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Gentile Faith; Jewish Fears (Acts 10:36-11:30)

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34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all) – 37 you know what happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of all the things he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and caused him to be seen, 41 not by all the people, but by us, the witnesses God had already chosen, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to warn them that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 About him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” 44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “No one can withhold the water for these people to be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 So he gave orders to have them baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for several days.

1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.” 4 But Peter began and explained it to them point by point, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, an object something like a large sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came to me. 6 As I stared I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild animals, reptiles, and wild birds. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; slaughter and eat!’ 8 But I said, ‘Certainly not, Lord, for nothing defiled or ritually unclean has ever entered my mouth!’ 9 But the voice replied a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean!’ 10 This happened three times, and then everything was pulled up to heaven again. 11 At that very moment, three men sent to me from Caesarea approached the house where we were staying. 12 The Spirit told me to accompany them without hesitation. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He informed us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter, 14 who will speak a message to you by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 Then as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore if God gave them the same gift as he also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.”

19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews. 20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, 24 because he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and a significant number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught a significant number of people. Now it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. 27 At that time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, got up and predicted by the Spirit that a severe famine was about to come over the whole inhabited world. (This took place during the reign of Claudius.) 29 So the disciples, each in accordance with his financial ability, decided to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 They did so, sending their financial aid to the elders by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 10:34—11:30).1

Introduction2

I have a friend who grew up in jail. This was not because he was a criminal, but because his father was the county sheriff for many years. The sheriff was in charge of the jail, and his family lived in the building where the jail was located. When my friend’s father died, I went to the funeral service. At the service, we met a man who had been confined to a wheelchair for some time. He shared a story about my friend’s father that illustrates our text in the Book of Acts.

It was the time of the county fair, and this handicapped fellow decided he wanted to attend. Upon his arrival, he went to the ticket booth to purchase his ticket. With ticket in hand, he made his way to the gate. The problem was that the gate was not wide enough for his wheelchair to pass through. The person at the gate seemed unsympathetic and unwilling to help. It was at this very moment that the sheriff arrived on the scene. He sized up the situation and with a mighty kick, knocked down the gate and helped the man through.

In Acts 1, our Lord gave this “Great Commission” to His disciples:

7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

The apostles were instructed to wait until the Spirit came upon them, empowering them to carry out the Great Commission.3 The Spirit came upon them at Pentecost, as described in Acts 2. The result was that Peter preached a powerful sermon which God used to save many. In the Spirit’s power, the apostles performed miracles, which provided more opportunities to proclaim the gospel (see Acts 3). But as the apostles continued to heal and to preach in the name of Jesus, the Sadducees and other Jewish religious leaders became increasingly concerned, so that they began to persecute the apostles (see Acts 4:1-31; 5:12-42). The powerful preaching of Stephen was answered by his stoning (see Acts 6-7). This resulted in a great persecution that scattered the Jerusalem church abroad:

And Saul agreed completely with killing him. Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1).

The gospel was advancing in a way that partially fulfilled the Great Commission given in Acts 1:8, but this was far less than what our Lord had commanded. For one thing, the gospel was spread only as far as “all Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1; 9:31). 4 For another, the apostles had not yet come to terms with the fact that the gospel was the good news of salvation for Jews and Gentiles, without distinction. Up to this point in time, it was assumed that in order to be a Christian, one must either be Jewish, either by birth or by becoming a Jewish proselyte. The failure of the apostles to aggressively fulfill the Great Commission seems to have been fueled, to some degree, by their belief that the gospel should not go to the Gentiles. There were a few exceptions – God fearers – like the centurion in Luke 7:2-10, the Ethiopian eunuch, and Cornelius, but these all appear to be people of influence and means, who employed their resources in the service of Judaism.5

There were certain excuses for the apostles’ inaction which could have been used. For example, we know from our text that they believed the Gentiles should not be evangelized as Gentiles because they were considered unclean,or because of the Jewish food laws. Also, someone might turn to those instances where our Lord seems to forbid His disciples to take the gospel to the Gentiles, or to the Samaritans (see Matthew 10:5-6). But one must also explain why Jesus made it clear from the outset of His ministry that He had come to save Gentiles (see Luke 4:16-30). And one must explain how Jesus Himself went into Gentile territory with the gospel (John 4:3-42; Matthew 15:21-39). More than this, one must explain the words of Jesus to the centurion, by which He indicated that believing Gentiles will enter the kingdom while many Jews will not:

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him asking for help: 6 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible anguish.” 7 Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Instead, just say the word and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to this one, ‘Go’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come’ and he comes, and to my slave ‘Do this’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “ I tell you the truth, I have not found such faith in anyone in Israel! 11 I tell you, many will come from the east and west to share the banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; just as you believed, it will be done for you.” And the servant was healed at that hour (Matthew 8:5-13, emphasis mine).

In addition to this, one must explain why the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:7-8) clearly included going to the Gentiles. There was a major theological roadblock to the evangelization of Gentiles which had to be removed before the Great Commission could be fulfilled. In Acts, God has already dealt with Peter on this matter in chapter 10, and now through Peter, God will open the door to worldwide evangelism. Our text is foundational to the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of the church, and to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The truth that is unveiled here will become the bedrock foundation for much of the teaching we find in the New Testament. We must therefore listen carefully to what God has for His people to learn.

The Gospel, Short and Simple
Acts 10:34-43

34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all) – 37 you know what happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of all the things he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him up on the third day and caused him to be seen, 41 not by all the people, but by us, the witnesses God had already chosen, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to warn them that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 About him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:34-43).

Luke is preparing the reader for the next stage in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. In the first part of chapter 9, he records the dramatic conversion of Saul. Saul, soon to be known as Paul,6 will play a crucial role in the evangelization of the Gentiles. Another crucial role will be played by Peter. Peter was the one to whom the “keys to the kingdom” were given by our Lord (Matthew 16:19). He must first be convinced that God has purposed the gospel to save Gentiles as well as Jews. We dealt with this in our last lesson (Acts 9:32—10:35). Now we shall see how God used Peter and his visit to the home of Cornelius to convince his fellow apostles and others that the gospel is for Jews and Gentiles alike, without distinction.

After hearing how God had directed Cornelius to send for him (10:30-33), Peter shared what God had just taught him:

34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him” (Acts 10:34-35).7

Being Jewish did not give the Jewish people a “leg up” when it came to salvation. Not all Jews were destined to salvation (Romans 9:6-8). While the Jews were privileged in many ways,8 they were not predisposed to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The law condemned Jews, just as it did Gentiles (Acts 15:10-11; Romans 3:9-20). The Jews did fall under greater condemnation because of their greater knowledge (Romans 2), and they were likewise judicially blinded (Romans 11:25; see also 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:4).

The gospel was not for Jews only. From the very beginning, God had purposed to save men from every race, tribe, and tongue:

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, NASB, emphasis mine).

9 And thus the Gentiles glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Because of this I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and I will sing praises to your name.”

10 And again it says:
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”

11 And again,
“Praise the Lord all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him.”

12 And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
and the one who rises to rule over the Gentiles,
in him will the Gentiles hope” (Romans 15:9-12).

9 They were singing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were killed, and at the cost of your own blood you have purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. 10 You have appointed them as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).

9 After these things I looked, and here was an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb dressed in long white robes, and with palm branches in their hands. 10 They were shouting out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)

6 Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, and he had an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language, and people. 7 He declared in a loud voice: “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has arrived, and worship the one who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water!” (Revelation 14:6-7)

When we come to Acts 10:36-43, we find one of the most concise summations of the gospel in the Bible. It is almost as though Luke has provided us with a summary of the contents of one of the New Testament Gospels. Take note of the following elements:

    1. The gospel began with the preaching of John the Baptist (Acts 10:37).

    2. The baptism of Jesus, when He was divinely designated as Messiah and empowered with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38).

    3. In His earthly ministry Jesus did good, healed the sick, and delivered those held captive by the devil (Acts 10:38).

    4. Jesus was crucified by those who rejected Him (Acts 10:39).

    5. The resurrection of Jesus was evidenced by His appearances to many, and to the apostles in particular (who were appointed to testify to His resurrection) (Acts 10:40-41).

    6. Jesus then gave His witnesses the Great Commission (Acts 10:42).

    7. Jesus is Lord of all (Acts 10:36).

    8. The Lord Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).

    9. Everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus receives the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 10:43).

    10. This salvation is available to men of every nation, without distinction (Acts 10:34-35, 43).

    11. This gospel is the fulfillment of the message of all the Old Testament prophets (Acts 10: 43).

Salvation and the Witness of the Spirit
Acts 10:44-48

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “No one can withhold the water for these people to be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 So he gave orders to have them baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for several days (Acts 10:44-48).

Peter had not said all he intended, but obviously he had said enough. He was just warming up when the Spirit fell on all those who had gathered to hear him speak. It goes without saying that their hearts had been prepared because they immediately grasped the good news. (My assumption is that as Old Testament saints – God fearers – they already knew and believed9 most of what Peter told them.) What they really needed to hear was not only that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but that faith in Him would bring the forgiveness of sins, whether for the Jew or for the Gentile.

The divine witness to the salvation of these Gentiles came as the Spirit fell on all of them.10 The circumcised believers who accompanied Peter from Joppa were astounded “that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles (Acts 10:45, emphasis mine). They were speaking in tongues and praising God, just as men were when the Spirit came at Pentecost (see Acts 2:4, 11). Peter really had no other choice than to order that these saints be baptized.

We are told that these saints asked Peter to stay on for several days, and it seems quite clear that this is what he did. I think this means several things. First, it seems to have given some time to return to Jerusalem ahead of Peter and to report these events to his staunch Jewish brethren (see Acts 11:1-2). Second, it meant that Peter had to have stayed in this Gentile home and eaten Gentile food. It would have been one thing for Peter to have preached and then to have left immediately; he preached and stayed on, not unlike our Lord did in that Samaritan town (John 4:39-43).

Showdown in Jerusalem: From Protest to Praise
Acts 11:1-18

1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.” 4 But Peter began and explained it to them point by point, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, an object something like a large sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came to me. 6 As I stared I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild animals, reptiles, and wild birds. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; slaughter and eat!’ 8 But I said, ‘Certainly not, Lord, for nothing defiled or ritually unclean has ever entered my mouth!’ 9 But the voice replied a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean!’ 10 This happened three times, and then everything was pulled up to heaven again. 11 At that very moment, three men sent to me from Caesarea approached the house where we were staying. 12 The Spirit told me to accompany them without hesitation. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He informed us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter, 14 who will speak a message to you by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 Then as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore if God gave them the same gift as he also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:1-18).

Word of what had happened in Caesarea quickly reached the Jewish brethren in Jerusalem,11 even before Peter himself had returned. It is obvious that his Jewish brethren were distressed with what they had heard. The accusation they made against Peter is interesting:

“You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them” (Acts 11:3).

They faulted Peter for having eaten with men who were uncircumcised. Had those who had gathered in the home of Cornelius been Jewish proselytes, rather than mere “God fearers,” they would not have had grounds for objection. They don’t challenge Peter for preaching the gospel to Gentiles. They don’t question why he did not circumcise these believers. They don’t object to the fact that he had them baptized. But in my opinion, these things are really not what they objected to. They really objected to him preaching the gospel to Gentiles and to his accepting them as “clean.” Notice the conclusion these “concerned brethren” reached after Peter explained what happened:

“So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:18).

The real issue then was the evangelization of Gentiles, as Gentiles, without first requiring them to embrace Judaism by becoming Jewish proselytes.

Peter wisely and patiently retold the entire story to his Jewish brethren from the beginning. He started with his vision and reported how the Spirit had directed him to accompany the messengers Cornelius sent to bring him to Caesarea. God was in this from beginning to end. How could Peter do anything else? He clinches his defense by focusing on the baptism of the Spirit which he and his Jewish companions witnessed:

16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore if God gave them the same gift as he also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” (Acts 11:16-17)

How does this make a compelling concluding argument? There are at least two forceful points contained in Peter’s argument. First, Peter asserts to his Jewish brethren that what happened to Cornelius and his associates was precisely the same thing that happened to them at Pentecost. These Gentiles received the gift of the Spirit in exactly the same way the Spirit fell on those who had gathered at Pentecost. My sense is that many of those who challenged Peter were present at the first Pentecost. One must conclude, then, that God did not distinguish between the first Jewish believers at Pentecost and these Gentile believers in Caesarea. How can one prohibit what God has produced? How can one view Gentiles as outsiders when God has placed His seal upon them?

Second, Peter argues from the words of the Lord Jesus:

“And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 11:16, emphasis mine).

We know our Lord spoke these words to His apostles in Acts 1:5, but Peter’s wording implies that Jesus made this statement at other times as well. How do these words justify Peter’s actions? Jesus promised that the Spirit would baptize them in the near future. This happened to Jewish believers at Pentecost. Now it has happened again, to Gentile believers in Caesarea. But more than this, our Lord’s words indicated a relationship between John’s baptism with water and the subsequent baptism of the Spirit.12

I believe Peter’s logic works something like this. The Lord Jesus regarded John’s baptism as important (remember that our Lord’s disciples baptized as well – John 4:1-2), but He also indicated, as did John,13 that there was to be a greater baptism than this, a baptism of the Spirit. The normal sequence at that point in time had been water baptism, then Spirit baptism.14 If Spirit baptism followed water baptism in Acts, and if Spirit baptism was greater than water baptism, then how could the former (water baptism) be denied when the latter (Spirit baptism) had already occurred? How could Peter say “No!” to water baptism when God had already said “Yes!” to Spirit baptism? Peter’s actions were in response to what God had said and done. No one could condemn Peter for acting consistently with God.

Just as Peter had no choice but to baptize these believing Gentiles, the circumcised believers who had initially objected to Peter’s actions now had no choice but to change their minds as well.

When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles” (Acts 11:18, emphasis mine).

For some reason, it had never occurred to these circumcised saints that God had purposed to save Gentiles as Gentiles, without having first become a Jewish proselyte. To us, this seems like a minor point. To these Jewish saints, it was a complete paradigm shift which turned their theology and practice upside-down. To the New Testament epistles and to us, this revelation is a foundational truth concerning the church.

I have struggled with this passage previously because I could not understand why Luke did not make more of Mark 7:

14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand. 15 There is nothing outside of a person that can defile him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.” 17 Now when Jesus had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” ( This means all foods are clean.) 20 He said, “What comes out of a person defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 23 All these evils come from within and defile a person” (Mark 7:14-23, emphasis mine).

Why did Peter and Luke leap from his thrice-repeated vision about clean and unclean animals (food) to accepting Gentiles as fellow saints? I now see that I was reasoning in the wrong direction. I was reasoning that because Jesus had declared all foods clean, Peter was now free to preach the gospel to Gentiles. But the reasoning is really the reverse. Gentiles are clean, not because of what they eat, but because of the saving work of Jesus Christ on their behalf, a work they have embraced by faith. In Mark 7, Jesus taught that it was not food that defiles men; what defiles us is what comes out of us (wicked thoughts, words, deeds), not what goes into us (food). The reason fellowship with Gentiles is allowed (including eating their food) is because God has saved them; God has given them clean hearts. Because He has made believing Gentiles clean, we can fellowship with them as peers. It is not about external things like food, but about internal things like a changed heart. God made Gentiles clean by saving them, and thus neither Peter nor any Jewish saint should dare to call them unclean by refusing fellowship with them.

The Church at Antioch
Acts 11:19-30

19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews. 20 But there were some men from Cyprus and Cyrene among them who came to Antioch and began to speak to the Greeks too, proclaiming the good news of the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 A report about them came to the attention of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with devoted hearts, 24 because he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and a significant number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught a significant number of people. Now it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.

27 At that time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, got up and predicted by the Spirit that a severe famine was about to come over the whole inhabited world. (This took place during the reign of Claudius.) 29 So the disciples, each in accordance with his financial ability, decided to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 They did so, sending their financial aid to the elders by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:19-30).

When we come to Acts 11:19 we find several significant changes:

(1) We have a change in personnel. Luke changes from Peter and his fellow Hebraic Jews to Barnabas and Saul, who are Hellenistic Jews.

(2) We have a change in time. At Acts 11:19, we are taken back to the time frame of Acts 8:1 – Stephen’s death, the resulting persecution of the church, and the scattering of the saints.

(3) We have a change in place. We move from Jerusalem to Antioch.

I must confess that because of these changes, I have agonized about verses 19-30. I couldn’t decide whether to include them with this lesson, and thus to keep them with chapter 11, or whether to include them in the next lesson, with chapter 12. So how do these changes justify dealing with Acts 11:19-30 as a part of the previous context? I think I’m beginning to understand the flow of Luke’s argument here. See if you agree.

More than the change in place or personnel, I was troubled by the change in time that occurs at Acts 11:19. Why go back to the time frame of Acts 8:1? I believe it is because Luke wants us to see that God is orchestrating a most important event by achieving two things simultaneously. We have observed simultaneous action already, beginning at Acts 8:1. While God was preparing the Ethiopian eunuch for salvation, He was also guiding Philip to their meeting place in the desert (Acts 8:26-40). While God was preparing Saul for conversion, He was preparing Ananias for meeting with Saul to restore his sight (Acts 9:1-19). While God was preparing Cornelius for the arrival of Peter, He was also preparing Peter to go to the home of a Gentile (Acts 10:1-33).

The same thing is happening in our text. While God is preparing the Jerusalem church to acknowledge the inclusion of Gentile believers into the church – thus paving the way for the fulfillment of the Great Commission (Acts 11:1-18) – He is also beginning to evangelize Gentiles in Antioch (Acts 11:19ff.). Thus, the stoning of Stephen brought about the persecution and the scattering of the Jerusalem church, resulting in: (a) the conversion of Jews and Samaritans15 (Acts 8:1-25); and, (b) the salvation of Gentiles like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), those in the household of Cornelius, and those in Antioch (Acts 10:1—11:30).

While the Jews in Jerusalem were debating the legitimacy of the salvation of Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18), God was already at work saving Gentiles. I think that it was very shortly after the decision of Acts 11:18 was reached that God brought the news of the church in Antioch to the church in Jerusalem. This is the reason for the sequence of events as we find them in Luke’s account. What the Jerusalem church leaders (including the apostles) had decided in principle (Acts 11:18), they now had to act upon in practice – by sending Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 11:20ff.).

God did not require the Hebraic Jerusalem Jews (the apostles and others) to lead the charge in evangelizing to the “uttermost part” of the earth. As the Scripture says, “. . . he knows what we are made of; he realizes we are made of clay” (Psalm 103:14). Instead, God raised up Hellenistic Jews like Stephen and Philip (Acts 6-8) and Saul (Acts 9) to carry the torch of Gentile evangelism. But it was important – indeed it was necessary – for the apostles and the Jerusalem Hebraic Jews to acknowledge this truth so fundamental to the life and function of the church: In Christ God has brought together in one body, the church, both Jews and Gentiles, without partiality. Jews and Gentiles are equal members in the body of Christ.

26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).

Acts 11:19-26 is a wonderful account about this magnificent man, Barnabas, who was indeed “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). He not only acknowledged the salvation of these Gentiles, he delighted in it (Acts 11:23). And he wisely sought out Saul to come and minister to this new church (Acts 11:25-26). Surely this is the beginning of a wonderful partnership of Barnabas and Paul in the gospel that will blossom in the near future (Acts 13:1ff.). Above and beyond all of this, we see that God has begun to evangelize the Gentiles, and that this Gentile evangelization has been sanctioned by the Hebraic Jerusalem Jews, including, in particular, the apostles. This is a monumental precedent in the history of the church.

The closing verses of Acts 11 – verses 27-30 – are significant in several ways. First, this passage once again demonstrates that when someone becomes a saint, their wallet is likewise sanctified. One finds it difficult to ignore Luke’s emphasis on financial generosity as a result of coming to faith in Jesus. We find this stated in Acts 2:44-45; in Acts 4:34-37; and again (somewhat less directly) in Acts 6:1-6. Now, in Acts 11:27-30, we find the newly-saved saints in Corinth sharing their financial resources with the needy Jewish saints in Judea and Jerusalem. Loving God is accompanied by a love for others (Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:8-10). And our love flows from God’s love for us (1 John 4:19).

Second, we find that the generosity of the saints in Antioch is practiced even before the actual crisis has come. Prophets, including Agabus, arrived in Antioch with the revelation that a famine was coming to the whole world. The saints were told there would be a famine in the near future. (It wouldn’t require a prophet to inform you of an existing famine.) The saints at Antioch began to set money aside before the crisis had even come, so that funds would be on hand when they were needed. This is anticipatory generosity. The point is that these new Gentile believers were eager to give to their Jewish brethren.

Third, these verses demonstrate that accepting Gentiles as fellow believers was not a decision that put the Jews at a disadvantage, but one that resulted in blessing for the Jewish saints. For some, accepting Gentile evangelism probably came hard (see Acts 15:1). Was accepting the Gentiles as fellow believers a burden that Jewish saints must begrudgingly bear? As Paul would say, “God forbid!”16 Shortly after the church in Antioch was born, they began to demonstrate their unity with their Jewish brethren by sharing with them in their time of need. Embracing Gentile saints was a blessing to the Jews, and not a curse.

Conclusion

When I was in college, I majored in political science. One of my courses was Constitutional Law. In this course, I learned about some Supreme Court decisions which were landmark rulings that set a precedent of great magnitude. The conversion of Cornelius and those gathered with him resulted in a decision by the Jerusalem church leaders which set the course for the church and the rest of the New Testament. It removed a significant theological roadblock to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The gospel was intended for both Jews and Gentiles, without distinction. The New Testament writers – Paul in particular – will herald and expound this theme:

11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh – who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands – 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, 15 when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Let us conclude by considering some of the implications and applications of this text for Christians today.

(1) This is the gospel, by which all men can be saved. I don’t know of any text that summarizes the gospel more concisely than Peter’s words, spoken to Cornelius and those with him. This is the gospel in a nutshell. Our Lord came to this earth, was baptized by John and by the Holy Spirit. In this way, He was designated as God’s Messiah and was empowered to carry out His earthly ministry. Jesus did many miracles, setting Himself apart from all others. He was the Messiah, but He was rejected and crucified by those He came to save. God overruled this by raising Jesus from the dead. He provided convincing proof of this resurrection by many appearances to those appointed as witnesses. The apostles were witnesses of the resurrection, appointed to proclaim the gospel to all who would believe, Jew or Gentile. Jesus will come again to judge those who have rejected Him. He is Lord of all. Have you trusted in Jesus?

(2) There is but one gospel, by which Jews and Gentiles alike must be saved. There are some today who would suggest that while Jesus may be “a way,” He is not “the way.” The Bible teaches that Jesus is the only way to heaven:

Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Jews and Gentiles alike can find the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of heaven only through faith in Jesus.

(3) The gospel is only for those who are unclean and completely unworthy of it. One of the reasons why we are disobedient to the Great Commission is that we do not wish to preach the gospel to those we deem unworthy of it. Earlier in our service today, one of our missionaries told us that some of the tribes where he serves questioned the wisdom of going to this one particular tribe with the gospel. What was worse, some fellow missionaries even questioned going to this tribe. We all have people whom we deem unworthy of the gospel, or unsavable. Our text should remind us that the gospel is only for those who are unworthy of salvation and who cannot make themselves acceptable in God’s sight. May I ask you to consider those whom you may have deemed unworthy of the gospel? God wants to teach us that all men are unworthy of the gospel, but that the gospel is for all men. That is because the gospel is the good news that salvation is a gift, given by grace through faith in Jesus.

(4) Salvation is of the Lord. It wasn’t Peter who took the initiative to bring the gospel to Cornelius and his household; it was God. God prepared Peter and those who would hear his message. It wasn’t Peter who persuaded Cornelius and friends to believe; God did. They came to faith apart from an invitation. And it wasn’t Peter who baptized them in the Spirit. Peter was an instrument in the hands of the Redeemer, but he wasn’t the cause of these conversions.

We live at a time when people are obsessed with methods. They wish to know the methods of those who are successful. This is not altogether a bad thing. But let us take note that the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul, and Cornelius were not saved because of some slick evangelistic approach. They were saved because God prepared their hearts and drew them to Himself by faith. More important than having the right method is preserving and proclaiming the right message. Many are seeking to modify the message of the gospel to make it more palatable. Our task is to proclaim the gospel that God has given us in His Word, the gospel that Peter and Paul have proclaimed in the Book of Acts. If salvation is “of the Lord” – and it surely is – then let us spend more time in His Word and in prayer, asking God to prepare the hearts of lost people and to draw them to faith.

(5) I am amazed at the faith of men like Cornelius. How quickly and eagerly he embraces the gospel. Here is a man who must have been an Old Testament saint at the time the gospel came to him. No wonder he is so quick to respond to the truth of the gospel. It is men like Cornelius who help me understand why Paul could so quickly appoint elders in the churches he planted. These church leaders must have been Gentiles who were very much like Cornelius, men who had considerable knowledge from the Old Testament, as well as knowledge about the life and ministry of Jesus. It was a short leap, so to speak, to trust in Jesus as the Promised Messiah, and to understand that He saves both Jews and Gentiles alike, on the basis of faith.

(6) The baptism of the Spirit (Pentecost) and even the filling of the Spirit does not make one instantly spiritual, nor does it insure that one’s understanding of Scripture is complete. Peter and his fellow apostles had been baptized by the Spirit at Pentecost, but they were surely wrong about the Gentiles and salvation. I sometimes hear or read of those who seem to think that if they’ve experienced the Spirit as folks did in the Book of Acts, they are assured of being spiritual, and of being right in their interpretation of Scripture. Peter was an apostle, and he was Spirit-filled at Pentecost. But Peter did not have it all figured out the moment the Spirit came upon him. It took the dramatic events of our text to convince Peter that he was wrong.

This text has removed all of our excuses for not seeking to fulfill the Great Commission. May God grant us the grace to pursue the evangelization of lost men, women and children, from every people group, tongue and tribe, to the glory of God.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 16 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 12, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 Acts 1:4-5.

4 We will shortly see from Acts 11:20 there were some who went out from Jerusalem who did preach the gospel to Gentiles, but this was not initiated or sanctioned, as yet, by the apostles.

5 See Luke 7:3-5; Acts 10:1-2, 31.

6 See Acts 13:9.

7 See how Paul develops this theme in Romans 2:15-16, 25-29. Those who would suggest that Peter and Paul were at odds with each other are simply (and badly) mistaken.

8 See Romans 9:4-5.

9 Take note of “you know” in Acts 10:37.

10 There is a certain similarity here to the baptism of our Lord. It was as the Spirit came upon our Lord and remained on Him that John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:32-34). Our Lord’s baptism designated Him as the Messiah and empowered Him for His ministry. When the Spirit baptized Cornelius and his household, it designated them as true believers.

11 It seems as though the only news communicated was that Peter had gone to a Gentile home, eaten with them, and preached the gospel. The full account of what happened does not seem to be told until Peter himself tells it.

12 We see this same connection again in Acts 19:1-7.

13 See Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33.

14 See also Acts 19:5-6.

15 Who were considered half-Jews.

16 See, for example, Romans 3:4, 6, 31. It is now translated “Absolutely not!” (NET Bible) or “May it never be” (NASB), but I still like the old King James rendering, “God forbid!”

Related Topics: Spiritual Life