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On the Two Accounts of the Conversion of Cornelius.
In the Acts of the Apostles there are two accounts of the conversion of Cornelius, one given by St. Luke in the due sequence of his narrative, the other by St. Peter himself, under apologetic conditions, before the ‘apostles and elders’ at Jerusalem. On this circumstance Bishop Wordsworth has the following observation: ‘A remarkable instance of repetition, showing the importance of the subject; and that the Holy Spirit does not disdain to use the same or similar words in relating the same events’ ( The New Testament in the Original Greek, with Notes; The Acts, p. 93). Turning now to a writer of a very different spirit, we find Reuss commenting on this fact as follows: ‘La reproduction du recit detaille de la conversion du centurion palen s’explique par les usages du style populaire de l’antiquité: L’Ancien Testament offre de nom-breux exemples de cette prolixité’ (Histoire Apostolique, p. 131). There is truth, doubtless, in both these criticisms: and they are not necessarily inconsistent with one another. But if we were to content ourselves with either of them or both of them, we should lose part of the instruction of this book of Holy Scripture, and should sacrifice an evidential argument of considerable value. It is probably good for our edification that we should gain our full impression of the whole history of this remarkable event by a thoughtful comparison of the two accounts which are given of it, while from such comparison there come to view strong proofs of the artless simplicity, the naturalness and perfect truthfulness of the whole story.
The method of the Horæ Paulina is in fact applicable, not merely to the comparison of one class of documents with another, with the view of proving the honesty of both by exhibiting minute consistency without contrivance, but likewise to the comparative criticism of different parts of the same document, by showing that ‘undesigned coincidences’ link them together, and thus give to them the coherency of truth. Paley himself applies this mode of reasoning to the Epistle to the Philippians, in the matter of Epaphroditus, without any comparison with the Acts of the Apostles. The parts of this, book of the Acts which lend themselves with the greatest facility to this method of treatment, and do, in fact, most obviously invite it, as they most richly reward it, are the three accounts of St. Paul’s conversion. That subject will be treated in an Excursus in its proper place. Two of St. Paul’s accounts were given under apologetic conditions: and so far there is a resemblance between his case and that of St. Peter. The materials for comparison, in St. Paul’s case, are indeed much more abundant, especially as it presents three aspects of the same story; but in the instance before us, we have something more than the narrative of St. Luke, which we can put side by side with that of St. Peter. We have also to deal with the statement made to Peter by the messengers of Cornelius, and the statement made by Cornelius himself to that apostle. It is worth while to glance at these two other features which diversify the history, before we turn to the broader comparison.
The angel had given to Cornelius an exact description of the apostle, furnishing both his name and surname, and the name and employment of his host, and the exact position of the house (Acts 10:5-6). We find the messengers, on arriving in Joppa, making their inquiries exactly in this form (Acts 10:17; Acts 10:19). This was quite natural, while yet it is told in the most artless and easy manner. When they give their message to Peter, they describe the character of Cornelius in such a way as to win confidence and to produce persuasion; and especially they note the respect in which he was held by the Jews. This is just what we should expect from discreet men, such as Cornelius would select for such an errand (see Acts 11:7-8); and it is just what St. Paul did when he described to his infuriated hearers in the temple court the character of Ananias at Damascus, and the high esteem in which he was held in that place (Acts 22:12). When Peter came to Cæsarea and asked for fuller information from Cornelius himself, the centurion described the appearance of his heavenly visitant, and said that he ‘stood’ before him ‘within his house’ (Acts 10:30). These particulars we should not otherwise have known; and they were evidently adapted to convince Peter that there had been no illusion. Another point which the direct narrative does not contain is, that Cornelius was praying when the angel visited him. This circumstance was obviously of great moment for producing confidence in the apostle’s mind. And once more the exact description of the apostle, with his name and surname, and the name of his host, and the position of the house, is repeated (Acts 10:32). Such coincidences are like threads, not perceptible at first sight, but perceived on closer examination to give coherence and strength to the whole texture of the narrative; and yet hardly any critic would venture to say that they have been ingeniously inserted for the purpose of producing this effect on the mind of the reader.
Similar remarks might be made on the manner in which St. Peter speaks to Cornelius when he first meets him, on his dignified reticence as regards the particulars of his trance, and on the candour with which he confesses, in general terms, that God had taught him to take a new view of the relations between Jews and Gentiles. But the chief point of interest in this comparative criticism lies in the variations observable when we set St. Peter’s apologetic statement at Jerusalem (Acts 11:4-17) side by side with the direct narrative contained in the preceding chapter. The problem he has now to solve is, how to present his recent experience persuasively and yet truthfully. We are perhaps hardly to expect in this apostle the tact and versatility which were characteristic of St. Paul. It is enough, if we find him earnest, judicious, and natural, and if his mode of putting the case suits the conditions of the moment. Now he is careful to give to the whole history its solemn religious aspect, omitting mere details, which are of no moment for his argument, though they are interesting and indeed important parts of the narrative, considered as a mere narrative. Expounding the matter ‘by order from the beginning,’ he says that he was praying when the trance occurred (Acts 11:5), that the voice which spake to him came ‘from heaven’ (Acts 11:9). He marks the providential coincidence of the arrival of the three men at the critical moment, and the distinct command of the Holy Spirit, that he should go with them (Acts 11:11-12). He speaks emphatically of ‘the angel’ (Acts 11:13). He states that the phenomena which followed were similar to those at Pentecost (Acts 11:15); he describes the recollection of the words of the Lord Jesus which came over him (Acts 11:16), and he concludes by saying that God had given to the faith of these Gentiles what He had given to the faith of the earliest Hebrew Christians, and that to withhold obedience in this matter would be a presumptuous hindrance of God (Acts 11:17). The work was God’s work, not his. This is his main argument, but it is worth while also to note what he adds and what he omits in his recital. He adds that the great sheet, with its strange contents, moved towards him and came close to him (Acts 11:5), and moreover that he ‘fastened his eyes on it and considered it’ (Acts 11:6). Such things tended to prove the reality and definiteness of the Divine communication. He omits the mention of the housetop, the hour of the day, the preparation of his meal. These were merely, from his present point of view, circumstantial details, however valuable they might be for the historian. And finally, we have once again, from St. Peter’s own lips, the exact designation, which we have met with three times before at the critical points of this narrative: ‘Simon, whose surname is Peter.’ In this was expressed, not only a new proof of the literal truth of the facts, but his sense of an individual calling and a personal responsibility for the accomplishment of this great task of introducing the Gentiles, on equal terms with the Jews, into the Christian Church. His speech on this occasion, besides being of value to the end for which it has here been examined, furnishes to us an instructive example of that which is enjoined by his brother apostle, ‘Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man’ (Colossians 4:6).
Acts 11:1. The apostles and brethren that were in Judaea. Probably some of them were at Jerusalem, and some of them itinerating, like St. Peter, through the Holy Land, for the purpose of spreading the Gospel (see Acts 1:8, Acts 10:37). It is observable that the ‘elders’ or presbyters, who are first mentioned in the last verse of this chapter, do not yet appear. Compare Acts 15:2.
Heard. Such an occurrence, especially as it had taken place in the conspicuous town of Cæsarea, and had been connected with the conduct of one so prominent as St. Peter, could not possibly have been concealed. The news must have rapidly spread through all the Christian communities of the land.
That the Gentiles also had received the Word of God. These ‘apostles and brethren’ had Christian hearts, and they must have rejoiced in the thought that the Gospel had found acceptance in other hearts (see Acts 11:18). That which they could not understand was that these Gentiles should have been reached by this blessing without first becoming Jews.
Apologetic Account by St. Peter at Jerusalem of the Conversion of Cornelius, Acts 11:1-18.
The commentators have given far too little attention to this section of the Apostolic History. Thus in the excellent commentaries of Bishop Wordsworth, Dean Alford, and Mr. Humphry, the annotations on these eighteen verses collapse into almost nothing. But in fact the account given by St. Peter himself at Jerusalem before the ‘apostles and brethren’ who blamed him is by no means a mere repetition of the direct account by St. Luke, which we have had in the tenth chapter. There are variations of the most instructive kind, connected with this new occasion, and furnishing, on a careful comparison of the two chapters, a very valuable indirect proof of the natural truthfulness of the whole story.
The argument will be briefly summed up in an Excursus at the close. In the notes on these verses some of the separate points will be indicated one by one.
Acts 11:2. When Peter was come up to Jerusalem. For what reason he went thither we are not told. He seems to have gone direct from Cæsarea. The form of expression is that which would be natural to describe such a journey. See Acts 18:22.
They that were of the circumcision. By this is expressed, not simply that they were Jews, but that they had a strong and deep feeling regarding the necessity of circumcision. With the exception of the recent converts, none except Jews were members of the Church of Christ. This expression, however, is one that it would be natural for St. Luke, writing some years afterwards, to use. And indeed now, for the first time, there were within the Church the two strongly-contrasted elements of Jewish and Gentile Christianity. We are exactly at the turn, where the history of the Christian Church passes into its new phase.
Contended with him. There was no judicial charge in the case. The subject, however, was one of serious personal debate: and it occurs to us naturally to remark that this could not have taken place on so serious a religious question, if the power of supreme infallible decision had belonged to St. Peter as the first of the Popes.
Acts 11:3. Didst eat with them. This step involved all the rest. See above on Acts 10:23; Acts 10:28. It was not the communicating the Gospel to the Gentiles which they grudged, but the communicating it in such a way as to do violence to the most cherished principles of the past.
Acts 11:4. Rehearsed the matter from the beginning. This was his most judicious course. A simple and careful statement of the facts from the outset was more likely to be persuasive than anything else. He did not argue. The mere telling of the story was a proof of the Divine teaching in this case, which was far beyond any argument. Another thought, too, forces itself here upon the mind. The course which St. Peter followed was utterly different from that which he would have adopted if the privileges of infallibility and supremacy belonged to him. If ever there was a case which belonged essentially to the sphere of ‘faith and morals,’ it was the case of Cornelius.
Acts 11:5. I was in the city of Joppa praying. It was essential that Peter should name the place where this remarkable experience had occurred. Thus he names Cæsarea below (Acts 11:11). He is laying before the ‘apostles and brethren’ a precise statement of facts. On the other hand, it is of no moment to mention the name of his host at Joppa, or the precise position of the house of Simon the Tanner, though these things were of importance in the commission of the messengers sent by Cornelius from Cæsarea. And to turn to another point, St. Peter does not stay to tell his hearers on this occasion that he was on the house-top when he fell into the trance, that the hour was noon, and that the event occurred when the people in the house were preparing his food. But it was essential that he should mention the fact that he was engaged in prayer when this strange series of events began. This was his starting-point. His fellow-disciples knew, by the teaching of their Lord, and through their own daily experience, the place occupied by prayer in the Christian scheme. And St. Peter’s mode of presenting the subject to them is, in fact, a lesson for all time. If we begin with prayer, God will do all the rest.
In a trance I saw a vision. To them, so far from suggesting any difficulty, this would be persuasive. It was strictly according to all they had been taught in their knowledge of early Jewish history. In addressing Cornelius it would have been out of place, especially since all that was seen in the trance had a Hebrew colouring. The essential point for St. Peter (Acts 10:28) to urge on the centurion was, that God had by some mode brought him to a new religious conviction.
Let down from heaven. This is more definite and vivid than that which we find in St. Luke’s direct narration; and it is natural that this shade of difference should be found here, where the story is told by the eye-witness himself.
It came even to me. This, again, is an addition, which imparts much liveliness to the story as told by St. Peter himself. It is, moreover, an important addition, as showing that the circumstances of the trance were not vaguely apprehended, but that he saw everything definitely and distinctly.
Acts 11:6. Upon which when I had fastened mine eyes, I considered. This, again, is an addition of value, both because of the animation it communicates to this narrative, and because the argument is strengthened by the fact that he deliberately inspected and reflected on what he saw in the trance.
And wild beasts. It has been noted above (on Acts 10:12), that according to the true reading, this belongs to St. Peters own statement only. It adds to the emphasis of the surprise felt by him on contemplating a multitude of all kinds of animals, and hearing a command giving sanction for his eating of them indiscriminately.
Acts 11:7. I heard a voice saying unto me. In St. Luke’s narrative the phrase is, ‘there came a voice to him.’ The external fact that a voice was uttered is that which he relates. St. Peter tells of his own inward experience. He ‘heard’ the voice. A communication was effectually made to his own intelligence and consciousness.
Slay, and eat. The Authorised Version in Acts 10:13 has ‘kill, and eat.’ But the word in the original is the same. This is an example of the love of our translators for variety in rendering, merely for the sake of variety (see Bishop Lightfoot On a Fresh Revision of the New Testament, p. 33).
Acts 11:8. Hath at any time entered into my mouth. The same kind of comment may he made here as in the other cases. St. Luke has ‘I have never eaten.’ St. Peter expresses the matter more strongly, and with a personal feeling.
Acts 11:9. The voice answered me again from heaven. The word ‘answered’ is more definite and lively than that which we find in the correlative passage; and the phrase ‘from heaven’ is an addition, which would have its force for St. Peter’s present hearers. Nor must we forget the bearing of all this on future times. Stier remarks: ‘The teaching of the voice from heaven through Peter’s lips was affecting the whole Church.’
Acts 11:10. All were drawn up again into heaven. The Greek is ἅπαντα . There is more life in the phrase than in what we find in Acts 10:16. The whole of what was seen in the vision disappeared by being carried up into heaven. Here, too, the word is α ̓ νεσπα ́ σθη , there it is α ̓ νελη ́ μφθη . St. Peter’s phrase is more animated, and it is likewise more suitable to the action of the ‘ropes’ seen in the trance.
Acts 11:11. Behold, there were three men already come. He notes, and calls his hearers to note, the startling coincidence of this arrival. The exclamation ‘Behold!’ has its significance. Once more it is instructive to compare his mode of presenting the history at Jerusalem with the narrative as given by St. Luke. The apostle says nothing of the trouble taken by the messengers in inquiring for the house of Simon the Tanner, and of their manner of presenting themselves before the gate. These were facts external to the experience of St. Peter himself. Nor does he say anything of the intense mental consideration in which he was engaged when the messengers suddenly arrived. For himself at the moment this had been all-important. But that which it is essential for the ‘apostles and elders’ to mark is the visible presence of God’s hand in the transaction. This was an argument, the overpowering force of which they could not easily resist.
Unto the house where I was. Where this house was, and what was the name of its owner, were questions foreign to St. Peter’s mode of making his statement (see notes on Acts 10:6; Acts 10:42).
Sent from Cæsarea unto me. The naming of the place was of consequence (see notes above on the naming of Joppa, Acts 11:5). The words ‘unto me’ are emphatic (see above on Acts 10:5; Acts 10:22; Acts 10:32; and comp. Acts 15:7).
Acts 11:12. The Spirit bade me go with them (see note on Acts 10:19-20). The words ‘get thee down,’ which we find in the direct narrative, are omitted here. This is consistent. St. Peter had said nothing of having gone up to the house-top.
Moreover these six brethren accompanied me. Here suddenly we learn for the first time two facts respecting these his companions and witnesses, first, that ‘they of the circumcision,’ who accompanied him from Joppa to Cæsarea (Acts 10:23; Acts 10:45), were six in number; and secondly, that they had accompanied him also to Jerusalem. This second fact has extreme significance, and shows how deep an impression had been made by the recent events at Caesarea and Joppa, and how careful and deliberate was the course adopted by St. Peter, in order to bring conviction home to his brother apostles and the Christians at Jerusalem generally. The phrase ‘ these six brethren,’ marking the vividness of his appeal to them at the moment of speaking, should not be unobserved (comp. Acts 20:34).
We entered into the man’s house. He condenses into a very short space the account of the journey and the reception, which, in the other narrative, had been given at some length. Another point, too, we should not fail to remark. St. Peter simply terms Cornelius ‘the man.’ There would have been nothing persuasive in his dwelling on the military rank of Cornelius, or his position at Caesarea, or on the honourable character of the corps to which he belonged. These particulars would have been positively distasteful to his Jewish listeners. Even as regards the personal character of Cornelius, his habit of prayer, his generous almsgiving, his faithful discharge of domestic duty, it would not have been politic in Peter to have laid stress on these points before an audience full of prejudice against the Heathen, and reluctant to recognise the existence of true religion except under Hebrew conditions; nor were these the circumstances which had brought Peter to his present conviction. On the other hand, there was much point in his saying, however briefly, that he ‘ entered into the man’s house.’ This was the very ground of the censure under which Peter had fallen (see Acts 11:3).
Acts 11:13. How he had seen an angel. The Greek distinctly requires that this should be ‘ the angel.’ This is not the case in Acts 10:22. Probably the mention of this angel was a conspicuous part of the story as it reached the ears of the apostles at Jerusalem; and to their minds it must have appeared a very grave part of the whole subject. This mode of making a revelation was in accordance with many parts of Hebrew history, and with their own experience after the Resurrection and at the Ascension. If an angel had appeared to ‘this man,’ this at least raised a serious question demanding very careful attention.
In his house. If the angel, too, appeared in his very house, this rendered the case much stronger. Not only did it make the risk of illusion less probable, but it seemed to give a kind of sacredness to that house, the entering of which by Peter they had so severely blamed. See Acts 10:30.
Which stood. This had been emphatically stated by Cornelius to Peter. See Acts 10:30.
Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter. See notes above on Acts 10:5; Acts 10:32. It seems as if these words rang in Peter’s ears.
Acts 11:14. Words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved. See notes on Acts 10:6; Acts 10:22. ‘All thy house’ is a special addition here. The promise is in harmony with the preparation made for the Gospel in the house of Cornelius, as implied in Acts 10:2; Acts 10:7; Acts 10:22; Acts 10:24, and with the results of St. Peter’s preaching, as described in Acts 10:44.
Acts 11:15. As I began to speak. From this we see that St. Peter was intending to say more than, in consequence of the Divine interruption, he was permitted to say. In Acts 10:44 the phrase is simply, ‘While Peter yet spake these words.’ Here the apostle, recounting the history of himself, allows us to see, as it were, into his own mind.
As on us at the beginning. And therefore miraculously, with signs audible or visible or both. This seems a natural and almost inevitable conclusion. See Acts 11:17. The phrase ‘at the beginning’ is worthy of careful remark. It is the same which we find at the opening of St. John’s Gospel and (in the LXX.) at the opening of Genesis. St. Peter appears to claim Pentecost as the starting-point of a new dispensation. And yet eight or ten years had elapsed since that day. During this time Christianity had been limited to the Jews, and the community of the believers had been, as it were, simply a Hebrew synagogue. A second Pentecost at Cæsarea seemed necessary to supplement the first Pentecost at Jerusalem.
Acts 11:16. Then remembered I the word of the Lord. There is great interest in observing how St. Peter describes what had been the process of his own mind at that critical moment. The interest, too, must have been extreme to some of those who were listening to him. His brother apostles, too, had heard the same words, spoken by Jesus, to which he here refers. The exact words are given in Acts 1:5, where the last interview of Christ with His apostles before the Ascension is described. This is to be connected, too, with the sayings of St. John the Baptist (Luke 3:16); and perhaps our Lord had on other occasions Himself used the same language to His disciples. On the whole, we have in this part of St. Peter’s address a link of great value between the history of the Gospel time and the history of the founding of the Church. The words of Christ, however, now came, as Hackett says, into Peter’s mind ‘with a new sense of their meaning and application.’
Acts 11:17. The like gift as he gave unto us. See note on Acts 11:15.
Who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, rather ‘as having believed on the Lord Jesus Christ.’ It was in virtue of faith, as Bengel says, and not because of circumcision, that they themselves had received the Holy Ghost. Hence the like faith among Gentiles was entitled to the like blessing. We should mark the stress laid upon faith in the narrative above. See Acts 10:43, comp. Acts 15:9.
What was I, that I could withstand God? The Authorised Version is hardly adequate. It would be better thus, ‘Who was I, that I should be able to hinder God?’ The whole had been so evidently God’s doing, that Peter felt as nothing in the presence of these great facts.
Acts 11:18. They held their peace, and glorified God. The climax of this history is most beautiful. Probably there was a solemn pause, when Peter ceased to speak. But not only did they acquiesce in that to which no reply could be given, but they broke out into praise and thanksgiving. It was a noble example of candour, generosity, and charity; and though there was vacillation afterwards and dispute on the very point here at issue, this does not detract from the great and instructive lesson of this scene.
Then hath God granted. This seems to imply that after the silence there was a sudden exclamation and cry of joy.
Repentance unto life. When the grace of repentance is given, spiritual life is the result.
Diffusion of the Gospel along the Phoenician Coast, in Cyprus, and at Antioch, 19-21.
Acts 11:19. They which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen.
The most obvious remark here is, that that which appeared an irreparable calamity to the Church, became the direct means of diffusing Christianity in new regions. His martyrdom, in fact, led immediately to the first preaching of the Gospel to Pagans, after the conversion of Cornelius; and a wide diffusion of blessing, in consequence of a great calamity, has been the experience of the Church on many occasions since, it is not, indeed, certain that this wider missionary work was not anterior to that great conversion. The order of time in this matter is, in fact, of no great consequence. It is more important to note that the two occurrences were independent of one another, while they both converged to one great result. It is with the progress of Revelation as with the progress of Science. When a signal manifestation of new truth is at hand, there are commonly preludes and preparations in more places than one. Inspiration and Induction are, indeed, strongly contrasted with one another; but the following words of the late Dr. Whewell may, without irreverence, be quoted in illustration of the matter before us: ‘Such epochs have been preceded by a period, which we may call their Prelude, during which the ideas and facts on which they turned were called into action; were gradually evolved into clearness and connection, permanency and certainty; till at last the discovery which marks the Epoch, seized and fixed for ever the truth which till then had been obscurely and doubtfully discerned’ ( History of the Inductive Sciences, Acts 1:13).
Phenice ( Φοινι ́ κης ). This is the same district as that which is termed ‘Phenice’ in Acts 15:3 and ‘Phoenicia’ in Acts 21:2, and is, of course, to be carefully distinguished from the ‘Phenice’ ( Φοῑνι ́ ξ ) of Acts 27:12, which word ought to be differently pronounced. It is to be regretted that they appear in the same form in the Authorised Version. Both geographical terms were doubtless derived from the prevalence of the palm-tree: and this tree appears on some of the coins of Tyre and Sidon, which were the principal towns along the Phoenician coast. This coast district is hemmed in by the line of Lebanon and by the sea, and was sometimes termed Φοινι ́ κη παραλος , or ‘Phoenice maritima.’ It was about 120 miles long and about 20 broad. A good Roman road along this coast made the communication easy between Antioch and Judaea. The stations are given in the Antonine Itinerary and the Jerusalem Itinerary (see Wesseling’s Vetera Romanorum Itineraria, pp. 149, 582).
Cyprus. The first mention of this island in the Acts of the Apostles is in Acts 4:36, where it is named as the birthplace of Barnabas. It is mentioned again in the next verse of this chapter, and again in Acts 13:4, Acts 21:3, Acts 21:16, and Acts 27:4. Recent events give a curious interest to the frequent occurrence of the name of Cyprus in this book. It is worthy of notice, too, that in every case it occurs quite naturally in the narrative, and in its true geographical connection.
Antioch. Here first appears a name of vast consequence in the early history of Christianity, and in the subsequent history of the Church (see note on Acts 11:26).
Preaching the word to none, but unto the Jews only. A question might be raised here as to whether ᾿Ιουδαι ́ οις here is the antithesis to Ελληνες or to Ελληυισταί (see note on the next verse). The former is undoubtedly more according to usage than the other. However this may be, the mere fact that St. Luke throws in this clause, shows his deep sense, and calls his readers to a deep sense, of the importance of what is coming.
Acts 11:20. Men of Cyprus. It would be reasonable to imagine that one of them may have been Mnason, who in Acts 21:16 is spoken of as ‘an old disciple.’ We should have been sure, but for what follows, that Barnabas was one of them; and there is little doubt that he had influence in promoting the active missionary work of his fellow-Cypriotes. It has been noted above (on Acts 4:36) that the Jews were very numerous in Cyprus; and it is worth while to add, in reference to the mention of Cyrene which follows, that about this time Cyprus and Cyrene were united in one Roman Province. Thus there was close political connection between them, as well as active mercantile intercourse.
Cyrene. In that part of the coast of Africa, of which Cyrene was the capital, immediately to the west of Egypt, and opposite Cyprus on the south, the Jews were very numerous. We have a proof of this in Acts 6:9, where we find that ‘Cyrenaus’ had a synagogue of their own in Jerusalem. Again, ‘Jews from the parts of Libya about Cyrene’ were in Jerusalem at the Great Pentecost; and one such Cyrenian Jew at least (Luke 23:26) was there at the solemn Passover immediately preceding. It is a reasonable conjecture that the occasion before our attention here may have been the time of a great festival. Another incidental proof of the existence of a strong Jewish element in Cyrene, and of the connection of this place with the early spread of Christianity, is found in Acts 13:1, where ‘Lucius of Cyrene’ is named as one of the ‘prophets’ who were inspired to originate St. Paul’s first missionary expedition.
When they were come to Antioch. We should observe how our thoughts are drawn to this place, as to a focus on which all our attention is presently to be concentrated. The name of this city occurs six times in nine verses.
Spake unto the Grecians. We here encounter one of the most important textual difficulties in the Acts of the Apostles. It always has been, and still is, a debated question whether the true reading here is Έλληνας (i.e. Greeks or Heathens) or Έλληνιστάς (i.e. Grecians or Hellenistic Jews). The manuscripts are very evenly balanced. We might have looked to the Sinaitic MS. to have settled the question; but in this instance it presents a strange anomaly, its reading here being εὐαγγελιστάς which is clearly wrong, while on the one hand it seems to point to Έλληνιστάς as that which was intended, and on the other hand was clearly influenced by the word εύαγγελιζόμευοι , which immediately succeeds. On the whole, the evidence is in favour of Έλληνιστάς . The Bishop of Lincoln argues strongly in favour of it. Dr. Alexander, whose (American) commentary is excellent, is inclined to the same view. So also is Dr. Kay, in a paper printed when he was Principal of Bishop’s College, Calcutta. On the other hand, the majority of modern commentators feel strongly in the opposite direction, because of the obvious advantage which the reading Έλληνάς would give us as to the coherence and point of the history. With this reading all is easy in the interpretation of the passage; and the sequence of events flows on naturally. It is urged most truly, that with the other reading there is no sharp contrast between those who now received the Gospel and those who had received it previously, and that there is no apparent reason why the historian should mark the occurrence as anything new. Thus writers of the most various shades of opinion have confidently asserted that the true word here must be Έλληνάς , not Έλληνιστάς . Dean Alford says that the latter reading’ gives no assignable sense whatever,’ and that ‘nothing to his mind is plainer than that these men were uncircumcised Gentiles.’ Canon Norris ( Key to the Acts of the Apostles, p. 135) uses similar language.’ Renan (Les Apotres, p. 225) says, ‘La bonne lecon est Έλληνας Έλληνιστάς est venu d’un faux approchement avec ix. 29.’ Reuss ( Histoire Apostolique, p. 133) says, ‘La lecon Hellenistes est d’autant plus absurde, qu’a Antioche et dans les contrees environnantes on n’aura guere trouve des Juifs parlant l’hebreu. La conversion des paiens disparait ainsi du récit et tout ce qui suit n’a plus raison d’être.’ It is difficult to resist such unanimity of opinion, based on arguments so strong. Yet the very facility with which the problem is solved inspires some doubt. It is always hazardous, in such cases, to adopt the easier reading. The question must be left in some uncertainty; and it may be urged that there is really some contrast between the words Ίουδαῑοι and Έλληνισταί , that the Hellenistic Jews and the Heathen Greeks were probably in very free intercourse with one another at Antioch, and that the Gospel would naturally pass from the former to the latter. This too is to be added, that, if the received text is retained, the case of Cornelius stands on a much higher pinnacle than it would otherwise occupy.
Acts 11:21. And the hand of the Lord was with them, i.e. those who were preaching the Gospel to new hearers. ‘The hand of the Lord’ is an oriental expression, and seems to indicate the manifestation of miraculous powers, which indeed we should expect on an occasion like this. St. Luke uses this phrase in two other places (see his Gospel, Luke 1:66, and Luke 4:30). Some manuscripts add here the words ‘so as to heal them.’ Their authority, however, does not justify our seeing in this addition more than a gloss; and the suggestion probably came from Luke 5:17.
A great number believed. All such terms are relative. At all events a considerable Christian community was formed rapidly at Antioch, as had been the case at Cæsarea. Though Cæsarea was probably first in order of time, Antioch speedily became greater in importance. See Acts 11:24; Acts 11:26 for the progressive growth of the Church in this latter city under the ministrations of Barnabas and Saul.
Mission of Barnabas to Antioch His Character Co-operation of Saul with him there The Name ‘Christian’ 22-26.
Acts 11:22. Tidings of these things came into the ears of the Church which was in Jerusalem. The Church in Jerusalem is here spoken of collectively, as a local ἰκκλησία : and the oriental phrase ‘came into the ears of the Church’ tends almost to personify it. On the other hand, it is remarkable that no mention is made of the Apostles here, such as we find in Acts 8:14, Acts 11:1, Acts 15:2.
They sent forth Barnabas. See notes on Acts 4:36 and Acts 9:27. There is great beauty in the description of his character which follows. This mission was alike creditable to him and to them. If it was the free communication of the Gospel to Gentiles at Antioch, and their full reception of it, of which they had heard, they may have sent Barnabas simply to inquire into the facts and to seek explanations. But at all events they sent the man who was best known among them for large-heartedness and generosity of character.
That he should go as far as Antioch. If we follow the received text, the Greek seems to imply that Barnabas was to exercise his mission on the way, along the Phoenician coast-road, where the Gospel had been preached as well as at Antioch. See note on Acts 11:19.
Acts 11:23. Who, when he came and had seen the grace of God, was glad. Somewhat of surprise is indicated in this language. However this may be, we see in this rejoicing, and in his attributing all this blessing to the free goodness of God, the marks of a true Christian heart. There was no grudging of the freedom of the grace, and no doubting of the reality of the Divine work which he saw. Barnabas was clearly the right man to have sent to Antioch; and all generations of Christians since have had in his mission grounds for praise and for ‘glorifying God in him.’
He exhorted them all. The Greek word is παρεκα ́ λει . He did at Antioch exactly that which at Jerusalem (Acts 4:36) had led to his receiving the title of υι ̔ ο ̀ ς παρακλη ́ σεως . The word ‘all,’ too, in this passage is not without its significance. It communicates to the narrative an impression of diligent work, large sympathy, and copious success.
That with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. He has no new doctrine to communicate. They were already in the right way. He approved of that which he saw. His exhortation was simply to perseverance, heartiness, consistency, and progress.
Acts 11:24. For he was a good man. We ask here for the precise meaning of the word ‘good,’ and also why the particle ‘for’ is prefixed to the statement. The word ‘good’ does not mean merely that Barnabas was a man of earnest religious character. This is expressed by the words which follow. Rather it denotes that he was a man of a genial, generous, charitable, and candid disposition. This helps us to the meaning of the connecting particle ‘for.’ The reason is given why he unfeignedly rejoiced in what he saw at Antioch. There may have been misgivings and suspicions at Jerusalem. But in his heart there were none. He may have been much astonished as much astonished as those who went with Peter from Joppa to Cæsarea (Acts 10:45); but he frankly acknowledged the work of the Divine Spirit, and was glad because Pagans had received the fall grace of God.
Much people was added unto the Lord. See what precedes (Acts 11:21) and what follows (Acts 11:26) as to the progressive but rapid growth of the Church in Antioch.
Acts 11:25. Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul. The history of St. Paul is here resumed, suddenly and somewhat indirectly, from Acts 9:30, which corresponds with Acts 22:21, and Galatians 1:21. We have no information regarding the length of time he spent at Tarsus, or his manner of employment when there. But we cannot imagine him to have been idle in his Master’s cause; and to this period is probably to be assigned the formation of those Cilician churches of which we find mention afterwards in Acts 15:41, at the beginning of the Second Missionary Journey. We feel sure also that this time of exile, like the time of retirement in Arabia (Galatians 1:17), was made use of for the deepening of his religious life and his further Divine illumination.
As to the errand of Barnabas, for the purpose of seeking out Saul and bringing him to Antioch, it is evident that the future Apostle of the Gentiles was by no means lost sight of by the Church, but that the resuming of his active public work was earnestly desired. It is possible that Barnabas knew something of that vision in the Temple, recorded in Acts 22:21, when Saul was designated as Apostle to the Gentiles. It has also been conjectured that this searching out of Saul, and associating him with himself in the work among the new Syrian Christians, was part of the commission given to Barnabas. Thus the case of Antioch would be similar to that of Samaria, to which place Peter and John were sent (Acts 8:14), and would be accordant with our Saviour’s habit of sending two and two on missionary work. However this may be, the character of Barnabas is at this point set before us in a most attractive light, in that he brought out of retirement one whose eminence was sure to supersede and eclipse his own. This has been forcibly noted by Calvin; and it has been illustrated, in modern history, by ‘the conduct of Farel with respect to Calvin himself (see Alexander’s Commentary). Renan, with all his strange inconsistencies and wild theories, sometimes displays extraordinary sagacity in seizing the true import of points of the apostolic history; and his remarks concerning Barnabas are very just and happy. He says that ‘Christianity has been unjust towards this great man in not placing him in the first rank among its founders,’ that ‘every good and generous thought had Barnabas for its patron.’ As to the particular point before us, the bringing of Saul to Antioch, Renan says: ‘Gagner cette grande âme . . . se faire son inferieur, preparer le champ le plus favorable au deploiement de son activite en oubliant soi-meme, c’est la certes le comble de ce qu’a jamais pu faire la vertu; c’est la ce que Barnabe fit pour Saint Paul. La plus grande partie de ce dernier revient à l’homme modeste qui le devanca en toutes choses, s’effaca devant lui, decouvrit ce qu’il valait, le mit en lumiere . . . prévint le tort irremediable que de mesquines personalites auraient pu faire à l’oeuvre de Dieu.’
Acts 11:26. When he had found him. This, coupled with the strong expression used above concerning the ‘searching for’ Saul, seems to imply that he was not actually in Tarsus when Barnabas arrived there. Probably he was on some mission in Cilicia.
He brought him to Antioch. No reluctance is to be imagined on the part of St. Paul. On the contrary, he was probably overjoyed in the prospect of a wider field of work under providential encouragement. The whole credit, however, of this transaction belongs to Barnabas.
A whole year. T his is one of the definite indications of time, which help us to put together the relative chronology of St. Paul’s life. Other instances are found in Acts 18:11, Acts 19:10, Acts 20:3; Acts 20:31, Acts 24:27, and Acts 28:3.
Taught much people. Doubtless with success. See notes on Acts 11:21; Acts 11:24.
And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. On two words in this sentence our attention cannot be too closely fastened.
The name ‘CHRISTIAN’ marked the arrival of a new fact in the world. This new fact was the formation of a self-existent, self-conscious Church of Christ, independent of Judaism. This, too, was only ten years after the crucifixion of Christ. How the history of the world has been coloured, how mankind has been blessed by the mere existence of this word, it is not necessary to state at large. As to the origin of this new name, it certainly was not given by Jews to the followers of our Lord. The Jews would never have been willing even to seem to sanction the opinion that Jesus of Nazareth was Christ or the Messiah. Nor was the name assumed by the followers of our Lord as a chosen designation for themselves. They were content with such titles as ‘the disciples,’ ‘the brethren,’ ‘the saints.’ This new term came from without, and from the Pagans. Its form, too, seems to show that it had a Latin origin. We are familiar in history with such terms as Pompeians and Vitellians; and the New Testament itself (Matthew 22:16) supplies us with a similar term in the word Herodians. It is most probable that this new term at Antioch originated with the public authorities, who gave the designation to the community which began then to make its existence felt, and which was bound together by allegiance (however strange this might seem) to one ‘Christus.’ It is possible, however, that the name was given by the populace in derision. Antioch was famous for its love of nicknames; and such may have been the beginning of the noblest name which any community ever bore. In the two other places of the New Testament where the name occurs (Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16), reference is clearly made to the fact that it was viewed as expressive of contempt and dislike. St. Paul and St. Peter, however, clearly saw, and strongly felt, that it was a title of honour. To which we must add the words of St. James (Acts 2:7), ‘Do they not blaspheme that worthy name by which ye are called?’ The whole subject is summed up in some simple words used by Tacitus ( Ann. xv. 44), though in a sense very different from that which he intended, ‘ Autor nominis cjus Christus.’
And the place where this name was given seems to fit the occurrence in a remarkable manner. Antioch, the most important city of all Roman Asia, and the third in rank among the cities of the whole Roman world, had a character peculiarly cosmopolitan. Less distinguished for general culture than Alexandria, it was even more important than that city in the military and political sense. The situation of Antioch had much to do with its history. It stood ‘near the abrupt angle formed by the coasts of Syria and Asia Minor, and in the opening where the Orontes passes between the ranges of Lebanon and Taurus. By its harbour of Seleucia it was in connection with all the trade of the Mediterranean; and, through the open country behind Lebanon, it was conveniently approached by the caravans from Mesopotamia and Arabia. It was almost an Oriental Rome, in which all the forms of the civilised life of the Empire found a representative’ (Life and Epistles of St. Paul, i. p. 149). Founded by Seleucus Nicator, and named by him after his father Antiochus, it had retained all its old elements, and had received new elements when it became the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It was famous for the beauty of its position and the splendour of its buildings, and infamous for the profligacy and fraud, sorcery and effeminacy of its people. Renan, with a true instinct ( Les Apotres, chap. 12), revels in his description of its external features and of its strange and varied life. Its Christian history was subsequently very eminent; for it became the seat of one of the five patriarchates of the Church. Here, with the Acts of the Apostles before us, we are called to notice that Antioch was the mother of Christian missions, and the author of the Christian name. Chrysostom, its great preacher, claims what we read in this verse as one of the grounds why Antioch is a metropolis.
Charitable Mission of Barnabas and Saul from Antioch to Jerusalem, 27-30.
Acts 11:27. In these days. This indication of date is general and vague; but, no doubt, the occurrence here related took place within the ‘year’ of active ministration at Antioch mentioned just above.
Prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. It would seem that they came of their own accord, not on a formal mission of an official kind. For the ‘prophets’ of the New Testament, see note on Acts 13:1. They were inspired teachers, not necessarily with reference to the prediction of future events. This, however, was an instance which had regard to the future. Sometimes these prophets were women (see Acts 21:9, comp. Acts 2:17-18).
Acts 11:28. There stood up one of them named Agabus. He appears again many years later (Acts 21:10) in the same prophetic character, and again in connection with Judaea. From that passage we gain some impression of the manner in which certain of these prophetic communications were made. In that case Agabus employed gesture and symbol, like those of which we read on similar occasions in the Old Testament. In the present instance much life is given to the occasion by its being said that it was when he ‘stood up’ ( άναστάς ) that he uttered his prophecy.
Signified by the Spirit. This is quite in harmony with what we read elsewhere in this book regarding such communications. There are two very marked occasions when the Holy Spirit is said to have given indications of coming difficulty and disaster. One was on the Second Missionary Progress of St. Paul, when his steps were ultimately guided to Europe. His wish was to proclaim the Gospel in Asia; but he was ‘forbidden of the Holy Ghost.’ On this he made in effort to evangelize Bithynia; ‘but the Spirit suffered him not’ (Acts xvi 6, 7). The other was at the close of his Third Missionary Progress, when he went in much despondency towards Jerusalem, ‘not knowing the things that should befall him there;’ only, he added, addressing the Ephesian elders at Miletus, ‘The Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me’ (Acts 20:23). It was at a subsequent point of this journey that he had that second meeting with Agabus which has been already mentioned; and still there is the same reference to the direction of the Spirit. This prophet ‘took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’ (Acts 21:11).
Great dearth throughout all the world. We learn from the best historical sources that this was a period of much distress in many parts of the Empire through famine, and that in this time of general scarcity there was special distress of this kind in Judea. This is quite enough to satisfy all the conditions of the case. There has been much discussion as to the precise meaning of the term ( ἡ οἰκουμίνη ) here translated ‘the whole world.’ The safest plan is to regard it as a term vaguely denoting the whole Roman Empire, and equivalent to the Latin ‘orbis terrarum.’ So it is used by Joseph us. We must not forget, however, that it is employed in a more restricted sense, as denoting Judæa, in the LXX. (Isaiah 10:23).
Which came to pass in the days of Claudius Cæsar. This implies that the present portion of the Apostolic history was not written in the reign of Claudius. The clause is to be regarded as a parenthetic note; and it is an instance of St. Luke’s habit of marking dates accurately (see in his Gospel, Acts 1:5, Acts 2:2, Acts 3:1). It must be added that this famine is one of the converging circumstances which lead us to the year 44 A. D. as one of the two critical dates which help us to fix, in its main features, the absolute chronology of St. Paul’s life.
Acts 11:29. The disciples. This designation of those, whom we have just seen for the first time ‘called Christians,’ is found in current use throughout the Acts of the Apostles (see, for instance, Acts 6:1, Acts 9:1, Acts 15:10, Acts 20:7).
Every man according to his ability. This is a very different aspect of giving pecuniary relief from that which we saw in the account of the charity and generosity of the earliest Christians in Jerusalem; and, if we may venture to say so, it is a higher aspect. See notes above (on ch. 1, 4, and 5) on the risk of communism. The principle here acted on, viz. that each should give freely ‘as God had prospered him,’ is precisely that which St. Paul afterwards inculcated on the Christians of Galatia and Achaia (1 Corinthians 16:2; see 2 Corinthians 8:12), and it is probable that he had much to do here at Antioch with this active movement of charity in Syria, and with its methodical arrangements.
The brethren which dwelt in Judea. Here we have another designation for the Christians, which also is found repeatedly throughout the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 9:30, Acts 17:10, Acts 28:14-15). In this place it is probably used to indicate the brotherly feeling which subsisted between the ‘disciples’ in Syria and Judaea, and which was exemplified in this charitable work.
Acts 11:30. Sent it to the elders. Here first, and quite suddenly, there comes to view that ministry of the Christian Church, designated by the synonymous terms ‘presbyter’ and ‘priest,’ which has been a prolific occasion of controversy. A full account of the establishment of the diaconate has been given (chap. 6). Not so in the case of the presbyterate. On this point Bishop Lightfoot remarks: ‘While the diaconate was an entirely new creation, called forth by a special emergency, and developed by the progress of events, the early history of the presbyterate was different. If the sacred historian dwells at length on the institution of the lower office, but is silent about the first beginnings of the higher, the explanation seems to be, that the latter had not the claim of novelty like the former.’ The Christian people were, in fact, at first not sharply distinguished from the Jews, who were organised into many synagogues (see Acts 6:9). ‘As soon as the expansion of the Church rendered some organisation necessary, it would form a “synagogue” of its own. The Christian congregation in Palestine long continued to be designated by this name (James 2:2). . . . With the synagogue itself they would naturally, if not necessarily, adopt the normal government of a synagogue; and a body of elders or presbyters would be chosen to direct the religious worship, and partly also to watch over the temporal well-being of the society’ (Commentary on the Philippians; Essay on the Christian Ministry, pp. 189, 190). Still it is probable that the adoption of the presbyterate, like the establishment of the diaconate, arose out of special circumstances; and the following observations by de Pressense seem reasonable and just: ‘Les apotres etaient appeles à quitter frequemment Jerusalem; la jeune Eglise, quoique richement pourvue des dons du Saint Esprit, ne pouvait se passer d’une certaine direction dans sa marche journalière et dans son culte. Le parti le plus sage etait d’emprunter a la synagogue l’institution des anciens, si admirablement approprie a la nouvelle alliance. D’ailleurs, les sept diacres nommes primitivement avaient ete plus que des diacres. Ils avaient enseigne avec puissance et rempli par anticipation la charge d’anciens. De meme que le diaconat etait sorti de l’apostolat, de même aussi la charge d’anciens se detache en quelque mésure du diaconat primitif, et aussi l’organisation de l’Eglise se perfectionait en se specialisant’ ( Trois Premiers Siècles, i. p. 414). It ought to be observed that, because the path of wisdom and prudence was followed in this matter, this does not detract from the belief that there was Divine guidance, but very much the contrary. After this time we find the presbyters, as a matter of course, part of the Church organisation in Jerusalem (see Acts 15:2). Elsewhere, also, we find presbyters established everywhere, as the result of missionary work (see Acts 14:23, Acts 20:17; and comp. Titus 1:5). The questions connected with the correlative term ἐπίσκοπος and with Episcopacy will be dealt with in connection with Acts 20:28. The Authorised Version is consistent in always rendering the word πρεσβυτε ́ ρους by ‘elder,’ reserving the word ‘priest’ (which etymologically is the same) for ἰερεύς , as in Acts 6:7; Acts 14:13; Hebrews 8:4. This was essential, in order to avoid confusion. The ‘priest’ of the English Prayer-Book is (actually, as it is etymologically) the ‘presbyter’ of the New Testament. Otherwise in a church which appeals to Scripture there would be a ministry different from that which was originally instituted. By the hands of Barnabas and Saul. This is the third instance of the co-operation of these two men. Every occasion on which they stand side by side is of extreme interest, and should be well marked (see Acts 13:1-2; Acts 15:2; Acts 15:37; Galatians 2:1; Galatians 2:9; Galatians 2:13).
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Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Acts 11". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/
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