In our overview on the fulfillment of our Lord’s command and commission from Acts 1:8, i.e. that His apostles would be His witnesses (lit. martyrs) in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, we have been tracking the geographical and cultural, spread of the gospel. In the last post, we left off with a rather surprising turn of events as God gave Peter a vision which ultimately would lead to the offer of the gospel extending to the Gentiles. As we saw, this first Gentile family was that of Cornelius, from Caesarea, who had been given a vision of his own to seek out Peter. The entire situation was orchestrated by God, Who through His divine providence seamlessly brought together the parties for the express purpose of salvation. Should we conclude that He is any less providentially omnipotent to bring salvation to whom He wills today?
The inclusion of the Gentiles fully into God’s plan of salvation from Acts 10 naturally leads to some skepticism about whether God would really open the avenue of salvation to a people that were historically pagan. It is one thing to be skeptical of the Samaritan half-Jews, as they were in Acts 8 when the apostles came from Jerusalem to verify the expansion of salvation. However, it is quite another in the case of the Gentiles. The verification for this event begins in Acts 11 when the apostles and brethren in Judea hear that the gospel has spread to the Gentiles. At this point, Peter returns to Jerusalem where Acts 11:2 informs us that he is met by the Circumcision Party. Here, we need a point of clarification regarding who this party was.
The Circumcision Party are also known as the Judaizers and they were some of the chief opponents to the gospel’s spread among the Gentiles, having a presence here in Acts 11 and even more prominently in Acts 15, in what later became known as the Jerusalem Council. Further, it is likely that reference to the Judaizers is made in Philippians 3:2, Titus 1:10, and Colossians 4:11, and with all probability the entire letter of Galatians (see particularly Galatians 2:12). This Jewish religious sect held closely to the Mosaic Law, but specifically the need for circumcision as defined under the Abrahamic Covenant, Sabbath, and dietary laws of clean/unclean. When it came to salvation in Christ, they held on to their circumcision requirements and added to them faith in the Messiah. In other words, this was an early example of those who denied justification by faith alone, apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28; Gal 2:16; c.f. James 2:24).
Returning to our discussion from Acts 11, we find the Circumcision Party questioning Peter as follows, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” This is an interesting and telling accusation considering when Peter first received the vision from the Lord regarding the Gentiles it was with respect to food, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat,” to which Peter objected that he had never eaten anything common or unclean. The basis for the Circumcision Party’s accusation is not the Old Testament generally nor even Mosaic Law specifically. Rather, it is from the Apocrypha, most likely Jubilees 22:16, which was written in the Second Century, B.C. It is most probable that the Rabbis of the first century, A.D., took this and broadly applied. We can then begin to see that many if not all of the cultural tensions between Jew and Gentile were fabricated on man-made religious practices (c.f. Genesis 12:3). That said, we ought not to lose sight of the original purpose that God gave to Israel regarding assimilating with the inhabitants of Canaan, taking on their practices and worship (Ex. 23:32, et.al).
The response to the gospel’s expansion to include Gentiles must overcome its first real objection based on a man-made dividing wall of hostility. Peter replies by rehearsing the events, just as they had happened, beginning with the vision he received from the Lord and concluding with the Holy Spirit falling on the Gentiles just as it had the Jews in Acts 2. At this we read of the following response from those who had originally objected
When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”Acts 11:18
With this statement, a temporary resignation to God’s inclusion of the Gentiles, the book of Acts then shifts back to a familiar character, Saul of Tarsus, who would soon be Paul the Apostle to the gentiles. Acts 11:19 returns us back to Jerusalem with a reminder that the persecution of Stephen led to widespread scattering of Jewish Christians who traveled, “as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.” In effect, we have had a limited preview of the gospel’s expansion to Gentiles, but now return to an emphasis on the commanded prophecy from our Lord from Acts 1:8, “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.” This time, we see the expanse of the gospel by the hands of unnamed men from Cyprus and Cyrene to the Hellenists in Antioch, which in this context are cultural Greeks as opposed to the culturally Greek Jews from Acts 6:1. Yet again, through the sovereign grace of God, repentance and faith in response to the gospel is granted to unbelievers. As has been their pattern thus far, those in Jerusalem again hear word of these conversions and again send a witness to testify to the validity of their faith, in this case it is Barnabas.
Barnabas, whose name means son of encouragement, was originally introduced to us in Acts 4:36, but more recently in Acts 9:27 when he took one Saul of Tarsus under his wing and gave him an endorsement to the apostles. From that introduction, Saul had been sent to Tarsus where he had remained for several years as protection against death threats which he had received from the Hellenists in Jerusalem. Now, in Acts 11 we have come full circle (almost as if God is sovereignly orchestrating both the historical events and the inscripturation of them) with a reintroduction of Barnabas (Acts 11:23-24), Hellenists in Antioch, and a return of Saul from Tarsus. Having witnessed with much joy the grace of God and the faith of the people, Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Saul and subsequently brings him down to Antioch. The following summary verse captures several key facts surrounding the gospel’s expanse to the gentiles and the key figure who would play a crucial evangelistic role among them, Saul.
For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.Acts 11:26b
The last note we have in this section on the believers at Antioch, under the teaching ministry of Barnabas and Saul, is a prophetic warning from Agabus, who came down from Jerusalem, concerning a coming famine. The disciples in Antioch then determined amongst themselves to send relief as any had to the believers in Jerusalem by the hands of Barnabas and Saul. This is no insignificant matter in our study on the foundational structure of Acts as we observe the geographical expanse of the gospel from Jew to Gentiles. The Christians in Antioch were gentiles. They are now offering up from among themselves relief to the Christians of Jerusalem, Jewish by birth. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, through His shed blood, and the grace of God extending repentance and faith to unbelievers as He wills, has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14) and now has one of its most significant examples in the outpouring of relief from the hearts of the Antioch Christians.
In the next post, we will look to wrap up our study on the structural foundation of Acts by looking more closely at a rise of issues and obstacles to the gospel expansion, as no doubt would be expected from the adversary.