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Bible Commentaries
Acts 11

Contending for the FaithContending for the Faith

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The brethren in Jerusalem soon hear of the conversion of the household of Cornelius. It should be understood that they harbor the same resentment against the Gentiles that Peter at one time held; therefore, it is no surprise that Peter is called upon to make a defense of his conduct in associating with these "uncircumcised" Gentiles.

Verse 1

And the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God.

There is no way to know how long Peter "tarried" (10:48) with his new Gentile brethren, but it is evident that the news of their "receiving the word of God" beat him back to Jerusalem. It is amazing that in a day of no modern communication, information could be spread so rapidly. It is certain that news of an event with such monumental implications would be a top priority among the brethren.

Verse 2

And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him,

And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem: After an unknown period of time, Peter makes his way from Caesarea back to Jerusalem.

They that were of the circumcision: This is a reference to the Christians who have been converted from Judaism. Up until this time, the Jews (they of the circumcision) are the only Christians. "From this point Luke distinguishes Christians into two classes–those of the circumcision and those of the uncircumcision; calling the former Jews, and the latter Gentiles or Greeks" (Vincent 503, 504).

It is most likely that at this point in time there begins to form a party in the Lord’s church that will later be referred to as "the circumcision" (15:1; Galatians 2:12). These would argue that in addition to the gospel one must be circumcised to be saved. These Judaizing disciples and their false teaching concerning the Law cause many problems for the early church. The primary reason for the book of Galatians is Paul’s effort to defeat the erroneous teaching of "those of the circumcision."

There is a secondary point that might be noted from this challenge to the Apostle Peter by his brethren. It is very obvious that Peter is not recognized as the pope. If Peter had been the pope as some claim, they would have immediately submitted to whatever he chose to do because he would have been considered "infallible in religious matters."

Verse 3

Saying, Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them.

Saying, Thou wentest in: Campbell explains the clause, "Thou wentest in, does not, in our style, represent the sense, as well as, you associated with" (76). Peter is being challenged for associating with Gentiles.

to men uncircumcised: These words are used in a derisive way to refer to the Gentiles. The literal Greek, "men with a foreskin" (Plumptre 72), is an indignant expression.

and didst eat with them: It is incredulous to these Jews to imagine the Apostle Peter’s having any social relations with these "unwashed" Gentiles, but actually to "eat with them" demanded an explanation.

Verse 4

But Peter rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and expounded it by order unto them, saying,

Peter seems to be very confident in the actions he has taken with the household of Cornelius. He does not hesitate to give a thorough, chronological account of the events. He seems to realize that a clear straightforward statement of the facts is the best defense for his actions. The key words in his "rehearsal" of the events are "from the beginning" and "by order." The thoroughness of the divine record is about to be shown once again. When Peter finishes his account, he leaves no doubts nor reasons for errors in the minds of his inquisitors. There should be neither mistakes nor misunderstandings about what happened with Cornelius that day.

Verses 5-17

I was in the city of Joppa praying: and in a trance I saw a vision, A certain vessel descend, as it had been a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came even to me: Upon the which when I had fastened mine eyes, I considered, and saw fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And I heard a voice saying unto me, Arise, Peter; slay and eat. But I said, Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean hath at any time entered into my mouth. But the voice answered me again from heaven, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. And this was done three times: and all were drawn up again into heaven. And, behold, immediately there were three men already come unto the house where I was, sent from Caesarea unto me. And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house: And he shewed us how he had seen an angel in his house, which stood and said unto him, Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved. And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?

Thus, Peter begins at the beginning to give account of his actions with the Gentiles. Instead of a repetition of comments on these events, a summation of this dramatic step that is to offer salvation through Jesus Christ to the Gentiles is in order. For specific details on these verses, see notes on 10:9-48.

Following, as Peter might say, are the essential facts "from the beginning" and "by order:"

1. Peter experiences the vision of the "sheet" let down from heaven (5-10).

2. The servants of Cornelius arrive to request that Peter go to the house of Cornelius so that he could tell them "words whereby" they may be saved (11-14). It is made plain the baptism of the Holy Spirit does not save Cornelius, but rather his salvation depends upon obedience to the "words" that Peter tells him (Romans 1:16).

3. The Holy Spirit falls upon the house of Cornelius as Peter "began to speak" (15). Peter does not teach the gospel to Cornelius until after this miraculous coming of God’s Spirit.

4. If it had not been for this baptism of the Holy Spirit coming to the Gentiles, Peter would not have preached to Cornelius. The purpose of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles is to cause Peter to realize that "what God has cleansed, " he is not to count as unclean (9) and that he will be "withstanding God" (17) if he refuses to allow the Gentiles to obey the gospel.

5. Peter correctly connects the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles with the baptism of the Holy Spirit the apostles received on Pentecost (16-17; 2:1-4). Peter says God had given "them" (the Gentiles) the "like gift" (same gift) that he had given the apostles "at the beginning" (the day of Pentecost, 2:1-4). It is a logical inference from these words that from the day of Pentecost to the calling of the Gentiles, no similar display of the Spirit had been given. The interval between Pentecost and this event is (at least) seven or eight years.

... the Holy Spirit, in its public manifestations of supernatural gifts, descended only twice–at the commencement of the reign of Christ among the Jews, A.D. 33 and among the Gentiles, A.D. 41. Now the Holy Spirit is given to them that believe, as the Holy Guest, to dwell in their hearts ... (Campbell 77-78).

It becomes clear the miraculous event of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is restricted to these two occasions, upon the Jewish apostles at Pentecost and upon the Gentiles here. The Spirit of God has now been poured out upon "all flesh" (both Jew and Gentile). In spite of those who claim to have received the "baptism of the Holy Spirit, " this phenomenon occurs only on these two occasions. Today we are not waiting for the baptism of the Holy Spirit for our salvation. Make no mistake about it, the baptism of the Holy Spirit does not save the apostles on Pentecost nor does it save the house of Cornelius. Salvation requires obedience to the gospel of Christ (John 8:24; Luke 13:3; Matthew 10:32; Acts 2:38).

That Cornelius and the apostles receive the "like gift" (same gift), the scholars are in agreement. In order to make crystal clear the meaning of the word "like" as used in "like gift" (isos dorea), note the following definitons of the Greek word isos (like):

...equal in quality or in quantity (Thayer 307-1-2470).

… the equal gift, is the same gift (Campbell 78).

Lit., equal; making them, equally with us, recipients of the Holy Spirit (Vincent 505).

... equal (the same in size, quality, etc.) (Vine, Vol. II 342).

Verse 18

When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.

When they heard these things, they held their peace: When the Jewish brethren at Jerusalem hear this explanation, they cease their rebuking of Peter. They have no recourse but to accept the fact that God has opened the kingdom of heaven to the Gentiles. This incident should forever end the dissension over circumcision as being a requirement in the Christian age, but it does not. Some of the strong Jews who are converted to Christ try to bind such Old Testament teachings as circumcision and other Jewish ceremonies upon the church of Christ. Remnants of these ideas are held today by those professing Christianity yet binding such Old Testament teachings as keeping the Sabbath, tithing, burning incense, etc.

and glorified God: Not only do these Jews understand the reason for the events just revealed by Peter, they praise God for what has happened.

saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance: To repent, in a spiritual sense, may be defined as a change of mind that produces a change of life. Repentance is something that men must do, and the opportunity for repentance is provided by the grace of God. By definition the word "repentance, " as used here, means "to give one the ability to repent" (Thayer 406-1-3341). Until the gospel is made available to the household of Cornelius, the "ability to repent" has not been available to the Gentiles.

unto life: It is of particular note how the translators of the New Testament use the little word "unto."

1. Faith is "unto" righteousness (Romans 10:10).

2. Repentance is "unto" life (as here).

3. Confession is "unto" salvation (Romans 10:10).

4. Baptism is the one particular act of obedience that puts us "INTO" Christ (Galatians 3:27) and "INTO" the one body (1 Corinthians 12:13).

"Life" is a reference to eternal life in heaven. The hundreds of years the Gentiles have spent in the shadow of the Jewish world have come to an end. A new day dawns and life springs eternal for all of mankind who will fear God and work righteousness.

Verse 19

Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.

Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen: Luke, our historian, now returns to the account of the dispersion of the Lord’s church, which began with persecution after the death of Stephen (8:1). We have previously learned of the spread of the gospel by Philip to Samaria, Paul to Damascus, and Peter to Joppa and Caesarea. Now we learn the disciples have spread the gospel as far north as Antioch.

travelled as far as Phenice:"Phoenicia was a district, about 120 miles long, and 15 miles wide, which lay to the north of Palestine on the shores of the Mediterranean and on the slopes of the Lebanon mountains. Its chief cities were Tyre, Sidon, and Tripolis. It formed part of the Roman province of Syria" (Reese 326).

and Cyprus: Cyprus is a small island off the southern coast of Asia Minor in the Mediterranean Sea.

and Antioch: There are two cities by this name mentioned in the New Testament. One is located in Pisidia in Asia Minor; and the other, the one referred to here, is located in Syria.

The modern city of Antioch with a mere 30, 000 inhabitants is not to be taken as anything like the Queen City of the East with its half a million souls at the time of the events in this chapter. Situated astride the Orontes river, some twenty miles from the sea, …" (Coffman 229).

It was built by Seleucus Nicanor, and was called Antioch in honour of his father Antiochus. It was founded three hundred and one years before Christ. ... It was long the most powerful city of the East, and was inferior only to Seleucia and Alexandria. It was famous for the fact that the right of citizenship was conferred by Seleucus on the Jews as well as the Greeks and Macedonians, so that here they had the privilege of worship in their own way without molestation (Barnes 183).

The city is also known for its heathenism and social decadence. One must be amazed at the success the gospel has in this stronghold of immorality. The following descriptions allow us an estimation of the wickedness of this city:

The groves of Daphne, in the outskirts of the city, were famous for a worship which in its main features resembled that of Aphrodite at Corinth. An annual festival was held, known as the Maiuma, at which the harlot-priestesses, stripped of clothing, disported themselves in the waters of a lake. The city was stained with the vices of a reckless and shameless sensuality. It was as one of the strongholds of Satan; and we have to trace, as it were, the stages of the victory which transformed it into the mother-church of the Gentiles ( Plumptre 73).

It is probable that no populations have ever been more abandoned than those of oriental Greek cities under the Roman Empire, and of these cities Antioch was the greatest and the worst. ... Thus, if any city, in the first century, was worthy to be called the Heathen Queen and Metropolis of the East, that city was Antioch (Conybeare and Howson 116).

It is a tribute to the power of the gospel of Christ when we see the transformation in the lives of men who are literally surrounded by sin in such cities as Corinth and Antioch. Take heart, the blood of Christ can make the vilest sinner clean!

preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only: This preaching to the Jews only is soon to change as the news reaches these disciples that the Gentiles are now to be received. The gospel was to the "Jew first" (Romans 1:16) but now also to the Gentile.

Verse 20

And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus.

And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene: Some of the disciples who have been dispersed from Jerusalem are citizens of Cyprus and Cyrene. For notes on these locations, see 11:19 and 2:10.

which, when they were come to Antioch: These disciples are gradually spreading the gospel to the north. They now arrive in Antioch.

spake unto the Grecians: In verse 19, we learn that the gospel is preached to the "Jews only" in Phenice and Cyprus. But, by the time they reach the city of Antioch, they are also preaching to the "Grecians" (Gentiles). We must conclude that the conversion of Cornelius has reached the ears of these disciples and they are now preaching to the Gentiles.

preaching the Lord Jesus: To preach Jesus involves preaching the things concerning citizenship in the kingdom of God (see notes on 8:35).

Verse 21

And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.

And the hand of the Lord was with them: This is the explanation for the success of the gospel in such a wicked city as Antioch. When the seed (word of God) is planted and watered, God will give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6).

and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord: This phrase should not be misconstrued to mean that believing and turning to the Lord are the same step. The teaching is a "great number believed and turned unto the Lord." "Believing" the word is the first step; "turning to the Lord" is the second step. In Acts 18:8, we have a parallel statement that says, "... and many of the Corinthians hearing, believed, and were baptized."

Verse 22

Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch.

When the news of the success of the gospel reaches the brethren at Jerusalem, Barnabas is dispatched to assist the effort. For comments on this able preacher named Barnabas, see Acts 4:36.

Verse 23

Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.

Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad: When Barnabas reaches the city of Antioch and sees the success of the gospel in that great city, he rejoices.

and exhorted them all: Barnabas, "the Son of Exhortation" (see notes on 4:36), knowing the trials and temptations that would surely fall upon the faithful in such sinful surroundings, lives up to his name by exhorting them to remain true to their calling.

that with purpose of heart: He exhorts them to "purpose" in their hearts (determine in their minds) to remain faithful. Vincent explains the word "purpose" as "Something set before one as an object of attainment: a purpose" (505).

they would cleave unto the Lord: Whenever the term "cleave" is used, it should be understood as having a very strong connotation, not merely a concept of loyalty but literally one of being "glued to" the Lord. Ethelbert W. Bullinger gives this definition:"to glue, cement, to join fast together" (155).

Verse 24

For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord.

For he was a good man: It is not often that the divine writers indulge in words of praise for specific individuals. Because this is the case, we are given a special appreciation for the talent and character of Barnabas.

and full of the Holy Ghost: This is not a reference to miraculous spiritual gifts but rather to the indwelling Spirit that is manifest in Barnabas by the abundance of the "fruit of the Spirit" that he produces. There are those who will maintain that "full of the Holy Ghost" indicates they are full of the Holy Spirit in the miraculous sense. If that is the case, why does the writer also mention "and of faith" since faith is one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:9)? Barnabas is "full of the Holy Ghost" in the same way the seven of Acts 6 are (see more extensive notes on "full of the Holy Ghost, " in Acts 6:3).

and of faith: Barnabas is also "full of faith." Barnabas is a man of settled convictions in the word of God, causing him to be "full of faith" (Romans 10:17). He has the knowledge that gives him a love and trust in God, a living appreciation for the sacrifice of Jesus, and a good understanding of the doctrines of Christ; his sights are set on heaven.

Here is additional evidence that shows the Holy Spirit dwells in every Christian in addition to faith. For those who would insist the Holy Spirit dwells in one only by faith, it should be noted that Barnabas is full of both the Holy Spirit and of faith (see notes on 2:38; 6:5).

and much people was added unto the Lord: Remember when the work is done (sowing and watering), God will give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6)."Much people" literally means a great multitude, perhaps into the thousands. Again, may we praise the power of the gospel and the efforts of these dedicated servants of the Lord for bringing "much people" out of this cesspool of moral darkness to the light of Jesus Christ.

Verse 25

Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:

The wording of this verse seems to indicate Barnabas has some difficulty in finding Paul. He literally has to "hunt up" (Vincent 505) Paul.

There is some question as to the reason Barnabas seeks to bring Paul into the work at Antioch. Following are several reasons that make the answer seem obvious. Paul is a much-needed additional worker. Paul and Barnabas are well acquainted (9:27). It is probable Barnabas is led by inspiration to call the apostle who is to be the "apostle to the Gentiles" to this first great work with the Gentiles (see notes on 9:15).

Verse 26

And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people: The evangelism of the Gentiles now begins in earnest. With the combined efforts of Saul and Barnabus, this heathenish stronghold of the devil feels the double-edged cutting power of the word of God with telling results. In the space of a year, "much people" come under the influence of the gospel. It has been estimated that at one time the Christian population in Antioch may have been "more than a hundred thousand members" (Coffman 230).

And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch: Until this point in religious history, the followers of Jesus have been called by such names as disciples, saints, brethren, those of the Way. But now they are to have a"new name" (Isaiah 62:2)"better than of sons and of daughters (Isaiah 56:5)."God declares, "I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off" (Isaiah 56:5).

There is much discussion as to who it is who first calls the disciples Christians. Some will assert the heathen population of Antioch gives the title in derision. There is no scriptural, logical, nor historical reason that will substantiate this idea. To the contrary, the name Christian not only distinguishes the disciples of Christ, but proves to be the "most potent name that has ever been applied to a body of men" (McGarvey, Vol. I 228).

Others contend the disciples called themselves by the name Christian. This does not seem to be the case as the scripture states the disciples "were called, " indicating that someone else did the calling.

The evidence seems to indicate overwhelmingly the name Christian is a name appointed by God and first given by the chosen "name bearer, " the Apostle Paul. Jesus tells Ananias concerning the Apostle Paul, "he is a chosen vessel unto me to bear my name before the Gentiles" (9:15). Who would deny that the "apostle of the Gentiles" (Romans 11:13), the chosen vessel to bear the name of Christ "the Apostle Paul himself, first uses the divine designation "Christian" to refer to the disciples of Christ? Now both Jewish disciples and Gentile disciples have a "new name" under which they may all unite to fight the good fight.

It might also be noted, "The Greek word kaleo ("call") is almost always used in the scriptures with the meaning"divinely called" (see Matthew 2:12; Luke 2:26; Acts 10:22; Hebrews 8:5)" (Reese 331). Thus, the disciples were "divinely called" or "divinely" given the name Christian "first at Antioch."

The name is used only two other times: Peter encourages those who "suffer as a Christian" (1 Peter 4:16), and later in the book of Acts (26:28) Agrippa is "almost persuaded to be a Christian."

Verse 27

And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.

While Saul and Barnabas are working in Antioch, "prophets" are also apparently dispatched from Jerusalem to Antioch. This is the first mention of the office of "prophets" among Christians. The office of "prophet" appears to rank next to the office of apostle in authority (1 Corinthians 12:28) and, like the apostolic office, is temporary. By inspiration, the prophets speak the word of God concerning particular events, especially those yet in the future (Ephesians 2:20; Ephesians 4:11).

Verse 28

And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar.

And there stood up one of them named Agabus: The prophet, who is here signified by the name Agabus, will prove himself to be a harbinger of gloom and doom for the Apostle Paul. Here he predicts a "great dearth" (famine); later (21:10-11) he will appear again to predict the binding of Paul and his being delivered into the hands of the Gentiles.

and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: Through the direct inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, Agabus is able to predict the coming of a severe famine upon the earth. A famine ("dearth") is a time of extreme shortage of food usually caused by a lack of enough rain to produce crops.

which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar: The mention of Claudius Caesar helps to establish the time frame for the events just recorded. His reign began in 41 A.D. and lasted until 54 A.D. History records Claudius as one of the better Roman Caesars with a few exceptions. "Claudius married several times. When he married his niece Agrippina the Younger, he adopted her son Nero. Some historians believe Agrippina murdered Claudius so that Nero could become emperor" (World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. 4 502b).

Verse 29

Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:

Then the disciples, every man according to his ability: It seems to be implied that the collection for the saints in Judaea actually begins to be taken up before the famine strikes. The gifts are given in proportion to the ability of the giver. If one has much, he gives more while the one who has less gives less. This principle of giving as "God hath prospered" stands as the guideline for giving even until today (1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15).

determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: What a generous and noble thing for these new Gentile converts to do. It would have been easy for these Gentiles, who have suffered the scorn of the Jews for literally hundreds of years, to turn a deaf ear to the needs of their Jewish brethren; but that would not have been the right thing to do. The "middle wall of partition" has been torn down, "the enmity" has been "slain, " the blood of Jesus has made them one; therefore, the right thing to do is to send aid to their new brothers who are in distress (Ephesians 2:13-18). These brethren are willing to hazard their own welfare for the concerns of others. Paul and Barnabas have succeeded in Antioch not only in preaching the requirements of salvation but also in instilling the principle of brotherly love in these new Christians.

Today the story might be different. In the "ME" generation in which we live, some would be far more interested in how "I" am going to fare in the famine rather than being concerned about distant brethren. Here is the proper example for us; may we be willing to emulate the good deeds of our noble Gentile forefathers.

Verse 30

Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

Which also they did, and sent it to the elders: This is the first time "elders" are mentioned as officers in the New Testament church. As indicated here, the elders are the ones in authority over the church; therefore, it would be considered the proper thing to do to take the contributions to the elders for distribution. The divine arrangement for the guidance of the Lord’s church is based on the oversight of scripturally appointed elders. For the qualifications necessary to become an elder, see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 (see notes on 14:23).

by the hands of Barnabas and Saul: Barnabas and Saul are probably more than happy to take a few days out of their evangelistic work to carry the evidence of the generosity of these Gentile Christians to their Jewish brethren. Such an act of fellowship must have strengthened the bond between the predominantly Jewish church at Jerusalem and the primarily Gentile church at Antioch.

Bibliographical Information
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on Acts 11". "Contending for the Faith". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ctf/acts-11.html. 1993-2022.
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