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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Acts 11

Verse 1


(1) And the apostles and brethren that were in Judæa . . .—The context implies that the tidings travelled, while Peter remained at Cæsarea, first probably to Joppa and Lydda, and afterwards to Jerusalem.

Verse 2

(2) They that were of the circumcision contended with him.—The conversion of the Gentiles at Cæsarea had given a new significance to the name of “those of the circumcision.” From this time forth they are a distinct section, often a distinct party, in the Church, and here we have the first symptom of the line which they were about to take. They contended with Peter (the tense implies continuous or repeated discussion) because he had eaten with those who were uncircumcised, and therefore, from the Jewish point of view, unclean.

Verse 3

(3) Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised.—The words cannot well be translated otherwise, but the Greek (literally, men with a foreskin) is somewhat more expressive of scorn than the merely negative form of the English. The same word is commonly used by St. Paul where he discusses the relation between circumcision and uncircumcision (Romans 2:25-45.2.26; Romans 4:9-45.4.10; 1 Corinthians 7:18-46.7.19, et al.).

Verse 4

(4) But Peter rehearsed the matter from the beginning.—Better, perhaps, the word “rehearse” having grown into a different shade of meaning, began and set forth the matter. The translators seem to have paraphrased the participle “having begun” somewhat more fully than its actual meaning admits. The almost verbal repetition of the same narrative as that of Acts 10:0 seems, at first sight, inconsistent with our common standard of skill in composition. The probable explanation of it is that St. Luke obtained the first narrative from the disciples whom he met at Cæsarea, and the second from those of Jerusalem, and that the close agreement of the two seemed to him, as indeed it was, a confirmation of the truth of each.

Verse 5

(5) It came even to me.—The variations in the narrative are few and of little importance. There is, perhaps, a touch of the vividness of personal recollection in the description of the sheet as coming “even to me,” as compared with its being let down “to the earth” in Acts 10:11.

Verse 6

(6) Upon the which when I had fastened mine eyes, I considered.—Here again we trace the same kind of vividness as in the previous verse. The Apostle recalls the intense eager gaze with which he had looked on the strange vision.

Verse 10

(10) All were drawn up again into heaven.—Once more there is a slight increase of vividness in the word which expresses a rapid upward movement, as compared with “the vessel was received up into heaven,” in Acts 10:16.

Verse 12

(12) The spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting.—The Greek verb has a special force as being the same as that for “contended” in Acts 11:2. Peter, guided by the Spirit, raised no debate such as they were raising.

Verse 14

(14) Whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved.—The words are not found in the report of the angel’s speech in Acts 10:4-44.10.6, but may legitimately be thought of as implied in it. The prayer of Cornelius had been for salvation, and when he was told, in answer to that prayer, to send for one who should speak to him, it must have been clear to him that he was to hear of that way of salvation which he had been seeking.

Verse 15

(15) And as I began to speak . . .—It is, perhaps, a trait of individual character that the Apostle speaks of what is recorded in Acts 10:34-44.10.43 as the mere beginning of what he had meant to say.

As on us at the beginning.—The words are spoken, it will be remembered, to apostles and disciples who had been sharers in the Pentecostal gift. St. Peter bears his witness that what he witnessed at Cæsarea was not less manifestly the Spirit’s work than what they had then experienced.

Verse 16

(16) Then remembered I the word of the Lord.—The special promise referred to was that recorded in Acts 1:5. Then it had seemed to refer only to the disciples, and the Day of Pentecost had appeared to bring a complete fulfilment of it. Now Peter had learnt to see that it had a wider range, that the gift might be bestowed on those who were not of Israel, and who were not called to come outwardly within the covenant of Israel. If the baptism of the Holy Ghost had been thus given to them it implied, as the greater includes the less, that they were admissible to the baptism of water.

Verse 17

(17) Forasmuch then . . .—More accurately, If then.

Unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ.—The Greek construction gives a somewhat different meaning: If then God gave to them an equal gift as to us, upon their believing . . . That condition was sufficient in their case for the greater gifts, and their admissibility to baptism and to general fellowship followed naturally as a thing of course.

What was I, that I could withstand God?—The Greek gives a complex question, Who was I? Able to withstand God?i.e., How was I, being such a one as I am, able to withstand?

Verse 18

(18) They held their peace, and glorified God.—The difference of tenses in the two Greek verbs implies that they first held their peace, and then began a continuous utterance of praise. The fact was obviously one of immense importance in its bearing on the question at issue between St. Paul and the Judaisers, of which St. Luke had seen so much and which he sought, by his narrative, to settle. Not only had the first step in the free admission of the Gentiles been taken by the chief of the Apostles, and under direct guidance from above, but it had received the formal approval of the Apostles and other members of the Church of the Circumcision at Jerusalem. The Judaisers, in opposing St. Paul, were acting against the Church from which they pretended to derive their authority.

Verse 19

(19) Now they which were scattered abroad.—A new and important section begins with these words. We are carried back to the date of the persecution of which Stephen was the chief victim.

The persecution that arose about Stephen.—The MSS. vary in their reading, some giving the case which would be rendered by “the persecution in the time of Stephen;” some, that which answers to the persecution upon or against or after Stephen. The death of the martyr was followed, as Acts 8:1-44.8.4 shows, by a general outburst of fanaticism against the disciples, and this led to a comparatively general flight. It was probable, in the nature of the case, that the Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews who had been associated with Stephen would be the chief sufferers. Philip we have traced in Samaria and Cæsarea; others went to Phœnice, i.e., to the cities of Tyre and Sidon and Ptolemais, and were probably the founders of the churches which we find there in Acts 21:4-44.21.7; Acts 27:3. In Cyprus (see Note on Acts 13:4, for an account of the island) they prepared the way for the work of Barnabas and Paul.

And Antioch.—We have here the first direct point of contact between the Church of Christ and the great Syrian capital which was for so many years one of its chief centres. We may, perhaps, think of the proselyte of Antioch (Acts 6:5) who had been one of Stephen’s colleagues as one of those who brought the new faith to his native city. It was, as the sequel shows, a moment of immense importance. Situated on the Orontes, about fifteen miles from the port of Seleucia, the city, founded by Seleucus Nicator, and named after his father Antiochus, had grown in wealth and magnificence till it was one of the “eyes” of Asia. Its men of letters and rhetoricians (among them the poet Archias, in whose behalf Cicero made one of his most memorable orations) had carried its fame to Rome itself, and the Roman Satirist complained that the Syrian Orontes had polluted his native Tiber with the tainted stream of luxury and vice (Juvenal, Sat. iii. 62-64). It had a large colony of Jews, and Herod the Great had courted the favour of its inhabitants by building a marble colonnade which ran the whole length of the city. It became the head-quarters of the Prefect or President of Syria, and the new faith was thus brought into more direct contact with the higher forms of Roman life than it had been at Jerusalem or Cæsarea. There also it came into more direct conflict with heathenism in its most tempting and most debasing forms. 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.

Preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.—Better, as answering to the singular number in the Greek, to no one. This was, of course, to be expected in the work of those who had left Jerusalem before the conversion of Cornelius had ruled the case otherwise. The fact is stated, apparently, in contrast both with the narrative that precedes and the statement that immediately follows.

Verse 20

(20) And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene.—Better, But some. These were, from the nature of the case, Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews. Who they were we can only conjecture. Possibly Lucius of Cyrene, who appears in the list of prophets in Acts 13:1; possibly Simon of Cyrene, of whom we have seen reason to think as a disciple of Christ. (See Notes on Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21.) The founders of the Church of Antioch, like those of the Church of Rome, must remain unknown.

Spake unto the Grecians.—The MSS. present the two readings—Hellenistæ Greek-speaking Jews, and Hellenes, Greeks or Gentiles by descent. As far as their authority is concerned, the two stand nearly on the same level, the balance inclining slightly in favour of Hellenistæ, which is found in MSS. B and D, while A gives Hellenes. The Sinaitic has the almost incomprehensible reading “they spake unto the Evangelistœ,” which is obviously wrong, but which, so far as it goes, must be thrown into the scale in favour of Hellenistæ, as the word which the transcriber had before him, and which he misread or misheard. If we receive that reading, then we must suppose St. Luke to lay stress upon the fact that the preachers of whom he speaks, instead of speaking to the Jews at large, many of whom, being Syrians, would speak Aramaic, addressed themselves specially to the Greek-speaking Jews and proselytes, and were thus following in St. Stephen’s footsteps, and indirectly preparing the way for St. Paul—the Hellenistæ being, as a body, the link between the Jews as a race and the Hellenes. On the whole, however, internal evidence seems to turn the scale in favour of the other reading. (1) As the Hellenistæ were “Jews,” though not “Hebrews,” they would naturally be included in the statement of Acts 11:19, and so there would be no contrast, no new advance, indicated in Acts 11:20 in the statement that the word was spoken to them. (2) The contrast between Jews and Hellenes is, on the other hand, as in Acts 14:1; Acts 18:4, a perfectly natural and familiar one, and assuming this to be the true reading, we get a note of progress which otherwise we should miss, there being no record elsewhere of the admission of the Gentiles at Antioch. (3) It does not necessarily follow, however, that the Hellenes who are spoken of had been heathen idolaters up to the time of their conversion. Probably, as in Acts 18:4, they were more or less on the same level as Cornelius, proselytes of the gate, attending the services of the synagogue. (4) The question whether this preceded or followed the conversion of Cornelius is one which we have not sufficient data for deciding. On the one hand, the brief narrative of Acts 11:19 suggests the thought of an interval as long as that between the death of Stephen and St. Peter’s visit to Cæsarea, and it may have been part of the working of God’s providence that there should be simultaneous and parallel advances. On the other, the language of those of the circumcision to Peter in Acts 11:3, implies that they had not heard of such a case before; and that of the Apostle himself, in Acts 15:7, distinctly claims the honour of having been the first (possibly, however, only the first among the disciples at Jerusalem) from whose lips the Gentiles, as such, had heard the word of the gospel. On the whole, therefore, it seems probable that the work went on at Antioch for many months among the Hellenistic and other Jews, and that the men of Cyprus and Cyrene arrived after the case of Cornelius had removed the scruples which had hitherto restrained them from giving full scope to the longings of their heart. We must not forget, however, that there was one to whom the Gospel of the Uncircumcision, the Gospel of Humanity, had been already revealed in its fulness (Acts 20:21; Galatians 1:11-48.1.12), and we can hardly think of him as waiting, after that revelation, for any decision of the Church of Jerusalem. His action, at any rate, must have been parallel and independent, and may have been known to, and followed by, other missionaries.

Preaching the Lord Jesus.—As before, preaching the glad tidings of the Lord Jesus.

Verse 22

(22) They sent forth Barnabas.—The choice was probably determined, we may believe, by the known sympathies of the Son of Consolation for the work which was going on at Antioch. The friend of Paul, who had been with him when he was at Jerusalem (Acts 9:27), must have known his hopes and convictions on this matter, and must have welcomed the opening which was thus given him for working in the same direction. The fact that he was himself of the same country would also qualify him for co-operating with the men of Cyprus, who were carrying on that work in Antioch.

Verse 23

(23) And exhorted them all.—The tense implies continuous action; and the verb in the Greek is that from which Barnabas took his name as the “Son of Comfort” or “Counsel.” (See Note on Acts 4:36.)

With purpose of heart.—The preacher had seen the grace of God, and had rejoiced at it; but he knew, as all true teachers know, that it is possible for man’s will to frustrate that grace, and that its co-operation, as manifested in deliberate and firm resolve, was necessary to carry on the good work to its completion. The word for “purpose” meets us again in Acts 27:13.

They would cleave unto the Lord.—The noun is probably used in its dominant New Testament sense, as pointing to the Lord Jesus as the new object of the faith and love of those who had turned to Him.

Verse 24

(24) For he was a good man.—Words of praise of this kind are comparatively rare in this history, and we may, perhaps, think of them here as expressing St. Luke’s personal estimate of the character of the preacher, which he was all the more anxious to place on record because he had to narrate before long the sad contention which separated him from his friend and fellow-worker (Acts 15:39). The word “good” is probably to be taken as presenting the more winning and persuasive form of holiness, as contrasted with the severer forms of simple justice. (Comp. Romans 5:7.)

Full of the Holy Ghost.—This was implied in his very name as “the Son of Prophecy” (see Note on Acts 4:31); but it is interesting to note that the words are identical with those in which the historian had previously described Stephen (Acts 6:5). Barnabas appeared to him to reproduce the mind and character of the martyr.

Much people.—Literally, a great multitude, implying a large increase upon the work related in Acts 11:21.

Verse 25

(25) Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus.—The act is every way significant. It indicates the assurance that Saul would approve of the work which had been going on at Antioch, and the confident belief that he was the right person to direct and organise it. It probably implies also some intercourse with the Apostle, by letter or message, since his departure from Jerusalem. In the absence of any direct record, we can only infer that Saul had remained at Tarsus, carrying on his occupation as a tent-maker (Acts 18:3), and preaching the gospel there and in the neighbouring cities of Cilicia (see Note on Acts 15:41) “to the Jew first and also to the Gentile.” It is clear that he must have heard of the grace of God that had been manifested at Antioch with great joy, and accepted the invitation to join in the work there with a ready gladness.

Verse 26

(26) The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.—The term for “were called” is not the word usually so rendered. Better, perhaps, got the name of Christians. The Emperor Julian (Misopog., p. 344) notes the tendency to invent nicknames, as a form of satire, as characteristic of the population of Antioch in his time, and the same tone of persiflage seems to have prevailed on the first appearance of the new faith. The origin of a name which was afterwards to be so mighty in the history of the world is a subject full of interest. In its form it was essentially Latin, after the pattern of the Pompeiani, Sullani, and other party-names; and so far it would seem to have grown out of the contact of the new society with the Romans stationed at Antioch, who, learning that its members acknowledged the Christos as their head, gave them the name of Christiani. In the Gospels, it is true, however (Matthew 22:16, et al.), we find the analogous term of Herodiani, but there, also, we may legitimately trace the influence of Roman associations. As used in the New Testament, we note (1) that the disciples never use it of themselves. They keep to such terms as the “brethren” (Acts 15:1), and the “saints” (Acts 9:13), and “those of the way” (Acts 9:2). (2) That the hostile Jews use the more scornful term of “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). (3) That the term Christianus is used as a neutral and sufficiently respectful word by Agrippa in Acts 26:23, and at a somewhat later date, when it had obviously gained a wider currency, as that which brought with it the danger of suffering and persecution (1 Peter 4:16). It was natural that a name first given by outsiders should soon be accepted by believers as a title in which to glory. Tradition ascribes its origin to Euodius, the first Bishop of Antioch (Bingham, Ant. II. i. § 4), and Ignatius, his successor, uses it frequently, and forms from it the hardly less important word of Christianismos, as opposed to Judaismos (Philadelph. c. 6), and as expressing the whole system of faith and life which we know as “Christianity.” It may be worth while to note that another ecclesiastical term, hardly less important in the history of Christendom, seems also to have originated at Antioch, and that we may trace to it the name of Catholic as well as Christian (Ignatius, Smyrn. c. 8). We learn from Tertullian (Apol. c. 3) that the name was often wrongly pronounced as Chrestiani, and its meaning not understood. Even the name of Christos was pronounced and explained as Chrestos (= good). The Christians, on their side, accepted the mistake as a nomen et omen, an unconscious witness on the part of the heathen that they were good and worthy in their lives, that their Lord was “good and gracious (1 Peter 2:3).

Verse 27

(27) Came prophets from Jerusalem.—The mission thus described was obviously a further sanction given by the Church at Jerusalem to the work that Saul and Barnabas were carrying on at Antioch. If we adopt the view suggested in the Note on Luke 10:1, that the Seventy were the representatives of the prophetic order, and were symbolically significant of the conversion of the Gentiles, it will seem probable that those who now came to Antioch belonged to that body, and rejoiced in what they found there as fulfilling the idea of their own commission.

Verse 28

(28) There stood up one of them named Agabus.—The same prophet appears again in Acts 21:10 as coming down from Jerusalem to Cæsarea. Nothing more is known of him. The prophecy of the “dearth” or “famine” was in part an echo of Matthew 24:7.

Throughout all the world.—Literally, the inhabited earth, used, as in Luke 2:1; Luke 4:5, and elsewhere in the New Testament, for the Roman empire.

Which came to pass in the days of Claudius Cæsar.—The reign of Caligula lasted from A.D. 37-41, that of Claudius from A.D. 41-54. The whole reign of the latter emperor was memorable for frequent famines (Suetonius, Claud. 28; Tacitus, Ann. xii. 43). Josephus (Ant. xx. 5) speaks of one as specially affecting Judæa and Syria, under the procuratorship of Cuspius Fadus, A.D. 45. The population of Jerusalem were reduced to great distress, and were chiefly relieved by the bounty of Helena, Queen of Adiabene, who sent in large supplies of corn, figs, and other articles of food. She was herself a proselyte to Judaism, and was the mother of Izates, whose probable conversion to the faith of Christ by Ananias of Damascus is mentioned in the Note on Acts 9:10. The title of “Cæsar” is omitted in the better MSS.

Verse 29

(29) Then the disciples, every man according to his ability.—Literally, as each man prospered. It is obviously implied that the collection was made at once, as a provision against the famine, in consequence of the prophecy, before the famine itself came. We may well believe that Saul and Barnabas were active in stirring up the Gentiles to this work of charity. It was the beginning of that collection for the “poor saints at Jerusalem” which was afterwards so prominent in the Apostle’s labours (Acts 24:17; Romans 15:25-45.15.26; 1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 9:1-47.9.15; Galatians 2:10), and which he regarded as a bond of union between the Jewish and Gentile sections of the Church. It is probable that the generous devotion and liberality of the converts of Jerusalem in the glow of their first love had left them more exposed than most others to the pressure of poverty, and that when the famine came it found them to a great extent dependent on the help of other churches.

Determined to send relief.—The Greek gives the more specific to send as a ministration, the half-technical word which St. Paul uses in Romans 15:31; 2 Corinthians 9:1.

Verse 30

(30) And sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.—The elders of the Church are here named for the first time, and appear henceforth as a permanent element of its organisation, which in this respect followed the arrangements of the Synagogue. Officers filling like functions were known in the Gentile churches as Episcopi = Bishops, or Superintendents, and where Jews and Gentiles were mingled, the two names were interchangeable, as in Acts 20:17-44.20.18; Titus 1:5; Titus 1:7. See also Notes on Philippians 1:1; 1 Peter 5:1-60.5.2. In St. James’s Epistle (James 5:14), written probably about this time, the “elders” are mentioned as visiting the sick, and anointing them with oil as a means of healing.

It may be noted that this visit to Jerusalem has been identified by some writers with that of which the Apostle speaks in Galatians 2:1. It will be shown, however, in the Notes on Acts 15:0 that it is far more likely that he speaks of the journey there narrated. St. Luke would hardly have passed over the facts to which St. Paul refers, had they occurred on this occasion; nor are there any signs that the Pharisaic party had at this time felt strong enough to insist on the circumcision of the Gentile converts. It is probable that the journey would be timed so as to coincide with one of the Jewish festivals, and judging by the analogy of St. Paul’s other visits, we may think of this as coinciding with that of Pentecost. (See Notes on Acts 18:21; Acts 20:16.)

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 11". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.