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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and Colleges

Acts 11

Verses 1-99

11:1 18 . The Judæo-Christians blame Peter. He makes his defence at Jerusalem

1 . the apostles and brethren … heard ] The news reached them before the return of St Peter to Jerusalem.

that the Gentiles had also received the word of God ] At this news, had there been no additional information about Peter’s eating with Cornelius, the disciples would have rejoiced, and would have welcomed this further spread of the word, as they did (8:14) the conversion of the Samaritans, but to some, who were not only Christians, but strict observers of Jewish ritual, it was a cause of offence that Peter had consented to become the guest of a Gentile.

2 . they that were of the circumcision ] This must have been the whole Church, at the time when the event occurred, for there were no Christians as yet except Jews and proselytes, but St Luke’s narrative was compiled at a time when “they that were of the circumcision” had become a distinct party, and when their influence had begun to work division in the Christian societies. He therefore employs a name which when he wrote was full of significance, although it had its origin only in the circumstances to which he here applies it. Those who had been born Jews and knew of Jesus as conforming to the Law, and who had not heard of Peter’s vision nor seen the gift of the Holy Ghost to Cornelius and his friends, as those who had been with Peter had done, were to be pardoned, if their scruples caused them to question the conduct of the Apostle at this time; yet when they heard his story they were satisfied (see v. 18), but many Jewish Christians elsewhere continued to make this subject a cause of contention. See 15:1.

contended with him ] The verb is a very significant one. It is the same that is used with a negative in 10:20, 11:12, “nothing doubting,” and 15:9, “making no difference.” The thought of these men who contended was that the difference between Jew and Gentile should still be maintained, and that any close fellowship (such as was involved in living at the same board) with those who accepted Christianity otherwise than through the gate of submission to the Mosaic Law, should be avoided. As the Jews in Caesarea had (10:22) behaved towards Cornelius, before he became a Christian, so would the Judaizing feeling have prompted the Church of Christ to deal with him still. And when we think on the prejudice which, by generations of ceremonial observance, had grown up among the Jews, we cannot wonder greatly at what they did. A whole nation is not brought to a change of feeling in a day.

3 . Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised ] The expression shews the strength of feeling against what Peter had done. The men with whom he had mixed are not called Gentiles, but the uncircumcised, the word of greatest reproach in the mouth of a Jew.

and didst eat with them ] Among men with whom there would be no regard to the character of the food, nor to the way in which it was prepared.

4 . But Peter rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and expounded it by order unto them ] Better, “But Peter began and rehearsed the matter in order unto them.”

6 . I considered ] Better, “I beheld.”

11 . And behold, immediately there were three men already come unto the house where I was ] With the oldest MSS. read, “And behold immediately three men stood before the house in which we were .”

12 . nothing doubting ] The oldest MSS. give “making no difference.” On this change of the verb from the middle to the active voice, and for a reason why Peter, after having been at Cæsarea and having heard the statement of Cornelius and seen the gift of the Spirit, adopted this form in his address at Jerusalem, see 10:20 note.

Moreover [And] these six brethren accompanied me ] Those who had been his companions to Cæsarea were brought by Peter to Jerusalem, that their testimony might support his statement, and that they might declare to the Church what they had seen. The change in the number of the verb in v. 11, “we were” for “I was,” which has the support of the best MSS., makes it probable that these brethren were his companions in the journey which he was making “throughout all quarters” (9:32), and so were lodging with him at Simon’s house in Joppa.

13 . and he shewed us how he had seen an angel ] The Greek has “and he related to us how he had seen the angel.” Before St Peter made this defence, and long before St Luke put it down in the Acts, the story of Cornelius and his vision would be well known, and so the definite article would be used in speaking of it, i.e. “ the angel” of whom all men had heard.

said unto him ] The oldest MSS. omit the last two words.

Send men to Joppa ] “Men” is omitted in the best MSS. This is one of the numerous insertions by which a repetition of a narrative in this book has been brought into exact verbal accord with the previous form. There have been times when devout men thought much of this verbal accord. It is therefore worth notice that the writers of the N. T. disregarded it utterly. The words in such a solemn inscription as that above the Cross differ in all the four Gospels, and St Peter, when in the Second Epistle (1:17) he speaks of the heavenly voice heard at the Transfiguration, varies verbally from each of the accounts of the Evangelists.

15 . at the beginning ] i.e. at the feast of Pentecost.

16 . the word of the Lord ] Recorded above, 1:5.

17 . who believed ] The words refer alike to “them” and to “us,” and so the two cases are made parallel, as in v. 15. For just as in the case of Peter and the Apostles, their faith was existing before the gift of the Spirit, so in Cornelius and in his companions there existed a degree of faith, or there could have been no sincere prayer offered by them.

18 . they held their peace ] But though those who heard the account of St Peter were satisfied that God had called Gentiles as well as Jews, there were others who, some perhaps with a real but misguided zeal for the Law, some, as St Paul says (Galatians 6:13 ), from vain-glory, maintained the necessity for the observance of the older covenant, and hence arose dissensions in the Church from a very early time.

19 26 . Further spread of the Gospel as far as Antioch

19 . about Stephen ] See above, 8:1.

as far as Phenice [ Phœnicia ] The district in which were the important towns of Tyre and Sidon. See Dictionary of the Bible .

Antioch ] The capital city of Syria, about 16 miles from the sea-coast, on the river Orontes. It was the residence of the Roman proconsul of Syria. St Paul made this his starting-point in all his three missionary journeys. For its history see Dictionary of the Bible .

unto the Jews only ] For they had not been warned, as Peter was, that the time was come to carry out Christ’s prophetic command (Acts 1:8 ) to its fullest extent.

20 . And [But] some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene ] in whose minds, from their more cosmopolitan education, there was less scruple about mixing with Gentiles than existed among the Jews of Palestine, the home of the nation, and by consequence the stronghold of their prejudices.

spake unto the Grecians ] The best MSS. have Greeks , and this is clearly the correct reading. The N. T. uses Hellenistæ = Grecians, to mean those Jews who had been born abroad and spoke the Greek language, or else for proselytes, but Hellenes = Greeks, when the heathen population is spoken of. Now it is clear that it would have been no matter of remark had these men preached to Greek-Jews, for of them there was a large number in the Church of Jerusalem, as we see from the events related in chap. 6:1, and most probably these Grecian and Cyprian teachers were themselves Greek-Jews; but what calls for special mention by St Luke is that they, moved perhaps by some spiritual impulse, addressed their preaching in Antioch to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.

21 . And the hand of the Lord was with them ] The expression is a common one in the O. T. to express the direct interposition of God in the affairs of the world. Cp. Exodus 14:31 , “And Israel saw that great work [Heb. hand ] which the Lord did upon the Egyptians.” So the Egyptian magicians (Exodus 8:19 ), “This is the finger of God.”

22 . Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem ] Better more literally, “And the report concerning them, &c.,” i.e. concerning these Gentile converts. These events took place, and were known to the Church in Jerusalem, before they heard of the visit of Peter to Cornelius. But what had happened at Antioch caused the Church no disturbance, because we read of no such breaking through the restrictions of the ceremonial Law as was made in Cæsarea when Peter took up his abode with Cornelius. The Jewish preachers mingled no further with the Gentiles to whom they preached at Antioch than the intercourse of everyday life forced them to do constantly.

and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch ] The oldest MSS. omit “that he should go.” He was sent forth, as Peter and John before had been sent into Samaria (8:14), to confirm and give the sanction and direction of the mother Church to the work which had begun at a new centre. Barnabas being a native of Cyprus would most likely be well known to the Cyprians who were preaching at Antioch, and so he was a most fit person to be selected for this errand.

23 . and had seen the grace of God ] exhibited in the faith, and consequent turning to Christ, of these Gentiles.

was glad ] He saw nothing in the new movement which could call for disapproval, and that more members should be added to the Church was a source of joy.

and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart (in the purpose of their heart) they would cleave unto the Lord ] Their determination was at present formed, and they had turned to the Lord; the purport of Barnabas’ exhortation was that continuing in the same determination they should hold fast their faith and allow nothing to shake their attachment to Christ. The heathen converts to Christianity had much to endure for Christ’s sake, and to the weak there were many temptations to relapse.

24 . full of the Holy Ghost and of faith ] The same character is given to Stephen (6:5), and a man of like character with that most eminent among the Greek-Jews would exert much influence in Antioch, where Greeks and Greek-Jews were the chief part of the population. It was in consequence of the persecution after Stephen s death that these preachers had come to Antioch, and some of them were probably of those Grecians who had been forward in the work for which Stephen was martyred.

and much people was added unto the Lord ] The sanction of the Church of Jerusalem to what had been done, as it was given by the joy and encouraging words of the “Son of Consolation,” would quicken the zeal of these already earnest labourers for Christ.

25 . Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus ] The oldest MSS. omit “Barnabas.” Read, “And he went forth to Tarsus.”

for to seek Saul ] that he, to whom the Lord had appeared, and who had been marked as a “chosen vessel” (9:15) to bear the name of Christ before the Gentiles, might come with him to share in this new work of preaching to the Gentiles at Antioch.

26 . a whole year ] This long period, spent with success in the first field where the preaching to the Gentiles had begun, will account for the constant return to Antioch after each missionary journey of the Apostle of the Gentiles. He had preached at Damascus and at Jerusalem, but it was always with his life in his hand. At Antioch he first found a quiet Church with a wide scope for all his earnestness.

and the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch ] It is most probable that this name was given them by the heathen in ridicule. The disciples of Jesus never give it to themselves, and as the use of it would imply that those who bore it were the followers of the Messiah, the Christ, it is certain it would not be given to them by the Jews. The reason for a new distinctive term is apparent. When these new Gentile converts were joined to the Church of Antioch, none of the former distinctive appellations would embrace the whole body. They were no longer all Nazarenes or Galilæans or Greek-Jews, and as to the people of Antioch they probably seemed a strange medley, they would not be unlikely to apply to them such a hybrid form as “Christian,” a Greek word with a Latin termination. The name is probably used in mockery by Agrippa (Acts 26:28 ), “With but little persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian,” but in the only other and later instance of the use of the name in the N. T. (1 Peter 4:16 ) we can see that what had been at first a taunt had soon come to be a name in which to glory, “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed.”

27 30 . Agabus at Antioch foretells a famine, and in consequence the Church at Antioch sends relief to Jerusalem

27 . And in these days ] i.e. while the Church at Antioch was being increased with a great multitude of Gentile converts, during the year’s residence there of Barnabas and Saul.

came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch ] That there should be prophets in the Church was but the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel which Peter had quoted in his Pentecostal sermon (2:17). We cannot gather from the N. T. records any clear description of what office is to be understood by the word “prophet.” The men to whom it is applied are sometimes occupied in preaching and explaining the Word of God, and sometimes have the power of foretelling future events, as Agabus did here. See Acts 13:1 , Acts 13:15 :32, Acts 13:19 :6, Acts 13:21 :9, Acts 13:10 ; Romans 12:6 ; 1 Corinthians 12:10 , 1 Corinthians 12:28 , 1 Corinthians 12:29 , 1 Corinthians 12:13 :2, 1 Corinthians 12:8 , 1 Corinthians 12:14 :6, 29 37.

28 . one of them named Agabus ] He is mentioned again 21:10, where by a significant action, as well as by his words, he foretells the imprisonment of St Paul at Jerusalem.

and signified by the Spirit ] So too 21:11, the words of Agabus are, “Thus saith the Holy Ghost , So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle.”

great dearth ] This famine is mentioned by Josephus ( Antiq . xx. 2. 5), who tells how Helena, queen of Adiabene, being at Jerusalem, succoured the people by procuring for them corn from Alexandria and a cargo of figs from Cyprus. The date of this severe famine was a.d. 45.

throughout all the world ] Though one region might be specially afflicted by the failure of its crops, all the rest of the Roman empire would be sure to suffer in some degree at the same time, and especially when famines were, as at this time, of frequent recurrence.

in the days of Claudius Cesar ] The oldest MSS. omit “Cæsar.” The reign of Claudius (a.d. 41 54) was remarkable for the famines with which various parts of the empire were afflicted. The first, second, fourth, ninth and eleventh years of this Emperor’s reign are recorded as years of famine in some district or other. See Suetonius, Claudius , 28; Tacitus, Ann . xii. 43; Josephus, Antiq . xx. 2. 5, Dio Cassius ix. p. 949, Euseb. H. E . ii. 8.

29 . Then the disciples ] i.e. of the Church of Antioch.

relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea ] No doubt the Christian Church in Judæa would be much impoverished. At first the poorer converts had been sustained by the common fund, but persecution had driven away great numbers of the Christians, and those would be most likely to depart who possessed means to support themselves in other places. Thus the mother-church would be deprived of those members who were best able to give relief in such a severe time of distress.

30 . to the elders ] The Greek word = presbyters . This is the first time we come upon the term in the Christian history. In 20:17 they are again mentioned and there called “presbyters,” though in the same narrative ( v. 28) they are termed “overseers,” episcopoi , i.e. bishops. No doubt at first the office of elder or presbyter comprised, beside the work of teaching, the general oversight of one, or it may be more, Churches. As the Church increased in numbers these duties were separated and the general superintendence and control assigned to one who was called overseer or bishop.

by the hands of Barnabas and Saul ] The character and labours of these had marked them out as the most fit men to be bearers of this help, and it was from Jerusalem that Barnabas had been sent at first to Antioch.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Acts 11". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". 1896.