
He (Jesus) also said: “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.’ So he distributed the assets to them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing. Then he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. He longed to eat his fill from the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one would give him any. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger! I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired hands.’ So he got up and went to his father. But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father told his slaves, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field; as he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he summoned one of the servants and asked what these things meant. ‘Your brother is here,’ he told him, ‘and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“Then he became angry and didn’t want to go in. So his father came out and pleaded with him. But he replied to his father, ‘Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’
“‘Son,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
There are a couple things that I want to notice, here. First, Jesus is addressing the complaining of some Pharisees and scribes (Luke 15:2). They were complaining about the fact that Jesus welcomed the irreligious people and ate with them. If we look at the literary context, the younger son represents tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:1), while the older son represents the Pharisees and scribes. Drawn out, the younger son stands for those who are not in the household of faith, and the older son stands for the dedicated religious person. The father in this parable loved them both dearly. The younger son chose to take his inheritance and leave the father. The father loved him in such a way that he allowed it. God loves people in such a way that he allows them to deny him if they so choose. If we choose death, God grants our wish. The secret is that we all choose death. This son came back to the father. In actuality, the son wasn’t going to ask for his sonship back. The father ran to meet him and chose to, without the son asking, give him a place as a son and celebrate with him. That is love beyond measure. He was dead and the father gave his life back even though he considered himself to be unworthy and wasn’t even going to ask.
The older son, the dedicated and religious one, became angry because the father accepted the dead son back into his home. So, he did not want to go in. He was just as lost as the one who was perceived as a sinner. He was dutiful, but he did not know the father. He would not go back in the house because his father had accepted the other son back in. He hadn’t been given anything! He was angry at the father. So, HIS FATHER WENT OUT TO HIM!!! His father reassured him that everything he had was shared. What love does God have for all people! Of course, many of the Pharisees and scribes would not go into the house.
What love are we inspired to? Even those who want nothing to do with God, both the religious and the irreligious, God goes out to meet His true children and brings them in, celebrating with them even when they do not deserve it and aren’t really even interested in being his children.
What love does this inspire us to? Does it drive us to love those who are sinful, those who squander the inheritance on this earth that God has given them? Are we inspired to accept them as full brothers even though they are racists, hypocrites, bullies, and idolaters by nature? Are we inspired to love in such a way that we are humble in our service and that we see no sin as too great to keep the Father from bringing in His people? Do we understand that God is working something together that is far greater than we could imagine? Are we like the older son? Are we angry because people don’t seem to grow? They’ve wallowed with the pigs and have again returned to God. God comes out to meet us, too. Will we also repent, enter the house, and have the same sort of love for the nations that God has? Or, will we keep complaining about people’s sin? If God has chosen us together, and we have genuinely repented, then we are brothers and sisters. By God’s grace, let us love like brothers and have the same sort of heart that the father has for all people.
So, in our discipleship, we don’t see any progress? Let us not love less because of that. God doesn’t really call us to bring progress. He calls us to be faithful wherever He has placed us. He is the one who establishes His creation. He will sanctify hearts and will use our discipling to do that. We don’t know the depth of what is going on in someone’s heart. We don’t know what they are struggling with theologically, as parents, as workers, as young or elderly people. We can trust Christ with that work while being faithful to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything that Christ commanded. As for the weeds, God will sift them out in His time.
Let me love as God loves me.
What I perceive as my failure, God is working for His purpose.
Let me love as God loves me.
- The verb, יוֹצֵ֥ר, is an active participle that indicates a continuing action in any tense; past, present, or future. Literally means (is or was) squeezing into shape, spreading out, making, or laying. This may indicate an action that has been finished or will one day be finished.
The verb, לַהֲכִינָ֖הּ, is a Hiphil infinitive that indicates a causitive action. Literally means establishing, causing to be set up, causing to be accomplished, causing to do, causing to be made firm, causing to be arranged, causing to be ordered. This suggests an ongoing state of things or an everlasting work (perhaps even an eternal work). God is the direct cause of the sustaining and the progressing of all creation, which He formed.
The idea that God establishes what He creates is wonderful. He is never done with us. His creation exists by nature in a dynamic state. He is always establishing what He has made and is making. He finishes His work of creation and redemption (recreation), but His work of establishing is not finishable, for it is a state of things- it is an everlasting work that we will continue to enjoy in an everlasting way. Always will God, in discrete time at the least, be working together all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose because He will always be the sustainer and progressor of His creation, which He formed, by nature of His very existence. This helps us, I hope, to think about God’s unchanging nature from the foundation of the world and perhaps about the laws that govern our existence; or perhaps it wonderfully confounds us all the more and inspires us to the awe of our Lord. This is perfectly acceptable. Nowhere is it written that we must obtain all knowledge. Let us praise the God who baffles us mortals, and perhaps even when we have entered into our immortal state.
Even those who are in Hell will have to, by nature of existence, be sustained in their poor state by God, whom they rejected. Perhaps this will be the greatest source of weeping and gnashing of teeth for them.