ACTS - CHAPTER 11
Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
2001 James Melough
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.
when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended
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.
“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
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
“But Peter rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and expounded it by
order unto them, saying,”
“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
“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
“And I heard a voice saying unto me, Arise, Peter; slay and eat.”
“But I said, Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean hath at any time
entered into my mouth.”
“But the voice answered me again from heaven, What God hath cleansed, that
call not thou common.”
“And this was done three times: and all were drawn up again into heaven.”
“And, behold, immediately there were three men already come unto the house
where I was, sent from Caesarea unto me.”
“And the spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered into
the man’s house:”
“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,”
“Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be
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.
“And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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
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.
“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
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
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
“... preaching the Lord
Jesus.” That is all we have to do today to see blessing in the salvation
“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.
“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
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
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
“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.
“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
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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
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.
“Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and
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.