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Bible Commentaries
Acts 11

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verses 1-18

2. The conversion of Cornelius 10:1-11:18

Many people consider healing a lame person a great miracle and raising a dead person back to life an even greater one. But the spiritual salvation of a lost sinner is greater than both of them. The Lord performed the first two miracles through Peter (Acts 9:32-43), and now He did the third (ch. 10).

"In a sense this scene is the book’s turning point, as from here the gospel will fan out in all directions to people across a vast array of geographical regions, something Paul’s three missionary journeys will underscore." [Note: Bock, Acts, p. 380.]

The episode concerning Cornelius is obviously very important since there are three lengthy references to it in Acts (chs. 10, 11, and 15). It deals with an important issue concerning the mission that the Lord gave His disciples. That issue is how the Christians should carry out that mission in view of the obstacle of Gentile uncleanness. Gentiles were ritually unclean and communicated ritual uncleanness to Jews, according to the Mosaic Law, mainly because they did not observe Jewish dietary distinctions (Leviticus 11). This obstacle kept Jews and Gentiles separate in society.

Luke stressed four things in this conversion story particularly. First, the Christians initially resisted the ideas of evangelizing Gentiles and accepting them into the church apart from any relationship to Judaism (Acts 10:14; Acts 10:28; Acts 11:2-3; Acts 11:8). Second, God Himself led the way in Gentile evangelism and acceptance, and He showed His approval (Acts 10:3; Acts 10:11-16; Acts 10:19-20; Acts 10:22 b, 30-33, 44-46; Acts 11:5-10; Acts 11:13; Acts 11:15-17). Third, it was Peter, the leader of the Jerusalem apostles, whom God used to open the door of the church to Gentiles rather than Paul (Acts 10:23; Acts 10:34-43; Acts 10:47-48; Acts 11:15-17). Fourth, the Jerusalem church accepted the conversion of Gentiles apart from their associating with Judaism because God had validated this in Cornelius’ case (Acts 11:18). [Note: Longenecker, p. 383.]

"Although Paul is the primary agent in the mission to the Gentiles, Luke wishes to make it plain, not only that Peter was in full sympathy with his position, but that, as head of the Church, Peter was the first to give its official blessing to the admission of Gentiles as full and equal members of the New Israel [i.e., the church] by his action in the case of a Roman centurion and his friends . . ." [Note: Neil, p. 137.]

Verses 1-3

Criticism of Peter’s conduct 11:1-3

News of what had happened in Cornelius’ house spread quickly throughout Judea. "The brethren" (Acts 11:1) and "those who were circumcised" (Acts 11:2) refer to Jewish Christians, not unsaved Jews. Peter’s response to their criticism of him makes this clear (e.g., Acts 11:15). They objected to his having had contact with uncircumcised Gentiles, particularly eating with them (Acts 11:3). Apparently Peter ate with his host while he was with him for several days (Acts 10:48), though Luke did not record this. The same taboo that had bothered Peter was bothering his Jewish brethren (cf. Acts 10:28). They undoubtedly would have felt concern over the non-Christian Jews’ reaction to themselves. Peter’s actions in Caesarea could only bring more persecution on the Jewish Christians from the unsaved Jews (cf. Acts 7:54 to Acts 8:3).

"It is possible to hear a subtile echo of Jesus’ critics in Acts 11:3. Jesus was also accused of eating with or lodging with the wrong kind of people. . . . Now Peter must face the kind of criticism that Jesus faced, arising this time from the circle of Jesus’ disciples." [Note: Tannehill, 2:137.]

"It is plain that Peter was not regarded as any kind of pope or overlord." [Note: Robertson, 3:152.]

Verses 1-18

The response of the Jerusalem church 11:1-18

Peter’s actions in Caesarea drew criticism from conservative Jews. Luke wrote this pericope to enable his readers to understand and appreciate more fully God’s acceptance of Gentiles into the church as Gentiles. An additional purpose was to present this acceptance as essential to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The leaders of the Jerusalem church recognized what God was doing in bringing Gentiles into the church, as they had done formerly with the Samaritan believers in Jesus (Acts 8:14-25). Luke documented this recognition in this pericope because it plays an important role in proving the distinction between Israel and the church and explaining the worldwide mission of the church.

Verses 4-17

Peter’s defense of his conduct 11:4-17

Luke recorded Peter’s retelling of these events to his critics to impress the significance of this incident on his readers further. Peter stressed particularly God’s initiative (vv. Acts 11:8-9; Acts 11:12; Acts 11:15-17 a) and his own inability to withstand God (Acts 11:17 b).

Cornelius and his household were not saved from God’s wrath until they heard and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ that Peter proclaimed to them (Acts 11:14; cf. Acts 10:43).

Peter was speaking of the day of Pentecost when he referred to "the beginning" of the church (Acts 11:15; cf. Acts 2:4). Clearly the baptism of the Holy Spirit is what he referred to (Acts 11:16). Peter justified his actions in Caesarea by appealing to what God had done (Acts 11:17 a). Note that Peter identified believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as the only necessary prerequisite to receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:17 a). Spirit baptism was not an experience subsequent to salvation for Cornelius and his household but something that happened simultaneously with salvation.

"Peter’s defense did not rest on what he himself did, but on what God did. God had made no distinction between Jew and Gentile, so how could Peter?" [Note: Toussaint, "Acts," p. 382.]

Verse 18

The verdict of Peter’s critics 11:18

Peter’s explanation was satisfactory to his critics. His Jewish brethren agreed that God was saving Gentiles simply by faith in Jesus Christ just as He was saving Jews and that they should no longer regard Gentiles as "unclean." They recognized and yielded to God’s initiative in this event.

"The word ’repentance’ summarizes Cornelius’ conversion in Acts. ’Repentance’ can be a summary term for conversion stressing that a change of orientation has taken place when one believes. Faith stresses what the object of belief is. Faith is directed toward a Person, namely, Jesus. Repentance stresses what belief involves in that it is a change of mind or of orientation from oneself and his own works to a reliance on Jesus to save him. The repentant man of faith recognizes that, as the hymnwriter puts it, his ’hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness’ and that he is to ’wholly lean on Jesus’ name.’ Metanoeo (’to repent’) is used in Acts 2:38; Acts 3:19 to call Jewish audiences to come to Jesus, and it is used in the same way in Acts 17:30; Acts 26:20 to describe the call to or response of Gentiles. Metanoia (’repentance’) is the summary term of the Great Commission in Luke 24:47. It is also used in salvation contexts in Acts 5:31 (to Jews); Acts 11:18 (of Cornelius); Acts 20:21 (of Jews and Gentiles who believe on the Lord Jesus); and Acts 26:20 (in Paul’s message to Jews and Gentiles)." [Note: Bock, "Jesus as . . .," p. 154.]

It is clear, however, that not all of those who accepted Peter’s explanation also understood the larger issue. Probably few of them did. The larger issue was that God had created a new entity, the church, and that He was dealing with humankind on a different basis than He had for centuries. Those whom God accepted by faith in Christ were now under a new covenant, not the old Mosaic Covenant, so they did not need to continue to observe the Mosaic Law. It was no longer necessary for Gentiles to come to God through Judaism or to live within the constraints of Judaism. Opposition to this larger issue, the implications of what happened in Cornelius’ home, cropped up later (Acts 15:1; cf. Gal.). Even today many Christians do not understand the implications of this change and their application in daily life.

"It is clear that Christianity was accepted [by Peter’s critics] as a reformed Judaism, not as Judaism’s successor." [Note: Blaiklock, p. 97.]

Whereas the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem did come to agree with Peter, non-Christian Jews did not. They still regarded Gentiles as outside the pale of God’s favor. The Christian Jews’ new attitude toward Gentiles on the one hand had opened them to the Gentiles. However it also resulted in non-Christian Jews excluding Christian Jews increasingly from the life of Judaism.

"Even though Peter does not convert the first Gentile [in Acts, i.e., the Ethiopian eunuch], the Cornelius episode is a breakthrough for the Gentile mission. The conversion of the Ethiopian was a private and isolated event that had no effect. The conversion of Cornelius has consequences in the following narrative, as the reference back to it in Acts 15 makes clear. It is a breakthrough not simply because Peter and the Jerusalem church now accept Gentiles for baptism but also because they recognize the right of Jewish Christians to freely associate with Gentiles in the course of their mission." [Note: Tannehill, 2:137.]

Verse 19

Luke’s reference back to the persecution resulting from Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7:60) is significant. It suggests that he was now beginning to record another mission of the Christians that ran parallel logically and chronologically to the one he had just described in Acts 8:4 to Acts 11:18. [Note: Longenecker, p. 400; Kent, p. 97.]

Luke had already pointed out that as a result of Stephen’s execution the gospel had spread throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:4). Now we learn that it was that event that also led to its being taken to the uttermost parts of the earth. While Philip went to Samaria, other refugees went to the country of Phoenicia north of Caesarea, the island of Cyprus (cf. Acts 4:36; Acts 21:16), and the city of Antioch. Those disciples, who were Jews, were evangelizing other Jews exclusively.

Verses 19-26

The spiritual initiative of the Antioch church 11:19-26

Verses 19-30

3. The initiatives of the Antioch church 11:19-30

The scene now shifts to Antioch of Syria. It was a very significant town because from there the church launched its major missionary offensives to the uttermost parts of the earth. Luke recorded events in the early history of this church because of its significant initiatives. The disciples in Antioch reached out to Gentiles with spiritual aid, and they reached out to their Jewish brethren in Jerusalem with material aid.

"With the ratification by the Jerusalem mother church of Peter’s action in admitting the first group of Gentiles into the Church as his preface, Luke now launches into the main theme of the book of Acts-the expansion of the Church into the whole Gentile world. Again he emphasizes the part played by anonymous believers in spreading Christianity." [Note: Neil, p. 143.]

Verse 20

Some Jews from Cyprus, Barnabas’ homeland not far from Antioch, and Cyrene, in North Africa (cf. Acts 2:10; Acts 6:9; Acts 13:1), visited Antioch (cf. Acts 13:1). Antioch was at this time the third largest city in the Roman world, after Rome and Alexandria. [Note: Josephus, The Wars . . ., 3:2:4.] These Jews may have travelled there on business. Antioch was about 15 miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea on the Orontes River and 300 miles north of Jerusalem. It was the capital of the Roman province of Syro-Cilicia, north of Phoenicia, and it was one of the most strategic population centers of its day. It contained between 500,000 and 800,000 inhabitants about one-seventh of whom were Jews. [Note: Longenecker, p. 399; Neil, p. 143.] Many Gentile proselytes to Judaism lived there. [Note: Josephus, The Wars . . ., 7:3:3.] Antioch was also notorious as a haven for pleasure-seekers. [Note: Longenecker, p. 399; Barclay, pp. 93-94. See Rackham, p. 165, for a background sketch of this city.]

"The Roman satirist, Juvenal, complained, ’The sewage of the Syrian Orontes has for long been discharged into the Tiber.’ By this he meant that Antioch was so corrupt it was impacting Rome, more than 1,300 miles away." [Note: Toussaint, "Acts," p. 383.]

"It seems incredible but nonetheless it is true that it was in a city like that that Christianity took the great stride forward to becoming the religion of the world. We have only to think of that to discover there is no such thing as a hopeless situation." [Note: Barclay, p. 94.]

"In Christian history, apart from Jerusalem, no other city of the Roman Empire played as large a part in the early life and fortunes of the church as Antioch of Syria." [Note: Longenecker, p. 399.]

Some of the Hellenistic Jews also began sharing the gospel with Gentiles. This verse documents another significant advance in the mission of the church: for the first time Luke recorded Jews aggressively evangelizing non-Jews. The Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius, who were both Gentiles, had taken the initiative in reaching out to Jews and had obtained salvation. Now believing Jews were taking the initiative in reaching out to Gentiles with the gospel.

The Antiochian evangelists preached "the Lord Jesus." For Gentiles "Christ" (Messiah) would not have been as significant a title as "Lord" (sovereign, savior, and deity). Many pagan Gentiles in the Roman Empire regarded Caesar as Lord.

Verse 21

Luke stressed the Lord Jesus’ blessing of their witness. "The hand of the Lord" is an Old Testament anthropomorphism that pictures God’s power (cf. Isaiah 59:1; Isaiah 66:14). The early disciples put Jesus on a par with Yahweh; His deity was not a late development read back into the early history of the church. [Note: Robertson, 3:157.] Response to this evangelistic work was very good. Perhaps these Gentiles were "God-fearers" similar to the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius. [Note: Longenecker, p. 401.] Perhaps they were pagans who were not Jewish proselytes but were open to the message of life because of their dissatisfaction with paganism. [Note: Neil, p. 144.] Probably both types of Gentiles responded.

"The combination of faith (pisteusas) and of turning (epestrepsen) is another common way to express salvation in Acts." [Note: Bock, "Jesus as . . .," p. 149.]

Verses 22-24

As the apostles had done previously when they had heard of the Samaritans’ salvation, they investigated when word of the salvation of Gentiles reached Jerusalem (Acts 8:14-15). They chose a representative to visit the scene to evaluate what was happening. The Lord obviously controlled these men in their choice of an observer. Barnabas (cf. Acts 4:36-37) was an excellent man for this mission since he, like some of the evangelists in Antioch, was from Cyprus. He was also a more broad-minded Hellenist. Furthermore he was a positive, encouraging person (Acts 4:36), and he was full of the Holy Spirit, faith, and goodness.

"Although he came of a Dispersion family, he was regarded with complete confidence in Jerusalem and acted as a pivot point or link between the Hebrew and Hellenistic elements in the church." [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p. 202.]

Barnabas rejoiced when he observed God’s grace at work in Antioch, and, true to his name (son of encouragement, Acts 4:36), he encouraged the new converts to remain faithful to the Lord. Even more people became believers because of Barnabas’ ministry to these Christians. Traditionally Luke came from Antioch. The second-century Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke’s Gospel referred to Luke as an Antiochian of Syria. [Note: See T. W. Manson, Studies in the Gospels and Epistles, p. 49, for an English translation of the text.] Also, Eusebius wrote in the fourth century, ". . . Luke, who was born at Antioch . . ." [Note: The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus, p. 85.] So perhaps he was one of the converts.

Luke may have described Barnabas in such glowing terms because this was a crisis for the early church. Much depended on how Barnabas would react, what he would do, and what he would report back to the mother church in Jerusalem. The evangelization of Gentiles was at stake.

Verse 25

As the church in Antioch continued to grow, Barnabas and perhaps others sensed the need for Saul’s help. Consequently Barnabas set out to track him down in Tarsus, where Saul had gone (Acts 9:30). Saul was an ideal choice for this work since God had given him a special appointment to evangelize Gentiles (Acts 22:21). Moreover he had considerable experience in ministry already, probably about nine years of it since his conversion. [Note: See the appendix "Sequence of Paul’s Activities" at the end of these notes.]

Some Bible scholars have deduced that Saul’s family in Tarsus had disinherited him (cf. Philippians 3:8). Some also believe he endured some of the afflictions he described in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 while he ministered in and around Tarsus. These included persecution by the Jews, probably for trying to evangelize Gentiles. Furthermore some say he had the revelation to which he referred in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 while he was ministering near there. He was undoubtedly very active in missionary work around Tarsus during his residence there even though we have no record of it.

Verse 26

Barnabas had earlier sponsored Saul in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27). Now Barnabas brought Saul to Antioch, a distance of about 90 miles, where they ministered together for a year teaching and leading the church. This was probably in A.D. 43, ten years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the day of Pentecost.

Luke noted another advance for the church in that observers called the believers "Christians" (lit. those belonging to Christ’s party, i.e., Christ followers) first in Antioch. In other words, people now distinguished the Christians as a group from religious Jews as well as from pagan Gentiles (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:32). [Note: See Stephen J. Strauss, "The Significance of Acts 11:26 for the Church at Antioch and Today," Bibliotheca Sacra 168:671 (July-September 2011):283-300.] There are only three occurrences of the name "Christian" in the New Testament, and in each case Christians did not use it of themselves (cf. Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). Similarly biblical references indicate that the name "Jew" is one that people other than the Israelites used to describe them.

"Note the three elements in the name [Christian]. (i) It contains Jewish thought, as the equivalent of Messiah, the Anointed. (ii) It shows the Greek language in the substantive-’Christ.’ (iii) It also includes the Latin language in the adjectival ending ’ians’ (Latin, iani). This universality is a reminder of the language of the title on the Cross." [Note: Thomas, p. 47.]

For Gentiles, however, the title "Christ" became a personal name for Jesus.

"They [those who used this name for believers in Jesus] . . . voiced an insight that the Christians themselves only saw clearly later on: Christianity is no mere variant of Judaism." [Note: Longenecker, p. 402.]

Verse 27

Official prophets were still active in the church apparently until the completion of the New Testament canon. A prophet was a person to whom God had given ability to speak for Him (forth-telling, cf. 1 Corinthians 14:1-5), which in some cases included the ability to receive and announce new revelation (fore-telling). Prophesying also equaled praising God (1 Chronicles 25:1).

"The Jews believed that with the last of the [Old Testament] writing prophets, the spirit of prophecy had ceased in Israel; but the coming Messianic Age would bring an outpouring of God’s Spirit, and prophecy would again flourish. The early Christians, having experienced the inauguration of the Messianic Age [i.e., the age of fulfillment], not only proclaimed Jesus to be the Mosaic eschatological prophet (cf. Acts 3:22; Acts 7:37) but also saw prophecy as a living phenomenon within the church (cf. also Acts 13:1; Acts 15:32; Acts 21:9-10) and ranked it among God’s gifts to his people next to that of being an apostle (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11)." [Note: Ibid., p. 403.]

Verses 27-30

The material initiative of the Antioch church 11:27-30

Verse 28

God fulfilled Agabus’ prophecy (cf. Acts 21:10). In the reign of Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) there was a series of severe famines and poor harvests in various parts of the Roman Empire. [Note: Bruce, Commentary on . . ., p. 243. See also idem, "Chronological Questions . . .," pp. 278-79; and Longenecker, pp. 403-4.] The Romans used the Greek word oikoumene ("world," lit. inhabited world) in exaggeration to refer to the Roman Empire (cf. Luke 2:1).

Verse 29

The Christians in Antioch demonstrated love for and unity with their brethren in Jerusalem by sending them some relief money. Luke previously documented the love and generosity of the Jerusalem Christians for one another (Acts 2:42; Acts 4:32-35). Now he revealed that the Antioch Christians even surpassed them by sharing what they had with another congregation. The giving was voluntary and according to the ability that each Christian possessed (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 9:7).

Verse 30

The church leaders chose Barnabas and Saul to carry the gift to Jerusalem. There they gave it to the "elders" (Gr. presbyteroi). This is the first use of that word in Acts. It can refer to older men chronologically (cf. 1 Timothy 5:1) or to officers in the church (Titus 1:5). Probably the latter meaning is in view here since official leaders would probably have been responsible to distribute the gift. Evidently the apostles had set up elders as they had "the Seven" to facilitate the ministry there. Elders were common in Jewish synagogue worship where they served as overseers. As time passed, this organizational structure became normal in Christian churches as well.

The visit to which Luke referred here probably took place about A.D. 46 when Judea suffered from a severe famine. [Note: Josephus, Antiquities of . . ., 3:15:3; 20:2:5; 20:5:2.] This so-called famine visit to Jerusalem is probably the one Paul referred to in Galatians 2:1-10. [Note: Bruce, Commentary on . . ., p. 244; Marshall, The Acts . . ., p. 205; Longenecker, p. 405; Neil, p. 146; Witherington, p. 375.]

As the Jerusalem church had ministered to the church in Antioch by providing leadership and teaching, the Antioch church now was able to minister to the Jerusalem church with financial aid (cf. Galatians 6:6). Luke probably included this reference to this relief to illustrate, among other things, the strength of the Gentile church outside Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.

"The summary of the establishment of the church in Antioch presents an important new development, both geographically and ethnically. The gospel reaches a major city of the empire and finds a ready response from people of Greek culture, including Gentiles. The narrator pulls together threads from the preceding narrative, especially chapters 2 and 8, and weaves them into a tapestry to describe the new phase of the mission." [Note: Tannehill, 2:146.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Acts 11". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/acts-11.html. 2012.
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