In Acts 10 we saw the great working of God as salvation is offered to the Gentiles. Peter receives a vision in which he is told to no longer call unclean what God has cleansed. Peter correctly understood this to mean he could go into Cornelius’ house (a Gentile) and preach the gospel to the household. While Peter is preaching, the Holy Spirit falls on the whole household signifying that they were to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins just like the Jews. The Jews tried to keep their dealings with the Gentiles to a minimum, and certainly did not enter into Gentile homes nor ate with Gentiles for fear of defilement. The Jews had many traditions and human laws that condemned them from having fellowship with the Gentiles. But through the Holy Spirit, the Jewish Christians were to understand that Gentiles were no longer to be considered unclean.
In Acts 11 we learn of the relationship between believers in Jerusalem consisting of Jews and the new Gentile disciples. The Jews are learning about God’s purpose. Under the old covenant, the Jews were God’s chosen people and the major focus of God’s dealings. Now, the Jews are coming to realize God’s purposes to be broader than the salvation and deliverance of the Jewish people. The Messiah came and has brought salvation to all people and nations.
I. Accepting the Gentiles (11:1-18)
A. The conflict
- The rest of the apostles and brethren in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with Peter saying, "You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!" We know nothing about this group of people who are called "of the circumcision" except from their charges against Peter.
- It appears the problem was Peter did not have Cornelius and his household fully convert to Judaism through circumcision. The problem does not seem to be that Peter preached Christ to the Gentiles, but that he ate with Gentiles making Peter ritually unclean. It is evident from these charges that Peter was no pope or giver of executive orders from God Himself. These Jewish Christians charge Peter with error. Peter must defend his actions to those in Jerusalem.
B. The explanation
- Peter recounts from the beginning everything that happened to him, relating particularly the vision he saw. Further, Peter also explains that the Holy Spirit directing him to go to Cornelius’ house, doubting nothing. When in Cornelius’ house, Cornelius explained how he had seen an angel who instructed him to call for Peter to come to his house. Peter would come and tell Cornelius the words by which him and his household would be saved.
- Once Peter began preaching Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as it had upon the apostles at the beginning. This was a very special event that had not happened for ten years. Notice that Peter does not remember how this had happened to the Samaritans or to his recent converts in the cities of Joppa, Lydda, and Sharon. Peter recalls the words of Jesus that were directed specifically to the apostles, how they alone would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Now, suddenly while Peter was preaching, the same baptism of the Holy Spirit took place on Cornelius and his household.
- Peter emphasizes what was received by Cornelius and his household by calling what took place the "same gift." This likely describes not only the way the Holy Spirit came upon them but also the effect, which was the ability to speak in different languages. Acts 2 describes the baptism of the Holy Spirit the apostles received, if you desire to remind yourself of those events. With all of these taking place, Peter says to his opponents, "who was I to think that I could oppose God?"
- With this explanation, they had no further objections and praised God for granting repentance to life even to the Gentiles. We cannot escape noticing the importance of this event because Luke recounts the vision and angel to Cornelius three times. This was the proof for everyone to know that God’s purpose was for all people to be saved from their sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We clearly see from this chapter that this understanding was the point of the miracle. After hearing Peter’s words, the other believers also understand that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was a sign for Gentiles to be saved without circumcision. Just as the promises to Abraham were given before the covenant of circumcision, so also the falling of the Holy Spirit upon Cornelius and his household took place while they uncircumcised. Circumcision was not necessary for salvation.
II. Encouraging the Gentiles (11:19-26)
A. Barnabas, the encourager
- Some were still preaching to the Jews to accept that Jesus is their Messiah and they are to obey Him. Others begin preaching to the Gentiles, telling them the good news about Jesus. Many people believed and obeyed the words of the Lord. News of the salvation of the Gentiles in Antioch reaches the ears of the disciples in Jerusalem. Who would you send to these new Christians to encourage them? Would you have sent Peter to encourage them? Would you have sent Philip? The church in Jerusalem decides to send Barnabas.
- Remember we read about Barnabas in Acts 4 as the one who sold his possessions and laid them at the apostles’ feet. We also read about him in Acts 9 arguing on Saul’s behalf before the apostles in Jerusalem that Saul truly had changed his life and was a follower of Jesus. When there was a need for encouraging, Barnabas was the one sent to do the work. Verse 23 tells us that Barnabas encouraged these new Christians to continue with and remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.
B. Disciples first called Christians
- After encouraging the new Christians in Antioch, Barnabas is not done encouraging. He goes to Tarsus, looks for Saul, finds him, and brings him to Antioch. For a year Barnabas and Saul met with the church in Antioch and taught great numbers of people. Barnabas is not interesting in making a name for himself or to be the Antioch preacher. He goes and brings in Saul to do the work. This is the character of Barnabas, to bring in the rejected and work with them and strengthen them.
- This is also the first time the disciples in the first century were called Christians. Ten years have gone by and now a name that has stuck for thousands of years is attached to the first century disciples: Christian. Previously, we have seen in the book of Acts that the disciples were called the Way, of course referring to following the way of Christ.
III. Receiving Aid From the Gentiles (11:27-30)
A. Prediction of famine
- At this time some of the prophets in Jerusalem came to Antioch. One of the prophets named Agabus stood up and through the Holy Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. The scriptures give us a historical marker telling us this famine took place during the reign of Claudius Caesar. Claudius was emperor of Rome from 41-54 A.D. It is this marker that helps us know that we are about ten years removed from the events of Acts 2.
- We have external historical evidence to support that a severe famine did take place in the reign of Claudius Caesar. Eusebius, Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Cassius attest to the occurrence of the famine.
B. Relief sent to the brethren through the elders
- When the disciples in Antioch heard this news, they provided help to the brethren according to their own ability. Judea was affected worse than another other part of the Roman empire and so the disciples in Antioch decide they want to help other disciples.
- This is our first example of one group of Christians in one location helping another group of Christians in another location. We simply want to note what they did and did not do. The primary concern was to help other disciples. We also see that there was no compulsion in this matter. Each person gave what they could, according to his or her own ability, to help others in need. We must also recognize that their need was not that they could not pay the car bill or the electric bill. This was a matter of food. The disciples in Judea did not have food in a famine and other disciples decided to offer assistance to such a need.
Thoughts To Go Home
- Disciples helping others. This is one aspect of true discipleship. We cannot miss that we have repeated seen the disciples of the first century continually help one another in whatever way they possibly can. The disciples have given according to their ability to help others. They have even sold their possessions and property to help other disciples who had needs. It would have been easy for the Christians in Antioch to say "too bad for them" and "they ought to live up here where we are" instead of help the needs of others. We have the same tendency to ignore other Christians because they are on another side of the state or on the other side of the country. We should never fall prey to saying "that is what you get for living there." I am thankful to see the help of Christians across this country being offered to this church and to the Fort Pierce church after the hurricanes. People in other states could tell us we should not live in a place where there are annual hurricanes. That is not the point. Addressing Christian needs is the point.
- True Christians. Unfortunately, the name "Christian" has been applied to nearly everything that has a drops worth of religion or God in it. We see today there are Christian coalitions. Our society declares that if you think there is a God, then you are a Christian. But the scriptures show us who are truly Christians: those who are disciples of Jesus. A Christian is someone who obeys the words of God, not someone who claims there is a God. A Christian is someone who follows God’s laws regardless of their difficulty, not someone who does what they think God wants. A Christian is someone who is molding his personality and character to the life of Jesus, not someone who wears the name but brings shame to the name. A disciple is someone who does not need to call himself a Christian, but everyone around knows he or she is a Christian. Are we true Christians following Jesus where he leads or are we worldly "Christians," claiming a title but not following through? (NIV)