I know that some of you will be positively shocked to hear this, but the church has a hard time accepting change. Some of this has to do with our very nature. Change can scare people, even if it is for the better. There is an expression – “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” The idea behind this is that even if things are not great in the present, presumably they could get worse and people want to avoid that. Often times, only when people hit rock bottom and they feel as if things can’t get any worse, then they will seek out change.
The early church in the opening chapters of Acts isn’t anywhere near rock bottom. Despite persecution, things have actually been going well. The gospel is being preached and the church is growing daily. To be more specific, Jews are becoming Christians.
In Acts 10, Peter is called to the household of Cornelius, a man who loves the Lord but is a Gentile. When Peter preaches the gospel to him and his household, they become saved and the Lord fills them with the Holy Spirit as an indication of that salvation.
This is a major change. This is not just taking a traditional church and announcing that drums are going to be used in the worship service. This is not eliminating pews in the sanctuary. This is selling the building and holding open air evangelism meetings in the parking of lot biker bars on Saturday night. This is a change that is going to make the very core of the church different.
It is not just the fact that the church was a “Jewish” thing before Acts 10, it is the fact that the Jews who comprised the church were raised to believe that Gentiles were unclean, they were dogs, they were sinners. There absolutely was no fellowship to be had between Jews and Gentiles. And all of a sudden Jews are being asked to accept Gentiles into the church. Understandably there is going to be some hesitation. That’s the setting for Acts 11 this morning.
11 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
The scandal of going into the house of a Gentile is pretty terrible during this time. Jesus was accused of eating with “sinners” – people such as tax collectors and prostitutes – but there was nothing in the law that actually forbid him from doing so. On the other hand, to go into the house of a Gentile – someone who was uncircumcised – would make someone be considered ceremonially unclean. This was a big deal.
Last month I was meeting with a group of pastors and one of the guys wanted to clear something up about his church in case any of us heard any rumors. I was prepared for something pretty drastic involving a financial scandal or some unfortunate thing that happened with a staff member. Instead, the news was that church was having ballroom dancing lessons in the building and was using it as an outreach to connect new people to church members.
Now, I went to a pretty strict Bible college that forbid dancing but this news didn’t faze me. There is a pretty big difference between ballroom dancing and the kind of dancing that goes on in nightclubs around the country. Nevertheless, I’m sure that some of you probably grew up in households where dancing of any sort was forbidden.
Another pastor I know has a Thursday night Bible study in a local pub. This is not a program of the church, it is something that the pastor is specifically doing himself. I don’t know how he started it but the idea is to connect to people who otherwise would not come to church. And if someone desires, they can order a beer while they are conducting their Bible study. I’m guessing that probably more of you would be uncomfortable with that idea. Until recently, the denomination that I’m from has forbidden drinking even though they are well aware that some congregation members drink. In the last decade it has softened the wording of the policy to state that a Christian should not become drunk as they are no longer in control of themselves. The policy for pastors remains that they should not drink at all however and I have no problem with that as I have no desire to drink.
My point in saying all of this is to imagine a situation that would not only make you feel a bit uncomfortable if your church leaders were participating in it but it would quite possibly make you mad. That is what Peter has done by bring the gospel to the Gentiles. This is far worse than allowing dancing in the church, going to bars to evangelize, or even being welcoming to a gay abortionist who walks into church.
I mentioned last week that the point of the clean and unclean animals was not an arbitrary law of God but rather it was to separate the Israelites from the rest of the world. Those rules were given to Moses some 1500 years before the early church. The Jews had been the “chosen people” of God for even longer, going back to Abraham, 19 centuries ago. And now all of a sudden they were on the same footing with God as the Gentiles. The word change doesn’t begin to describe what is taking place here.
So, Peter has some explaining to do when he returns to Jerusalem. The people want to know what on earth he was thinking in bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. And that’s what Peter does in the next several verses. He basically repeats what happened in the prior chapter so we’re not going to read that again. I’ll pick up at the end of the story in verse 15.
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Peter’s argument basically comes down to the fact that God had told him to do so. And just in case he needed evidence that he wasn’t imagine things, he and those with him witnessed that the people in Cornelius’ household received the Holy Spirit. Upon hearing this, the people asking questions were satisfied. If God had placed his stamp of approval upon the Gentiles, who were they to argue?
The fact that God had opened the door to the Gentiles was cause for celebration because it showed how great and merciful God truly was. If God loved and cared about even the Gentiles, then certainly He loved and cared about the lowliest Jew.
Just because the people understand Peter’s reasoning for presenting the gospel to the Gentiles, it does not mean that adjusted to the idea immediately or completely. In Acts 15 there will be what basically amounts to the first church conference to discuss what was expected of the Gentile believers. Some wanted them to first convert to Judaism before becoming Christians while others believed that the burden was foolish and too great and that God didn’t expect the Gentiles to first become Jews. We’ll cover this more in a few weeks.
Even Peter turns out to not fully be on board with this idea even though he’s the one who opened the door to the Gentiles. Paul had to rebuke Peter for treating the Jews and Gentiles differently. Galatians 2:11-14 reports Paul’s rebuke.
11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
In case there is any confusion, Cephas is another name for Peter.
Change is not easy for anybody and even Peter, the man who first accepted the Gentiles, had a hard time adjusting to this idea. Nevertheless the church is going to continue to grow and become more and more Gentile with time.
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
This is another place where there is a pretty large passage of time. As a matter of fact, if you were going to break the book of Acts into two books, the best place to do so would be right after verse 18. Through Acts 11:18, Acts is basically Peter’s story. Starting with verse 19, this is Paul’s story.
These few verses that I just read probably cover a period of a number of years. At the very minimum, Acts 11 begins in 37 AD. Jesus was crucified in 33 AD, the church needed time to grow, and Paul had to spend at least three years away from everyone else. Galatians 1:17-18 gives us this:
17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days.
The exact date isn’t all that important, just know that as the gospel spreads in the second half of Acts 11, we’re talking about a period of years and not a matter of weeks or months. The church is growing but this is not the explosive growth that was occurring at Pentecost. Instead it is a more natural growth as the church naturally expands outward and reaches to the Gentiles.
22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
I would have loved to have been around Barnabas. I feel confident that all of us would have loved to have been around him. His name means Son of Encouragement, and everywhere that we see him in the New Testament, he is encouraging others.
Barnabas is excited to see what God is doing and he wanted to encourage all of the new believers. We’re never given a clear indication how Barnabas becomes a leader of the church. He was noted for giving freely to help the needs of others way back in Acts 4. However he is not selected as one of the seven to take care of the widows in Acts 6. This could have been for a number of reasons and not necessarily because he wasn’t respected as a leader. Nevertheless, he’s the one who kind of brought Paul into the picture in Acts 9 when everybody else was afraid of him. And now he’s called upon to preach and encourage the young Gentile believers as they come to faith. But he’s not going to do it alone.
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
This is not the start of Paul’s first missionary journey but we might consider this Paul’s internship before he’s able to graduate and go out. Barnabas recognizes what a asset Paul is and he wants Paul to work with him. So he actually goes and looks for him and returns with him to Antioch.
Antioch is an important place because it is going to become the center of the church. There’s a couple of good reasons for this and I can confidently say that this is God’s doing and not just sheer coincidence. The first reason is that it needs to become clear that Christianity is not just a Jewish religion. It would be harder to do that in Jerusalem, a place that was not just the center of Jewish culture but also Jewish history. The city that David established as his capital.
The other valid reason to move away from Jerusalem would be the fact that Jerusalem is going to become a mess. In 70 AD, Jerusalem would be destroyed and over a million people would be killed. God knew this and in fact Jesus had prophesied concerned the destruction of the temple that not one stone would remain on top of another. It was best that Christianity not be centered in the city.
The city of Antioch is not anywhere in Israel but it wasn’t extremely far away either. It was in the southern part of modern day Turkey. Israel occupies the space on the south east shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Essentially if you travelled north up the coast, you’d reach Antioch in the region of the north east corner of the Mediterranean Sea. This detail will be important to know for the next couple of verses.
27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Just as a note of geographic coincidence, we typically will refer to traveling south as “going down” and travelling north as “going up.” With respect to Jerusalem though, no matter what direction you went, you were always “going down” because Jerusalem sat on a series of hills. So physically when you left Jerusalem, you were going down.
Prophets predicted a famine that would take place and Luke notes that this famine took place during the reign of Claudius. Claudius did not become emperor until 41 AD, so that gives us a rough idea of how far along we are time wise. By this point, the church has been in existence at least 8 years.
Antioch was still a part of the Roman Empire and it would still be affected by this famine but it would seem that the affects would not be as bad for the people of Antioch as it would be for the Christians in Judea.
So finally the gospel travels full circle as the chapter closes. It began with the gospel going to the Gentiles and it ends with the church of Antioch – a place that would be predominantly Gentile – giving back to the Jewish Christians.
It is difficult to accept change and I’m sure that the book of Acts actually does not record much of the struggle to accept the Gentiles. But the Gentiles are able to show their gratitude to God by helping out their Christian brethren. It is at this point that there truly is no Jew nor Gentile but everyone was just a Christian as they were first called in Antioch.