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, but he ate with gentiles at the same table. The Jews in Peter's day felt that either kind of contact with gentiles made a Jew unclean and broke the law of God.
It is strange 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.
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 sternly rebuke his critics. Perhaps he could even have called upon the Lord to judge them. 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 led up to his meeting with Cornelius. He told them of the vision showing that he was no longer to consider gentiles unclean. He spoke of Cornelius's three messengers, who, at the very moment of the vision, arrived at the house where Peter was staying. He said that he went with these men in obedience to a direct command of the Spirit. He then explained why Cornelius sent the messengers—an angel instructed him that from Peter he could receive the words of salvation. Peter testified that when the gentiles heard 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 did not dare to "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 show that there were many observers of what happened in Caesarea. Jewish law required that in a case before the courts, every fact had to be supported by at least two, preferably three, witnesses. 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 received the gospel from 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. 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 bring out their better nature.
By dealing tactfully with his opponents, Peter won them over to his side. Not only did the Jews hold their tongues from any 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 (on the Mediterranean coast north of Palestine), Cyprus (a large Mediterranean island west of Palestine), and Antioch (a city in Syria, north of Palestine).
After God led Peter to share the gospel with Cornelius, other preachers began to seek out gentile audiences. Some of the Jews won to Christ in Cyprus and Cyrene (a city on the North African coast of the Mediterranean, 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.
Barnabas the Exhorter
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 of the 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.
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"—that is, "son of exhortation." "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 awhile in Antioch, Barnabas realized that an ideal helper in that situation 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. The name was not intended as a term of respect, but of scorn. The Greeks who first used it viewed Christ as a crackpot who went to a shameful death on a cross. Christian means "little Christs," with the suggestion that His followers were no less contemptible than their Master.
Yet history has put a different sense to the word. 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 invented by enemies of the church, but God let it stand as the right name for His people because it truly states the goal of the Christian life—to become a little 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. 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. According to modern historians, Claudius ruled from AD 41 to 54. Josephus, the Jewish historian, confirms that a famine struck Judea during Claudius's reign. The information we have allows us to date the disaster sometime between AD 44 and 48.
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 many Jewish Christians 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 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.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.