Acts 11:1-3

The news that Peter had preached to Cornelius's household and won them to Christ spread quickly throughout the churches of Judea. Some of the "circumcision" (Jewish Christians) were offended. When Peter went to Jerusalem, they sharply criticized him. Not only did Peter go into a gentile's home to speak with gentiles, but he ate with them. The Jews in Peter's day felt that either kind of contact with gentiles broke God’s law and made a Jew unclean.1 Still, it is strange that any followers of Christ should have objected to what Peter did. Christ Himself offered to enter the home of a gentile, also a centurion, so that He might heal the man’s servant (Matt. 8:5–10).

How sad that people saved by the gospel tried to keep the gospel from going to others! Indeed, by complaining about Peter's mission to Cornelius, they were setting themselves against the greatest step forward in the history of evangelism. Beforehand, the gospel went only to Jews. Afterward, it was free to spread throughout the whole world, as God intended. In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded the church to carry the gospel to all nations (Matt. 28:18–20).

No important effort to do God's work on earth goes unchallenged by Satan. As soon as he sees God's people moving in a forward direction, he tries his best to obstruct them. It is therefore not surprising that after Peter preached to gentiles, he hit a wall of angry criticism. His opponents were stirred up by Satan.

Pondering a Question

What examples of Satanic resistance to the work of God do we find in Scripture?

Scripture gives many examples.

  1. God sent Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt, but Pharaoh would not let them go. He did not change his mind until God destroyed the land with plagues (Exod. 3–12).
  2. King Saul tried repeatedly to kill David, the man God appointed to replace him and to establish a throne for Christ, David's descendant (1 Sam. 16–31).
  3. When Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, the surrounding nations attempted to halt the work by threats and political maneuvers (Neh. 2–6).
  4. The Gospels testify that Jesus devoted His ministry to doing good, but the Pharisees and Sadducees dogged his steps and found fault with everything He did. At last they killed him.
  5. We will see later in the Book of Acts that in virtually every city where Paul took the gospel, the Jews started riots.

Pondering a Question

What examples of Satanic resistance to the work of God do we find in church history?

We see the same pattern in church history.

  1. The rapid growth of the church during the first few centuries provoked a violent crackdown by Roman authorities. They sentenced many believers to die in an arena or on a cross.2
  2. When Martin Luther struggled against the false teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the wrath of both the pope and the emperor fell upon him, and he barely escaped with his life.3 As we said earlier, the struggle against the papal church from late medieval times until early modern times brought millions of believers to their deaths.4
  3. At a moment in history when England was spiritually dead, George Whitefield and John Wesley began to preach the true gospel, but the existing churches refused to hear them. They had to go out into the fields and preach to ragged coal miners.5

Getting Practical

Satanic obstacles in your life

The same principle applies to every believer. If you start walking in obedience to God, the powers of darkness will set obstacles in your path. Maybe you have not attended Sunday School regularly. If you decide to go every Sunday, getting to the first few classes may be a struggle. You may spill breakfast food on your good clothes; the phone may ring as you go out the door; the car may break down. All these setbacks are the devil's attempt to keep you away from church. But don't give up. The only way you can establish a habit pleasing to God is to persevere despite opposition.

Peter's Defense

Acts 11:4-17

After hearing the Jews protest his visit to Cornelius, Peter faced a choice. As an apostle, he had the authority to rebuke his critics sternly. Perhaps he could even have brought them under divine judgment. But his desire was not to hurt them; rather, to help them. Thus, he spoke to them gently and showed the reasons for his conduct.

He reviewed in some detail all the events that produced his visit to Cornelius. While at Joppa, he had a vision showing that he was no longer to consider gentiles unclean. Immediately afterward, he learned that three messengers had arrived at the house where he was staying. When he met them and received their invitation to Caesarea, he went without hesitation, because the Spirit had already commanded him to go. To explain why the messengers came, he said that an angel had visited Cornelius and instructed him to summon Peter, who would speak the words of salvation. Peter testified that when the gentiles in the assembled crowd at Caesarea heard and believed these words, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as at Pentecost He fell on Jewish believers. In conclusion, Peter justified his outreach to gentiles by arguing that he dared not "withstand God."

New Facts

Peter's account is close to what we read in chapter 10, with a few additions. For example, Peter said that six Jewish Christians accompanied him from Joppa. Including Peter, the delegation numbered seven. He mentioned this fact to assure his critics that there were many observers of the Spirit’s descent upon gentile believers in Caesarea. Jewish law required that in a case before the courts, every claim concerning what happened in the past had to be supported by two, preferably three, witnesses (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15). The support offered by seven witnesses, the perfect number, could not be disputed.

Also, according to Peter, the angel's instruction to Cornelius specifically promised that Peter would bring him the way of salvation. We therefore need not doubt that despite his good works, Cornelius was not saved until he embraced the gospel brought by Peter.

Criticism Silenced

Acts 11:18

Those people in the church who attacked Peter because he witnessed to gentiles were completely out of line. They were releasing a stream of ugly feelings that grieved the Holy Spirit within them, if they were truly saved. Yet Peter did not tell them that they were Satan's tools, although they were. Rather, he spoke to them nicely in an effort to help them exercise better judgment.

Getting Practical

A time for gentleness, a time for severity

Peter's response to criticism reminds us of the guidelines Paul later set down for any leader who must cope with opposition. "And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will" (2 Tim. 2:24-26). The right way to handle an unruly child of God is to try kindness first. Kind words will amplify the voice of the Holy Spirit who is already speaking to him. They will lubricate the wheels of change, whereas harsh words will throw blocks under the wheels.

Yet a even a believer may become so ornery that the only remedy is severe rebuke. Notice Paul’s counsel to Titus when his efforts to establish good churches in Crete were being hindered by new believers still in bondage to fleshly thinking.

7 For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; . . . ;

9 Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.

10 For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision:

11 Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.

12 One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.

13 This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.

Titus 1:7, 9–13

We might suppose that these "gainsayers" and "deceivers" could not be real believers—that surely Paul is talking about infiltrators into the body who were only posing as believers. But in verse 9 Paul says that Titus should treat the gainsayers as wayward members of his flock who might, through exhortation, be restored to the right path. And in verse 13 he adds that to build sound faith in the vain talkers and deceivers, Titus should sharply rebuke them. Presumably, faith was something they already had, although in an immature and unstable form.

To every spiritual leader dealing with a brother gone astray, this passage gives a clear mandate to go beyond gentleness if necessary to protect the wanderer from suffering the full consequences of his folly. Sometimes sharp rebuke is warranted. To withhold it might leave a weak soul in grave danger. If a sheep is about to step over a cliff, the shepherd should not hesitate to say bluntly, in no uncertain terms, "Get back." Still, love must never be absent from his tone of voice, and strong words should only be a last resort.

By dealing tactfully with his opponents, Peter won them over to his side. Not only did the Jews withhold their tongues from more criticism; also, they openly glorified God for His mercy to the gentiles. They admitted that witnessing to the gentiles was God's will for the church.

Pondering a Question

When a problem arises, how far should we press people in seeking to resolve it?

It depends on two factors: whether these people are under our authority and whether they are believers.

In dealing with people under our authority, we have every right to press them to the point of fully resolving the problem. In the course of seeking a solution, we may invoke any appropriate incentive or penalty. Still, we learn from Peter's example that always before we turn to corrective measures of this kind, we should try persuasion salted with tact and gentleness. Also, we learn that a person in authority should always be a good listener. Peter allowed his critics to speak so that he might give an answer that would convince reasonable men. As it turned out, his critics accepted his answer, making it unnecessary for him to exercise discipline.

But we have no recourse to discipline if we are dealing with a believer who is not under our authority. All we can do is approach him kindly and engage him in peaceful discussion, seeking to mend our relationship with him. Yet, if the problem is serious enough and if he resists coming to a satisfactory solution, we can enlist the help of others. Jesus said that we should first use a single mediator. Then, if all else fails, we should take the problem to the whole church (Matt. 18:15-17).

Our strategy in dealing with an unbeliever outside our authority must be entirely different. It is always right to work at resolving a problem. Often, however, the other person will refuse to make any adjustments or concessions. Instead, he will shut down further discussion, or he will simply cover his tracks by lying. Then what should we do? Either of these responses is generally an admission of guilt. Also, it is a statement that we can expect no cooperation. To press further under these circumstances is unwise. We are likely to succeed only in provoking a counterattack or some other unpleasant form of self-defense. No, we then heed the words of Scripture. "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Rom. 12:18-19). We back off, choosing peace rather than war, and we leave the matter to God, who is just. He will if necessary avenge any wrong that we have suffered.

Advance of the Gospel

Acts 11:19-22

The wave of preachers that left Jerusalem after the death of Stephen confined their ministry to the Jews. They made converts in Phoenicia (a region on the Mediterranean coast north of Palestine), Cyprus (a large Mediterranean island northwest of Palestine), and Antioch (a city in northwest Syria on the threshold of Asia Minor).

After God led Peter to share the gospel with Cornelius, other preachers began evangelistic work among the gentiles. Some of the Jews won to Christ in Cyprus and Cyrene (an African city on the Mediterranean coast west of Egypt) came to Antioch, where a Jewish church already existed. But now that the gospel had broken through the wall between Jew and gentile, the newcomers saw a need to reach the Greeks. They sought them out and gave them the gospel. Through the power of God, many believed. Almost overnight, a strictly Jewish church became a church with perhaps as many gentiles as Jews.

Delving Deeper

Importance of Antioch

Antioch was a much larger city than Jerusalem. Indeed, it was one of the chief cities in the Roman Empire, with a population ranking third after Rome itself and Alexandria.6 Any modern attempt at an exact count is fraught with difficulties, but the Roman writer Pliny the Elder reported its population as six hundred thousand.7

Among the inhabitants was a large Jewish population, probably between twenty-five and seventy-five thousand.8 The Jewish and gentile communities had a long history of living together with mutual tolerance.9 Daily intermingling assisted by a common language, Aramaic, helped to knit them together as people of one city. The words of Josephus greatly enlighten our perspective.

The Jewish race, densely interspersed among the native populations of every portion of the world, is particularly numerous in Syria, where intermingling is due to the proximity of the two countries. But it was at Antioch that they specially congregated, partly owing to the greatness of that city, but mainly because the successors of King Antiochus had enabled them to live there in security . . . [and] granted them citizen rights on an equality with the Greeks. Continuing to receive similar treatment from later monarchs, the Jewish colony grew in numbers, and their richly designed and costly offerings formed a splendid ornament to the temple. Moreover, they were constantly attracting to their religious ceremonies multitudes of Greeks, and these they had in some measure incorporated within themselves.10

It is therefore not surprising that the first church forging Jews and gentiles into one body of saints sprang up in Antioch.

Delving Still Deeper

First gentile converts in Antioch

Many scholars, following bias rather than evidence, view Christianity as evolving gradually from its Jewish origins. From this perspective, the first missionaries who reached outside the Jewish community in Antioch must have restricted their evangelism to gentiles already affiliated with Jewish synagogues either as proselytes or God-fearers. They must have ignored others because they saw them as unclean.

Our reply is that perhaps they began their work by witnessing to gentiles friendly to Jewish religion, but the account in Acts provides absolutely no support for the theory that they went no further. We may suppose that the church soon embraced gentiles from many diverse backgrounds.

Earlier, Peter informed the whole church in Jerusalem that God had removed all barriers to future direct fellowship between Jewish and gentile believers (vv. 4-17). By God's direction, Peter and fellow Jews had entered the house of Cornelius and eaten with gentiles. Thus, gentiles were no longer to be considered unclean. Also, God had sent Peter a vision rescinding the Mosaic distinction between clean and unclean animals. Thus, Jews should feel free to accept and eat food that gentiles had prepared.

The actual transition from Mosaic religion to Christianity took place quickly in a few discrete steps.

News of what was happening in Antioch soon reached Jerusalem. Now there was no controversy. Peter's defense of his visit to Cornelius had silenced all opposition to including gentiles in the church. Instead of provoking an argument, the news brought joy.

Yet the conversion of so many gentiles all at once gave the leaders in Jerusalem some concern. A Jew who accepted Christ was already well instructed in the ways of God. But the spiritual knowledge of a gentile convert might be extremely poor. Also, because gentiles were known to bounce from religion to religion, the leaders were afraid that the faith of some new believers would prove to be insincere and short-lived.

They decided to send Barnabas to Antioch. His role there would be to give the gentile converts the Bible teaching they lacked. Also, he would exhort them firmly to remain faithful to Christ.

Pondering a Question

How far was Antioch from Jerusalem?

In the Book of Acts we often read of men journeying between Antioch and Jerusalem. It was by no means a short trip, for the distance was about three hundred miles.

Situated in the northwest corner of Syria, about twenty miles from the sea, Antioch was, for anyone traveling northward, a gateway to Asia Minor.

Delving Deeper

Ancient modes of travel

Much about ancient travel remains uncertain, but it is generally accepted that for most travelers, a long journey was accomplished by walking. For example, Saul was on foot when the Lord suddenly appeared to him as he was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus. The light from heaven made him fall to the earth, and afterward he was led by the hand (Acts 9:3–8). Saul was an important official who could move abroad however he pleased, yet he was not riding in a carriage or on horseback.

Both modes of travel were certainly available. Couriers in the government postal service, which sped delivery of official dispatches and documents, rode on saddled horses.11 But these were seldom used to transport people not engaged in military or government business. One reason perhaps is that stirrups had not been invented and a secure seat was therefore problematic except for expert riders.12 Another possible reason is that few people had an opportunity to learn how to ride. In the Roman world, horses served as beasts of choice in cavalry units, chariot races, and high-speed transportation, but seldom as working beasts on farms.13

Carriages of many kinds were in common use.14 Compared with walking, they offered greater comfort, at least by ancient standards. We would find the slow bouncy ride along coarse pavement as less than ideal. Yet because they spared the traveler from exertion and gave mild protection from the elements, the rich often traveled by carriage, especially if the company included women and children. For the less wealthy, the preferred mode of travel was on foot, for two reasons.

  1. In any trip requiring overnight stops, carriage travel was far more costly, because animals had to be cared for. Along major Roman roads, a traveler came to inns (mansiones) at intervals of twenty to twenty-five miles, the normal distance of one day's travel.15 These offered not only shelter and food for beasts, but also rooms for overnight lodging.16 The accommodations were hardly inviting from our perspective, but however primitive, any lodgings under a roof cost money.
  2. Carriage travel was not significantly faster. Government couriers routinely traversed from forty-one to sixty-four miles in a day, although in an emergency they might exceed their usual limit.17 If we reckon a day as twelve hours, their average speed including necessary stops ranged between three and six miles per hour. The usual speed of civilian carriages, however, was considerably slower. The fastest were probably the light open carriages of two wheels, called cisia, that were available for hire at some mansiones.18 In a manner suggesting that he is recalling an exceptional performance, Cicero mentions that a messenger traveling in a cisium went fifty-six miles in ten hours;19 that is, he achieved a speed between five and six miles per hour. But for most carriages, which were capable of a day’s journey stretching no farther than about twenty-five miles, the maximum sustained speed was two or three miles per hour. An energetic pedestrian in good enough physical condition to walk every mile in fifteen or twenty minutes could easily outperform them. Along secondary roads, he had an even clearer advantage. We can now guess why Saul walked to Damascus. He was in a hurry. Yet it is doubtful that even a robust walker kept up a regular pace exceeding twenty-five miles per day. In the view of many scholars, a more realistic estimate of daily progress for a strong man tramping ancient roads is at least fifteen, perhaps as much as twenty, miles per day.20

Thus, for anyone concerned to minimize cost and maximize speed, walking was usually the more desirable option. In the remainder of this commentary, we will assume that throughout Paul's missionary journeys, his normal way of moving about was by walking.21 It was cheaper. Thus, for him, it allowed better stewardship of whatever money God had entrusted to him. Also, it was often quicker and seldom much slower. Thus, it allowed him to reach more people and gain more fruit for God's kingdom.

Delving Deeper

A day and night on the road

For Paul and his companions, every day of travel was much the same, for the great need was always to keep pushing on through mile after weary mile. The scenery might offer a diversion, but usually they were too busy to notice. It took all their will and strength and concentration just to keep moving at a brisk pace. Sometimes they walked a main Roman artery which was broad and well-paved, but more often their road was narrow and paved only with gravel. When a carriage came along, they had to guard against stones sent flying by the wheels.22

Always they were in grave danger of the brigands who preyed on vulnerable travelers. They were common even along roads near cities.23 As Paul testifies in his summary of all the trouble he endured for the cause of Christ, he was "in journeyings often . . . , in perils of robbers" (2 Cor. 11:26). What precautions did he take to protect himself? So far as we know, he seldom traveled alone. Always he had at least one companion, sometimes more. Perhaps, in keeping with Jesus’ advice (Luke 22:36), he wore a sword in a conspicuous manner, so that robbers lying in wait would not fail to see it. Perhaps, when possible, his company joined an even larger group of travelers to achieve safety in numbers. A side advantage would be opportunities for witness. Since Paul speaks of robbers as only a peril, not of himself as their actual victim, we may assume that God always kept them at bay.

Paul also remembers "perils in the wilderness" (2 Cor. 11:26). There he must have endured fierce storms that fell upon him when he could find little protective cover. He specifically mentions "perils of waters" (2 Cor. 11:26), where "waters" means rivers.24 A riverside ascent into the mountains was especially dangerous, since melting snow or a downpour at higher elevations might cause a torrent of water to sweep down the road. Passage across a river swollen by flooding was another common hazard. One of the most serious perils of the wilderness was wild animals. Many of his journeys went through the habitat of bears, boars, or wolves.25 Since he never mentions an actual encounter with these, it appears that God always kept His wild creatures from threatening His messenger.

As Paul and companions trekked great distances on Roman roads, they had three options at night. One was to find an inn where they could either rent a room inside or sleep outside with all the carriage beasts tethered in a central courtyard.26 Since Paul wanted to spend as little money as possible, he would normally have chosen to see the stars rather than a roof. To lie down in the open air did bring some risk of overexposure to the elements or of being run over by a carriage. Also, whether inside or outside the inn, people who seemed like fellow travelers might be prove to be robbers.27

Yet on some days Paul’s company did not move fast enough to reach the next inn. Travelers caught in a lonely place as night fell often no choice but to sleep by the roadside. Paul seems to be recalling the many times when his progress during the day fell short of good overnight shelter when he says, "In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness" (2 Cor. 11:27).28 "Watchings" refers to sleeplessness,29 "nakedness" to inadequate clothing on a cold night.30 "Fastings" in this instance, where it occurs together with hunger and thirst, probably refers to involuntary abstinence from food because none was available.31 On a long journey, Paul and his friends could not carry enough food to meet their needs all along the way. So, it sometimes happened that they did not come to a new source before their stores ran out. Also, they could not pile on their backs enough clothing and blankets to cope with sharply falling temperatures, such as they might encounter as they hiked through the mountains of Anatolia or Macedonia. So, it sometimes happened that they spent the night shivering under a canopy of rocks.

Probably on a typical night during Paul’s journeys, he and his companions preferred to find a private residence that would provide supper and, either in the house or an adjoining building, a place to sleep. For payment, Paul probably offered his services as a skilled tentmaker (Acts 18:3); that is, leatherworker (later, we will provide a fuller discussion of his trade). Many households had leather items in need of repair, whether sandals, cloaks, water-carrying gourds, harnesses, or even tents.32 Staying with people had the crucial advantage of furnishing opportunities to tell of the grace and love of God.

Barnabas the Exhorter

Acts 11:23-24

When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, he rejoiced at what he saw. The grace of God had radically transformed the new believers, leaving no doubt that they were truly saved.

Earlier in Acts, Luke informs us that the meaning of Barnabas is "son of consolation" (Acts 4:36)—that is, "son of exhortation."33 Exhortation means to give good counsel. He was one of those unusual men whose name correctly states his character. After coming to Antioch, he diligently exhorted the people. He especially urged them to remain devoted to Christ, whatever trials might come into their lives. To the large number of Greeks already in the church, many more were added as a result of Barnabas's preaching.

The secret of Barnabas's success is quite simple. He was, as Scripture says, "a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith."

Delving Deeper

Good memories of a good man

Here is unusual praise indeed. Yet it is not the first time in Acts that Barnabas is singled out for special commendation (Acts 4:36–37). We find further tribute, although merely implicit, in Luke's account of Paul's first missionary journey, when Paul and Barnabas were colaborers (Acts 13-14). Barnabas stands in a favorable light unequalled by few other figures in the New Testament, aside from Christ Himself.

We may suppose that Luke's glowing words reflect Paul's estimate of Barnabas. Paul remembered that Barnabas helped him win acceptance when he first visited the church in Jerusalem after his conversion (Acts 9:26–28), that Barnabas gave him an important role in the church at Antioch (Acts 11:25–26), that in his first missionary journey they toiled together through one life-threatening crisis after another. Paul had nothing but deep appreciation for Barnabas's long record of staunch support and untiring encouragement.

But we should not suspect that Paul's estimate of Barnabas is overblown by personal indebtedness. The ultimate source of the Book of Acts is the Holy Spirit. He wanted us to view Barnabas as a man we should emulate. Only in eternity will we discover all his invaluable contributions to the growth of the church. The well-founded opinion of the church father Tertullian as well as some modern scholars and commentators is that Barnabas wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews.34 To avoid being recognized, he slips into the background, leaving the work anonymous. His refusal to name himself illustrates his humility, another of his virtues that we should accept as our example.

Getting Practical

A useful measuring stick

If you feel that you are not a successful Christian, compare yourself with Barnabas. Ask yourself which of his outstanding qualities you are lacking. Would others describe you as a good person, or as a selfish person who is hard to get along with? Do you enjoy the daily filling of the Holy Spirit, or do you rely on your own cleverness to meet the problems of life? Are you full of faith, or do you overlook the power of God when you need help?

Bringing Back Saul

Acts 11:25-26

After ministering for a while in Antioch, Barnabas realized that an ideal helper in building a church blessed with an influx of gentiles would be Saul. Barnabas went to Tarsus and persuaded Saul to return with him to Antioch. A man with Saul's education and gifts was well suited to teach highly cultured Greeks. For a whole year, Barnabas and Saul worked as a team in discipling new converts.

At about this time in Antioch, a new term was coined for the followers of Jesus. They were called Christians. Although Luke spells the term in Greek letters, it has a Latin ending, suggesting that it originated among the Romans, perhaps those belonging to the imperial government.35 The term simply means "follower of Christ," just as Herodian (Mark 3:6, etc.) means "follower of Herod."36 Christians themselves soon adopted it, probably because it helped them define their place in the world at large as something more substantial and commanding of notice than just another Jewish sect. Christian leaders may have resisted this trend, however, because they wanted to remain under the umbrella of legal protections enjoyed by the Jewish religion. We will say more about this later.

The name "Christian" was probably not intended as a term of respect, but of scorn.37 In the eyes of many Romans and Greeks, Christ was a crazy fanatic who went to a shameful death on a cross. The derogatory sense that the word carried to many gentile ears is illustrated by a comment of the Roman historian Tacitus, writing near the end of the first century. He said in his account of the fire that destroyed much of Rome in AD 64,

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace [or, the vulgar]. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths.38

Yet history has put a different sense to the word "Christian." When we think of all those who have lived noble, self-sacrificing lives in an effort to imitate Christ, we realize that to be called a Christian is a great honor. The name was perhaps invented by enemies of the church, but God let it stand as the right name for His people because it truly states the essence of the Christian life—to follow Christ.

Pondering a Question

Why did God grant the believers in Antioch the great honor of first bearing the name "Christian"?

It is no accident that the believers in Antioch were so honored. They were the first to build the kind of church God desired—one that brings people from varied backgrounds into loving fellowship with each other. In particular, God wanted the church to include both Jews and gentiles.

Yet He wanted its inclusiveness to be even more radical. As Paul said, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Do you perceive the revolutionary scope of this simple declaration? Nothing of similar import ever preceded it in the history of human thought. Paul actually said that in God’s eyes, a woman is equal to a man. To this day, no major religion aside from Judeo-Christianity puts men and women on the same eternal plane.

No less revolutionary is another of Paul’s assertions speaking of our position in Christ. "Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all" (Col. 3:11). Here he affirms that no accident of birth can affect either a man’s eternal destiny or his rank in the church. This teaching anticipates the fuller picture of God’s plan that we find in the Book of Revelation, which says that the heavenly congregation of saints will be "a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues" (Rev. 7:9).

Generosity of the Gentiles

Acts 11:27-30

The church in Antioch prospered under the ministry of Saul and Barnabas. After allowing the first gentile converts a year or two of seasoning, God brought men to Antioch from the church in Jerusalem. These men are described as prophets. Although the term can refer simply to preachers, here it means foretellers.39 In the days of the apostles, God gifted some believers with the ability to predict future events.

God sent these prophets to Antioch for a particular reason. He was giving the Christians there an opportunity to show the reality of their faith. One evidence that the first Christians in Jerusalem were Spirit-filled was their eagerness to help the needy. God wanted the Christians in Antioch to show that they were no less generous.

Agabus, one of the prophets from Jerusalem, stood up in the assembly and predicted that there would soon be a great famine. Luke informs us that this famine occurred during the reign of Claudius Caesar. Josephus confirms Luke’s report. He speaks of a famine striking Judea at a time that, from other information he provides, we can assign to the period from AD 44 to 48.40 It is well established that Claudius ruled from AD 41 to 54.41

The Christians in Antioch responded to the prophecy exactly as God desired. They knew that the famine would fall especially hard on the church in Jerusalem, which was filled with poorer brothers. They therefore started to collect money for relief. "Every man" contributed to the fund—in other words, Jews and gentiles were equally willing to give. The help offered by the gentiles was a strong testimony to the grace of God in their lives. Through Christian love, they were able to overlook the contempt that some Jewish believers had heaped on them in days past, thinking them unworthy to hear the gospel.

The aid was put into the hands of Barnabas and Saul, who delivered it to the church in Jerusalem. These two men were doubtless chosen because both were personally known to church leaders. Barnabas had spent at least several years with them, and Saul had briefly visited them after his conversion.

Saul's return as an ambassador from Antioch was one of the most touching moments in his life. The great enemy of the church in Jerusalem had become their great friend. He came not with an arrest warrant from the high priest, but with money to help them in their moment of need. His hatred and arrogance had turned to love.

It is very likely that Saul’s trip to Jerusalem with famine relief (Acts 11:27–30) is the visit he remembers in Galatians 2 (Gal. 2:1–10). By recognizing that both accounts describe the same expedition, we gain a much fuller picture of what happened.

  1. The famine relief was delivered "fourteen years after," when "I went up again to Jerusalem" (Gal. 2:1). Paul is reckoning not from his previous visit, but from his conversion. If he came to Christ in the year 34, fourteen years later by inclusive reckoning would be 47. If we take the alternative view, we find it impossible to fit events into a reasonable chronology (see Appendix 1), for then we must set His return visit during the period that, according to sound dating, holds his second missionary journey. We conclude that Saul took famine relief to Jerusalem in 47, having entered the ministry at Antioch in about 46.
  2. Besides Saul and Barnabas, another member of the delegation was Titus, an uncircumcised gentile (Gal. 2:3), the same Titus who proved to be Paul’s dependable helper in later years, remembered chiefly as the person addressed by the Pauline epistle bearing his name.
  3. The presence of Titus on the team provoked controversy, because the church in Jerusalem had been penetrated by some "false brethren" opposed to the preaching and practice of salvation by faith alone. Evidently they demanded that Titus be circumcised, but Saul and Barnabas steadfastly resisted, sparing Titus from compliance (Gal. 2:3–5).
  4. The principal church leaders—specifically, James (the Lord’s brother), Peter, and John—came at that time to recognize Saul’s unique calling as apostle to the gentiles (Gal. 2:6–8). No doubt they learned, if they had not heard about it earlier, of the Lord’s commission to Saul when He met him on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:16–18). Another factor shaping their perception of Saul was the reputation he had already earned for himself. His fruitful ministry in Syria and Cilicia was well known to the churches in Judea (Gal. 1:22–24).
  5. The church leaders in Jerusalem sealed their approval of the work being done by Saul and Barnabas by extending to them the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9). The meaning is that they accepted them as colaborers for Christ and certified their outreach to gentiles as a work of God.

Delving Deeper

Weaving the two accounts together

In treating Acts 11:27–30 and Galatians 2:1–10 as parallel accounts, we are accepting the view of many conservative scholars.42 To show this view better founded than another common view—that Paul in the latter account is describing his interaction with church leaders during the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)—we can list six arguments which in combined force are compelling.

  1. The cited passage in Galatians, coming after Paul’s discussion of his visit to Jerusalem following his sojourns in Arabia and Damascus (Gal. 1:15–19), strongly implies that it concerns Paul’s next visit to Jerusalem. His next recorded visit was the one bringing famine relief, whereas the Jerusalem Council took place some years later.
  2. Paul says that the visit he is remembering was prompted by divine "revelation" (Gal. 2:2), presumably a reference to the prophecy of Agabus.
  3. At the same visit, church leaders expressed the desire that Saul and Barnabas would, in their future work among the gentiles, seek to collect support for the poor brethren in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:10). We may suppose that the occasion for this request was a gift they had just received. What they hoped would be a precedent might well have been the famine relief recalled in Acts 11.
  4. Paul says that his ministry had previously been confined to Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21). He omits mention of any places farther west and north that he reached during his first missionary journey.
  5. The Apostle John was still in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9). The name of this leader, second only to Peter in authority and influence, is conspicuously missing from the account of the Jerusalem Council.
  6. Paul is silent concerning the deliberations of the Jerusalem Council. To tell his readers of its verdict or of the letter that church leaders authorized him and Barnabas to circulate among the churches (Acts 15:22–29) would have given strong backing for the main teaching of Galatians—that the gospel of Christ offers salvation by faith alone. Neither circumcision nor law-keeping is a requirement.


  1. For further information on how Jews viewed gentiles, see the commentary on chapter 10.
  2. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1953), 81–91; Frederick Spanheim, Ecclesiastical Annals (London: J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1840), 189-193, 216–218; Roland H. Bainton, The Church of Our Fathers (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941), 19–27; Henry C. Sheldon, The Early Church, vol. 1 of History of the Christian Church (n.p., 1895; repr., Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 133–166.
  3. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950; repr. New York and Toronto: The New American Library, Inc., n.d.), 140–152.
  4. Plaisted.
  5. C. E. Vulliamy, John Wesley (repr., Westwood, N. J.: Barbour and Company, Inc., 1985), 88–108.
  6. F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 271; Richard N. Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 399; Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007), 413; John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Publishing Group, 1999), 69.
  7. Pliny the Elder Nat. Hist. 6.122; Longenecker, 399; Bock, 413.
  8. The lower figure comes from Bock, 413, the higher from Longenecker, 399, who states it as one seventh of over five hundred thousand. Polhill, 71, gives forty-five to sixty thousand.
  9. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 271; Longenecker, 399; Polhill, 71.
  10. Jos. Wars 7.43-45.
  11. "Cursus publicus," Wikipedia, Web (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cursus_publicus), May 30, 2017.
  12. Kallie Szczepanski, "Invention of the Stirrup," ThoughtCo., Web (thoughtco.com/invention-of-the-stirrup-195161), May 30, 2017; "Stirrup," Wikipedia, Web (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stirrup), May 30, 2017; Jerome Murphy O’Connor, "On the Road and on the Sea with St. Paul," Bible Review Summer (1985), 40.
  13. J. Wortley Axe, ed., The Horse: Its Treatment in Health and Disease (London: The Gresham Publishing Company, 1906), 9.528–529.
  14. "Roman Carriages," Romae Vitam, Web (romae-vitam.com/roman-carriages.html), May 30, 2017; for a fuller description of the carriages mentioned in this article, see Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, ed. William Smith (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1859).
  15. "Mansio," Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 729; "Cursus publicus."
  16. Ibid.
  17. "Cursus publicus"; "500BC - Roman Postal System," Bath Postal Museum, Web (bathpostalmuseum.co.uk/500bc-roman-postal-system.html), May 30, 2017.
  18. "Cisium," Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 288.
  19. Cicero Oration for Sextus Roscius of Ameria 7.
  20. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul & the Early Church, vol. 2 of Early Christian Mission (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 1076; "Roman Carriages;" Rainer Riesner, Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 311; O’Connor, 40.
  21. Schnabel, 1076; O’Connor, 39; Bock, 437; Riesner, 311.
  22. O’Connor, 45.
  23. Ibid., 43–44.
  24. Ibid., 41; George Ricker Berry, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (N.p., 1897; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981), 661; W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, reprinted in An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, by W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 972.
  25. O’Connor, 45.
  26. Ibid., 42.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid, 38.
  29. Vine, 1213.
  30. Vine, 771; O’Connor, 38.
  31. Vine, 410.
  32. O’Connor, 41.
  33. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 623.
  34. Tertullian On Modesty 20; George Edmundson, The Church in Rome in the First Century (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1913), 157–160; Vernon Bartlet, "Barnabas and His Genuine Epistle," in vol. 5, The Expositor, Sixth Series, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), 411–427; John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), 217–220.
  35. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 274.
  36. Ibid.; Longenecker, 402; Bock, 416; I. Howard Marshall, Acts, vol. 5 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 215.
  37. Vine, 183; Marshall, 215; Bock, 416; Longenecker, 402.
  38. Tacitus Annals 15.44; Vine 183.
  39. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. complete and unabridged in one vol. (repr. Peabody Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 2113; Bock 417.
  40. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 276.
  41. Ibid.

  42. Ibid., 277; Longenecker, 404–405; Marshall, 217; Schnabel, 987–992.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's In Perils Abounding: Commentary on Acts 1-14. For further information, click here.