Bible Study: Acts, Chapter Eleven
Transcript: Today we are going to study Acts chapter 11 in depth. You can follow along in your own Bible if you like. I will be reading from the World English Bible because it is a modern English translation that is copyright free. After the meeting today, or sometime this week, please take the matching quiz that I have prepared for you on the website. Thanks to everyone that has participated so far. Let’s get started:
First let’s set our location and do a brief catchup. In Acts chapter 10, Peter had a vision in Joppa and was then invited to the house of a Gentile Roman Centurion named Cornelius. As Peter was telling them about Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended on all of the Gentiles there and they began to speak in other tongues. This was the first recorded time of unconverted Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit. Before this, Gentiles had to convert to Judaism in order to embrace Christianity. By this, God showed that He accepted other nations as well, and not only Jews.
Peter had made a ministry trip from Jerusalem, through Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea, then returned back to Jerusalem. That is where we begin our story today.
Acts Chapter 11 beginning in verse 1, reading from the World English Bible: Now the apostles and the brothers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. 2 When Peter had come up to Jerusalem, those who were of the circumcision contended with him, 3 saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men, and ate with them!”
When Peter returned to Jerusalem, the Jewish believers there were upset with him for entering the house of Cornelius and eating with them. That was forbidden by Jewish custom and tradition, though not by the law of Moses. The Jews had added that little detail mainly because they disliked Gentiles and saw them as “unclean.”
Anytime we see “of the circumcision” it means Jews, and when we see “uncircumcised” it means Gentiles. Here the Jewish believers ignored the revival that was starting among the Gentiles and focused on what they believed Peter did wrong, he had eaten food with Gentiles. It was a good thing that Peter had taken six Jewish witnesses with him to the house of Cornelius that day. They saw all that happened and could confirm his story. Sharing a meal together was a special sign of fellowship in that time and culture, so this was considered to be a significant compromise by these Jewish Christians.
The reaction of the Christian Jews here show how big a change it was that God made in Acts 10. It really rocked their boat of understanding. Jews and Gentiles had been enemies for ages, but now God was combining them into one family. In Peter’s vision, there was one sheet with everyone in it together, being taken up to heaven.
To the Gentiles this meant: “You don’t have to become Jews and put yourself under the Law of Moses first. Just repent and believe, and you can come to Jesus.”
To the Jewish followers of Jesus it meant: “Receive Gentile brothers and sisters as full members of the family of God, for they are not inferior to you in any way.”
It was the second part that offended the Jewish brothers in Jerusalem. In a sense, the Jews felt that God was theirs alone, and they had inherited Him. He was theirs and they could put you out of their synagogue and shut the door. But the Almighty God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, is not a pet that you can discipline, and He appeared outside of their box, and began saving people outside their circle. At first, they didn’t know what to make of that.
A church should never believe that they are the only way to know God. Jesus said in John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Jesus is the way, and He often operates outside the walls of the church, and without the approval of the church, just as He baptized the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house in the Holy Spirit, and some disapproved of it.
4 But Peter began, and explained to them in order, saying, 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision: a certain container descending, like it was a great sheet let down from heaven by four corners. It came as far as me. 6 When I had looked intently at it, I considered, and saw the four-footed animals of the earth, wild animals, creeping things, and birds of the sky. 7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter, kill and eat!’ 8 But I said, ‘Not so, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered into my mouth.’ 9 But a voice answered me the second time out of heaven, ‘What God has cleansed, don’t you call unclean.’ 10 This was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven.
Peter did not get upset and remind them of his apostolic authority. Instead he began with humbly sharing the facts of what happened. The Greek indicates that Peter began at the beginning and explained everything precisely, just as it happened.
11 Behold, immediately three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent from Caesarea to me. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them, without discriminating. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying to him, ‘Send to Joppa, and get Simon, who is called Peter, 14 who will speak to you words by which you will be saved, you and all your house.’
Peter explains that he and the brothers entered Cornelius’ house, and also that an angel of God had visited Cornelius first and gave him the vision. If it was OK for an angel of God to visit the house of a Gentile then to be sure it was OK for a Jew.
15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning. 16 I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave to them the same gift as us, when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?”
The Holy Spirit fell on them just as it did on us at the beginning. This was important. It showed that God’s stamp of approval was on this, that He accepted the Gentiles into His family. Peter’s point to these Christian Jews, those of the circumcision, was clear: they could not withhold their acceptance of non-Jewish people, when God had already given His, or they would be struggling against the work of God. It is always better to sense where God is going and head in the same direction, than to try to persuade God to go your direction. He is not easy to steer.
18 When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life!”
They had nothing to say but, “Well, God has even accepted the Gentiles. Incredible.” This was a major change of outlook, but it was also in line with the scriptures. Jesus had told them to preach the gospel to all the world, to the ends of the earth (Matthew 24:14), and the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah had prophesied that the Gentiles would come to the Lord through the Messiah (Isaiah 49:6).
However, the Jews at that time did not believe that Gentiles could be saved. That was not God’s fault, but it was their own limited understanding of the scriptures. God will never contradict His word, but He will correct our understanding of it. God is infinite, but our human minds are not. He shares some things with all of us, but He doesn’t share everything with anyone, because we could not contain it. His knowledge is spread among His people and no one has it all.
So don’t put all your eggs in one basket, don’t put all your faith in one denomination, and certainly not in men. God is not a Baptist or a Charismatic or an Adventist. He is neither a Republican or a Democrat. Those are all divisions that started over a disagreement at some point, and He is bigger than that. He is bigger than all.
Every single time that you learn something new, it means that you were wrong about it yesterday, just as these Jewish brothers were. Yesterday, they thought that Gentiles could not be saved, but today they found out they were wrong. They had to adapt a new way of thinking, and at first the church in Jerusalem embraced these new Gentile believers, but it would be a long, long time until the objections of the circumcision were answered.
19 They therefore who were scattered abroad by the oppression that arose about Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews only. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
Because of persecution in Jerusalem, the Christians were scattered all over the Roman Empire, and at first, preached only to people who were Jewish. But eventually some began to preach Jesus Christ to Gentiles as well. This was a process, a change in their way of thinking. The unnamed Jews mentioned here from the island of Cyprus and Cyrene, which was in North Africa, had no official direction, no human instruction, no procedures to follow, nothing but a burning love for Jesus Christ.
They took the gospel to Antioch without realizing the greatness of their act. They were the first believers to bring the light of Christianity into the midnight of paganism. Antioch was evangelized not by apostles, but by average members of Christ’s Body who were willing to share their faith just as Philip did in Samaria. Wherever these fugitives landed, they kindled a revival. Everyday believers empowered by the Holy Spirit of God blew away the hold of the devil. What an example.
The city of Antioch was founded about 300 B.C. by Seleucus I, who inherited part of Alexander the Great’s empire. Now this man’s hobby seemed to be making cities and naming them after his father, Antioch, which he did about fifteen times. This particular city of Antioch was called “Syrian Antioch” or “Antioch on the Orontes.” In the first century it was a city of more than half a million people; today it is a Turkish city with a population of about 3,500. Paul visited a few cities named Antioch, as we will see moving forward in Acts.
Syrian Antioch was situated on the Orontes River, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem and twenty miles east of the Mediterranean Sea. Many considered this Antioch the third greatest city in the Roman Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria.
The city of Antioch was known for its commerce, its sophistication and culture, but also for its immorality. You could say that Jerusalem was all about religion, Rome was all about power, Alexandria was all about intellect, and Athens was all about philosophy. In that lineup, Antioch was all about business, and professional grade immorality.
Antioch was the melting pot for at least five cultures: the Greek, Roman, Semitic, Arab, and Persian. The Jews made up one-seventh of the city’s population and had legal sanction to follow their own laws in their own neighborhoods. Antioch was famous for its chariot racing and for its deliberate pursuit of pleasure, a Las Vegas on the Orontes river. When the Gospel came to Cornelius’ house and he became a follower of Jesus, it came to a God-fearing man that had a respect for the God of Israel and lived a moral life. When it came to Antioch, it came to an utterly pagan city, the red light district.
Antioch was most famous for its worship of Daphne, whose temple stood five miles outside town in a laurel grove. In Greek mythology, Daphne was a nymph that was turned into a laurel bush to escape the advances of the Greek god Apollo. His famous pursuit of Daphne there was re-enacted night and day by the men of the city and by the priestesses, who were ritual prostitutes. Criminals and political refugees could use it as a safe house because it was illegal to arrest anyone within the temple grounds. Throughout the world “the morals of Daphne” meant utter depravity. Amazingly, it was in this city, with all its sensuality and immorality, that “the disciples were first called Christians.”
22 The report concerning them came to the ears of the assembly which was in Jerusalem. They sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch, 23 who, when he had come, and had seen the grace of God, was glad. He exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they should remain near to the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and many people were added to the Lord.
Due to the witnessing of the unknown disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene, a revival started to break out in Antioch. The news reached Jerusalem, so they sent Barnabas, the son of encouragement, to check it out. Barnabas was from the Island of Cyprus and he may have known some of the believers in Antioch. There was something about the believers there that made Barnabas glad, a kindred Spirit. He could see Christian grace and charm in their lives. They demonstrated love, joy, peace, all the fruit of the spirit. Barnabas encouraged them to continue.
There were so many new converts, and Barnabas was the only “experienced” one there. He was probably swamped in baptisms, Bible studies, counseling. These people were now saved, but they had a lot to learn, and Antioch was a dark city. Barnabas probably laid in bed one night thinking about all that he had to do, and the Holy Spirit reminded him of Saul. Barnabas was the man who brought Saul into the fold when the others had rejected him, and Saul’s hometown of Tarsus was not far away from Antioch.
25 Barnabas went out to Tarsus to look for Saul. 26 When he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they were gathered together with the assembly, and taught many people. The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
Barnabas hunted Saul down and got him to help teach the new converts at Antioch. Saul had been sent away for his own protection eight to twelve years ago, and he was now a well-seasoned servant of Christ. For one year they gathered together and taught the people. A strong church formed there, mostly composed of Gentile converts. Antioch became a center for great teaching and preaching with men like Barnabas, Paul, and Peter involved in the church there.
When Paul traveled with Barnabas to the heathen city of Antioch, they became a dynamic duo. They complemented one another beautifully, thanks to the the Holy Spirit. Barnabas was sensitive, empathetic, and gracious. Paul had the razor-sharp intellect of a lawyer and was bold as a lion. Together, with the Holy Spirit’s power working through them, they were unstoppable.
The disciples were first called Christians during this time in Antioch. Amazing. Apparently, so many people came to Jesus in Antioch that the local population created a new name for Christ’s followers: Christian. In Latin, the ending “ian” meant “the party of.” A Christ-ian was “of the party of Jesus” or “Jesus people.” Antioch was famous for its readiness to jeer and call names, so the people of Antioch were probably mocking the followers of Jesus by calling them the “Jesus People.”
They would not have been named Christians by the Jews, because Christ is the Greek word for Messiah. To call them Christians, followers of the Messiah, would have been unthinkable. The disciples would probably not have described themselves using a term built on the Holy Name of Christ, so it was probably the Gentile townspeople in Antioch that created the term. The title stuck.
27 Now in these days, prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them named Agabus stood up, and indicated by the Spirit that there should be a great famine all over the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius. 29 As any of the disciples had plenty, each determined to send relief to the brothers who lived in Judea; 30 which they also did, sending it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
Prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. The five-fold ministry of Ephesians 4:11 was already at work in full force, though Paul had not written about it yet. The church had Apostles like Peter and John, prophets like Agabus and Philip’s four daughters. There were Pastors, Teachers, and Evangelists. The Holy Spirit was inspiring people everywhere, and spreading spiritual gifts among the believers as needed.
The prophet Agabus, who tradition has it was one of the seventy disciples that Jesus sent out, prophesied that there would be a famine over the land. They took up an offering to help the brothers in Judea, for the word of the prophet was good enough. Each person determined to give what they could afford, for if a person does not determine to give, they often never do. They sent the money to the elders of the church, by Barnabas and Saul. The river of God’s grace is growing wider and wider, and more and more people are being added to the church.
That concludes our Bible study on Acts Chapter 11. Thank you for watching and being a part of Refreshing Hope!
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Quiz Questions on Acts Chapter 11: