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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Advance of the Gospel
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.
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.
Barnabas the Exhorter
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."
Bringing Back Saul
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.
Generosity of the Gentiles
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.