For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2001 James Melough

11:1.  “And the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God.”

This should have come as no surprise to them, for the Scriptures had foretold the blessing of the Gentiles, e.g., “I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6), “For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles” (Mal 1:11), the Lord Himself having declared unto them, “In his name shall the Gentiles trust” (Mt 12:21).

The distinction between the apostles and the other believers is stressed, reminding us that the twelve were a unique group to whom all the spiritual gifts appear to have been given, in contrast to what seems to be the normal order for all other believers, i.e., endowment with just one spiritual gift.  There is nothing either in Scripture or in experience to indicate any exception to this.

11:2.  “And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him,”

Old prejudices aren’t easily abandoned, even by believers.  Genuine believers though they were, these Jewish converts, having been taught from infancy to view the Gentiles as unclean dogs having no relationship with Jehovah, and from whom the Jews were to keep themselves separate, couldn’t at first believe that God could possibly have visited these “dogs” with His salvation.  But He had, and the believing Jews must now learn to accept them and treat them as brethren.

11:3.  “Saying, Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them.”

The requirements of the legal economy didn’t permit what Peter had done, i.e., eating with the uncircumcised Gentiles, but these believing Jews were to learn that those restrictions no longer applied.  It is, however, a great mistake (and one that has led to much misunderstanding of the book of Acts) to believe that the whole Levitical system was abolished.  It wasn’t, as a careful reading of Acts will reveal, see, e.g., Acts 3:1; 16:3; 18:21; 20:16; 21:20-26.  As has been noted already, and as the verses above disclose, much of the Levitical ritual continued to be observed by the Jewish converts until AD 70.  And for very good reason.  The millennial kingdom was still being offered to Israel, and Scripture makes it very clear that in the Millennium the Levitical order will be restored, and will be the form of worship for the whole earth, the only difference from the OT age being that whereas the animal sacrifices of the past were anticipative, those offered in the Millennium will be retrospective.  Faith saw in the sacrifices of the past that which pointed forward to Christ’s sacrifice.  Faith in the Millennium will see in the animal sacrifices that which points back to His sacrifice, the offering of those sacrifices being the divinely appointed method for the presentation of the worship, not only of repentant and converted Israel, but of all nations, their worship being evoked by the memory of that sacrifice at Calvary.

A careful reading of Acts makes it very clear that until AD 70 the Levitical system, as well as the Lord’s supper, was the proper method of worship for believing Jews, but not for their Gentile brothers, see Acts 21:25.  And the reason isn’t difficult to find.  Had Israel as a nation accepted Christ then, the seven years of the Tribulation would have followed immediately, to be ended by His return in glory to establish His millennial kingdom, a kingdom in which the universal system of worship will be according to the Levitical order.  God, however, foreknowing that Israel would not believe, preserved a separate order for the Gentile believers, and following His cutting off of Israel in AD 70, then made that Gentile form of worship the order for all believers during the present Church age.

Christianity began as two streams, one Jewish, the other Gentile, God’s ideal being that the Gentile stream eventually be absorbed by the Jewish, as Israel accepted her crucified but risen Messiah, and entered into the enjoyment of millennial blessing.  By His foreknowledge, however, He knew what Israel would do, and as Jewish unbelief increased, the Jewish stream began to dry up, and was eventually absorbed into the Gentile stream in AD 70, the Gentile order then becoming the one for all believers during the Church age.

Circumcision was the token of God’s covenant with Israel, not with the Gentiles.  It speaks of fleshly purification in order to obtain earthly blessings.  We are heirs of spiritual blessings: the cleansing is not to be outward but inward, circumcision being that of the heart (Ro 2:28-29). 

“... and didst eat with them.”  Eating speaks of fellowship.  The legitimate observance of Jewish custom was not to hinder fellowship with Gentile believers. 

11:4.  “But Peter rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and expounded it by order unto them, saying,”

11:5.  “I was in the city of Joppa praying: and in a trance I saw a vision, A certain vessel descend, as it had been a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners;”

11:6.  “Upon the which when I had fastened mine eyes, I considered, and saw four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.”

11:7.  “And I heard a voice saying unto me, Arise, Peter; slay and eat.”

11:8.  “But I said, Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean hath at any time entered into my mouth.”

11:9.  “But the voice answered me again from heaven, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”

11:10.  “And this was done three times: and all were drawn up again into heaven.”

11:11.  “And, behold, immediately there were three men already come unto the house where I was, sent from Caesarea unto me.”

11:12.  “And the spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting.  Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house:”

11:13.  “And he shewed us how he had seen an angel in his house, which stood and said unto him, Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter,”

11:14.  “Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved.”

Since these verses are a virtual repetition of what has already been considered in our study of chapter 10, the comments there apply here also, it being necessary only to emphasize again that the miraculous manifestation attests that it was still the Jewish age.  Such phenomena, however, became increasingly rare, ending altogether with the completion of the canon of Scripture, there being neither scriptural nor historical evidence of its legitimate use thereafter.  Such manifestation was for Israel, not for the Church.  During this present Church age God reveals Himself, not by trances, visions, angels, or miracles, but through the written Word, ministered by the Holy Spirit.

In all of this there was neither planning nor organization by men.  God used individuals, nor is there so much as a hint in Scripture that He works by any other method.  Organizations by their very nature require the control of man by man, a process which eliminates the control of the Holy Spirit, and Scripture furnishes no evidence of His working other than directly with individuals.  Organizations, no matter how good the intentions of their promoters, have no place in connection with the Lord’s work.

11:15.  “And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning.”

We have traced the working of the Holy Spirit from beginning to end of this account of the conversion of Cornelius and his household, and one lesson must surely impress itself upon every honest reader: the outpouring of blessing was because of the obedience of every individual involved.  Nothing more, but also nothing less, is required to make that same power available today.  Human organization has short-circuited the Holy Spirit’s power, nor will the effects of that power be seen again until every such organization is abandoned, and individuals are willing to do His bidding as did Cornelius and Peter.

11:16.  “Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost.”

Peter’s reference is to Ac 1:5, but the Lord when making the statement was referring to the words of John the Baptist recorded in Mt 3:11, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”  This baptism of the Holy Spirit, first experienced by the Jewish believers in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, and here again by the Gentile converts in the house of Cornelius, was the partial fulfillment of the prophecy recorded in Joel 2:28-29, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions; and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.”

It was partial, because the complete fulfillment will not be known until the millennial kingdom has been set up.  God graciously gave those early token manifestations to encourage in Israel the obedience which would have brought her into the enjoyment of millennial blessing.  Sadly, however, she rejected every divine overture, refused to accept as her Messiah the Jesus she had crucified, and Who now in transcendent grace, and in resurrection, was willing to pardon all her sin - even that of having crucified Him, being willing to count that act one of ignorance (3:17).  The thirty-eight years between AD 32 and AD 70 were years of probation, during which, as her unbelief became more apparent, there was a proportionate diminution in the degree of miraculous manifestation, the period ending in her being cast out of the land and scattered amongst the nations.

It is to be remembered that there was a similar thirty-eight year period of probation during her OT history: the thirty-eight years which followed her refusal to enter Canaan, and the ultimate entry of a new generation under Joshua.  As it was then, so was it also in the apostolic age.  The old unbelieving generation, Israel, died out, and a new generation, the Gentile Church, developed to replace her, and enter into blessings superior even to the earthly millennial blessings she had forfeited by her disobedience.

11:17.  “Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?”

The “gift” is that of eternal life, but that that gift is contingent upon faith is declared in the announcement that they had believed on the Lord Jesus Christ.  The giving of the Holy Spirit was the outward evidence of their having been given the gift of life, reminding us that there is more to salvation than a mere lip confession of faith: the reality of the profession is to be certified by a changed lifestyle, as James declares, “Faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:20).

“What was I....?” continues to emphasize that the man is nothing but an instrument in the hand of the Creator.  The determination of the Jewish leaders to “withstand God” shows what fools they were.

11:18.  “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.”

Unlike their unbelieving fellows the Jewish leaders, these Jewish converts were willing to accept the evidence of God’s willingness to bless believing Gentiles, and they rejoiced at the munificence of His grace.

11:19.  “Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.”

This begins a new section, taking us back to 7:60 where the narrative was interrupted at the point of Stephen’s martyrdom.  The persecution was overruled by God for the spread of the gospel, He working all things (even man’s rebellion) for the accomplishment of His own purposes.  With much else that might have occupied their minds, those persecuted saints went preaching the gospel, their unselfish zeal rebuking our apathy.  Our minds are often so occupied with our own affairs that we have no time for God’s business.

Their preaching only to the Jews, reminds us that it was still the Jewish age, in which Israel was being offered the millennial kingdom.  (In this connection see also Mt 10:5-7; 15:24; Jn 10:16).  But their day of grace was running out, for the next verse records the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles also.

11:20.  “And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus.”

This Antioch is the one on the Orontes river in Syria, and is not to be confused with the city of the same name mentioned in 13:14 and located in Pisidia.  This is the first reference to the public presentation of the gospel to Gentiles (the conversion of Cornelius and his group may have preceded this), for while Grecians is often used to designate Greek-speaking Jews, it is generally agreed that here the reference is to Gentiles.  See Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary, p.188, and others.  God was turning away from the nation that had turned away from Him. 

I can’t determine the significance of these names, but Cyprus means possess thou the furnace, and since the furnace is the symbol of affliction, this may be to intimate that these heralds of the gospel would be afflicted, but would be overcomers; and since Cyrene means supremacy of the bridle, there may be further assurance of their victory, for the horse represents strength, but the bridle is in the hand of the rider controlling the horse.  These servants of God were in control because they were His instruments, and He is in control.  This is true of all God’s servants. 

Antioch means driven against, and may speak of opposition, but in Antioch “a great number believed,” assuring us that none can withstand the power of God. 

Grecians means unstable: the miry ones (masculine).  The frailty and uncleanness of man is declared here.  We are but as a vapor, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags (Isa 64:6). 

“... preaching the Lord Jesus.”  That is all we have to do today to see blessing in the salvation of souls.

11:21.  “And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.” 

It matters not whether the whole world may be against us, “If God be for us who can be against us?” (Ro 8:31).  Having God’s hand with them was all they needed.  Obedience in preaching the gospel is the key to blessing. 

“... and a great number believed.”  God doesn’t require teams, organizations, theological education, or anything else.  He needs obedient individuals.  As Grant, writing about a century ago, comments, “It is remarkable how officialism is discredited in all this. We do not know the name of a single person used in the work,” Numerical Bible, p.78.  It is ominously significant that in spite of all the organizations involved in Christian work today, there is remarkably little that offers much evidence of the reality that characterized the work of the Church in past generations.  The truth that needs to be faced is that the Holy Spirit has been organized out of virtually all Christian work, so that He, like the Lord Jesus Christ, stands outside the door of a professing church which has become largely Laodicean in character, assuring us that we are living in the closing days of the age.

“and turned unto the Lord.”  Sinners don’t turn to men or to churches, but to the Lord.

11:22.  “Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch.”

Jerusalem was still the center.  Israel had not yet been abandoned.  It was still the Jewish age during which she was being offered the millennial kingdom. 

Their sending forth Barnabas is not to be construed as their controlling him or directing his work.  That was, and continues to be the prerogative of the Holy Spirit.  It is He, and He alone Who sends forth His servants, and directs their work, nor has He delegated that authority to any man or organization, not even the elders.  The believers in Jerusalem, in the current of God’s will, simply sent Barnabas forth with their blessing, and undoubtedly also their practical support, see Acts 13:1-4.

Barnabas means son of prophecy: son of consolation, and verse 24 informs us that, “He was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.”  No better man could have been sent to rightly assess the nature of the new work in Antioch.

11:23.  “Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.”

He saw not the work of man, but the grace of God, for man is but God’s instrument.  And he was glad.  Are we cheered by news of conversions?  Sadly, such news is largely met with indifference today by those professing faith in Christ. 

He “exhorted them.”  Converts need exhortation and teaching, but it is instructive to note what it was in regard to which he exhorted them all.  It was, “That with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.”  This implies the activity of the will.  The Holy Spirit controls only by the individual’s permission, and it is well to note that He never bypasses the will either of believer or unbeliever, a fact which declares the unholy nature of the power producing the involuntary utterances of those claiming to have a special endowment of the Spirit’s power.  Only as we walk in fellowship with Him will there be blessing, and though He desires to bless, He will not compel our obedience.  It must be voluntarily given.

Nor should we fail to note that they were to cleave “unto the Lord.”  Believers aren’t called upon to cleave to a system or an organization, but to a person, the Lord Jesus Christ.

11:24.  “For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord.”

A man is good only as he is Christ-like, and he is Christ-like only as he is full of, or obedient to, the Holy Spirit, and that implies faith to walk in obedience to God’s Word.  It is by the work of such men that souls are saved, and God’s house built.

11:25. “Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:”

His going to Tarsus, meaning a flat basket, to seek Saul (last mentioned in 9:30) was undoubtedly at the Spirit’s impulse.  Only as we obey Him will the power of God be seen in our lives.  The willingness of Barnabas to bring Saul to Antioch assures us that he sought no glory for himself, but rather, desired only the welfare of the believers in Antioch.  It would be well for the Church were more of her servants possessed of that same self-effacing spirit.

11:26. “And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch.  And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people.  And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”

The very fact that emphasis is laid upon their staying in Antioch for a whole year argues against the teacher’s remaining permanently in one church.  It was the exception rather than the rule.  Obviously they left after a year.  The Scriptural order of ministry is that the elders are to do the bulk of the teaching, their teaching being supplemented by that of itinerant teachers.

Scripture knows nothing of the ministry of a permanent “pastor,” or “resident full-time worker.”  Where this unscriptural system operates, spiritual gift withers, there being little or no opportunity for its development.

Christian means literally one like the anointed, so that the  application of this name would indicate that the believers in Antioch manifested Christ-likeness in an unusual degree.  Sadly, those of such character are few and far between today.

11:27.  “And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.”

The canon of Scripture was then still incomplete, but when John penned the last word of the Revelation, the prophetic office ceased, there being no longer need of it, for contrary to general opinion, the function of the prophet was not only to foretell the future, but to forthtell the mind and will of God.  All that God has chosen to reveal of Himself is now contained in the Scriptures, and as is made clear in 2 Pe 2:1, the teacher has replaced the prophet, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you....”  The distinction between the prophet and the teacher, however, must be noted.  Unlike the prophet, the teacher’s work is not to add anything to the canon of Scripture, but to explain the meaning of what the prophets have written.

11:28.  “And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar.”

Agabus means grasshopper, but I can’t see that it has any spiritual significance.  History confirms the accuracy of the prophecy, for “Many  extrabiblical sources make note of a succession of bad harvests and extreme famine throughout the entire Roman Empire, especially Palestine, during the reign of Claudius (41-54 A.D.)” - Liberty Bible Commentary.  

Since in Scripture literal famine is often used as a figure or type of spiritual dearth, it may well be that the prophecy pointed also to the spiritual famine that has held the professing church in its withering grip since the end of the apostolic age, that famine seldom having been worse than today.

11:29.  “Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:”

Having profited spiritually by the ministry of Jewish believers, those Gentile converts reciprocated by a temporal ministry, in the spirit of 1 Co 9:11 “If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?”

Nor is this the only reference to the need of believers to minister to the temporal needs of their brethren, see, for example, 1 Co 16:1-3 “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye.  Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.  And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem.”

It is to be noted also that “every man” gave “according to his ability.”  No income is so small that it exempts the recipient from returning to God the portion which acknowledges Him as the Giver.  He who withholds that portion robs himself as well as God, as it is written, “There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty.  The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself” (Pr 11:24-25).

Another truth demonstrated by this ministry of these Gentile saints to their Jewish brethren is that Christ has broken down “the middle wall of partition” (Eph 2:14).  The age-long animosities between Jew and Gentile had been banished from the lives of those believers.

11:30.  “Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.”

The order of the names would indicate that at this time Barnabas was the more prominent figure.  It is to be noted also that this is the first mention of Church elders.

[Acts 12]



     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough