The Christians in Antioch

Acts 11:1-30

Text Comment

Verses 1-18 repeat the account of Peter’s vision and what transpired subsequently in the house of Cornelius in Caesarea. Repetition is a typical means of emphasis in the Bible. Luke had a primitive word processor and had no way of underlining or making bold a text for the sake of emphasis. Remember how important these events were and what a historic change they signaled. Now the Lord had made clear that, in order to become a Christian, a Gentile did not have to become as well a Jew, especially become a Jew in respect to circumcision, food laws, and the Saturday Sabbath the principal and most sacred features of Jewish culture. The rest of the NT will bear its witness to how wrenching this change was for the Jewish Christians, how unsuccessfully many Jewish Christians navigated this transition, and how much tension was introduced into early Christian congregations over this very issue: Jews insisting that their religious culture continue to be observed in Gentile Christianity. We applied that history to our own circumstances last Lord’s Day evening.

v.3

There is no doubt about the issue here. Cornelius was not a Jew in the way that mattered most to Jews. For them, another way of referring to God’s people was “the circumcised.”

v.17

Peter saw the lesson clearly. God had spoken twice from heaven. Once in the vision on the rooftop and then with the descent of the Spirit on these uncircumcised Gentiles just as he had descended before on Jews who believed in Jesus.

v.18

That is, Gentiles as Gentiles! It is one thing to learn the lesson. It is another thing to make it stick in the mind, as we shall see.

v.19

Now Luke picks up the thread of his interrupted narrative from 8:4

v.20

In other words, most of the Jewish Christians who had been scattered by the persecution in Judea preached the gospel only to fellow Jews. (Interestingly, the Muslims of Mohammed’s day cursed the Jews of the city of Medina because, while having God’s revelation, they refused to share it.) It was a particular group of believers, far-sighted men, who initiated the historic change and set the church directly on her path of conquest through the world. Because Luke is obviously resuming his interrupted narrative, it cannot be known for sure if the events now being described happened before or after Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius.

v.21

Antioch will play a key role in the developing story of Acts and in the history of early Christianity for that matter. It was, at this time, the third largest city in the world (after Rome and Alexandria), with a population of perhaps half a million, and had a large Jewish community. It was a city famous for its sexual immorality, the San Francisco of its day, a carry over from the OT days of fertility worship in that area.

More interesting still, it appears to have been Luke’s hometown. Perhaps he was even one of those Gentiles converted at this time and thus makes a special point of mentioning this history in his narrative. It is these little notes that give things away in history writing. A famous example of this same kind of signature is found in histories of Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Some years ago there were eight major histories of that campaign that had been published: 3 by Frenchmen, 3 by Englishmen, and 2 by Scots. Only the two Scots mentioned the fact that one of the Russian generals was of Scottish extraction! (Or the gospels: John is the only disciple not mentioned in his Gospel; Mark has that enigmatic reference to the young man who fled from the scene of Jesus’ arrest leaving his clothes behind him, almost certainly a signature.)

v.22

It was perhaps here, as v. 20 may also suggest, that the first large-scale evangelism of Gentiles took place and, thus, the church in Antioch may have been the first Christian church which had among its members a substantial number of Gentiles, perhaps even a majority. This is, of course, a very different matter than one Ethiopian eunuch here and one Roman centurion there!

This major development required apostolic inspection and Barnabas was sent as an envoy to Antioch. It was an inspired choice. We have already met him as a peace-maker, a man who brings other men together. Barnabas immediately recognized the hand of God in what was occurring and by pitching in to the work gave it still greater impetus.

v.23

Notice, he urges them to remain firm in their faith, but asks nothing of them in matters of conformity to Jewish custom.

v.25

But the work soon had outstripped the workers and Barnabas, who, remember, had met and befriended Saul some few years before, now went to find him and bring him back into the center of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the world.

v.26

The evangelist’s work is not done when a profession of faith is made. Remember that Evangelist appears three times in Pilgrim’s Progress!

v.28

This same Agabus, apparently, reappears in 21:10, prophesying that Paul would be arrested in Jerusalem where he was heading after his third missionary journey. Roman historians speak of famines during Claudius’ reign; Suetonius says that there were “frequent famines.” And there seems to be evidence of a particularly severe famine in Judea in the years from A.D. 46-48. This is about the right time.

v.30

This is probably the visit to Jerusalem described by Paul in Gal. 2:1-10. On this visit too the question of Gentile freedom from Jewish religious culture was discussed. In any case, the Gentile believers were doing their part, caring for the poor Jewish Christians in Judea, as if the Jewish believers were brethren, pure and simple.

v.30

The first mention of “elders” in the post-Pentecost Christian church. But the office was well-known in Judaism and was long-established in the life of God’s people in the ancient epoch.

Now, Luke is obviously placing the Antioch church before us, as he did the church in Jerusalem in 2:42ff. as a model. Here God’s grace was powerfully at work, here the disciples were first known as Christians, a fact which Luke plainly considers to be the distinction or the honor of the Antioch church.

So, in what ways in this church a model for us? In what ways does it teach us what a church of Jesus Christ ought to be?

  1. First, there is the church’s evangelistic zeal, fervor, and faithfulness.

A great many believed, even among the Gentiles to whom the message was completely new! But, then, we know full well that the Christians in Antioch had no control over whether men and women would believe in Christ and embrace the gospel. We will read in 13:48 that only those appointed to eternal life in the eternal counsel of God believe when the gospel is preached to them. And, here in vv. 21 and 23, the same point is made. The Lord’s hand was with the Christians — that is why the news spread; his grace was at work — that is why so many Gentiles became Christians. In other places and at other times in Acts the results would not be so gratifying, and, in other cases, many would be saved when only a few were preaching to them.

But, what is clear is that these believers did their part! It is to their everlasting credit that it was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. How does a name become known and stick?

The name was, virtually all Scholars agree, not invented by Christians for their own use but given to them by others. The fact that the Christians were called Christians indicates this. But also the fact that the term “Christian,” a form of word like “Herodian,” indicates that Christ was taken to be a proper name and not a title as it still was in earliest Christianity. The Jews, of course, would never have called them Christians because they denied that Jesus was the Christ and so would never have dignified these people as the followers of the Christ. It was the Gentiles in Antioch who stuck the name on the new church. Its only other uses in the NT (Acts 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16) suggest that it may have been originally a term of ridicule, as were some of the other terms used for Christians in this early period, such as “Nazarene” which was incontestably a slur.

People would ask, “who are these people who just talked to us?” “Who are these fellows gathering a crowd in the corner of the market?” And the answer would come back, “They are the folk who go on and on about Jesus of Nazareth whom they call the Christ.” And, in time, it was an easy step to identifying them as the Christians, the followers of Christ. All Antioch soon knew who the Christians were and from there it spread to the rest of the world.

Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote: “Satan [will] rise up in judgment against some people at the last day, because he had shown more zeal to ruin souls than they had to save them.” But he will not rise up against these Christians from Antioch, for they made the name of Christ known right and left, to everyone who would listen to them and no doubt to some who would not, until the name of Christ and a group of people were joined in the mind of a whole city.

No evangelistic programs, so far as we know; no concentration on methods. Nothing wrong with methods; they can be helpful, surely. But for almost 2,000 years the church got along without them and, in particular, in her most exciting centuries of advance, it was her lack of sophistication, her unstudied approach that won the world. Just the guileless, spontaneous, natural, and straightforward account of the good news with an evident seriousness about the importance of men believing on Jesus’ name. Remember Celsus’ jibe. No philosophy of life is worthy of serious consideration he thought, Roman philosopher that he was, that was propagated by women gossiping Christ at the laundry!

I think this is a terribly important point for all of us to ponder. The explosion of sex manuals in our culture is a demonstration that love has become a dubious thing, it isn’t working very well any more and we need to study it and learn about it. The books without number about raising children and methods of child development are proof that secure, spontaneous, natural, healthy parent-child relationships are much less common in our day and people are much less sure about how to do what parents knew how to do in ages past.

And, in a similar way, the proliferation of “how-to” books on evangelism is a demonstration of the fact that spontaneous sharing of Christian faith, the natural communication of the gospel in the ordinary encounters and conversations of life comes to Christians less easily than once it did. This is what you and I need to think about and work on. The reintroduction in some cases, the more constant introduction in others of Christ and the gospel into our daily conversations. The natural way produces many occasions for witness and many different explanations of the gospel than can a reliance upon a method that must be intruded into a conversation somehow and followed from beginning to end.

Imagine how so many of those conversations started. Have you heard about the troubles in Judea? Have you ever heard about Jesus, the miracle worker who rose from the dead a few years back? Have you heard of the new sect that both Jews and Gentiles are streaming into in great numbers? They call them the “genus tertium,” “the third race.” I used to think as you do, but let me tell you what changed my mind! I remember once sitting at a booth at Godfather’s Pizza over here trying to make a clear, step-by-step presentation of the gospel to a young man who had been visiting the church for several weeks. There was a girl, Vivien, sitting in the next booth and she had been listening to our conversation and, I guess, finally couldn’t stand my ineptitude any longer. She got up, came round to us, and gave it to my lunch mate with both barrels. He was going to church for the wrong reason — to get help for his problems — she did that too and found out that she was completely mistaken about what her problem was. She needed to be born again and so did he! Well good for Vivien and, in our own way, we should do as she — pray and watch for and then seize every opportunity to say something of Christ and salvation. Almost anything will do!

  1. Second, the Antioch church is a model for us in its devotion to the Word of God and learning the faith.

You remember that the Jerusalem church, after Pentecost, devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching. So did this church. This hunger for the full conception of the truth is characteristic of God’s people when they are under the more powerful influences of the Holy Spirit. Never does it occur to them to pit doctrine against life, mind against heart, zeal to know the faith against a zeal to share it with others.

Listen to John Foxe describe the village of Hadleigh in the days of the English reformation, a village of weavers and farm workers. A great number of the parishioners of Hadleigh — which parish had a staunch reformer for its minister — “became exceedingly well learned in the holy Scriptures, as well women as men, so that a man might have found among them many that had often read the whole Bible through, and that could have said a great sort of St. Paul’s epistles by heart, and very well and readily have given a godly learned sentence in any matter of controversy. Their children and servants were also brought up and trained so diligently in the right knowledge of God’s word, that the whole town seemed rather a university of the learned, than a town of cloth-making or labouring people” [In Dickens, English Reformation, pp. 269-270] None of these people and none in Antioch before them would have ever thought it clever or wise for the early 20th century American evangelist, Billy Sunday, to say, “I don’t know any more about theology than a jack rabbit knows about ping pong, but I’m on my way to glory!” Today, far too much today, in the immortal words of Leo Durocher, “Baseball is like church. Many attend. Few understand.” No! In a church that is at a Christian church ought to be, many understand very well and all are seeking more understanding!

For their interest was not a fascination with Bible learning for its own sake, and certainly not learning the Bible as an academic subject. It was a burning desire to know what God said and what Jesus had done and what all of that meant for them and for the world, and how they were to respond to it in life. The questions people would ask them when they spoke of Christ at table, or at work, or in the market, or at the bath, the objections that would be raised, would send these Christians scurrying back to their teachers and their Bibles to learn more, to make themselves better equipped for such conversations tomorrow than they were today.

And I say this. No doubt this learning, this zeal to be taught the faith, this eagerness to know it through and through was one secret of the early success in Antioch at binding together Jews and Gentiles across all their differences in practice, taste, and spiritual culture. As Archibald Alexander once put it: “Nothing so binds a church together as a common love for her doctrines.” They quickly learned the great things they had in common and were thus more easily distracted from their differences.

  1. Third and last, the Antioch church is a model for us in its charity.

Just as the Jerusalem church had been before it — remember the establishment of the office of deacon — now the Gentile church follows suit. But see the new thing here — Gentiles extending loving help to Jews in Jesus’ name. Their help was sent to the brothers — “especially to the household of faith”; no doubt they were generous to outsiders too; (cf. Julian the Apostate’s complaint!).

No doubt this generosity was fueled by the kind of teaching they were receiving:

“Faith without works is dead…”
“True religion which pleases God is this, visiting orphans and widows in their distress…”
“Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill…”
“He gave himself for us to redeem for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good works.”

Here, then, is a church that deserved and got the name “Christian.”

Making Christ known; seeking to know him and his gospel better through his Word; and doing good works for the brethren and all men.” Any of these by itself or, even, any two without the other spoils the effect: evangelism without doctrine leads to superficial Christianity and eventually to ruin; doctrine without evangelism leads to coldness and unproductiveness (nothing keeps the gospel as vitally astir in our hearts as constant conversation with and appeal to unbelievers); and good works without doctrine feeds pride.

We want to be like Eusebius said Origen was: “As his doctrine, so was his life; and as his life, so also was his doctrine. that is how, through God’s grace, he induced many to imitate him.”