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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 11

 

 

Verse 1

1. The apostles—While the Church was dispersed the apostles stood firm. (See notes on Acts 8:1-14; Acts 9:32.) They are probably all, certainly James and John, still resident at Jerusalem, and all interested in the present matter.

Gentiles… received—The favourable side of the news comes first, namely, that Gentiles were becoming Christian, not so prominently that they were baptized without being circumcised. The general feeling doubtless was that expressed in the last half of Acts 11:18.


Verses 1-18

3. Peter’s Defence for Baptizing the Uncircumcised, Acts 11:1-18.

The question now comes, How will the Mother Church at Jerusalem receive the announcement of Peter’s new position on the great question stated in our note on Acts 10:1? That city has some interest in the matter, for the reception of the Gentiles is to be completed by her own destruction by blood, fire, and plough. (See note on Matthew 24:2.)


Verse 2

2. Come up—From the maritime lowlands upon which Cesarea and Joppa stood. But in ancient times the term up was customarily used not only in regard to approaching any high locality, but any great capital, or point of moral or political eminence. Xenophon’s history of the march to Babylon (from which his ten thousand made a famous retreat) is entitled the Anabasis, that is, the Going-up, although Babylon was in a vast plain really lower than Asia Minor, whence Xenophon started. This use of up arises partly front the fact that ancient great cities were usually for defence placed upon some strong height, and, partly from the idea of elevation, associated with greatness and power.

They that were of the circumcision—Greek, οι εκ περιτομης, those from circumcision. All the Christians then in Jerusalem were circumised Jews, and so of the circumcision; but Luke uses the phrase as designation of the partisans of necessary circumcision.

Contended with him—They held him not for a pope, but a heretic. What will become of Moses, the Law, and the Temple if he, the most eminent of the apostles, lowers himself to the level of Saul of Tarsus, and allows baptism to be, not the sequence, but the substitute of circumcision!


Verse 3

3. Didst eat—It was unpopular to make it a charge that he had won Gentiles to Christ, (for with that phase of the matter, as appears by Acts 11:1, the Church was pleased,) and so, like cunning accusers, they select the unpopular point, he had eaten with the uncircumcised.


Verse 4

4. Rehearsed—Peter at once sweeps them clear by unfolding the wonderful facts, the angel, the trance, the command of the Spirit and the pentecostal outpouring. Luke, aware of the momentous nature of these transactions, again gives them in Peter’s words.


Verse 12

12. These six brethren—Peter’s testifiers are present from Joppa; not, indeed, as if his own word were not sufficient in regard to the bare material facts, but by the fulness of their united spirit to withstand opposition, and corroborate the rich fulness of the pentecostal Spirit by which the call of the Gentiles was made at Gentile Cesarea.


Verse 14

14. Be saved—An additional phrase implied in Acts 10:6. They were, indeed, now saved, with a present salvation; and yet, now that Christ is presented, acceptance is necessary to a final salvation.


Verse 15

15. On us—The apostles.

At the beginning—Namely, at the day of Pentecost, the commencement of the Spirit dispensation. Peter hereby recognises the diminished, but real, continuance of the pentecostal effusion.


Verse 16

16. Then remembered I—With a fuller realization than ever before.

Baptized… water… Holy Ghost—This text fully proves that baptism with the Spirit is not figurative, but literal. The Spirit is as true and a far more real substance and nature than water. The water is the shadow, the figure, the picture, of which the Spirit is the original. And the picture must conform to the original. The outpouring of the Spirit must be shadowed by the outpouring of water. Immersion is no figure of such an original.


Verse 17

17. I could withstand God?—By this question, in the first person, Peter involves the disputants in the predicament of withstanding God, and by that they are for the time being silenced. (See note on Romans 9:20.)


Verse 18

18. Held their peace—Luke’s word is carefully significant, ησυχασαν, they became still, as silent but not satisfied. They evaded the offensive point in the matter, and for the fact that there was repentance conceded to the Gentiles somehow they glorified God. The exact how is a matter postponed until the popular tide of the Church may turn.

Granted repentance—Note on Acts 5:31.


Verse 19

4. The New Gentile Christian Centre formedAntioch, Acts 11:19-26.

19. Now—Luke now resumes the previous thread of his narrative, a thread which, beginning from the scattering of the Church by Saul’s persecution, (viii, 4,) more than three years before, stretches through the conversion of Saul, his return to Jerusalem and Tarsus, and through the admission of uncircumcised Gentiles by Peter, to the establishment of a new Gentile metropolis of Christianity coequal with Jerusalem, namely, at ANTIOCH. The holy and zealous refugees from the Sauline persecution are here said to have scattered the Gospel in Phenice, (Phenicia,) Cyprus, and Antiocha province, an island, and a city.

For Phenicia, see our note on Acts 8:40.

CYPRUS is an island near the northeast angle of the Mediterranean Sea, next to Sicily in size, remarkable for its richness of soil and the dissoluteness of its inhabitants. In Christian history it is celebrated as the birthplace of Barnabas, and as one of the fields of Paul’s memorable labours.

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ANTIOCH was the great capital of the East, ranking third after Rome and Alexandria among the great cities of the world. It was about three hundred miles north of Jerusalem, and thirty miles from its own seaport, Seleucia. It was a centre of trade with Europe by the Mediterranean on the west, and by caravans with the regions of the Tigris and the Euphrates on the east.

Antioch was built by Seleucus, surnamed the Conqueror, who upon the death of Alexander the Great took by inheritance or conquest the Asiatic share of his great territories, and founded the empire of Syria, which lasted for more than two centuries and a half, nearly filling the interval of time between Alexander and Christ.

Antioch, strange to say, in consequence of the visit and labours of these refugees from the Sauline persecution and their successors, became first a centre and rallying point of Christianity, then one of the three great Christian metropolises of Christian history, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome The first represents the Syrian Church; the second the Greek; the third the Latin Church. And here be it noted, that when the Church of Rome claims to be the most ancient, the most original Church she bears false witness for herself. She is younger than the Churches of Syria or Greece.

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ANTAKIA, (ANTIOCH IN SYRIA.)

In thirty years from this time Jerusalem was leveled to the earth. What became of the mother Church, the unequal successor of the dispersed Church of the Pentecost? Eusebius reckons from and including St. James, fifteen bishops before the city’s destruction. They seem never to have accepted the Gentile title, invented at Antioch, of Christians, but were always Nazarenes, and they probably observed the temple service as long as the temple stood. When the destruction of the city approached, warned by the predictions of Christ, a large number of them fled to Pella and the Jordanic regions. When Peter and the other apostles left Jerusalem the Church felt the pressure of the hierarchy, and were kept under its weight.

The Jerusalem city pride and patriotism were heavy upon them. Their attachment to the ritual narrowed their piety. To them, and Jews like them, the Book of Hebrews addressed its warning against apostasy. A section of them, descended, perhaps, from these opponents of Peter, declined so far as to deny the miraculous birth and divinity of Christ, maintained the merit of voluntary poverty, and were called by the name of EBIONITES or paupers. Upon them the generosities of the Gentile Christians had no effect to liberalize and bring them into sympathy with the Catholic Church. The persevering section of the Nazarenes, though narrow, were admitted by the Church to be orthodox. The destruction of Jerusalem was necessary in order to emancipate the Church in the full liberty of Christ.

In contrast with this ultra Judaism of the Ebionites there was an ultra Gentilism introduced into the Church (which acquired the name of Gnosticism) by the converts from paganism. Though existing at the beginning, as we have noted in our comment on Simon Magus, it did not attain its perfect organic form, at least its most accomplished leaders, until near the close of the first century. These heretics took the proud name of Gnostics, (derived from γνοω, Gnoo, the Greek form of the verb to know,) signifying knowers, intellectualists, rationalists, and from the height of their lofty speculations looked with contempt at the believers in a simpler Christianity. Gnosticism culminated in the most brilliant of ancient heretics, Marcion. He was son of the Bishop of Sinope, on the Euxine Sea, and, coming to Rome in the second century, became a great leader. Adopting the fundamental oriental maxim of the innate evil of matter, (see note on Acts 8:9,) he not only with Paul rejected circumcision, but he severed the whole Old Testament from the New, condemning even the Jehovah of the old dispensation as an inferior and malignant former of and dealer with matter; and he maintained the true God to be the absolutely pure, unutterable, inconceivable, spiritual Essence. Christ he held to have been bodily only in appearance. Marcion not only rejected the Old Testament, but mutilated the New, accepting only Luke’s Gospel in a modified form and some of Paul’s Epistles. Against him Tertullian exerted his great eloquence, exposing his forgeries and heresies by appealing to the authentic copies of the New Testament books then in possession of all the great Churches, (see our Introduction, p. 6,) and to the uniform faith of the true Catholic Church, historically demonstrable to be derived from the teaching of Christ’s apostles. (See note on Acts 15:6.)


Verse 20

20. Cyrene—If Lucius of Cyrene in Acts 13:1 (where see our note) be identical with our Luke, then it is clear that he was one of these exiles from Jerusalem. The men of Cyprus and Phenicia were moving toward home, the men of Cyrene were tending to the great Syrian metropolis.

The Grecians—It is now settled that the true reading here is not Grecians, that is, Hellenists, but Greeks, that is, pure Gentiles. This preaching the Gospel to the uncircumcised in Antioch probably was after the conversion of Cornelius at Cesarea. In contrast with those of Acts 11:19, who preached to Jews only, these of Acts 11:20 preached to Gentiles also. Of these preachers to Gentiles, Luke, who so modestly relates this, was likely to be the leader. This was, in fact, the great transition step from Jerusalem to Antioch, from Judaism to Gentilism.


Verse 22

22. Barnabas… Antioch—Barnabas was evidently sent as a committee of inspection to see whether this new Gentile movement was genuine, and whether it confirmed the doctrine of Christianity without circumcision. His coming, and favourable decision and cooperation, doubtless settled the permanence of the Antioch Church under the maternal recognition of Jerusalem.


Verse 23

23. Came… seen… glad—Like Julius Cesar, He came, he saw, he triumphed; but triumphed in the conquests not of war, but of grace.


Verse 24

24. For—Commentators are at a loss for the reference of this for; that is, For what in the preceding context does this verse assign a reason? Kuinoel thinks it gives the reason for selecting Barnabas; but that fact is too far back. Others refer it to exhorted, (Acts 11:23,) as if his zeal in his ministry was because he was a good man. Dr. Alexander refers it to his being spiritually so glad. All this seems to overlook the real facts. Gentile Luke is accounting for Barnabas’ deep and ready sympathy with this Gentile movement, by Barnabas’ own Christian liberality and goodness.


Verse 25

25. Barnabas… Tarsus… Saul—Barnabas also may have been Saul’s friend in youth; he was his certifier to the apostles. And now that Paul has retired to his native Tarsus, Barnabas feels that Saul, the man of mighty spirit, Christ’s chosen apostle to the Gentiles, is the very man for this mighty, wicked Gentile Antioch. Saul, heretofore in the shade, is now, though for a while subordinate to Barnabas, forevermore drawn forth, like a Damascus blade from its scabbard.


Verse 26

26. Whole year… assembled… much people—For one year these two apostolic men perform heroic work in this great metropolis with a success that tells upon its future history. We doubt not they assembled weekly, upon the Lord’s day; for the earliest ecclesiastical history finds Sunday the sacred day at Antioch, and it is utterly improbable that any alteration took place of the day then first by the apostles established.

John Malela, an historian of Antioch, (says Mr. Lewin,) in the sixth century, tells, on the authority of Domninus, an antiquary of a much earlier age, the spot where Paul and Barnabas hold their public meetings. It was in Singon Street, near the Pantheon. So public a matter may perhaps have been transmitted by the Christian Church.

Christians first in Antioch—Antioch was celebrated for its Greek wit and levity, and these it often displayed in inventing nicknames. The term Christ is not a name, but a title, the Christ; that is, the Anointed or Messiah. But a Greek, like an English speaker, naturally taking it for a proper name, and hearing that this sect styled themselves followers of Christ, would very easily add the usual adjective termination, and call them Christians. On the other hand, a hostile Jew would feel that to call them after the glorious name of their nationally expected Messiah would be a blasphemy. He would prefer to call them Galileans, Nazarenes, or perhaps Ebionites, paupers. For themselves the Christians had preferred the title brethren, believers, disciples, saints, etc. The word Christian is but twice found elsewhere in the New Testament, and in neither is it uttered as an accepted name. The termination in ian belongs, indeed, rather to the Latin than to the Greek language; but it had at this time become naturalized to the Greek, and it is little likely that the grave Romans, who were comparatively few, and connected generally with the government, would have invented this epithet. For this Greek appellation, which is now naturalized in all civilized languages, we must doubtless thank the genius of the lively Greek pagans of Antioch. Yet Luke, though he never uses the epithet himself, evidently recognises that the name has now acquired a prevalent currency, so that its first invention is a fact worth mentioning. Chrysostom, when preacher at Antioch, with a stroke of Greek wit, once told the Antiochians that, though they had invented the Christian name, they left to others the practice of the Christian virtues.


Verse 27

5. Antioch sends a Relief Deputation to Jerusalem, Acts 11:27-30.

27. Prophets—A term which designates any utterer of inspired ideas, whether moral, spiritual, or predictive. In the present case there was prediction.

From Jerusalem—The primal mother was still eminent in piety, doctrine, and spiritual gifts.


Verse 28

28. Stood up—Doubtless in the public congregation.

Agabus—The name is probably derived from the Hebrew verb עגב, Agab, he loved; cognate with the Agape, love. Agabus again appears a true prophet, but a prophet of evil, in Acts 21:11.

All the world—Literally, the whole inhabited land. The extent of this land depends upon the subject of the discourse. In this case Agabus was doubtless speaking of a particular land, namely, Palestine. This appears plainly from the fact that the Antiochians forthwith determined to send relief to Judea, as if there, and not in Syria, was to be the dearth.

The Codex Beza has here a remarkable addition: “And when we were all gathered about him he said,” etc. This would be, if authentic, an addition to “the we passages,” and prove Luke to have been at Antioch at this time. (See note on Acts 16:10.) It only indicates, as it is, an ancient belief that he then was there.


Verse 29

29. According to his ability—The readiness of their determination shows their unhesitating confidence in the certainty of the prediction of their Christian prophet.

At Jerusalem there were men of wealth and rank who became Christians; but, first, such in the first fervour of their love impoverished themselves in devoting their whole wealth to charity; next, they were broken up and dispersed by persecution; and last, they were afflicted with a famine, by which Josephus tells us that many Jews died of starvation. The Christians of neighbouring countries, therefore, in imitation of the tribute sent by the Jews of all countries to the temple service, sent their contributions to the relief of the Christian poor of Jerusalem and Judea.


Verse 30

30. To the elders—The first mention of elders in this history, as of Church in Acts 7:1, and of something not quite called deacons in Acts 6:1-8. The very incidental way in which they are introduced indicates, 1. That Luke did not consider the history of Church organization intrinsically important, and, 2. That the form of Church polity arose spontaneously, created and shaped by immediate convenience and expediency. The apostolic Church adopted not the temple for its model, and so has no priesthood. A Christian community or assemblage resembled a synagogue assembly, and so adopted similar forms. But the synagogue was not modeled to any divine pattern. It had risen humanly under Providence. And so at its own convenience, and by its own reason and will, under Providence, the Christian Church adopted the arrangements customarily before its eyes. There is nothing in the New Testament to show that any Church of any age possesses not the same liberty of adopting such form as shall enable it to produce the most efficient ministry, the most edifying sacraments, and the most widespread holiness of life.

Apostolic sanction was given to any form of Church government that worked well. It seems probable that before the apostle John died the episcopal form was generally prevalent, and probably with his sanction.

But it is not clear either that the episcopal form was ever divinely enjoined, or prescribed as indispensable to a legitimate Church; or that an absolutely unbroken successorship was required for all ages, except so far as such regular succession was, in the given case, most conducive to the Church’s well-being. The absoluteness of the succession is governed by the best Christian expediency, and not the best expediency by the absoluteness of the succession. Higher reasons than the succession itself may often require that the succession be not maintained: and then it may be wrong to maintain it.

Hands… Saul—This token of love from the uncircumcised by the hands of the apostle to the circumcised must have touched the hearts of the circumcision of all parties in the Jerusalem Church. It may have been a help in need in more than one sense. For if it came after that Church had lost Peter, the apostle, some influence may have been needed to check the growth of ultra-Judaism.

That the donations of money were delivered to the elders indicates that the apostles were no more in Jerusalem. Their twelve years’ limitation to Jerusalem (see note on Acts 8:1) had expired, and this Herodian persecution had probably dismissed the last apostle from its precincts. For, doubtless, as the return of the two is mentioned, (Acts 12:25,) they arrived at Jerusalem during the events of chapter 12.

It is a question much discussed, Is this Paul’s visit mentioned in Galatians 2:1, as having occurred fourteen years after his conversion? For, it is said, Paul’s argument requires that there should be no visit between the two. And as fourteen years could not now have passed since Paul’s conversion, a contradiction is found between Paul and Luke. But with Paul in Galatians, the question is not how many times he had been in Jerusalem, but how much intercourse he had with the apostles. Had his opponent objected that he had visited the city within less than fourteen years, his reply would conclusively have been that the apostles at that time were notoriously absent from the city, their twelve years’ sojourn having been closed by the Herodian persecution. We may, therefore, safely identify the visit mentioned in Galatians with that in Acts 15.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Acts 11:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/acts-11.html. 1874-1909.

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Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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