Last time I wrote I began examining Peter’s first presentation of the Good News to the Gentiles from Acts 10:34-43, with an eye toward answering for ourselves the question, “What, exactly, is the Good News that we’re supposed to be carrying?” We saw that the first two elements in it were things we don’t usually mention in connection to the Good News:
(1) God will judge everybody, and He accepts anybody who loves Him and does what is right. (And, no, that’s not “nobody.”)
(2) Jesus was anointed by God to heal, do good, and free people from the influence of the devil.
Very few of us have been taught to present the gospel by beginning with God’s judgment as both Peter and Paul did, nor do many of us dwell for any amount of time on Jesus’ own ministry in Judea and Galilee. We usually leap from “All men sin” (which Peter did not say on this occasion) to “Jesus died for our sins.” Last week I called us all to ponder why Peter focused as he did on God’s righteous judgment and Jesus’ good works of power. (If you want to reread that message, here’s the link to it.)
Now let’s continue:
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify…” (Acts 10:39a-42a)
At the heart of the good news is a simple fact: Jesus, the Messiah, is alive. He selected a finite number of people to see him after his resurrection. It became their task to tell everybody, first of all, what they had seen–namely, that Jesus was alive. Our basis for saying so is that we have seen him.
In our case in the 21st century, we are the disciples of those who saw him and reported what they saw. However, it is also the case that many of us have seen that He is alive through our experiences with him. He speaks to us directly, and our lives change dramatically when we believe him and respond to him.
It is important to notice that the Christian faith begins with plain facts. I was still a pretty young man when God showed me Romans 1:3-4, in which Paul was describing what he called “the gospel of God”:
“…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord…”
The point that He was making to me was that He provided human beings with physical evidence. He gave us proof that Jesus was whom he claimed to be by raising him from the dead. I learned, and never forgot, that God was not opposed to our looking for evidence, and that in fact He approves of it enough to give us real, physical evidence.
Corresponding to that, we should never forget that Christianity, alone among the religions of the world, rests on a simple, demonstrable fact: Jesus is the chosen one of God, and we know it because He raised Him from the dead. We have a specific event in history that we point to.
But that’s not the only thing to which we’re supposed to testify. Peter went on with the next major point in our testimony:
“…that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” (Acts 10:42b)
Whoa. Again, we’re seeing something that does not usually come up when we speak of the Good News.
I remember being surprised when I first noticed this in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s at the end of Romans 2:16, where Paul finished describing the judgment that will occur at the end of all things, “…that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” The judgment was right there, and Paul made it plain that this was his gospel. And now, we’re seeing that what was remarkable to them about it was that they now knew who would be the Judge: it was going to be Jesus. Both Peter and Paul mentioned this detail in their presentations of the good news: Jesus was to be the Judge.
I think that that was relevant because of the last item that came out of Peter’s mouth on that occasion:
“To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)
Finally we’re seeing something that usually shows up when we talk about the Good News. But don’t miss the connection between “We know the Judge personally” and “Your sins will be forgiven.” The context of forgiveness was the judgment of which they had spoken already. The point of “forgiveness of sins” was that when the Judge looks at those who believe in him, he will judge them kindly; and at least part of what’s implied is that he’ll judge kindly because they’re members of his family. This explains why both Peter and Paul began their gospel presentations with basic instruction about the judgment that all humans will face. “Forgiveness of sins” has specific and direct relevance to that context.
Of course, it has relevance in other contexts that are related. We stand before God our Father right now and are accepted and loved, with our (sometimes still present) sins forgiven, even before That Day. This is actually a very Jewish thing; many Rabbis identify “Judgment Day” as occurring every year (on Yom Kippur), with the Almighty assigning good or bad results in the coming year according to what we have done in the previous year. Christians don’t believe that exactly, but we do accept that God evaluates our behavior and treats us according to what character formation we need.
The writer of Hebrews drew on that image when he compared Jesus to a high priest who knows our weaknesses and is able to help us overcome them. Jews, of course, did not wait until the End of All Things to visit the priest and make sacrifices for their sins; they did it more or less regularly. And so do we:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)
Let’s recap Peter’s “good news” as he presented it to the Gentiles on that occasion:
- God accepts any person who fears Him and does what is right.
- God sent Jesus to do good and to heal those oppressed by the devil, as the prophets foretold.
- He was crucified, but we are witnesses that God raised Him from the dead.
- God sent us to preach
- (a) that the risen Jesus was appointed to be the judge of all, and
- (b) that He’ll judge kindly all who believe in him.
Apparently those who heard the message believed it, and apparently believing it was good enough for God, because what happened next was that God poured the Holy Spirit onto them just as He had poured Him out on the Jews in Acts 2.
Again, I’ve flown by my self-imposed word limit thingy. Next time I will make a few comments about the declaration, “God accepts anybody who fears Him and does what is right,” because in my experience Christians begin to wonder why we preach Jesus at all when they hear that, and then they ignore it. It’s a reaction that I find hard to fathom; yes, that statement is inconsistent with what most of us have been taught, but why would it suggest that we stop preaching Jesus? I’ll discuss this next time, along with some other bits of good news that Peter didn’t get to mention before God interrupted him.