Acts 11 – Defending Ministry to the Gentiles
A. A controversy in Jerusalem regarding ministry to the Gentiles.
1. (1-3) Peter hears objections to his association with Gentiles.
Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!”
a. Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God: The greatness of the work among the Gentiles in Caesarea could not be kept hidden. There was no desire to hide it, even though many Jewish Christians (those of the circumcision) would be confused and offended.
b. “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” The charges against Peter were simple: “You, who are supposed to be a faithful Jew, associated with Gentiles and even ate with them.” This offended these Christian Jews, so they contended with Peter.
i. And ate with them: Sharing a meal together was a special sign of fellowship in that time and culture. This was considered to be a significant compromise by these Jewish Christians.
ii. This reaction of the Christian Jews shows how significant the change was that God initiated in Acts 10. The change said, to the Gentiles, “You don’t have to become Jews first, and put yourself under the Law of Moses first. Repent and believe, and you can come to Jesus.” But it also said to the Jewish followers of Jesus, “Receive your Gentile brothers and sisters as full members of the family of God. They aren’t inferior to you in any way.”
iii. The objection of those of the circumcision was on the second point, not the first. They complained, You went into uncircumcised men and ate with them! At first, they were more concerned with what Peter did than with what God was doing with the Gentiles.
c. Those of the circumcision contended with him: When we see what the reaction of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, we can see how wise it was of Peter to take six witnesses with him to Caesarea and his meeting with Cornelius (Acts 10:23 and 11:12).
2. (4-15) Peter explains his ministry to the Gentiles.
But Peter explained it to them in order from the beginning, saying: “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object descending like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came to me. When I observed it intently and considered, I saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered me again from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ Now this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven. At that very moment, three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent to me from Caesarea. Then the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, ‘Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning.”
a. Peter explained it to them in order from the beginning: This account is an obvious condensation from Acts 10:9-43. God emphasized the importance of these events by repeating the story.
i. “Peter did not flaunt his apostolic authority. Instead he began with a humble recitation of what happened. The Greek makes this particularly clear. It indicates that Peter began at the beginning and explained everything precisely – a very strong word – as it happened.” (Boice)
b. What God has cleansed you must not call common: At first, Peter thought God spoke this about food. But Peter came to understand the vision of the sheet and kosher and unkosher animals had to do with people, not food (Acts 10:28: God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean).
i. There is a sense in which the sheet represents the church, having both “kosher” (Jews) and “unkosher” (Gentiles) on it, with no distinction or dividing line between the two (Ephesians 2:11-18).
c. We entered the man’s house: This may have surprised Peter’s questioners, because it seemed like an admission of guilt – Peter admitted entering the home of a Gentile, something prohibited by Jewish custom and tradition (though not by the Law of Moses.). Yet Peter was careful to add that before he ever entered the man’s house, an angel had been standing in his house. If it was permitted for an angel of God to go into Cornelius’ house, it must be permitted for Peter also.
d. The Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning: This conclusion was important. It showed that God’s stamp of approval was on this work towards the Gentiles. Peter’s point to these Christian Jews (those of the circumcision, Acts 11:2) was clear: they could not withhold their acceptance when God had given His.
3. (16-18) Peter interprets these events by remembering the words of Jesus.
“Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
a. If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God? If God was reaching out to the Gentiles, who was Peter that he could withstand God? Peter recognized the importance of sensing where God is going and heading that same direction, instead of trying to persuade God to go your direction.
i. It is important also to note these Christians would see this was all in accord with the Scriptures. They had both the word of the Lord Jesus, recorded in Mark 1:8, and the Old Testament promises that Gentiles would come to the Lord through the Messiah (in passages such as Isaiah 49:6).
ii. There are many today who look at some work or another and say, “Look what God is doing.” But activity alone isn’t enough to validate a work of God. It must also be in line with God’s Word. This work among the Gentiles passed both tests.
b. They became silent: The Jewish believers in Jerusalem (those of the circumcision, Acts 11:2) first reacted with a stunned silence. But then they glorified God, because they saw He was now at work among the Gentiles, also.
i. This is a powerful passage, demonstrating that the hearts of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were soft enough to be guided and corrected by God. It is a glorious thing when God’s people will allow their prejudices and traditions to be overcome by God’s Word and God’s work.
ii. The church in Jerusalem embraced these Gentile believers at first, but it would be a long time until all the objections of those of the circumcision were answered.
B. The Church in Antioch.
1. (19-21) The church in Antioch grows as Gentiles turn to the Lord.
Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
a. Preaching the word to no one but the Jews only: At first, Christians scattered over the Roman Empire preached only to Jews. But they eventually began to preach Jesus Christ to Gentiles as well.
b. Some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene…spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus: These unnamed disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene are genuine heroes. They began the first mentioned “mission to the Gentiles” (here called Hellenists) in Antioch.
i. In Antioch, we have the first example of Christians deliberately targeting Gentiles for evangelism, and this effort had great results (a great number believed and turned to the Lord).
c. When they had come to Antioch: Antioch was founded about 300 B.C. by Seleucus I, one of the inheritors of Alexander the Great’s empire. He liked to make a city and name them after his father, Antioch, and he did this about fifteen times. This city of Antioch was called “Syrian Antioch” or “Antioch on the Orontes.” In the first century it was a city of more than half a million people; today it is a Turkish city with a population of about 3,500.
i. Antioch was about 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of Jerusalem and about 20 miles (32 kilometers) inland from the Mediterranean Sea. Many considered Syrian Antioch the third greatest city in the Roman Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria. Antioch was known for its business and commerece, for its sophistication and culture, but also for its immorality.
ii. “The city’s reputation for moral laxity was enhanced by the cult of Artemis and Apollo at Daphne, five miles distant, where the ancient Syrian worship of Astarte and her consort, with its ritual prostitution, was carried on.” (Bruce)
iii. According to Hughes, when the ancient Roman senator Juvenal wanted to describe the decadence of Rome, he said that “The Orontes has flowed into the Tiber,” flooding Rome with wickedness.
iv. One might say that Jerusalem was all about religion; Rome was all about power; Alexandria was all about intellect, and Athens was all about philosophy. Adding to that, one might say that Antioch was all about business and immorality.
v. When the Gospel came to Cornelius and he became a follower of Jesus, it came to a man who was already a God-fearer. He had a respect for the God of Israel and lived a moral life. When it came to Antioch, it came to an utterly pagan city.
d. And the hand of the Lord was with them: Because God was with them, their ministry was blessed and multiplied, the result was that a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
i. A ministry can’t turn people to the Lord unless the hand of the Lord is with them.
· You can turn people to a personality without the hand of the Lord.
· You can turn people to a social club without the hand of the Lord.
· You can turn people to a church or an institution without the hand of the Lord.
· But you can’t turn people to the Lord without the hand of the Lord.
ii. The phrase, “believed and turned to the Lord” is a good description of the work of both faith and repentance.
2. (22-24) The ministry of Barnabas in Antioch.
Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.
a. They sent out Barnabas: The church in Jerusalem sent an able man in Barnabas, previously known for his generosity (Acts 4:36-37) and his warm acceptance of Saul of Tarsus after he was converted (Acts 9:26-28).
i. “News was always getting back to Jerusalem, and I suppose it is always that way. Whenever anything is done, there is always somebody who will run to those who are supposed to be important and say, ‘Do you know what’s going on?’” (Boice)
b. When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad: At the church in Antioch, when Barnabas had seen the grace of God, he was glad. There was something in the work and atmosphere among the followers of Jesus in Antioch that made Barnabas able to see the grace of God.
i. In whatever gathering of Christians we associate ourselves with, it is important that others be able to see the grace of God among us. They should not see an emphasis on self, on man-made rules, on human performance – but on the glorious grace of God. It will make them glad.
c. Encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord: Barnabas rightly focused on his main job as a leader of the congregation. He strengthened the church family itself, with the result that a great many people were added to the Lord.
i. This is the plan for church growth spoken of in Ephesians 4:11-16. Leaders in the church dedicate themselves to building strong, healthy Christians. As the saints are equipped for the work of the ministry, they grow into maturity, and do their ministry, and it causes growth of the body.
3. (25-26) Barnabas and Saul work together in Antioch.
Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
a. Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul: Barnabas remembered the precious brother Saul, and how he was sent to Tarsus for his own protection (Acts 9:28-30). Now Barnabas went and found him.
i. It’s not difficult to think of Barnabas being exhausted and overwhelmed by all the work and opportunities in Antioch, and then remembering Saul of Tarsus.
ii. To seek Saul is more literally to hunt him up; Barnabas had to do some looking. MacArthur says the original word “suggests a laborious search on Barnabas’ part.” Saul was so valuable to Barnabas that it was worth it for him to leave the work in Antioch for a season and search hard to find him.
b. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. Together, Barnabas and Saul taught a great many people, making the church in Antioch strong.
i. Saul had spent some twelve years in Tarsus since we last met him; these years were not wasted or lost, but spent in quiet ministry and preparation for future service.
ii. In all this Antioch because a center for great teaching and preaching. Antioch “had the greatest preachers – in the first century Barnabas, Paul, and Peter; in the second Ignatius and Theophilus; in the third and fourth Lucian, Theodore, Chrysostom, and Theordoret.” (Hughes)
iii. But it also had great informal preaching, which is often the best kind. Acts 11:20 reminds us that they spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. This combination of great formal teaching/preaching and great informal teaching/preaching made the church community in Antioch something special and world-impacting.
c. The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch: It wasn’t until these years at the Church in Syrian Antioch that the name Christian became associated with the followers of Jesus.
· They had been called disciples (Acts 1:15).
· They had been called saints (Acts 9:13).
· They had been called believers (Acts 5:14).
· They had been called brothers (Acts 6:3).
· They had been called witnesses (Acts 5:32).
· They had been called followers of the Way (Acts 9:2).
· They would be called Nazarenes (Acts 24:5).
· Now they would be called Christians.
i. In Latin, the ending ian meant “the party of.” A Christ-ian was “of the party of Jesus.” Christians was sort of like saying “Jesus-ites,” or “Jesus People,” describing the people associated with Jesus Christ. Boice thinks the idea was that they were called “Christ-ones.”
ii. Also, soldiers under particular generals in the Roman army identifed themselves by their general’s name by adding ian to the end. A soldier under Caesar would call himself a Caesarian. Soldiers under Jesus Christ could be called Christians.
iii. In Antioch, they probably first used the term Christians to mock the followers of Jesus. “Antioch was famous for its readiness to jeer and call names; it was known by its witty epigrams.” (Gaebelein) But as the people of Antioch called the followers of Jesus the “Jesus People,” the believers appreciated the title so much that it stuck.
iv. “Ironside says that when he was traveling in China years ago he was frequently introduced as ‘Yasu-yan.’ At first he did not know what the word meant, but he asked about it and learned that Yasu was the Cantonese word for Jesus, and yan was ‘man.’ So he was being introduced as a ‘Jesus man.’” (Boice)
v. First called Christians can also have the idea that they were called Christians before they were called anything else. Their first identity was now to be called Christians. Today, Christians must be willing to take at least the idea of the title “Jesus People,” and must also be worthy of the name. Instead of claiming any other title – Roman Catholic, Protestant, charismatic, whatever – we should be first calledChristians.
vi. Eusebius, the famous early church historian, described a believer named Sanctus from Lyons, France, who was tortured for Jesus. As they tortured him cruelly, they hoped to get him to say something evil or blasphemous. They asked his name, and he only replied, “I am a Christian.” “What nation do you belong to?” He answered, “I am a Christian.” “What city do you live in?” “I am a Christian.” His questioners began to get angry: “Are you a slave or a free man?” “I am a Christian” was his only reply. No matter what they asked about him, he only answered, “I am a Christian.” This made his torturers all the more determined to break him, but they could not, and he died with the words “I am a Christian” on his lips. (Eusebius, Church History)
4. (27-30) A prophetic word announces a famine.
And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
a. Showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar: We don’t know exactly how Agabus showed by the Spirit this famine was on the way. But the Christians took the word seriously, and generously prepared to meet the coming need.
i. “We know from other sources that Claudius’s principate was marked by a succession of bad harvests and consequent scarcity in various parts of the empire – in Rome, Greece, and Egypt as well as in Judaea.” (Bruce)
b. Then the disciples: You can tell these were truly disciples and Christians, because they gave generously to meet the need. They gave, each according to his ability.
i. This means that they gave according to the ability of their resources; those who had more gave more, probably referencing a proportional giving. It also means that they gave according to the ability of their faith, trusting that their gift to God’s work was a worthy investment in His kingdom, and not a loss.
ii. We also see they determined to give. If a person does not determine to give, they often never do.
c. Sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul: The high regard that Barnabas and Saul had among all was evident by the fact that they were trusted with the relief fund.
i. “As far as I know, this is the first charitable act of this nature in all recorded history – one race of people collecting money to help another people. No wonder they were first called Christians at Antioch.” (Boice)
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission