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PETER ON HIS DEFENCE ( Acts 11:1-10 )
11:1-10 The apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judaea heard that the Gentiles too had received the word of God. So when Peter came up to Jerusalem those of the circumcision criticized him because, they said, "You went in to men who had never been circumcised and you ate with them." So Peter began at the beginning and told them the whole story. He said, "I was praying in the city of Joppa; in a trance I saw a vision. I saw a kind of vessel coming down like a great sheet let down by the four corners from heaven; and it came right down to me. I was gazing at it and trying to make out what it was and I saw on it the four-footed beasts of the earth and the wild beasts and the creeping animals and the animals that fly in the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, 'Rise, Peter, kill and eat.' I said, 'By no means, Lord, because food which is common or unclean has never entered my mouth.' Again the voice spoke from heaven, 'What God has cleansed do not you reckon as common.' This happened three times; and they were all drawn up into heaven again."
The importance that Luke attached to this incident is shown by the amount of space he devoted to it. In ancient times a writer had by no means unlimited space. The book form had not come into use. Writers used rolls of a material called papyrus, which was the forerunner of paper and was made of the pith of the papyrus plant, a kind of bulrush. Now a roll is an unwieldy thing and the longest roll that was used was about thirty-five feet long which would be almost precisely the length required to hold the book of Acts. Into that space Luke had almost endless material to fit. He must have selected with the greatest care what he was going to set down; and yet he finds the story of Peter and Cornelius of such importance that he twice relates it in full.
Luke was right. We usually do not realize how near Christianity was to becoming only another kind of Judaism. All the first Christians were Jews and the whole tradition and outlook of Judaism would have moved them to keep this new wonder to themselves and to believe that God could not possibly have meant it for the Gentiles. Luke sees this incident as a notable mile-stone on the road along which the Church was groping its way to the conception of a world for Christ.
A CONVINCING STORY ( Acts 11:11-18 )
11:11-18 "And, look you, thereupon, three men, who had been sent to me from Caesarea, stood at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and to make no distinctions. These six brethren also came with me and we came to the man's house. He told us how in the house he had seen the angel standing and saying, 'Send to Joppa and send for Simon, who is also called Peter, who will speak words to you by which you and all your house will be saved.' As I was beginning to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as in the beginning he did upon you. And I remembered the Lord's word and how he said, 'John baptized you with water but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' if God gave the same gift to them as to us who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?" When they heard this they had no protests to make and they glorified God saying, "So God has given life-giving repentance to the Gentiles too."
The fault for which Peter was initially on trial was that he had eaten with Gentiles ( Acts 11:3). By so doing Peter had outraged the ancestral Law and traditions of his people. Peter's defence was not an argument; it was a statement of the facts. Whatever his critics might say the Holy Spirit had come upon these Gentiles in the most notable way. In Acts 11:12 there is a significant sidelight. Peter says that he took six brethren with him. Together with himself that made seven persons present. In Egyptian law, which the Jews would know well, seven witnesses were necessary completely to prove a case. In Roman law, which they would also know well, seven seals were necessary to authenticate a really important document. So Peter is in effect saying, "I am not arguing with you. I am telling you the facts and of these facts there are seven witnesses. The case is proved."
The proof of Christianity always lies in facts. It is doubtful if anyone has ever been argued into Christianity by verbal proofs and logical demonstrations. The proof of Christianity is that it works. that it does change men, that it does make bad men good, that it does bring to men the Spirit of God. It is when a man's deeds give the lie to his words that the gravest discredit is brought on Christianity; it is when a man's words are guaranteed by his deeds that the world is presented with an argument for Christianity which will brook no denial.
GREAT THINGS IN ANTIOCH ( Acts 11:19-21 )
11:19-21 Those who had been dispersed by the persecution following upon the death of Stephen went through the country as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, but they spoke the word to no one except to Jews. But some of them, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, came to Antioch and spoke to the Greeks too and told them the good news of the Lord Jesus. The Lord's hand was with them; and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
In restrained sentences these few words tell of one of the greatest events in history. Now, for the first time, the gospel is deliberately preached to the Gentiles. Everything has been working up to this. There have been three steps on the ladder. First, Philip preached to the Samaritans; but the Samaritans after all were half Jewish and formed, as it were, a bridge, between the Jewish and the Gentile world. Second, Peter accepted Cornelius; but it was Cornelius who took the initiative. It was not the Christian Church who sought Cornelius; it was Cornelius who sought the Christian Church. Further, it is stressed that Cornelius was a God-fearer and, therefore, on the fringes of the Jewish faith. Third, in Antioch the Church did not go to people who were Jews or half Jews, nor wait to be approached by Gentiles seeking admission; of set purpose and without waiting for the invitation, it preached the gospel to the Gentiles. Christianity is finally launched on its world-wide mission.
Here we have a truly amazing thing. The Church has taken the most epoch-making of all steps; and we do not even know the names of the people who took that step. All we know is that they came from Cyprus and Cyrene. They go down to history as nameless pioneers of Christ. It has always been one of the tragedies of the Church that men have wished to be noticed and named when they did something worth while. What the Church has always needed, perhaps more than anything else, is people who never care who gains the credit for it so long as the work is done. These men may not have written their names in men's books of history; but they have written them forever in God's Book of Life.
Another striking feature is that this incident begins a section of Acts where Antioch occupies the centre of the stage. Antioch was the third greatest city in the world next to Rome and Alexandria. She stood near the mouth of the river Orontes, fifteen miles from the Mediterranean Sea. She was lovely and cosmopolitan; but she was a byword for luxurious immorality. She was famous for her chariot-racing and for a kind of deliberate pursuit of pleasure which went on literally night and day; but most of all she was famous for the worship of Daphne whose temple stood five miles out of the town amidst its laurel groves. The legend was that Daphne was a mortal maid with whom Apollo fell in love. He pursued her and for her safety Daphne was changed into a laurel bush. The priestesses of the Temple of Daphne were sacred prostitutes and nightly in the laurel groves the pursuit was re-enacted by the worshippers and the priestesses. "The morals of Daphne" was a phrase that all the world knew for loose living. It seems incredible but nonetheless it is true that it was in a city like this that Christianity took the great stride forward to becoming the religion of the world. We need only think of that to be reminded that no situation is hopeless.
THE WISDOM OF BARNABAS ( Acts 11:22-26 )
11:22-26 News of this and of what they were doing came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem. So they sent Barnabas out as far as Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God he was glad and he exhorted them all to make it the set purpose of their hearts to cleave to the Lord, for he was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. He went away to Tarsus to look for Saul and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they were guests of the Church there and they instructed a very considerable number of people. And it was at Antioch that the disciples first received the name of Christians.
When the leaders of the church at Jerusalem got word of what was going on at Antioch they naturally sent down to investigate the situation.
It was by the grace of God they sent the man they did. They might have sent someone of a rigid mind who made a god of the Law and was shackled by its rules and regulations; but they sent the man with the biggest heart in the Church. Barnabas had already stood by Paul and sponsored him when all men suspected him ( Acts 9:27). Barnabas had already given proof of his Christian love by his generosity to his needy brethren ( Acts 4:36-37). When Barnabas saw the Gentiles being swept into the fellowship of the Church he was glad; but he recognized that someone must be put in charge of this work. That someone must be a man with a double background, a Jew brought up in the Jewish tradition but one who could meet the Gentiles on equal terms. He must be a man of courage, for Antioch was no easy place to be a Christian leader; and he must be skilled in argument in order to meet the double attack of Jews and Gentiles.
Barnabas knew the very man. For nine years or so we have heard nothing of Paul. The last glimpse we had of him he was escaping by way of Caesarea to Tarsus ( Acts 9:30). No doubt for these nine years he had been witnessing for Christ in his native town; but now the task for which he had been destined was ready for him, Barnabas with profound wisdom put him in charge of it.
It was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. The title began as a nickname. The people of Antioch were famous for their facility in finding nicknames. Later the bearded Emperor Julian came to visit them and they christened him "The Goat." The termination -iani means belonging to the party of; for instance Caesariani means belonging to Caesar's party. Christian means: "These Christ-folk". It was a contemptuous nickname; but the Christians took it and made it known to all the world. By their lives they made it a name not of contempt but of respect and admiration and even wonder.
HELPING IN TROUBLE ( Acts 11:27-30 )
11:27-30 In these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them called Agabus stood up and, through the Holy Spirit, gave a sign that a great famine was to come upon the whole land. This happened in the reign of Claudius. But each of the disciples, in proportion to his resources, fixed upon an amount for a relief fund to send to the brethren who lived in Judaea. This they did and despatched it to the elders through the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
Here the prophets come upon the scene. In the early Church they were very important. They are mentioned again in Acts 13:1; Acts 15:32; Acts 21:9-10. In the early Church, broadly speaking, there were three sets of leaders. (i) There were the Apostles. Their authority was not confined to one place; their writ ran through the whole Church; and they were looked upon as being in a very real sense the successors of Jesus. (ii) There were the Elders. They were the local officials and their authority was confined to the place where they were set apart. (iii) There were the Prophets.
Their function is to be seen in their name. Prophet means both a fore-teller and a forth-teller (see prophets, G4396) . They foretold the future; but even more they foretold the will of God. They had no settled sphere; they were not attached to any one church. They were held in the highest honour. The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles which dates to about A.D. 100, contains the first service order book of the Church. The order for the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is laid down, but then it is said that the prophets are to be allowed to conduct the service as they will. Men knew that they had special gifts. But they had special dangers too. The career of prophet was one which a man might undertake not from the highest but from the lowest of motives. The false prophet existed, the man who simply battened on the charity of the Church. The same Teaching of the Twelve Apostles warns against the prophet who in a vision asks for money or for a meal; it instructs that prophets should always be given hospitality for one night but says that if they desire to stay longer without working they are false prophets.
This incident is very significant for it shows that thus early men had realized the unity of the Church. When there was famine in Palestine the first instinct of the Church at Antioch was to help. It was unthinkable that one part of the Church should be in trouble and that another should do nothing about it, They were far away from the congregational outlook; they had that width of vision which saw the Church as a whole.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 11". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany