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The Book of Acts Series
Acts, Chapter 11
Acts 11 (New American Standard Bible)
A Personal note on the study of the Book of Acts
As I study the letter from Luke to Theophilus that we call the Book of Acts, I keep in mind Luke’s words as he begins the letter that we call the Gospel of Luke.
1In as much as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
As I understand from his introduction to his Gospel, Luke (in addition to being a medical doctor) was a careful investigator. Keeping this in mind, I believe for all of the materials we have from Luke, his words were supported by interviews with those involved in the event up to the point where his reporting is based on his personal experience as he joins Paul’s missionary team in Troas, in Acts 16:10.
The events reported in Acts 11 no doubt are the personal recollections of the apostle Peter and those who were personally involved in the occurrences in Jerusalem and Luke revealed these events from a reporter’s perspective.
Peter Reports at Jerusalem
1Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, 3saying, "You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them."
Peter’s actions in Caesarea and the openness of his relations with the gentiles there would have been a huge problem with many of the Jews who had turned to Jesus. Granted, they were followers of The Way, but they were still Jews, and carried all of the prejudice that had been a part of that religion for generations. In his gospel, when John refers to those who were circumcised, he is making a negative reference and this negativity also comes across in Luke’s recounting of what took place in Jerusalem after Peter’s return from the house of Cornelius the centurion in Caesarea.
By the way, “coming up to Jerusalem” generally indicates a change in altitude (traveling up the hills to the higher elevation of Jerusalem) and not a northward journey.
Luke separates the apostles from the brethren in his story. This probably indicates that the brethren had more of a problem with what Peter did than the apostles.
We are all human, but the words of the “circumcised” have a painful bite (some 2,000 years later). I read them as saying, “I can’t believe you went into the house of those (heathen) people, ate their food and then offered them Our Jesus!”
If this was the opinion of the Circumcised brethren, it certainly was not God’s opinion and Peter knows that he must explain this to those who questioned his actions in Caesarea.
4But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, 5"I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, 6and when I had fixed my gaze on it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, 'Get up, Peter; kill and eat.' 8But I said, 'By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.'
9But a voice from heaven answered a second time, 'What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.'
10"This happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky. 11And behold, at that moment three men appeared at the house in which we were staying, having been sent to me from Caesarea. 12The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings These six brethren also went with me and we entered the man's house. 13And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, 'Send to Joppa and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; 14and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.' 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?"
Peter did the only thing he could do. He began explaining what happened in Caesarea in an orderly sequence. He started at the beginning and proceeded in orderly sequence:
- He was where God had sent him
- He was praying
- God placed him in a trance and he received a vision
- God told him, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.”
- It was repeated three times. There could be no doubt what God’s will was.
- And men from Caesarea came, asking him to come with them to the house of a Centurion named Cornelius. And in keeping with God’s will he went, accompanied by six brethren.
- When he arrived, he discovered that an Angel had appeared to Cornelius telling him that Peter would come and speak words that would bring salvation to him and his household.
- And Peter began to speak
- And he was interrupted by the Holy Spirit falling upon the household of Cornelius, just as it did on those who were present at Pentecost.
- And Peter understood that if the Holy Spirit was baptizing the gentiles (with the Holy Spirit), who was he to stand in the way of God?
Peter knew he had been instructed by the Holy Spirit to go to Caesarea and seek out the gentiles (Cornelius and his family and friends) in the vision, God had told Peter that He included the gentiles among those he was seeking out as a part of His Holy Kingdom. When Peter understood these things, there was no other action he could undertake, and so he did the only thing that anyone who had experienced the vision could do:
"Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?"
It is interesting that Peter refers to God giving the “same gift” to the gentiles as He gave to those at Pentecost. In Peter’s mind, the same gift given to them makes the gentiles equals (equal membership in the body of Christ) to the church in Jerusalem and the brethren there. His appeal to the brethren is simple – “who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”
The brethren come to an understanding
18When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life."
I like the words that the American Standard Translation uses:
And the matter was largely settled. The brethren understood that God’s will had been accomplished and that His desire was to include the gentiles in His Kingdom and the new gentile believers were accepted. Luke does not indicate the reluctance to accept their condition (uncircumcised) by some of the brethren in Jerusalem, and this problem would not be addressed until the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).
Luke moves on to the church at Antioch
At this point, the thrust of Luke’s story of the expansion of the early church shifts to the world of the gentiles and specifically to the works of Hellenistic Jews, first to the Jews and then to the Hellenistic gentiles in the Syrian city of Antioch. As Luke shifts his emphasis to Antioch, he begins tracing the movement of the church toward Rome.
Antioch is significant, because it will become the staging area and springboard for missionary efforts to the other parts of the Roman empire. Many Bible scholars see the city as the second headquarters of the growing church.
At that time, Antioch was the largest city in Syria. It was located on the Orontes River, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem and about 20 miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea. The region of ancient Antioch is now in the southeastern corner of Turkey, and the City is now known as Antakya.
Josephus called Antioch "the third city in the habitable earth that was under the Roman empire". At that time, Antioch had a population of 500,000 to 800,000 people. Only Rome and Alexandria were larger. According to Josephus, the city had a large Jewish population.
Antioch was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It was an important commercial and economic center. The agricultural produce of the region was shipped through Antioch, and from there to destinations all over the Mediterranean. Culturally, first-century Antioch was a melting pot of Greek, Roman, Semitic, Arabic and Persian influences. The city was known for its sophistication, culture and for its loose morals and vices. The Temple of Daphne, where sex was enthroned and worshipped through priestesses who were really religious prostitutes was located in Antioch. The temple of Daphne apparently was a center for moral depravity of every kind, where priestesses served the Temple during the day and fanned out across the city at night to solicit and practice prostitution in the name of their goddess.
When Luke opens his narrative concerning Antioch in Acts 11:19, a flourishing church community already existed in Antioch. This church plays a prominent part in Luke’s history of the gospel. No other city apart from Jerusalem appears as frequently in Luke’s writings. At first mention, Luke indicates the church in Antioch is the location where the mission to the Gentiles has its roots (Acts 11:19-26). Soon after this point, Antioch will soon become a mission-sponsoring church, sending Paul and Barnabas on tours of evangelism (Acts 13:1-3). The apostle missionary and church builder Paul will use Antioch as his home base of operations.
The beginning of the influence of Antioch
19So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone.
As with all of the other efforts toward spreading of the gospel, the work in Antioch began with efforts to bring the good news to the Jews in Antioch.
Luke introduces his Antioch story by referring back to "those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen" (Acts 11:19, referring to Acts 8:1). Earlier, he mentioned these Hellenistic Jews as people who "preached the word wherever they went" (Acts 8:4). Luke has already reported that these Jews carried the gospel throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). Now Luke tells us that they have moved their efforts as far as Phoenicia (north of Caesarea), the island of Cyprus, and to Antioch (Acts 11:19).
These exiled Jews from Jerusalem living in the areas Luke mentions have preached the gospel, but only to other Jews (Acts 11:19). These individuals are pushing out beyond the areas where Peter and Philip have done missionary work—but not yet to Gentiles.
The Gospel First preached to the Gentiles:
20But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.
Luke does not tell us what the reason is for those in Antioch to make the evangelistic switch to begin preaching the gospel to the gentiles. Luke mentions the change casually, as though no controversy occurs over it. It may have been a gradual development, since Gentiles often attended synagogues. Or these dispersed Christian Jews may have become aware of the conversion of Cornelius, and took it as a precedent, which it was.
Luke tells us that these evangelizers preached a message about Jesus as Lord, rather than announcing him as the Messiah. In Luke’s words, they were "preaching the Lord Jesus" (Acts 11:20). The word "Lord" is more meaningful in Hellenistic culture; the word "Messiah" has a Jewish meaning that would appeal less to a Gentile audience. Regardless, reacting to the urging of the Spirit, these brethren reaped the harvest provided by the Holy Spirit.
So, Who first preached the gospel to the Gentiles?
The truth is, No one knows. The names of these Hellenistic evangelists are never mentioned. In many ways this is one of the greatest events in all history. And amazingly, the evangelization was conducted by obscure men and women, not apostles, not pastors. The best designation for them is that they were laymen, like us. They made no headlines on earth, but special editions came off the presses of heaven because this was such a fantastic event. At last the gospel broke through the Jewish barriers that had held it in and was now reaching out to the Gentiles and beginning a new church:
How successful was this first evangelism effort to the gentiles?
Luke shares good news concerning their efforts at evangelizing the gentiles.
21And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.
It needs to be said that when Jesus is preached as Lord and people look to Him and not themselves, hearts open and people turn to Him. This is exactly what Luke reports here.
More specifically, Luke tells us "the Lord’s hand was with them" as they preached. The Holy Spirit validates their testimony, and as a result "a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord" (Acts 11:21).
The Church in Jerusalem hears about Antioch:
22The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. 23Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; 24for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.
Good news travels and before long, the church at Jerusalem hears about the large number of Gentile converts in Antioch. They decide to dispatch a delegation to check on the situation and select a representative to travel to Antioch to provide a firsthand report of the activity there.
The man chosen to represent Jerusalem in Antioch is Barnabas. He is a name Luke has already mentioned as one who supported the church in Jerusalem (Acts 4:36), and stood up for Saul when he came to Jerusalem (Acts 9:27) Those in Jerusalem knew Barnabas as the “Son of Encouragement” who had a reputation for piety and generosity and those are the roles he assumes in Antioch. Barnabas is a special man. Luke tells us that he:
1 – Is willing to serve
Luke reports that considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.
Barnabas Acts and changes take place that will impact the world.
25And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 26and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
Luke does not indicate why Barnabas journeys to Tarsus, only that he does. He goes there to find an old friend – the man still known as Saul, who Barnabas stood up for in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27). Luke has not mentioned Saul since he left Jerusalem for his hometown, but when Barnabas finds the emergence of many converts into the new church, he leaves Antioch and goes to find Saul, then brings him back to help with the growing church.
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul mentions this time of separation in Tarsus (which some scholars think may have been as many as 10 years), but he may have been preaching the gospel message in Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:21). Paul writes about the reaction of the Church in Jerusalem to his ministry to the church in Galatia in these words: "The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy" (Galatians 1:23-24).
In truth, there is not much written about the time Saul was away from the Church in Jerusalem. It seems certain that Saul continued preaching after leaving Jerusalem. Perhaps the five lashings he received at the hands of the synagogue authorities (2 Corinthians 11:24), together with some of his other afflictions and hardships enumerated in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, occurred during those days in Tarsus, since they are not mentioned in Luke’s records of his later missionary efforts.
Perhaps more than anything else, during his time in Tarsus Saul discovered that what he had regarded as his credentials for activity, all that he had previously reckoned upon as useful in his life -- his ancestry, his orthodoxy, his morality, his zeal -- all has been wiped out. He learned that they are not what make you an effective worker for Jesus Christ, but that only your dependence upon Jesus at work in you makes the difference. This is supported by what he writes in his letter t the church in Philippi (Philippians 3:8), "he learned to count as manure all this other stuff, in order that he might gain Christ" and reckon upon his power at work.
When Saul had learned that, the Lord sent Barnabas over to Tarsus to find him. God had his address all the time. Barnabas didn't; he had to look for him. But when he found him he brought him to Antioch, ready to begin his great worldwide ministry, that marvelous ministry of the Apostle Paul that shook the world and has changed the course of human history time after time.
Looking at Barnabas, there had to be a specific reason for his searching out Saul. Perhaps because of the growth of new believers in Antioch, the extent of Barnabas’ ministry was expanding so rapidly that he believed he needed a co-worker. If that was the case, evidently Barnabas was convinced that Saul would be the perfect choice to help evangelize Antioch. He had already acted as Paul’s defender when he encouraged the Jerusalem church to accept him (Acts 9:27). Now for a second time, Barnabas became Paul’s advocate. He went to Tarsus looking for Paul, and found him (Acts 11:25). The two of them returned to Antioch, and worked together for a year, teaching large numbers of people.
There is an interesting fact that should be mentioned. In Acts 11:25 and in some succeeding passages, Luke mentions Barnabas first and Paul second (Acts 12:25; Acts 13:1, 2, 7). But soon, he will shift the listing order, putting Paul first (Acts 13:43). However, Luke will again place Barnabas first (Acts 14:14; Acts 15:12, 25), though Paul will be in first position at times (Acts 13:46, 50; Acts 14:20; Acts 15:2, 22, 35). There seems to be no consistency to this except that Luke balances the relationship. Each is listed in first position eight times.
The first use of a name
As amazing as it sounds, at the end of verse 26, Luke makes a simple statement that has impacted the world for almost 2,000 years since.
“and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”
During the time of church expansion at Antioch, outsiders in Antioch begin to call the disciples by the term "Christian". In the Greek noun form it is Cristianoi. This is a way of verbally identifying a follower of a group. Another way of saying this is that they were called “Men of Christ” or “Those belonging to Christ”. For example, those of the party of Herod are Herodianoi. The Caesariani are those who belong to the party of Caesar. Members of one of the major Jewish religious sects are the Pharisaioi. As these Christians talked about Jesus to men everywhere -- Jesus the Christ, the Messiah -- the Gentiles around them labeled them "Christ's men." (You can tell from this that they didn't talk about the church; they talked about Jesus.)
In those days, "Christian" was probably not a term the disciples generally used for themselves, preferring names such as “brethren,” "brothers," "disciples," or "saints." The two other occurrences of the word "Christian" in the Bible are references to the church made by outsiders such as Agrippa (Acts 26:28) and persecutors in general (1 Peter 4:16). "It appears to have originated, therefore, as a somewhat derogatory designation given not by the ‘believers’ themselves but by hostile observers. The use of the name "Christian" by outsiders may indicate that people in Antioch realize that the church is not just another sect of Judaism, since it includes Gentiles as well.
At first it was a contemptuous term, a term of reproach. "Look at these crazy people! They come into our city, they don't worship our idols, don't observe our moral (or immoral) standards, they live lives entirely different from ours." So, contemptuously they called them "Christ's men," Christians. Hopefully, the disciples immediately (and not eventually) thought it was wonderful to be called Christ's men, so (Hopefully) they adopted the name and began to call each other Christians. I know of no one today who calls Christ Jesus Lord who does not embrace the name Christian, even though the world has re-adopted the negativity that the first users of that word in Antioch intended.
Barnabas and Saul return to Jerusalem
27Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world And this took place in the reign of Claudius. 29And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. 30And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.
At the end of Chapter 11, Luke reports the appearance of certain prophets who came from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, names Agabus (who appears a second time in Acts 21:10) predicted the appearance of a great famine throughout the world, and, although it is not stated here, that it would be especially severe in Judea. This came true just a few months later. This is one of the historical confirmations of the book of Acts. For not only does Josephus, the Jewish historian, record this famine, but two Roman historians speak of it as well. Suetonius and Tacitus both mention the great famine in the days of Claudius. We can positively date this event in A. D. 44-45.
In response to the prophesy of Agabus, the brethren at Antioch agreed to collect a relief contribution for the brethren in Judea. That contribution was sent to Jerusalem by way of Barnabas and Saul.
Luke’s mention of the relief fund for Judea ends his discussion of Antioch. It may seem to be an abrupt conclusion, but it is a fitting one. The new congregation in Antioch—composed of gentiles who a short time before were considered questionable subjects for the gospel—responds generously to the appeal for help in Judea. In doing this, the Gentile and Hellenistic Christians of Antioch prove their faith, love and unity with the mother church by sharing their material possessions with those less fortunate. While less dramatic than the story of the Jerusalem Christians sharing their goods that Luke writes about in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-37, this also illustrates the continuing church practice to provide aid for the needy and poor.
A note: This is the first time that “elders” are mentioned in the church. They seem to be in charge of receiving the relief fund.
This ends the study of Acts, Chapter 11
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