God Doesn’t Play Favorites

God Doesn’t Play Favorites

God’s Chosen people.

The elect.

Those who are chosen, singled out by God.

These are but some of the ways that those who identify with, love, and follow the God who has made us in his image are referred to in both the Old and New Testaments. These words—chosen, elect, singled out—may connote to some that there is something special about those thus designated; that somehow they are unique or special in a way that not all people are. But, as we’ll see in our passage this morning, this is precisely the wrong way to understand our lives as Christians. For when it comes to his election, God doesn’t play favorites but offers salvation in his Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, to any who are willing to receive it.

Yet despite this being Scripture’s teaching, it appears that initially the apostle Peter understood God’s election, his choosing, as being confined to his fellow Israelites. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Peter misunderstood this. This misunderstanding was probably due to the fact that he was a devout Jew who didn’t immediately realize that the salvation God in Christ offered was intended not only for the chosen among Israel but for all who acknowledge him as Lord. And I suspect that those of us who now follow Christ, over two-thousand years after he came to earth, may forget the many ways in which our Christian faith has its roots firmly planted in Jewish soil. For even in the New Testament, it’s clear that Jesus arose from the roots of Judaism and lived his entire life as a faithful Jewish believer. So, for example,

Matthew’s Gospel begins Jesus’ lineage with Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch from whom all Jews trace their descent;[1]

It’s not surprising, then, that the twelve whom Jesus first chose to be his disciples were all Jewish men;[2]

Too, Jesus himself was a rabbi, a Jewish scholar and teacher, an expert in Jewish law who was acknowledged  and recognized as such by others;[3]

As a rabbi, Jesus regularly taught in the synagogue;[4]

And as a rabbi, the Scriptures from which he taught were either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the equivalent of our Old Testament.[5]

Given all of this, Peter might be forgiven for assuming that Jesus, whom he knew to be the Messiah (in the Hebrew)—or Christ (the Greek translation of Messiah)— who had been promised in those Scriptures, was Messiah only to Jewish followers; Peter might be forgiven for mistakenly assuming that Jesus was Messiah only to his fellow-Israelites.

For even after Jesus suffered, died, rose from death, and then appeared to his followers after rising from death, the promises he made during this period were initially and similarly fulfilled among Jewish believers. So, for example, according to Luke when Jesus Christ rose from death, “After his suffering, he presented himself to [the apostles he had chosen] and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.”[6] And just prior to ascending to heaven Jesus promised them, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[7] Peter was among the disciples who heard these words and mistakenly assumed that what Jesus meant was that they would be witnesses only to their fellow-Israelites in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Peter had not yet realized that God doesn’t play favorites

And, again, the initial fulfillment of these promises from Jesus, the risen Messiah, the risen Christ, did nothing to dissuade Peter that the promises of Rabbi Jesus were intended solely for the Jewish people from whom and to whom he had come. For in the second chapter of the Book of Acts we see, just as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit coming upon 120 Jewish believers[8]—again, Peter being among them and all of whom had been followers of Rabbi Jesus—who had gathered together in an upper room to pray.[9] And Luke tells how “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”[10]

Now at this time Jews from every nation had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, a holiday celebrating God’s giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai fifty days after the Exodus. Pentecost was a Jewish holiday celebrated fifty days after Passover and was the occasion for Jews from surrounding nations[11] gathering together in Jerusalem. Yet despite these Jewish believers being from various nations in which different languages were spoken, this particular Pentecost celebration during which the Holy Spirit was sent to 120 of Jesus’ disciples, “each one heard their own language being spoken.”[12] And that day, recognizing that this giving of Christ’s Holy Spirit was in fact, in accordance with what the prophet Joel had prophesied,[13] Peter taught his “fellow Israelites”[14] who had gathered about who Jesus of Nazareth was and what he had done to bring salvation to them. And as a result of Peter’s preaching about three-thousand of them came to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ that day.[15] The point in all of this is to note that the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to send his Holy Spirit, in fulfillment of the prophecy by Joel, initially occurred only among Jewish believers. So, again, we can hardly blame Peter for believing—albeit wrongly—that Jesus was to be Messiah, was to be Christ, was to be Savior only for his fellow Israelites. Yet Peter was about to learn that God doesn’t play favorites.

For what we find in the opening of the tenth chapter of Acts is that approximately seven years after the Pentecost celebration in which the Holy Spirit was sent to all those among Israel who placed their faith in Jesus as the Messiah, as the Christ,[16] Peter was sent by God to a Gentile, a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Now the friction that existed between Jews and non-Jews, or Gentiles, at this time is evident in Peter’s first words to those gathered at Cornelius’ home: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”[17] Peter, a devout Jew who knew and kept Jewish law and practice, knew that he wasn’t supposed to associate with this, or any other, unclean Gentile. Yet in what transpired, it became evident to Peter that the reason God had sent him—and the reason Cornelius had sent for him—was because God’s message of salvation through Jesus Christ was to be shared with Cornelius and all his family who in the opening of this chapter are described as “devout and God-fearing” with Cornelius in particular singled out as one who “gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.”[18] Clearly Cornelius was a godly man—or today we might refer to him as someone who was “spiritual.”

Yet despite being “devout and God-fearing;” despite giving so generously to those in need; despite regularly praying to God, Cornelius and his family didn’t know God in a personal way—at least not yet. Yet God always hears the prayers of those who seek him with their whole hearts and he had heard Cornelius’ prayers. Therefore our Lord sent him Peter, one of those from his inner circle of disciples, to share with Cornelius and the “large gathering of people”[19] who were with him concerning Jesus the Messiah; concerning Jesus the Christ.

Our passage picks up after Cornelius recounted all that had previously transpired that resulted with Peter coming to his home. And notice Peter’s sense of wonder by way of response beginning with verse 34: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts[20] from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” God doesn’t play favorites. He doesn’t offer his salvation only to Israelites but will respond to anyone who turns to him, whether Jew or Gentile. This was a revelation to Peter who was not only part of God’s chosen people, the Israelites, but was also one of Jesus Messiah’s, Jesus Christ’s, chosen twelve disciples. Until this moment Peter had mistakenly believed that the circle of those whom God chooses, of those to whom God offers salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ, was a closed one.

Yet though Peter may have misunderstood the magnitude of God’s plan of salvation, he didn’t misunderstand the specificity of it. Though on the one hand, God accepts everyone who fears him and does what is right and doesn’t simply display his favor to his chosen people among the Israelites; on the other hand, Peter knew that God had fulfilled his promises to his people in Messiah Jesus alone, in Christ Jesus alone. Therefore, as recorded in verse 36, Peter went on to tell the crowd who had gathered at Cornelius’ home, “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” The reality of what was happening was reminding Peter of what the Hebrew Scriptures he believed actually taught. Though God had sent the people of Israel the message announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, that very Jesus wasn’t simply the Messiah promised to the Jews but was “Lord of all.” As the prophet Isaiah had stated over 700 years earlier, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’”[21] The message of God’s peace came first to the people of Israel. And the messenger of God’s peace was none other than God’s Son, Jesus the eternal Christ, the eternal Messiah who came to earth as God in the flesh and was and is “Lord of all.” God doesn’t play favorites.

This is the truth that had now dawned upon Peter: that the message of peace Jesus Christ brought wasn’t only for his fellow Israelites but for all who would receive him and his message, no matter what nation they were from. And this is the truth now reflected in Christian teaching as well. As the apostle Paul, another devout Jewish believer from the sect of the Pharisees who had come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ, writes in his letter to the church at Ephesus, “13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups”—Jews and Gentiles—“one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,…”[22]

Now realizing that God doesn’t play favorites Peter went on to share with the crowd gathered at Cornelius’ house exactly who this “Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” was. And so he began with the baptism of repentance, of turning from sin, that John the Baptist had preached, verse 37.[23] And Peter moved on to tell those gathered about “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” Again, Peter was a first-hand witness to how Messiah Jesus, whom Peter knew and loved, had fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures he similarly knew and loved. As recorded by Luke, Jesus himself while teaching in the synagogue one day proclaimed that he had fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that testified to the very deeds he did, saying,

18 The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[24] 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 [Jesus] began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” [25]

Peter had now come to the realization that this prophecy of Messiah coming and proclaiming good news to the poor—and freedom for the prisoners—and recovery of sight for the blind—and freedom from the oppressed—was a message realized in Jesus not only for his fellow-Israelites but for all who called upon Messiah Jesus’, Christ Jesus’, name. God doesn’t play favorites

Again, though Cornelius had been a devout and praying and God-fearing man, how could he and those gathered with him turn from their sins to receive the salvation, the healing, Christ Jesus offered unless they first heard about who he was and all he had done? Paul made this very point in teaching,

11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”[26] 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”[27] 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?

This is why God sent Peter to preach to Cornelius because, first, God doesn’t play favorites but is the God of all who “richly blesses all who call on him.” But, second, God sent Peter to preach to Cornelius because the means of God’s blessing is found only through his Son, Jesus Christ, for “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Therefore Peter, a Jewish believer who was one of those within Jesus’ innermost circle of disciples, went on to tell these Gentiles, Cornelius and those gathered at his home, about what had taken place in the life of Jesus for Peter and the other disciples, verse 39, were “witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem”—whereas Cornelius lived in Caesarea,[28] which was about 65 miles northwest of Jerusalem.[29] And so Peter told them about Jesus being killed “by hanging on a cross”—or, “a tree.” And, this, too was important for as Paul states, “13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—”[30]  Yet Jesus chose to become a curse, to be cursed by God, that in taking upon himself the penalty of our sin, we might have the opportunity to become recipients of the salvation he lived, died, and rose from death to offer.

As Peter went on to share, verse 40, “but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.” In fact, as noted earlier Jesus continued to be seen for forty days until he ascended to heaven.[31] These post-resurrection appearances are what transformed the lives of his disciples from those who were dejected and dismayed to those who were delighted and filled with hope. Yet as Peter goes on to state in verse 41, “He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—” And he didn’t simply appear to them. They didn’t simply see him from a distance but, as Peter goes on note, these disciples to whom the risen Jesus appeared “ate and drank with him.” Luke corroborates how after Jesus rose from death, he ate a piece of fish in their presence.[32] And in his Gospel John also records how Jesus invited his disciples to “Come and have breakfast” with him. [33] The risen Messiah, the risen Christ “ate and drank” with his beloved disciples.

But Jesus Christ, Jesus Messiah, risen from death did more than that. According to Peter, verse 42: “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.” God in Christ is judge over all for he made all the world that exists; he made everyone who exists. Yet God doesn’t play favorites but in Christ he came to earth to offer his eternal life to any who come to him.

Good and devout Jew that he was, having had his “a-ha” moment of realizing that Jesus was Christ, was Messiah, not only to his fellow-Israelites but even to non-Israelites, to Gentiles, Peter noted how, verse 43, “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Again, Peter wasn’t talking about the New Testament for the New Testament had not yet been recorded. He was talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, the only Scriptures that had guided him and his fellow Jewish believers from the beginning. Peter now understood that when the prophets Isaiah and Joel  and all the rest taught about everyone who calls on the name of God being saved, in Christ Jesus that “everyone” had been extended, literally, to everyone. The forgiveness of sins God in Christ offers is an offer made to all who believe that he is God’s Son, that he is God who came in the flesh and died for the sins of all who acknowledge him as such. No exceptions. God doesn’t play favorites.

For this is the meaning of Easter. This is the truth that we celebrate this morning—and every Sunday morning—as we worship Jesus Christ, our risen Savior and Lord who desires to be Lord of all who embrace him as such. For anyone who accepts this offer can become part of his chosen, his elect; anyone who accepts this offer can become one of those who identify with, love, and follow the God who has made us in his image, who had made us for himself. For when it comes to his election, God doesn’t play favorites but offers salvation in his Son, Christ Jesus, our Lord, to any who would receive it.

Ultimately the message of Easter, the message of Resurrection Sunday is this: “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”[34] God doesn’t play favorites. In Christ he has come not to condemn the world—both Jew and Greek—but to save the world—both Jew and Greek. God in Christ came not to condemn us but to save us if we would but accept his extraordinary gift of eternal life with him.

So brothers and sisters, let us proclaim responsively what our call to worship and voice ensemble[35] proclaimed earlier:

Christ is risen—he is risen, indeed!

Christ is risen—he is risen, indeed!

Christ is risen—he is risen, indeed!

Let us pray.

[1] Matthew 1:1–17 begins with, “1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,…” Luke 3:23–38 traces Jesus’ genealogy to “38 the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”

[2] Matthew 10:1–4: 1 Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.; Mark 3:16–19: 16 These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), 17 James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), 18 Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.; Luke 6:13–16: 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: 14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

[3] Mark 9:5: Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”; John 3:1–2: 3 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”; John 20:16: Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

[4] E.g., Matthew 9:35: Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.; Mark 1:21: They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.; Luke 4:14–15: 14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.; John 6:59: [Jesus] said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

[5] There are many instances in the Gospels of Jesus referring to the Hebrew Scriptures when he taught. Following are but a few. When he resisted the temptations of the Devil: Matthew 4:4: Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God;’” (Luke 4:4: Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”) referencing Deuteronomy 8:3: He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.; Matthew 5:31–32: 31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Referencing Deuteronomy 24:1–4a: 1 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.

[6] Acts 1:3.

[7] Acts 1:8.

[8] Acts 1:15: In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty)

[9] Acts 1:12–14: 12 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

[10] Acts 2:4.

[11] Acts 2:9–11:Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

[12] Acts 2:5–6:Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.

[13] Joel 2:28–29: 28 And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

[14] Acts 2:22: “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.”

[15] Acts 2:40–41: 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

[16] See sermon preached on April 26, 2016, Eternal Life Even to Gentiles on Acts 11:1–18.

[17] Acts 10:28–29.

[18] Acts 10:2.

[19] Acts 10:27: While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people.

[20] As noted in the Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Acts 10:35: The word used here (Gk. Dektos, “acceptable, welcome”) does not refer to legal justification before God (for which the NT uses Gk. Dikaioo and related terms), nor is Peter talking about the basis for justification. Rather, the question here is whether God’s favor is made available to Jews only (“partiality,” v. 34) or is now available to Gentiles also (those “in every nation”).

[21] Isaiah 52:7. See also Isaiah 57:18–19: 18 I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, 19 creating praise on their lips. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them.”

[22] Ephesians 2:13–14.

[23] Mark 1:4: And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. See also Matthew 3:1–2: 1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

[24] Isaiah 61:1–3: 1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

[25] Luke 4:18–21.

[26] Isaiah 28:16: So this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who relies on it will never be stricken with panic.

[27] Joel 2:32: And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls.


[28] Acts 10:24.

[29] Reformation ESV Study Bible note on Acts 10:1.

[30] Galatians 3:13. Paul is referring to Deuteronomy 21:22–23 (ESV): 22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.

[31] Acts 1:3: After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

[32] Luke 24:42–43: 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

[33] John 21:12–15: Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.

[34] John 3:16–17.

[35] Christ Is Risen, He Risen Indeed. Arr. by James Koerts; Words & Music by Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, and Ed Cash.