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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 11

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 11 The Church At Crisis Point.

In chapter 1 we were told of Jesus command that His apostles go out as witnesses to Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and the uttermost part of the earth. Subsequently we have seen how this has partially been accomplished as first Jerusalem and then the surrounding area in Judaea and Samaria, including Galilee, have received their witness. We have even learned how it has gone out to Ethiopia. But in all cases the evangelising has been among the Jews and their adherents. For the church in Jerusalem were still limited in their thinking to the evangelising of their own people, with a few proselytes thrown in. They aimed through Christ to make Jews better Jews in readiness for Christ’s second coming.

Of course, Gentiles would be accepted if they turned from being Gentiles and become Jewish proselytes, bathing in order to remove the uncleanness of the Gentile world, being circumcised into the covenant, taking on themselves the responsibility of keeping the Law and the Sabbath, attending at their local synagogue, submitting to the Temple regime, and then recognising in Jesus the Messiah of the Jews and being baptised. But otherwise the Gentile world is excluded. They must be left in their uncleanness.

But then unhappy rumours begin to be spread about. It was being said that one of their leaders, one of the twelve, and a prominent one at that, had entered a Gentile house and eaten with Gentiles, and had then preached there to Gentiles, and baptised them. It appeared as though he was simply ignoring the difference between Jew and Gentile, between ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’. Such a shameful and blasphemous thing was, of course, hardly likely to be fully true, but it would certainly have to be enquired into. We must also remember that many of the Jerusalem Jews would be far stricter than the Apostles, brought up in Galilee where standards were not quite so strict, so that they would find such an idea even more appalling. They would certainly want to call Peter to account. And they would see it as Scripturally necessary. Scripture required that major irregularities be examined into.

The fact that Peter turned up complete with his six witnesses demonstrates that he was expecting to be called to account and had ensured that he had his witnesses with him. He was quite well aware that what he had done would appear to be irregular.


Verse 1

‘Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.’

The news had reached the ears of the Apostles and their fellow-brethren in Judaea and Jerusalem of what Peter was purported to have done. Through him Gentiles had ‘received the word of God’, that is had been accepted as those who had responded to Christ and His word.

That they had received the word of God was good if it was in the right way, by them standing on the edge of the crowds and listening to the preaching, and going away and thinking about it and acting on it personally. But the question was. Had Peter really taken it so far as to be willing to enter their unclean houses in order to reach them? (He had after all stayed with a tanner which might be seen as implying that he was a little careless about such things).

No mention is made anywhere in the enquiry about the fact that the Gentiles had been baptised. But baptising people did not actually contravene any specific Mosaic laws, and they may even not yet have realised that it had happened. What concerned them was the maintenance of the purity of Judaistic Christianity in Jewish terms, in terms accepted by all, a purity they saw as having been tarnished.


Verse 2-3

‘And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, those who were of the circumcision contended with him, saying, “You went in to men uncircumcised, and did eat with them.” ’

So when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem ‘those of the circumcision’ came to him to ‘contend’ (or ‘make a distinction’) with him. In Acts 10:45 ‘those of the circumcision’ had referred to Peter and the six men who were with him. It had meant simply all those who were present who were circumcised. We are not therefore probably intended at this stage to see it here as referring to a particular group. We may rather see it as referring to all who were there who were circumcised, (and so everyone), and as being used by Luke simply in order to emphasis their circumcision and contrast them with the uncircumcised whose position they were discussing. On this interpretation all the Apostles and brethren are thus to be seen as included in the description.

However, some see it as referring to a group who particularly stressed the need for circumcision and considered it a major issue. There would certainly be such a group later when circumcision had become an issue. And even now it may be that of those who had come to question Peter some (such as the Apostles) were neutral, waiting to hear his explanation, while others were specifically intent on taking up the issue of circumcision, a subject that they saw as of deep concern (although if that were so it is interesting that they did not do so). There would certainly be shades of feeling on how important the issue was, and on how important ‘cleanness’ was. Not all the Apostles had always been too particular (Mark 7:2). And even Jesus would refrain from ritual washing in order to make a point (Luke 11:38). In the end it does not really matter, for all were undoubtedly there wanting to hear his explanation, and that was so whether they were included in the group or not.

As we look at the incident it is important that we recognise that this questioning of Peter was a valid and Scriptural procedure. The Old Testament made it incumbent on God’s people to check out any instance where it appeared that God’s Law had been broken (Deuteronomy 13:14), and it was right that no exception be made for Peter. Thus the enquiry is to be seen as having been a necessity, not an example of lack of trust or of love. From that point of view the important issue was not the enquiry, it was the attitude with which it was being conducted.

They ‘contended with him’, ‘making a distinction’ between him and them. The reaction was natural. It was not necessarily belligerent. It was the same way in which Peter would have reacted had he not had the vision that he had. They all wanted to know on what grounds he had behaved as he had by joining with the uncircumcised in their home and eating with them. Why was he ignoring the plain requirements of the Law (as they interpreted them)? They had nothing against him preaching to Gentiles in order to turn them into proselytes, but it was quite another to have close fraternisation with them, and to enter their homes and eat with them, homes where any kind of ‘uncleanness’ may be hidden, and where the food would not necessarily be properly prepared and may have included ‘unclean’ elements.

Yet this very questioning was good, for now they would have to square up to the answers. From these they would then have to determine their own position on the matter, and come to a verdict accordingly. They would either finish up by accepting Peter’s new position and taking it for themselves, or they would harden their hearts and resist God’s truth. (Those who did the latter would later form a circumcision party).


Verses 4-6

‘But Peter began, and expounded the matter to them in order, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, a certain container descending, as it were a great sheet let down from heaven by four corners, and it came even to me, on which when I had fixed my eyes, I considered, and saw the fourfooted beasts of the earth and wild beasts and creeping things and birds of the heaven.” ’

Peter replied by describing what had happened to him ‘in order’, just as it had happened. The detail is repeated because of its importance. Note how each point that he makes emphasises that it was through God’s initiation. He wants them to know that it was not he who had made these choices. Nor was it Cornelius. It was God Who had insisted on each step that was taken.

He points out thatGod had first spoken to him through a trance.He pictured to them the great sheet coming from heaven with its content of a variety of four-footed beasts, wild beasts, birds and creeping things. Each one present would probably shudder at the thought of such a mass of unclean things together. Here was something definitely needing to be avoided at all costs. Here was indeed an example of the uncleanness that they were concerned about.


Verses 7-10

And I heard also a voice saying to me, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But I said, “Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean has ever entered into my mouth.” But a voice answered the second time out of heaven, “What God has cleansed, you must not make common.” And this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven.”

Then he described how three timesGod had called on himto eat, and how three times he had refused because he had considered that such things were unholy and unclean. And then he explained how three times God had rebuked him and declared, ‘What God has cleansed you must not make common.’ Note the verb ‘make’. The point was that Peter was trying to make common again what God had cleansed and made holy, for God can cleanse what He will. Thus God had made clear that somehow these creatures coming down from heaven, which would normally be seen as unclean, were not to be seen as unclean or unholy, and the reason was because God had cleansed them. They came from God, from heaven. How could they be unclean?


Verse 11-12

“And behold, forthwith three men stood before the house in which we were, having been sent from Caesarea to me, and the Spirit bade me go with them, making no distinction. And these six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house.”

Then he described how three men had arrived who had been sent from Caesarea by Cornelius, andhow the Spirit had bade him go with them, and not to make a distinction because they were Gentiles.

After which, indicating the six Christian Jews who had been with him, he stated, ‘these six brethren also accompanied me and we entered into their house.’ So he had not been alone in his decision. There had been unity of thought among these Jewish Christian leaders, and they had all agreed that they should enter the house. And including himself that meant that there had been seven of them, the perfect number to make any such decision. Compare the sevenfold seals of witness on important documents of the time (see Revelation 5:1). We note here the emphasis on unity of thought and united action. Peter claimed no unique authority for himself. He had depended on the combined decision of the seven.

‘In which we were’, referring to Simon’s house, need not involve the six, it may simply mean ‘myself and Simon’. There is no suggestion that the six were also staying with Simon the Tanner.


Verse 13-14

“And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, “Send to Joppa, and fetch Simon, whose surname is Peter, who will speak to you words, by which you will be saved, you and all your house.”

He then explained how once they were in the house they had been told that the reason that Peter had been sent for wasbecause of an angel who had told them to send for him, so that they might hear his words and be saved, along with their households. This confirmation of an angelic messenger, and therefore the clear piety of those involved, would ease the fears of those who were listening. Those who were most Jewish in their thinking would interpret ‘saved’ as meaning becoming faithful adherents to Jewish Christianity, and would thus temporarily be satisfied.

‘Standing in his house.’ If a holy angel was willing to enter Cornelius’ house, then surely it was acceptable for a mere human.


Verse 15-16

“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John indeed baptised with water; but you will be baptised in the Holy Spirit.” ’

Consequently, Peter explained, he had begun to speak to them, buteven while he was speaking the Holy Spirit had fallen on them, just as he had on those at Pentecost. It had been a surprise to them all. It had been the initiative of God. And this surprising event had brought to his mind Jesus’ own words about His drenching people in the Holy Spirit. Surely, his thought had been, if Jesus Himself could cause His Holy Spirit to fall on these people, it proved that they were ‘clean’ in His eyes?


Verse 17

“If then God gave to them the like gift as he did also to us, when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?”

Thus, he asked, what should he have done? If God gave to the Gentiles the same gift as He had given at Pentecost to all who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was he to withstand God? God had thereby made it clear that He had cleansed these unclean Gentiles so that they were acceptable to Him. Thus they were no longer common or unclean. They were precious to God and acceptable to Him, and they were that just as they were, in their uncircumcised state. And just as they were they were a part of God’s holy nation.

So Peter has made clear that the initiative was God’s each step of the way. It was God Who had put him into a trance and given him his vision. It was His Spirit Who had bid him go to Cornelius. It was the Angel who had told Cornelius what to do. The coming of the Holy Spirit on them had been as a result of God’s direct and unexpected action. Nothing therefore had been of Peter’s doing.

It should be noted that it was not Peter’s authority that was being accepted here, it was his logic combined with the facts. Thus the other Apostles were willing in the end to put their authority behind his actions. They too knew what it meant for God to direct them, so that not to do so would have been to go against God.


Verse 18

And when they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also has God granted repentance unto life.” ’

Those who heard his words could, given the circumstances, find nothing to say against what Peter had done. Thus they acknowledged that they had nothing against it. Rather they glorified God in that He had clearly also granted to these Gentiles ‘repentance unto life’. They acknowledged that these uncircumcised Christian Gentiles had in this case clearly been placed by God in the same bracket as the Christian Jews without a requirement for circumcision, and if God could accept them in this way how could they deny them?

They would realise that their decision opened up new horizons. Indeed the result was that for some of them a whole new world unexpectedly opened up, and Christ’s commission suddenly took on a new meaning. Now it became clear to them that the Gentiles also had to be reached for Christ without their being required to become Jewish proselytes, for no such requirement had been made concerning Cornelius and his companions. ‘To the uttermost part of the earth’ now took on a new meaning. It would take some thinking through but they recognised that the result could only be inevitable, for God had spoken.

This fact was probably not, however, accepted by all who were present, and even less by many who were not present. Many Jerusalem Christians were still devout Pharisees, or had been connected with other deeply religious sects such as the Essenes or the Qumran community, and they were thus very much involved in Jewish traditions. That is why it would turn out in the future that many of them were not willing to accept the Apostolic authority on these matters. They would come to the final conclusion that the Apostles were wrong, and that, as Galileans (who were notoriously slack on such matters), the Apostles were going too far. They were still far too attached to the regulations and ordinances of Judaism to relinquish them because of Peter’s experience, and they would later come to be called the Judaisers. This was because they would continue to demand that all who became Christian should be circumcised and become genuine proselytes, observing all their strict regulations. They would even later travel throughout the Roman empire and beyond, visiting churches that others had evangelised and seeking to bring them to their way of thinking, causing Paul a great deal of trouble.

Fortunately James, the Lord’s brother, who was highly regarded in the Jerusalem church by both sections (and by Jews in Jerusalem as well), and was one of its leading elders (bishops), on the whole agreed with the Apostles about the acceptance of Gentiles without circumcision, although still holding to the need for Jewish Christians to hold firmly to the Law, and still backing the offering of sacrifices in the Temple. Such a view could survive as long as Jewish and Gentile churches were kept apart. But it could not go on surviving continual contact. It mainly, however, ceased to be an issue after the destruction of the Temple, although even after that a small group of strongly Jewish Christians did continue to exist within the fellowship of the whole church. Their influential position, however, as the mother church, no longer then existed.

It was because of this emphasis that the influential Jerusalem church, once the Apostles had left there for good in order to carry out their commission, later became a kind of backwater, although always being highly regarded at a distance because of its antecedents. For it remained firmly entrenched in its incompatible position of being fully Jewish and yet Christian. Indeed had it not done so it would probably have found itself under constant persecution, for the Jews would not have tolerated in their holy city an openly Christian church of former Jews who had forsaken Judaism in order to belong to what became seen as a mainly Gentile religion. The Hellenistic Christians had already discovered this, and that without actually abandoning Judaism.

The unanimity found here would partly be due to the realisation of the fact, on the part of the more Jewish of them, that after all these Gentiles were God-fearers, and that the home Peter had entered and the meal he had partaken of could therefore with some confidence be seen as having satisfactorily conformed with the laws of cleanliness (or that as the one who had summoned them had been a Roman official he might have had little choice). While some would be unhappy that these Gentiles had not been required to be circumcised, they would have acknowledged that even Jews did accept God-fearers into their synagogues, and that therefore it was not unreasonable that Christian groups should accept them in the same way. And they no doubt hoped that anyway they would always remain a small minority. This is probably why at this stage they were prepared to make a slight concession. Once it later turned out not to be the case they would change their minds and become strident in their opposition.

Meanwhile, however, the Apostles themselves, and many of their supporters, had gained a new understanding and were moving towards the position of total acceptance of uncircumcised Gentiles as full and welcome members of the body of Christ without the necessity for circumcision. They were genuinely rejoicing in this new wonderful work of God, and would be ready for the next step when the news came through of what was happening in Syrian Antioch. What God had cleansed they must not call common.

Some who read this may ask, ‘this is all very well, but of what relevance is all this to us?’ The answer is simple. It brings to the forefront how much each of us has our own prejudices, prejudices which can work to make the truth conform to our own ideas. Each of us needs to ask ourselves constantly, how much are my beliefs the result of prejudice? Are my prejudices preventing me from a full understanding of the truth and a full appreciation of the views of others? Do my prejudices shape the meaning of the word of God for me, or am I letting the word of God remove my prejudices?


Verse 19

‘Those therefore who were scattered abroad as a result of the tribulation which arose about Stephen, travelled as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to none save only to Jews.’

As a result of the persecution following Stephen’s words and death, a good number of Hellenistic Jewish Christians travelled around ‘talking about’ the word concerning Christ, we might even say ‘gossiping the word’, as they travelled from place to place making contacts and talking to men and women about Jesus. But they only at this stage took the message to Jews, for the outreach to the Gentiles had not even been considered. They went first to Phoenicia, north of Galilee, (we learn later of groups of Christians in Tyre, Sidon and Ptolemais (Acts 21:3-4; Acts 21:7; Acts 27:3)), and then from Phoenician ports across the sea to the island of Cyprus (from which Barnabas came), and then eventually to the great city of Syrian Antioch.


Verses 19-26

Continued Expansion And God’s New Work Among the Greeks (11:19-26).

Meanwhile the work of God has been going on through many unnamed and unsung heroes, and a number of those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution resulting from the death of Stephen are now seen as having gone out through Phoenicia, Cyprus and Syrian Antioch, taking with them ‘the word’ concerning Christ. What is described here in such a short space would in fact have taken months, and even years, but it resulted in the next triumph among the Gentiles. It is to be seen as but one among many known missionary activities at that time, mentioned here only because of its work among the Greeks, and to emphasise the continual growth of the church.

The activity described in these verses began at the same time as Philip’s ministry in Samaria, but it is placed here in order to present an early example of the move outwards from the Jews to the Gentiles. It is preparing for the full transition from the Jewish Christian outreach to the outreach of Paul and Barnabas.

The Founding and Growth of the Church In Antioch.

The gradual growth of the church in Antioch from small beginnings, and the reciprocal love that was shown by each church to the other, was to Luke a further example of the advance of the work of the Spirit. It is, in abbreviated form, a further illustration of how God’s work has advanced and produced its fruit of love and ‘sharing, in the same way as it had in the beginning. It was founded, blossomed, grew, was edified, expanded still more and became a fountain of love flowing out to others, and of mutual fellowship, just as had been true in the earliest days. Its growth may be outlined as follows:

· Some Hellenistic believers arrive in Antioch, and begin to gossip the Gospel. They probably went into the synagogues where they began to talk with their fellow-Jews about the word (Acts 11:19).

· Hearing news of what had happened with Cornelius (for that is surely why this is described at this point) some believers from Cyprus and Cyrene begin to target the God-fearing Greeks in the synagogues and proclaim to them that Jesus is LORD. He is with them and a great number believe and turn to the LORD (Acts 11:20-21).

· The church in Jerusalem hear reports of what is happening and show their love for the church in Antioch by sending Barnabas to them to assist in the work and in order to maintain unity and fellowship between the churches of Antioch and Jerusalem (Acts 11:22).

· Barnabas, the son of encouragement, encourages the new church and calls on them to stick close to the LORD. The Holy Spirit is in the work (he was full of the Holy Spirit) and much people are added to the LORD (Acts 11:23-24).

· Barnabas love for the church is so great that he seeks out Saul to come and assist him in building up the newborn and growing church in the faith, and together they gather with the church and for a whole year teach the people (Acts 11:25-26 a).

· The LORD demonstrates His wholehearted approval of the work in that the disciples are given a new name. (Compare how in Genesis 1-2 the naming of things always reveals God’s sovereignty). He arranges that they, as a mixture of Jews and Greeks together, are called ‘Christ-men’ or ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26 b). The new multinational church is therefore declared to be due to His sovereign power.

· Such is the love of the Jerusalem church that prophets come from Jerusalem to Antioch to fulfil a ministry in the large and growing church, one of whom predicts a great coming famine (Acts 11:27-28).

· Such is the love of the church in Antioch that on hearing of the coming famine they collect together a fund according as each is able (many would be slaves) so that they may send it to the churches of Judaea (Acts 11:29). They share all things in common. In Old Testament terms the wealth of the Gentiles flows to Jerusalem.

· The fund is sent by the hand of Barnabas and Saul, an indication that the church has now grown sufficiently to do without them for a while and that they are willing to sacrifice them in order to show their love for their brethren in the churches of Judaea (Acts 11:30).

We shall now look at it in detail.


Verse 20

‘But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they were come to Antioch, spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.’

But on their arrival in Syrian Antioch some of them who were men of Cyprus and of Cyrene (North Africa) spoke to ‘Greeks’, proclaiming the Good News about the Lord Jesus. We may probably assume that news concerning the new situation caused by the conversion of Cornelius had reached them, and it would seem that on hearing it they went immediately among the Greeks proclaiming ‘the LORD, Jesus’. The idea of a ‘divine lord’ was common in various mystery cults, as one who would bring salvation and immortality to his adherents. Now here was One Who had come as the divine Lord, and was prophesied in the ancient Scriptures of the Jews. Furthermore He was real, for He had walked on earth as a man, and had died and risen again (compare for the title Acts 10:36; Acts 16:31; Acts 20:21; Acts 28:31).

Syrian Antioch (now Antakaya in south east Turkey) was at this stage the third largest city in the Roman Empire (after Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt), with over half a million population. It overlooked the River Orontes and was a fine seaport. Large numbers of Jews had settled there with the encouragement of the Seleucids who gave them full citizenship rights. It had become the capital of the Roman province of Syria, and was full of magnificent temples and buildings, being renowned for its culture. Near the city were the famous groves of Daphne, which were a centre of moral depravity, and a sanctuary dedicated to Apollo in which orgiastic rites took place. But Antioch would also become a centre for Christianity.

‘Greeks.’ The MS disagree as to whether we should read ‘Hellenas’ (Greeks - A, D*) or ‘Hellenistas’ (Hellenists - B, E). But either way the reference would seem to be to non-Jews.


Verse 21

‘And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.’

And ‘the hand of the Lord was with them’. Compare Acts 4:30. It may thus indicate signs and wonders. But it is a good Old Testament phrase (Ezra 9:7; Isaiah 66:14; compare Luke 1:66) and may simply (if we can say simply in such a case) indicate God’s mighty power at work in men’s hearts. Either way a great number of Gentiles who believed turned to the LORD. Many Gentiles had been waiting for just such a moment and eagerly responded to the truth. We note that the message that these believers proclaimed was of ‘Jesus the LORD’ not of the Messiah Jesus, which would have meant less to Gentiles. However, as they became known as ‘Christ-men’ it is apparent that the idea of the Messiah was not totally neglected. The were aware Who their LORD was.

It is probable that we are to see these Greeks as God-fearers like Cornelius, who were now, as a result of what had happened to Cornelius, seen as directly approachable. In view of the large Jewish population, and the moral depravity for which the city was well known, it is likely that there were large numbers of such God-fearers who looked to the synagogues because of their belief in the one God and their high moral teaching. However, while the Jews continually saw them as ‘outsiders’, even when welcoming them into their synagogues, the Christians now offered them the same belief in the one God and high moral teaching, and added to this their teaching about One Who had come from that one God to be men’s Saviour. Furthermore they gave them a warm and genuine welcome on a level with themselves. And so for the first time we have news of a church where the Greek Christians probably outnumbered the Jewish Christians and took part with them on equal footing.


Verse 22-23

‘And the report concerning them came to the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem, and they sent forth Barnabas as far as Antioch, who, when he was come, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and he exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave to the Lord.’

News of what had happened came back to the ears of the church in Jerusalem. We can compare this with Acts 11:1, but what a different response it now produced. Fulfilling their responsibility of oversight, and with a desire to help on the growth of the new church, they sent Barnabas to oversee the work that they had learned was going on. It was both important to maintain the oneness of the church, and to ensure that the church was properly taught, as well as ensuring that all was right. But they chose carefully and wisely, for they sent a Hellenistic Christian leader who was himself a Cypriot, but who was also a Levite and in good standing in Jerusalem from the beginning (Acts 4:36-37; Acts 9:27). He was a man who would be satisfactory to both parties, and would best understand the situation And when he arrived he gave his full support to the work, for he recognised the ‘undeserved favour’, the sovereign love, of God at work, and rejoiced. And he himself taught the new believers and exhorted them to ‘stick firmly’ to the LORD with dedicated and purposeful hearts.

The coming of Barnabas was clearly seen as vital for the church in Antioch. The impression given is that the Christians who by their witness and obedience had begun this great work of the Spirit did not have sufficient knowledge of the word or of Apostolic teaching to be able to continue to carry the burden of the newborn church (that would be why Saul was needed). This gap was thus partly solved by the arrival of Barnabas. And yet even he soon felt the necessity to bring in Saul. He recognised the importance of obtaining the very best teaching for this important city church at the heart of the Empire. It takes a great man among a leadership to recognise his own shortcomings, and to bring in someone whom he no doubt knew was his intellectual superior, and even his superior in knowing and interpreting the Scriptures. He had recognised Saul’s gifts and was not jealous of them.


Verse 24

‘For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and much people was added to the Lord.’

No greater accolade could have been paid to Barnabas than this, that he was a good man, and that he was full of the Holy Spirit as was evidenced by his outstanding faith (compare Galatians 5:22). And it was this that ensured his success. It also makes clear that the Holy Spirit approved of the work going on in Antioch for it was being nurtured by a man of the Spirit. And the result was that a great many people were ‘added to the LORD’. They not only became members of the church but became ‘one with Christ’ through the Holy Spirit (compare 1 Corinthians 12).


Verse 25-26

‘And he went forth to Tarsus to seek for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that even for a whole year they were gathered together with the church, and taught much people, and that the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.’

Barnabas was not only a great man, but a humble one, and he was willing to call to his side a man who would one day surpass him. He recognised that what was involved was too much for him, and even possibly that someone of a superior calibre of reasoning to himself, was needed here (that is one of the signs of true greatness). So he set out for Tarsus to seek out (‘hunt out’ - see Acts 9:30; Acts 21:39; Acts 22:3; Luke 2:44-45) Saul whom he knew would be the ideal man to take on the responsibility with him. And when he had found him he brought him to Antioch.

That Saul had continued to proclaim the Good News in Tarsus and Cilicia we need not doubt. Some have suggested that a number of the punishments which he described in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, which are not mentioned elsewhere, might have been dispensed to him by the synagogues of Tarsus and Cilicia. (We can remember how the Cilicians treated Stephen). Others have argued that Philippians 3:8 suggests that he had been disinherited by his family. But it is all surmise, although he clearly suffered these things at some time.

Then for a whole year he and Saul laboured together among the people of God (‘the church’), and they taught ‘large numbers of people’. And so great was the impact of the work that it came to the attention of the inhabitants of the city, and they began to speak of the believers as Christiani (‘Christ-men’ - ‘Christians’). They were no longer being seen as semi-Jews who followed the Jewish Messiah. They were being seen as a distinctive people. This had its dangers. Once Christianity was seen as separate from Judaism it would lose the favoured status of being a Licit Religion which Judaism enjoyed, and would become liable to persecution. But that would not be yet.

There are three elements to the name Christiani. It contains the name of the Jewish Messiah, expressed in Greek (Christos) with a Latin ending ‘-iani’. It was thus cosmopolitan, and was very suitable for the new cosmopolitan Christian church.

This giving of a name to the Christians in Antioch was clearly seen as significant by Luke. This church was the first one which had been formed and united together by the conversion of large numbers of both Jews and Greeks. The giving of a name (whoever gave it) was therefore seen as an indication of its recognition by God and His Son. The Gentiles, equally with the Jews, were seen by God and by men as Christ-men, and acknowledged by God as such.


Verse 27

‘Now in these days there came down prophets from Jerusalem to Antioch.’

It began when prophets from Jerusalem came down to Antioch, presumably because they had heard of the work that was going on and wanted to assist. It was a further expression of the love and concern of the church in Jerusalem for this new church made up of a combination of Jews and Greeks. We know of these prophets from 1 Corinthians 12-14. Their Spirit-inspired expounding of the word could, if wisely used, be a great encouragement and strength to new believers. (Compare 1 Corinthians 14:3; 1 Corinthians 14:31; Ephesians 3:4-5). And occasionally, but not often, such prophets would receive ‘a revelation’ concerning the future (at which point all other prophets had to give way. A ‘revelation’ was the only grounds for interrupting a prophet who was prophesying - 1 Corinthians 14:30).

Such prophets, if they taught wisely would be a great help. They were well founded in the Old Testament and the Testimony of Jesus (the recognised tradition about Jesus’ life and teaching), and were inspired by the Spirit in their presentation of them. The local prophets (inspired preachers), being still new to Christianity, would not have the same depth of knowledge of the Scriptures.


Verses 27-30

God’s People Reach Out in Love To Meet Each Other’s Needs (11:27-30).

This is in a way similar to the summaries that had followed the early evangelism, demonstrating the spirituality and genuineness of those involved, and what a difference the word had made in their lives (Acts 2:42-47; Acts 4:32-35). The same was happening here, although at a different level. They were not close enough for mutual sharing, but here the love of the Christians of Antioch would reach out to the Christians of Judaea in their need. The word was still having its effect, and the power of Pentecost was still being revealed.


Verse 28

‘And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world, which came about in the days of Claudius.’

The prophets in the main expounded the Scriptures, but sometimes one or more would receive ‘a revelation’ (1 Corinthians 14:26). Such a revelation came to Agabus, one of the prophets, and he signified by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over the Roman Empire (‘all the world’). This famine, Luke tells us, came about in the days of Claudius (41-54 AD). In fact we have other evidence that reveals that during his reign there was a series of severe famines and poor harvests in various parts of the Roman Empire, including Palestine. ‘All the world’ need only indicate ‘affecting many parts of the Roman world’.


Verse 29-30

‘And the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren who dwelt in Judea, which also they did, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.’

So the disciples in Antioch, who would be far less affected by such a famine, and some of whom had the resources to prevent themselves from being too affected, determined to send help to those who lived in Judaea, whom they had gathered would be badly affected by the famine. Thus they gathered together funds, with each giving according to his ability, and sent it to the elders of the Judaean churches by the hand of Barnabas, whom the church of Jerusalem had sent to them, and Saul, Barnabas’ co-worker. As the senior elder Barnabas is mentioned first. This would be Saul’s second visit to Jerusalem as described in Galatians 2.

This was not, of course, just a matter of taking a collection and sending it off. It would take some time for them to get together what was being given, and then to organise it and send it on. And they may then have waited until the famine in question actually began.

‘The elders.’ In a town or city those who were chosen from among their compatriots to have authority in the city and pass judgment in the gate were called ‘elders’. It was the name by which the leaders of the tribes of Israel were known when Moses went to them. It probably originally arose in the distant past because those who were chosen to have authority over tribes or cities tended to be the older, wiser and more experienced men, but in the end it applied to all who shared authority. Thus the organisers and planners who ran the synagogues were called ‘elders’, and here it simply indicates the static leaders of the churches of Judaea.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 11:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/acts-11.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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