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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- PSALMS 1-50--- ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
The Activity of Peter Results in Gentiles Being Welcomed And Welcoming The Lord, But The Rejection Of The Messiah Is Confirmed By Jerusalem Who Commence a Process of Elimination of His Chief Representatives (9.32-12.24).
The first part of this section is all positive as God’s work moves forwards with signs and wonders and the raising of the dead through Peter, God revealing that it is His desire that the Good News goes to the Gentiles through Peter, that desire being vindicated when carried out by Peter, and the forming of a new church in Syrian Antioch minister to by Barnabas and Saul.
But the second part of the section is negative and deals with the final rejection of the Messiah by the king and people of Jerusalem. This comes about as the result of the rise of a new ‘king of Israel’ who is totally sympathetic to the people and enjoys their confidence. This results in an open attack on the Apostles, the martyrdom of James the Apostle, the imprisonment and enchaining of Peter with the same end in view, his release by an Angel of the Lord and forsaking of Jerusalem, and the judgment on the king of Israel for blasphemy.
It can be analysed as follows:
The Continuing Ministry of Peter (9.32-11.18).
In preparing for the Gentile ministry of Paul, a preparation which has included what we have just considered concerning his conversion and ministry to Jews, Luke goes back to considering Peter’s ministry. Along with the other Apostles he is continuing the oversight of the church and here, at least to some extent, following in the steps of Philip along the Judaean coast. In 3.1 onwards he had brought the Good News to the ‘lame’ and now he does a similar thing again to the paralytic (9.32-35). Luke does not want us to think that Peter has faded out of the picture, nor that the work of God does not go on apace. This is then followed by a raising from the dead of a believer (9.36-43). Does this raising of the dead to some extent parallel the life-giving coming of the ‘breath’ of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 coming on all believers? Jesus had paralleled the resurrection with the raising of the dead in the story of Lazarus. And Luke then finalises this series of Peter’s activity with the description of the opening of the Good News to Gentiles, which will result in the spread of the word to ‘the uttermost parts of the earth’ (10.1-11.18 - paralleling 1.8?). Note also the build up of ideas. A paralysed man healed, the dead brought to life, the Good News goes to the Gentiles. The advancement in idea is clear.
This sequence also to some extent parallels that in Luke’s Gospel where the healing of the paralytic (Luke 5.18-26), is followed by the raising of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7.11-17) and of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8.41-46), between which is the healing of the centurion’s son and Jesus’ express admiration for the centurion’s faith (Luke 7.1-10), although here in Acts the story of the centurion’s faith necessarily follows the raising of the dead in order to stress its importance and lead in to what follows.
While at the same time we might see this as Peter’s taking an interest in and following up Philip’s ministry to the cities along the coastline (8.40), we should note that that is not Luke’s specific intent for he stresses that Peter is going ‘throughout all parts’.
Peter Heals a Paralysed Man and Ministers in Lydda (9.32-35).
In Acts 2-3 the coming of the life of God and of the Risen Jesus to His people is followed by the ministry to ‘the lame’. Here that sequence is reversed. First a paralysed man is healed, which will be followed by a raising from the dead, and the giving of life. A problem that many of us have here is that we are so used to the power of Jesus and of His Apostles that we have ceased to wonder and easily pass over the instances. But these were not just of passing interest, they were remarkable events. And they emphasise that the work of God goes on as it had at the beginning, and continues to bring healing and life, something which will be expanded as a result of Peter’s climactic meeting with Cornelius and his followers.
It is no accident that causes Luke to describe the work in this area at this point. It was mixed Jewish and Gentile territory, and he is preparing for the great leap forwards. With Judaea, Galilee, and Samaria evangelised, the next stage must be to the Gentiles, and this was a beginning. It is to Peter’s credit that he was found labouring here for it was only half Jewish, but we can compare how in Jesus ministry, He also had eventually moved out into such areas, which Peter had no doubt not forgotten. How else could the world be reached?
9.32 ‘And it came about that, as Peter went throughout all parts, he came down also to the saints who dwelt at Lydda.’
‘As Peter went through all.’ This is a continuation phrase linking with the previous verse, stressing his oversight of ‘the church -- throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria’. Events may have been happening elsewhere but the work of God in Palestine goes on apace. And during this process he arrives at Lydda, where the church may well have been founded by Philip, or some other Hellenistic believers scattered by the persecution, or it may have been by believers returning after Pentecost.
Lydda was twenty five mile north west of Jerusalem at the intersection of the road from Jerusalem to Joppa, and the road from Syria to Egypt. It was thus a buzzing commercial centre. Josephus tell us that it was not as large as a city, but it would later for a while become a rabbinical centre, and played a prominent part in Christian activity.
9.33 ‘And there he found a certain man named Aeneas, who had kept his bed eight years, for he was paralysed.’
The mention of a specific miracle in the light of the ‘many signs and wonders’ performed must always be seen as having a specific purpose. So the point here is that, as at the beginning (3.1-10), the lame and paralysed are restored. Here it was Aeneas, and yet we are also to see Aeneas as a picture of mankind, paralysed and awaiting restoration. This was what the continuing ministry of the Apostles was accomplishing, and the stress is on the fact that it was indeed continuing. Nothing could stop the onward movement of the power of the Spirit. Here was another who had been long in need, and now his need was to be met, as was the need of a world which had waited even longer.
9.34 ‘And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Messiah heals you, arise and spread your mattress.” And immediately he arose.’
Peter approaches the paralysed man, and calling him by name, calls on him to arise. The healing is carried out in the name of Jesus the Messiah (compare 3.6), and Aeneas immediately rises. It is Jesus the Messiah Who now offers hope to all, and can relieve the paralysis of the world.
9.35 ‘And all that dwelt at Lydda and in Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.’
And the result was that the people of Lydda and in the plain of Sharon round about responded almost as one, and turned to the Lord as they saw the paralysed man walking among them. They had been spiritually paralysed and now they were healed. Note the dual implication of the fact that they turned ‘to the Lord’. They came back to God and responded to Jesus Christ.
Peter Raises the Dead and Ministers In Joppa (9.36-43).
But the new ministry offered not only healing but life. In the bringing of the Good News the life of God has been made available for the people of God (2.1-4), and here this is now depicted in the raising of the dead. The Spirit of life was active through Peter. It is a reminder of Pentecost, and that the Spirit’s work there continues. But it is also a pointer to what is to come. Just as Peter is here urgently called to raise the dead, so will he be urgently called to a seeking centurion who is also longing for life (9.43-10.48), and is himself symbolic of a whole Gentile world lying in darkness and awaiting life.
9.36 ‘Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, (which by interpretation is called Dorcas). This woman was full of good works and works of charity which she performed.’
In Joppa (modern Jaffa) there was a godly woman named Tabitha, a Christian woman whose life was the product of her faith. She was full of good works and works of charity, a woman renowned and respected for what she did. Tabitha is Aramaic for ‘gazelle’, for which the Greek is ‘Dorcas’.
‘Which she performed.’ It was no outward pretence or made with the intention of obtaining publicity. She carried them through.
9.37 ‘And it came about in those days, that she fell sick, and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper chamber.’
But Tabitha fell sick, and died. They did all they could for her. They washed her, and laid her in the upper room, in the guest chamber. We note here that although ‘signs and wonders’ were feature of the early church, they could not be performed by just any group of Christians. The church in Joppa had been unable to prevent her from dying. But they were not satisfied with is. They wanted to see her come alive again.
9.38 ‘And as Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, begging him, “Do not delay from coming to us.”
So when the followers of Christ in Joppa learned that Peter was at Lydda, they sent two men to him urgently pleading with him to come to them at Joppa. They were confident that he could raise her from the dead. We can compare with this how Cornelius, when he hears from an angel that Peter is at Joppa, similarly sends two men with equally urgent pleading. What is about to happen in Joppa will be multiplied in the household of Cornelius. Those who are dead will live.
9.39 ‘And Peter arose and went with them. And when he had come, they brought him into the upper chamber. And all the widows stood by him weeping, and showing the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.’
At their plea Peter went with them. And when he came to Tabitha’s house and entered the death room he found may weeping widows, and the fruit of Tabitha’s good life laid out for all to see. The widows would be among those who would most miss her ministry, for they benefited by it. They were ‘naked and she clothed them’ (Matthew 25.36).
9.40 ‘But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up.’
Reminiscent of Jesus dealings with Jairus’ daughter Peter put everyone from the room. As far as we know he had never tried to raise the dead before. And then he kneeled and prayed, and turning to the body said, “Tabitha, arise”. The parallels with the healing of Jairus’ daughter are such as to give us confidence that this incident has brought that one to Luke’s mind (Luke 8.51-56), and yet the differences are potent too. Jesus had not needed to kneel and pray (although He did it at other times). This is not just a carbon copy of that. Jesus had had authority over death. Peter was a suppliant.
‘She opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up.’ All the symbolism of what happened here must not take away from us the wonder that has been performed. Like his Master Peter raises the dead. Death has no mastery in the presence of one who comes in the name of Christ. ‘She opened her eyes.’ All knew that when some one died it was necessary to close their eyes. Only Christ could open them. And that was why he had come to open men’s eyes in a deeper sense (26.18).
Interestingly ‘Tabitha kumi’ (the Aramaic for ‘Tabitha arise’) is little different from the ‘Talitha kumi’ of Jesus with Jairus’ daughter, but as Luke does not draw the similarity out he would not expect his Gentile readers to realise it. On the other hand they would note the similarity between ‘Maid arise’ and ‘Tabitha arise’.
9.41 ‘And he gave her his hand, and raised her up, and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive.’
Then Peter gave her his hand, and raised her from her lying in wait, and calling in the people of God, and especially the widows, he presented her alive. Once more the Christians are called ‘saints’, those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1.2).
9.42 ‘And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed on the Lord.’
This mighty work could hardly fail in its effect, and it became known throughout Joppa, resulting in the fact that many believed. The Giver of life was at work and was now offering life to all.
But mightier still was what was to happen at the hand of Peter. For shortly the representative of a dead world would call on him, and at God’s command he would go to him and then would commence the bringing of life to the Gentiles.
Peter and Cornelius (9.43--10.48).
It is difficult for us to appreciate the huge step that is now about to be described. To us it may all seem like a great fuss about nothing. But it was bringing about a total change in the way that Christian Jews would see Gentiles. It was doing nothing less than opening the Gentile world to the possibility of their becoming Christians without being circumcised and having to observe all the ritual regulations of the Jews.
For centuries the Jews had seen themselves as separated from the Gentiles by the question of religious ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’. On the whole Jews were ‘clean’ and Gentiles ‘unclean’ by virtue of the nature of their lives. This was because of the regulations that all orthodox Jews followed, some to a greater extent than others. This covered such things as washings, types of food eaten, contact with dead things, partaking of blood, contact with skin diseases, contact with those who were ‘unclean’, and so on. That is why when Gentiles sought to become Jewish proselytes, and to become ‘members of the congregation of Israel’, and so able to enter the Court of Israel in the Temple and partake in the Passover, they had to initially ritualistically bathe themselves fully in order to remove the ‘uncleanness’ of the Gentile world, and be circumcised. After that they could be treated as full Jews.
‘God-fearers’, on the other hand, were people who worshipped the God of Israel as the one God, and respected the Old Testament and the moral teaching of the Jews, but were not willing to be circumcised. Nevertheless any of these who wished to mix and eat with Jews would certainly be required to observe the basic laws of ‘cleanliness’.
These laws are in part described in Leviticus 11-14, and include the necessity of avoidance for food purposes of ‘unclean’ animals, such as pigs, conies and camels, (any which did not both ‘cleave the foot and chew vigorously’), together with the avoidance of certain types of bird and fish, and of all creeping things, and included the necessity of avoiding the eating of blood, and of killing animals in such a way as to avoid this. And especially important was the avoidance of contact with what was dead or had had contact with death.
These were good laws which to some extent prevented them from eating things that could have done them harm, but, more importantly, they originally inculcated in them a taste for what was wholesome (see our commentary on Leviticus 11), and ensured a wholesome environment. It should be noted that the laws themselves were originally given in order to promote positive wholesomeness of life. It was only once Israelites began to live among other peoples that they necessarily resulted in a certain level of separateness and discrimination against them. And as so often with such things certain very religious people began to take them to extremes, and as a result even began to discriminate against fellow-Jews.
But as Jesus demonstrated, it was possible to observe these laws of cleanliness without discriminating against people to such an extent as to have nothing to do with them. No Pharisee ever criticised Jesus for failing to keep high Scriptural standards of ‘cleanliness’, and yet He still moved freely among tax collectors and ‘sinners’ (Mark 2.15-17; Luke 5.27-32). He lived a disciplined life.
It was in order that Gentile Christians might be able to eat with Jewish Christians that the meeting of Apostles and elders at Jerusalem would later enjoin on Gentile Christians, even at that stage, the need to avoid ‘what is strangled, and blood’ (15.20). But those were the minimum limits which it was felt must essentially be applied even after the willing acceptance of Gentiles into the body of Christ, when prejudices had to some extent been broken down. This was partly as a result of what is about to be described. Even at that stage close contact with Gentiles as a whole was seen as not possible for a Christian Jew without careful regulation.
But at this stage in the life of the church things were not even as liberal as that. The general thought during the first chapters of Acts would be that if a Gentile wished to be accepted into the ‘community of Christians’ (something which rarely came up at that stage when the preaching was to Jews), it must be by becoming a proselyte, by an initial bathing to remove attaching ‘uncleanness’, followed by circumcision, for they would be seen as becoming members of the new Israel. They would then, of course, be expected to keep the laws of cleanliness in their lives and within their residences, in other words behave as Jews did as regards the laws of uncleanness. In this way no doubt a Gentile might be allowed to become a Christian.
But the thought of wholesale acceptance of Gentiles without following these conditions would have been anathema. Gentiles were of necessity ‘unclean’, for they made no attempt to avoid ‘uncleanness’, their lifestyles and homes were ‘unclean’, especially because they ate what was ‘unclean’ and allowed what had been involved with death into their homes, they were careless about contact with dead things, they partook of blood, and all in all it was necessary to keep them at a safe distance. (While we may criticise this we do well to remember that hygiene in Jewish homes was unquestionably superior to that in most Gentile homes).
We can thus imagine what Peter’s reaction would have been (and the reaction of all Jews who heard of it) if without any warning he had been invited into the home of a Gentile centurion, even a God-fearer. God-fearers remained on the fringe of synagogue life. They believed in the one God, admired the moral laws of Israel, and observed the Sabbath. Their contributions to the synagogue were gratefully accepted, and they were welcome to participate to some extent in synagogue worship, but they were in no way looked on as Jews. In order for that to happen they had to become proselytes, which would include circumcision. So even for Peter to visit such a God-fearer in their home would have been frowned on in normal circumstances.
Of course, he had been used to meeting such people when they had joined the crowds in order to hear Jesus, and where they had been welcomed by Him, but that was a very different situation from this. While many would go away believing in Jesus and seeking to follow His teaching they did not join any form of identifiable ‘community’. He also knew that Jesus had responded to the Syro-Phoenician woman, and to the former demoniac in Decapolis, and we can compare also Jesus contact with the Greeks brought to him by Philip the Apostle in John 12.20-26. But in none of these cases had there been the suggestion of too close a personal contact or of entering into their homes or of them becoming part of a ‘community’.
To Peter had been given the keys (the method of opening the door) of the Kingly Rule of God. In Acts 2 he had therefore opened that door to Jews at Pentecost, and he had constantly opened that door since, as had all the Apostles, together with, among others, Stephen, Philip and Saul. Now he was to take a step further and open it to God-fearers (who would in future prove for some time to be the most fruitful people to evangelise).
It was inevitable that at some stage this challenge as to what to do with God-fearers would come up, and that fairly rapidly, so that we should not be surprised to find reference to it here. In fact we might rather be surprised that the issue had not arisen for Peter earlier. They were already to a certain extent accepted within Judaism, and the Jewish church would therefore inevitably have to consider what they were to do about them once they showed an interest in Jesus as their Messiah. Indeed how the Christians would face up to them would certainly have to be decided as soon as Christian preachers went to mixed territory, as Peter was doing here. Peter could hardly have preached in the synagogues here, in a mixed Jewish-Gentile community without the question arising, ‘can we God-fearers be baptised?’ Perhaps even as this all happened he had been challenged on the matter and was puzzling about it in his own mind. But it is certainly no surprise that he would be faced up with the question. Luke is actually not dealing here with the question as to whether any believing God-fearers had already become one with Christ. That was between them and God. He is concerned with the question of what Peter did when he was faced up with the question (as at some stage he had to be) of whether he should enter their homes, and whether they could be baptised and accepted into the community of Christians without become proselytes, together with its consequences for the future.
9.43 ‘And it came about that he abode many days in Joppa with one Simon a tanner.’
The account is introduced by this indication of the whereabouts of Peter. It is significant in itself. No tanner would be allowed to ply his trade within the walls of Jerusalem or within 50 cubits of them. And that applied to all fully Jewish cities. A specific distance from the city was required for his trade premises (which would usually also be his home). There would, however, be a large number of tanneries around Jerusalem, outside the strict limits, as there was a large scale requirement for them in view of the abundance of hides that the priests obtained from all sacrifices that they offered (for the hide went to the officiating priest) and from the hides received by landlords from Passover visitors, for the hide was seen as a kind of rental for the ‘free’ use of the premises. So while such tanners were looked down on, it was a useful trade that (in the usual hypocritical way that man has) all knew was required, even though it was one in which no ultra-respectable Jew would engage. Of course those who were brought up to the trade saw it differently through familiarity.
This requirement to be outside the city might not strictly apply in Joppa, for it was a multinational society, and such a provision might not have been enforceable, but it does serve to demonstrate that the trade was seen as ‘unclean’, and this was mainly because it meant constant association with dead matter, and because of the methods used for tanning (dipping in urine). No respectable Jew would become involved with it, and there would be strict regulation and control applied to Jews who did, and a certain level of ostracism by the ‘more religious’ who were fastidious about ‘uncleanness’. Furthermore if a damsel became betrothed to a tanner without being made aware of his trade, the betrothal could be nullified on her learning of it. She could not be forced to marry a tanner.
Thus the fact that Peter willingly lodged with a tanner probably demonstrated the more casual approach to uncleanness followed by Galileans. A Judaean would have been much more wary of doing so. Nevertheless we can be sure that Peter carefully ensured that he did maintain a full level of ‘cleanness’ while he was there, and would be expected to by all. It does, however, serve to demonstrate that Peter was to some extent more open to being persuaded on such matters than, for example, an inhabitant of Jerusalem would have been.
10.1-2 ‘And there was a certain man in Caesarea, Cornelius by name, a centurion of the band called the Italian band, a devout man, and one who feared God with all his house, who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always.’
In contrast to Peter maintaining his ‘cleanness’ at the tanner’s house (which may have heightened his sensitivity about maintaining cleanness at this time) was a certain Gentile by the name of Cornelius. He was a centurion (leader over ‘a hundred’ in a Roman legion, which would consist of about sixty men) in the Italian band (cohort). Interestingly the connection of the Italian cohort with Palestine is witnessed to in an inscription dating before 69 AD. He was a devout man and a God-fearer, as were his whole household. ‘Devout’ indicates a godly person in Jewish eyes. He regularly gave charitable gifts to the synagogue for the poor, and prayed regularly to the God of Israel. He thus no doubt also observed certain laws of cleanliness. If any non-Jew or proselyte was fit to be visited by a Jew it was Cornelius. But it did not guarantee that his house was totally free from ‘uncleanness’.
Centurions were usually very solid men. Polybius declared of them, "They wish centurions not so much to be venturesome and daredevil as natural leaders, of a steady and sedate spirit. They do not desire them so much to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle, but men who will hold their ground when worsted and hard pressed and be ready to die at their posts". They were the backbone of the army, like sergeants today. Solid, dependable, reliable, experienced, and keeping things going when they were at their toughest. (And like sergeants probably not necessarily always actually attached to a group of men).
Caesarea was the Roman provincial capital of Judaea where the procurator, when there was one, resided. It was on the sea coast not far below Mount Carmel, and while an unsatisfactory natural harbour, had been turned into an efficient artificial harbour by Herod the Great. It was thus at this time an important site. The procurators would necessarily have a bodyguard, and while we do not know of an external Roman legion being in Palestine as early as this (the procurators had the use of local auxiliaries) the presence of such a man as Cornelius cannot be ruled out. Indeed the mention of him by Luke is good historical ground for knowing that he was present. If he was familiar with Jewish customs he would be a good man for a procurator to have brought with him, and for subsequent procurators to hold on to, someone who was solid, reliable and aware of the oddities of the locals.
‘With all his house.’ This would include family members, and servants and slaves.
10.3 ‘He saw in a vision openly, as it were about the ninth hour of the day, an angel of God coming in to him, and saying to him, “Cornelius.” ’
Cornelius was in his own home when he saw a vision. Cornelius was a common Roman name. And this man was praying at the regular time of prayer (the ninth hour), which we may presume was his custom. He was a God-fearer. At that time he saw in a vision an angel of God, who came to him and spoke with him, addressing him by name. Three in the afternoon (fifteen hundred hours) was not a time for dreaming.
‘An angel of God.’ This indicates a more direct and more physical messenger than the Spirit, which was necessary because Cornelius was not yet a man of the Spirit. The coming of an angel of God speaking a person’s name takes us right back to Luke 1.11, 28. It is indicative in Luke of something that is to happen which is vital for the future. See also 5.19; 8.26; 12.7, where however he is an ‘angel of the Lord’, for there it was in respect of believers.
10.4-6 ‘And he, fastening his eyes on him, and being afraid, said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your charitable giving have gone up for a memorial before God. And now send men to Joppa, and fetch one Simon, who is surnamed Peter, he lodges with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side.” ’
In spite of being a centurion he was afraid (or ‘filled with awe’). Such visitations were not in his line, and he must have wondered what it might mean. He was probably not a man given to visions. And looking at the angel he said, “What is it, Lord?’ This may signify that he saw the angel as the ‘Angel of God’ described in the Old Testament who was regularly God revealing Himself in physical form, or he may have been using ‘lord’ as a title of homage and respect, although certainly with a deeper significance than ‘sir’.
The Angel then replied to him and explained that God knew about his life, and about his genuineness in praying and his charitable behaviour, and was keeping them within His mind. They were like a ‘memorial’, a pleasing odour rising to God. Cornelius was in favour with God. Therefore he must send to the house of Simon the tanner for a man called Peter, so that Simon might be fetched to him. We can compare here 9.11. When men pray sincerely God meets with them.
10.7-8 ‘And when the angel who spoke to him was departed, he called two of his household-servants, and a devout soldier of those who waited on him continually, and having rehearsed all things to them, he sent them to Joppa.’
Accordingly once the angel had departed Cornelius called two of his closest servants to him, and sent them, along with a God-fearing soldier who had been with him a long time and had accompanied him on his various assignments, to Joppa, having explained everything to them. Note again the emphasis on ‘devout’, a word which always connects the person to Judaism. This soldier too was a God-fearer. Cornelius wanted the man for whom he was sending to be treated courteously and reverently, and to be willing to respond to his request.
10.9 ‘Now on the morrow, as they were on their journey, and drew near to the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour.’
It took them a day to get to Joppa. Meanwhile in Joppa Peter went onto the rooftop of the house in order to pray at noon. The flat roofs of houses in Palestine were places of quiet, of relaxation and of prayer. From there he would have a clear view all around and many commentators consider that the vision (not dream) might have arisen because a canopy hung over him keeping out the sun, or because he was looking out at a canopy stretched out over rocks where seamen could shelter, or even because he had spotted the billowing sails of a boat. It is equally possible that he had actually recently seen something like this when a boat was being unloaded. But the description is rather to be looked on as practical. How else were a group of living creatures to be see as being lowered from heaven?
10.10-12 ‘And he became hungry, and desired to eat. But while they made ready, he fell into a trance, and he sees the heaven opened, and a certain container descending, as it were like a great sheet, let down by four corners on the earth, in which were all manner of fourfooted beasts and creeping things of the earth and birds of the heaven.’
And feeling hungry he called for something to eat. This hunger may have been the result of the time he spent in prayer, and may therefore point to how long he had been praying. But while the meal was being prepared he fell into a trance, and saw what would appear to him as a nightmare. He saw a great sheet being let down from heaven filled with ‘unclean’ things. This included fourfooted beasts, such as pigs, conies and camels (it was a vision), together with different kinds of birds and many creeping things (all of which, apart from locusts, would be unclean). There may have been clean animals among them (opinion is divided), but as a good Jew he must have been horrified, and would probably shudder. His heart would draw back in repulsion.
10.13 ‘And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” ’
Then a voice spoke to him, saying, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter must have wondered what was happening, and even been appalled. How could the Lord tell him to partake of unclean animals, or even to go among that dreadful collection of creatures? It was neither religiously nor personally desirable. (Any more than going among the Gentiles might be).
10.14 ‘But Peter said, “Not so, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is common and unclean.” ’
Peter responded firmly, and possibly a little indignantly (being Peter). ‘Never, Lord,’ he said, ‘for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ It was not something even to be considered. The laws of uncleanness were so imbedded in him that he did not even consider the fact that if God told him to eat, then he was free to do so. He was just offended that God could think him capable of breaking the laws of uncleanness. His sense of ‘uncleanness’ might well have been heightened because he was having to be extra careful when staying at a tanner’s house. Perhaps, he might have thought, God was telling him that he had not been careful enough, and that this was therefore a warning?
10.15 ‘And a voice came to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed, do not treat as common.” ’
But immediately there came a word of rebuke. (We might even paraphrase as, ‘What God has cleansed, how dare you call common?’) What was before him had been given to him by God. Surely he would recognise that anything that God gave him would have been cleansed, and was not to be seen as ‘common’ (shorthand for ‘common and unclean’ - verse 14), for it would have been sanctified by God. It was now therefore not common but holy.
This was unquestionably intended to make him think. On the one hand were years of training and regulation. On the other was the undoubted fact that if God had provided something which He had cleansed, it must be acceptable, and fit to eat and could surely not cause uncleanness. It put him in a quandary.
We should note that this is not strictly dealing with the question of the Christian attitude towards ‘unclean foods’. Peter is not said to have eaten of them, and God is not saying that He has cleansed ‘everything’ and that therefore everything can be eaten. What Peter had been called on to eat was a direct gift from God, prepared for him by God, and it was thus holy. God’s purpose was to make him realise that anything, and any man, whom He Himself is demonstrated to have cleansed, could not be looked on as unclean.
There is no suggestion here that He has cleansed all foods. Only those in the sheet were cleansed. But it is clear that the very idea behind it does weaken the argument concerning the uncleanness of certain foods. It confirms that they are not inherently unclean, for they can be made holy. Compare Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7.14-23.
This sheet full of such a variety of creatures, all of which had been ‘sanctified’ by God out of creation in spite of what they were, was an apt picture of the whole variety of people whom God would call out of the world and sanctify to Himself in the Christian church. Peter would never forget the lesson that once sanctified all are precious to God.
It would take time for Peter to appreciate the full significance of this vision. His previous understanding had been that God had redeemed Israel. Now he was being faced with the fact that God had cleansed large numbers of Gentiles through the cross whose names were written in heaven (Luke 10.20) and was ready to receive them also in the one nation which would replace Israel (Matthew 21.43) as he later enunciates in his first letter (1 Peter 1.1-2, 18-21; 2.9-10; 4.3-5)
10.16 ‘And this was done three times, and immediately the container was received up into heaven.’
The sheet was lowered three times. It would seem probable that three times Peter refused to eat. Whatever God said he could not bring himself to break the habits of a lifetime, especially in such an odious way (Peter would know of Ezekiel 4.9-15 where Ezekiel had, on pleading with God, obtained some relief. Possibly Peter was hoping for a similar concession.). But the threefold repetition, which emphasised the importance of the message that the vision was seeking to get over, made him feel more and more uneasy. It may well also have taken his mind back to when the Lord had three time called on him to tend His sheep (John 21.15-17). But what connection had sheep with these unclean animals? (He was soon to learn). Then to his relief the sheet was taken back up into heaven, temporarily at least resolving his dilemma.
10.17-18 ‘Now while Peter was much perplexed within himself what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made enquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate, and called and asked whether Simon, who was surnamed Peter, was lodging there.’
While Peter in great perplexity was wondering what the vision could mean, the men from Cornelius arrived at the entrance of the house and called out, asking for Peter, having enquired the way there. The way this is described is interesting, bringing out that this was a small trader’s residence with no porter protecting the gate. Anyone who anted to could look in to the small courtyard and call out.
They ‘stood before the gate’. It is clear that these men were taking the greatest care not to cause offence. They knew that a Gentile was not welcome in the home of a strict Jew. Thus they did not enter the building until invited.
10.19-20 ‘And while Peter thought on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. But arise, and get you down, and go with them, nothing doubting, for I have sent them.”
Peter’s mind was still on the vision and the Spirit then told him about the two servants and the soldier who were looking for him, and told him that he must go down to them, and go with them without having any doubts, because it was God Himself Who had sent them. As he probably had a conscience about having resisted God already, this more reasonable request would make it an easier command to obey. But God was not just wanting Peter to be willing to approach Gentiles. He wanted him to see that Gentiles on whom He laid His hands were thereby totally clean and wholesome and to be thoroughly welcomed. He was breaking down great prejudice. And because this was Peter, a representative of the Apostles, not only for Peter but also for the Apostles as a whole.
‘The Spirit told him.’ The Spirit could speak directly to Peter for he was a man of the Spirit.
‘Three men.’ B has ‘two men’. Aleph, A, E have ‘three men’. Some MS (e.g. D) do not mention a number. B may well be right. But in view of the description of those sent either number is possible. The soldier was an escort and not strictly one of the seeking men. Thus two men (deputed servants) were seeking Peter, along with an escort. On the other hand the three would go well as a parallel with the threefold vision. Three ‘clean’ men.
‘Nothing doubting.’ Peter is to go with them confidently and without making unnecessary difficulties, or allowing his sense of what was ‘unclean’ to affect his decision, for what is to happen has been cleansed by God. In the middle or passive voice this verb can mean either "to take issue with" or "to be at odds with oneself, to doubt, to waver, to have misgivings". As an intensified form of its active meaning it could mean "to make a distinction, to differentiate". Possibly both ideas are in mind. Religiously speaking he need not analyse the situation because God is in it. He can forget his worries and he need not consider distinctions, for when God has determined something it can no longer be treated in the ordinary way.
10.21 ‘And Peter went down to the men, and said, “Look, I am he whom you seek. What is the reason why you are come?” ’
No doubt curious, Peter went down to them, introduced himself and asked them why they had come.
10.22 ‘And they said, “Cornelius a centurion, a righteous man and one who fears God, and well reported of by all the nation of the Jews, was warned of God by a holy angel to send for you to his house, and to hear words from you.” ’
They informed him that Cornelius, a Roman centurion, but one who was a God-fearer and a righteous man highly respected among the Jews, had been warned by God through a holy angel to request that Peter come to his house. For God had told Cornelius that Peter would have something special to say to him.
‘One who fears God.’ Not the technical term for a God-fearer but conveying the idea and emphasising the genuineness of his state of heart. (Compare for the expression Acts 10.2, 35; 13.16, 26, 43, 50; 16.14; 17.4, 17; 18.7).
It must be stressed that this description of Cornelius was not given in order to suggest that he deserved that God would be good to him. It was rather in order to stress to Peter that he was not dealing with someone who was against the God of Israel. They knew perfectly well the feelings of the Jews about Gentiles, and they would have no doubt that this Jewish ‘prophet’ would have similar views. They were trying to get Peter’s goodwill, not God’s (God had already shown His).
10.23 ‘So he called them in and lodged them. And on the morrow he arose and went forth with them, and certain of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him.’
So Peter, still puzzling over his vision, and thinking that the two strange events may be connected, said that he would accompany them, meanwhile offering them hospitality for the night. There was no difficulty in this except to the most strict of Jews, especially in a tanner’s house. The niceties would still be observed, along with Jewish scruples. And accordingly next day he did accompany them, taking with him a number of Jewish Christians from Joppa (six in all - 11.12 - making with himself the perfect number seven and hopefully sufficient if the three men intended mischief to combat it).
The taking of six fellow-Christians may have been because he felt that their support in prayer might be helpful, or because he was a little apprehensive about going to see a Roman centurion alone in case he was arrested and disappeared without trace. (If a Roman centurion from the provincial capital called for you to go and see him it was usually a good idea to do so, but it could also carry unpleasant consequences). Or he may have felt that they might be known to the centurion, or at least be looked on as ‘locals’, and might thus make the visit easier. After all Cornelius was supposed to be known to the Jews of the area. Or he may already have in mind that he might need witnesses to combat any false rumours. The witness of seven men would be indisputable. He had no doubt learned from past experience that witnesses could be valuable when something controversial was happening. Indeed he may have had a mixture of such reasons.
10.24 ‘And on the morrow they entered into Caesarea. And Cornelius was waiting for them, having called together his kinsmen and his near friends.’
Arriving in Caesarea after a days journey they found Cornelius waiting for them having gathered together a crowd made up of his kinsmen and near friends. Cornelius was a man of faith, and was confident that if God was in it the man would come.
10.25 ‘And when it came about that Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him.’
When Peter entered the courtyard of the house Cornelius came forward and paid homage to him, falling at his feet, thinking of his visitor as a prophet, and possibly more. We note again that it was left to Peter to decide whether he would enter the building. The greeting went beyond courteous greeting and yet was not quite worship. But such a greeting from a centurion certainly indicated that he saw Peter as beyond the ordinary.
10.26 ‘But Peter raised him up, saying, “Stand up. I myself also am a man.” ’
But Peter would have none of it. He did not want the man to look to him. ‘Stand up,’ he basically said. ‘I am only a man like you are. You must not give me honour to which I am not due.’ It is always a tendency of man to hero-worship, and even go beyond that (and an equal tendency of man to accept it). But Scripture constantly warns against such attitudes (see Exodus 20.3-5; Deuteronomy 5.7-9; Luke 4.8; Revelation 19.10; 22.8-9).
10.27 ‘And as he talked with him, he went in, and finds many come together,’
Then he talked further with Cornelius and went up to the upper chamber with him, where he found a number of guests gathered. Normally a Jew would wait outside in such a situation, and the Gentile would come out to him, thus preventing the Jew from being defiled by something in the Gentile’s house of which the Gentile would be totally unaware. Or in the circumstances of an ‘official request’ that he visit, a request that would be difficult sometimes to refuse, he might reluctantly enter knowing that he had no choice but to do so, aware, however, that he would later have to go through whatever cleansing ritual proved necessary. But he would not enter voluntarily. However, the vision that he had had, probably made Peter more willing than usual to enter. Those who were with him lived constantly among Gentiles and were probably a little less particular anyway, and they may well have considered that as he had been summoned by a Centurion he had little choice. There are some people that you do not argue with.
‘Many come together.’ Luke continues to emphasise how the word is going out to ‘many’. The intricacy of the story must not hide from us the fact that this is a further example of the spreading and multiplying of the word.
10.28-29 ‘And he said to them, “You yourselves know how it is an unlawful thing for a man who is a Jew to join himself or come in to one of another nation, and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. That is the reason also that I came without saying anything against it, when I was sent for. I ask, therefore, with what intention you sent for me.”
Peter then explains why he has behaved in such an unusual manner. They will know that he is a Jew, and they will know that as a Jew he could not be expected to mix socially with non-Jews, nor enter a Gentile house. He is very much aware that they must be wondering why he has done so. He does not want them to think that he is careless about his own religious sensitivities or the religious sensitivities of the Jews. The requirements here, of course, went beyond the actual Law, and refer rather to what had become the custom, partly due to Pharisaic interpretation. But they were requirements that resulted from an urgent desire not to be religiously contaminated.
Indeed, he points out, the reason that he has done so is because God had shown him that he must not call any man common or unclean whom God has cleansed. That is why he has come without making any excuses, and without demurring at the thought of entering a Gentile house. God had told him to come, and he has therefore assumed that God has ensured that the house is ‘clean’ (just as He had cleansed the unclean animals).
Peter is not saying that he will never again make such distinctions. This is a particular case. Later he will have to be rebuked by Paul for allowing such distinctions to interfere with his fellowship with Gentile Christians (Galatians 2.11-13). The question continued to be like a nettle to Jewish Christians.
Having made his position clear, both to Cornelius and to the Jewish Christians he had brought with him, who must also have been a little perturbed, he then asks why he has been sent for.
‘Another nation.’ Often a contemptuous expression on the lips of a Jew, but here possibly more neutral. Peter is in fact demonstrating that God does not think like that.
10.30-32 ‘And Cornelius said, “Four days ago, until this hour, I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and says, “Cornelius, your prayer is heard, and your charitable giving is had in remembrance in the sight of God. Send therefore to Joppa, and call to you Simon, who is surnamed Peter. He lodges in the house of Simon a tanner, by the sea side.”
Cornelius them explained his side of the story, how a man in bright clothing had appeared to him, and had told him that God had heard his prayers as he had sought for Him, and that God had seen the godliness and devoutness of his life, and that he was therefore to send to the house of Simon the Tanner for a man called Simon Peter.
This is the first indication that we have had that the angel was clothed in ‘bright clothing’. That explains why Cornelius had known that he was the Angel of God. Nevertheless here in front of his friends he tones the description down of the angel down to ‘a man in bright clothing’. He is a little self-conscious about what his friends might think.
Now, however, we recognise why he had seen in Peter a great prophet to whom homage should be paid. He recognised that he must clearly be greater than the Angel who was but a messenger.
Note the repetition of what had happened. It is being emphasised what a devout man Cornelius is, and that he was pleasing to God, and was the equivalent of a pleasing odour to Him (memorial). Peter and his companions are also being made aware that all this is of God, and is because of God’s command, just as He had commanded concerning the unclean creatures.
10.33 “At once therefore I sent to you, and you have done well that you are come. Now therefore we are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all things that have been commanded you of the Lord.”
He then explained that he had immediately done what the man had said, and that Peter had done well to come. He understood the predicament that Peter had been in but can assure him that he has nothing to fear in that regard. His house is clean. Now therefore he and his friends and kinsmen were gathered in order to hear what Peter has to tell them from God, so that they might hear from him all that the Lord has commanded him.
We must now consider these words in their context. Peter had spent three years and more evangelising under the auspices of Jesus while He was on earth. He had since then proclaimed the Good News for some years before Jews, and had received great response. But he had probably never before walked into a room like this packed with so ‘many’ people who were just waiting, every one, to be converted. There was no opposition. There were no doubters. And yet these were Gentiles. But they were hungry to know God and their hearts were filled with desire for Him. Here was a picture of the waiting people ‘to the uttermost part of the earth’ who were awaiting the Good News. How humbled Peter must have felt, and how moved, as with his new view of things he looked at these longing faces. He must have said to himself, “Why is it that I never realised.” He would never forget this moment.
Peter’s Speech To Cornelius And His Household and Friends (10.34-48).
10.34a ‘And Peter opened his mouth and said,’
The words that follow express his great dawning wonder at the new realisation that has come to him.
10.34b-35 “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he who fears him, and works righteousness, is acceptable to him.”
His words are spoken in awe. He is almost speaking to himself as he looks at the people before him. How is it that he never knew? How could he not have realised that God is no respecter of persons, that Jew and Gentile are both alike to Him? That all people, of every nation, who fear God and work righteousness are acceptable to Him? Note the order. First they fear God (awe inspired faith), and then they work righteousness (they obey His laws). We are reminded here of Paul’s words, ‘for not the hearers of the law are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be accounted righteous. For when Gentiles who have no law, do by nature the things of the law, these having no law, are providing a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness with it, and their reasonings one with another accusing or else excusing them, in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my Good News, by Jesus Christ’ (Romans 2.13-16). These would all be men and women who had first become aware of God, and had then feared Him, with the result that they had known the force of His law within their minds and wills, and had thus from heart and conscience responded to Him to do His will. He had worked in them to will and to do of His good pleasure (compare Philippians 2.13). They were genuine people who had experienced the working of God’s power resulting in their being righteous. And they were found among the despised Gentiles.
‘Respecter of persons.’ Compare Deuteronomy 10.17; 2 Chronicles 19.7; Job 34.19; Romans 2.11; 10.12).
10.36 “The word which he sent to the children of Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ - He is Lord of all! —”
Peter’s words follow the usual general pattern, although adapted to the circumstances. The Greek reflects the Aramaic background of the speaker, and its clumsiness may also reflect a speaker who was more at home in Aramaic, which Peter would be.
To summarise his message. God had sent ‘the word’ to Israel proclaiming the Good News of peace through Jesus Christ, Who is Lord of all. And it concerned the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, His defeat of Satan, His death and resurrection and the fact that He was ordained to be the Judge of the living and the dead. Indeed it is according to Scripture, for all the prophets have declared that through him all who believe will receive forgiveness of their sins.
We must analyse the verse in more depth:
The title ‘Lord of all’ (pantown kurios) may possibly have been borrowed over from paganism, where it is found with a philosophical connection, indicating Lordship over the cosmos, but in Galatians 4.1 it (kurios pantown) appears simply to be a standard expression indicating someone in overall authority and control, and the idea in context may be to emphasise that Peter now sees Him as Lord of both Jew and Gentile. It seems that ‘Lord of all’ was a natural expression for someone in overall sovereignty, and therefore for the sovereignty of God, and of Christ, but that here it indicates especially Lord over all people. We may indeed imagine that as Peter looked at these Gentiles before him, whom not long before he would have had little time for, he saw also the sheet coming down from heaven. And he say all the different animals and all the creeping things, all that God had declared that he had cleansed, and he looked again at the Gentiles, and then he said ‘He is Lord of all’. Compare also ‘the Lord of all the earth’ (Joshua 3.7, 13; Zechariah 6.5); panto-krator, the ‘Almighty’, He Who has power over all things (2 Corinthians 6.18), ‘Lord of heaven and earth’ which is equivalent to ‘Lord of all things’ (17.24; Luke 10.21; Matthew 11.25), ‘the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2.8; James 2.1), ‘Lord of lords’ (1 Timothy 6.15; Revelation 17.14; 19.16).
10.37-38 “That saying you yourselves know, which was published throughout all Judaea, beginning from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached, even Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed of the devil. For God was with him.”
He now outlines in detail the life and ministry of Jesus. Even here in Caesarea they must have heard of Jesus Christ and His ministry, the report of which was spread throughout all Judaea, but as they may not know the detail he spells it out. It began in Galilee, after the baptism which John had preached; in Galilee of the nations, because Jesus had come for all.
It was about Jesus of Nazareth (in Galilee), one who was true man Who existed in the flesh as a human being in a Galilean town, but One Whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, so that in Him God walked on earth. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the Devil, because God was with Him. Thus Peter emphasises that God was present with Him, God’s Holy Spirit and power had anointed Him, and He had revealed His power and authority over the Devil. And on top of this He went about doing good and healing the sick. He was all goodness and power.
The ‘anointing with the Holy Spirit’ linked Jesus with the great prophetic figure in Isaiah 61.1-2. This Jesus Himself had already done in Luke 4.14-30. He was ‘the prophet’ come from God (compare 7.37). It demonstrated a man, and even more than a man, on whom God had set His hand and His seal.
‘Who went about doing good.’ Jesus revealed His kingship by ‘doing good’ (euergeton). In this regard we should remember that Hellenistic kings held a related royal title, euergetes, doer of good. Jesus was here as King over the Kingly Rule of God, as ‘the Doer of good’.
‘Healing all who were oppressed of the Devil.’ That is, He combated the power of evil and rendered him helpless. None were more aware of the power of evil spirits and ‘demons’ than the Gentiles. But here was One Who was stronger than they, and stronger than Satan himself (Luke 11.22).
10.39a “And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem.”
He then points out that he and his fellow believers were witnesses of all that he did ‘in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem’. The country of the Jews presumably covers Judaea, Galilee and Peraea. But Jerusalem was never looked on as part of Judaea but as a city on its own. Note the emphasis on witness. These things had been seen, and there were many who could testify to them, including Peter.
It is interesting to notice the nuances that are occurring because of the nature of his audience. ‘The country of the Jews’ is a description suitable for Gentiles. He stresses the beginning of the ministry as being in Galilee (of the nations) whereas he has not previously mentioned Galilee in his speeches. The mention of ‘the Lord of all’ stresses that all men are involved, not only Jews. And this is the only reference by him to ‘the good news of peace’, that which brought peace with God and peace between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2.11-22) and peace among men (Luke 2.14).
10.39b “Whom also they slew, hanging him on a tree.”
As regularly, following the description of Jesus’ life he describes His death. Here he places emphasis on the fact that He ‘hung on a tree’. To be hung on a tree was the sign of a criminal, of one who was under a curse (Deuteronomy 21.22-23). They would have heard of the crucifixion of Jesus. Well let them recognise that it was because He was made a curse for us that He hung there (Galatians 3.13).
10.40-41 “Him God raised up the third day, and gave him to be made openly known, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand of God, even to us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
‘Him God raised up the third day.’ Compare 1 Corinthians 15.3-4. The fact that God raised Him within three days revealed that God did not see Him as deserving of death. Rather it demonstrated that He was God’s favoured One, God’s Messiah, and that His death must therefore have been for us. Having been raised within three days death had never mastered Him.
So as in his previous speeches he again stresses the resurrection, and again points to those who are witnesses, thus making a twofold emphasis on witnesses (compare verse 39). He points out that God made the Risen Jesus ‘openly known’ to witnesses chosen beforehand in such a way that His resurrection could not be doubted, because He ate and drank with them after rising from the dead. He had not left any doubt on the matter. And Peter had been one of them.
10.42 “ And he charged us to preach to the people, and to testify that this is he who is ordained of God to be the Judge of the living and the dead.”
Having risen He had then given a charge to His Apostles to preach to the people, testifying that God had ordained Jesus as Judge of the living and the dead, and was thus establishing His Heavenly Kingship and His Kingly Rule.
So, although containing here a little more detail about His life because of the type of audience, the usual pattern of Peter’s speeches is repeated; life of Jesus, death of Jesus, resurrection of Jesus, exaltation of Jesus; prophetic backing.
‘Preach to the people.’ Some would see this as referring to the people of Israel, but verse 43 expands this to mean ‘all who believe’. There is no real reason why this cannot signify the Apostolic responsibility to proclaim the Good News to all people in the whole creation (Luke 22.47; Mark 16.15; Matthew 28.19), especially in view of Peter’s recent vision.
“The Judge of the living and the dead.” We can compare here 17.31; Genesis 18.25; Deuteronomy 32.4; Isaiah 11.4; 42.4; John 5.22, 27. Here His rule and authority has clearly been established over earth and heaven (compare Matthew 28.18), for those who judged were those who ruled.
10.43 “To him bear all the prophets witness, that through his name every one who believes on him shall receive remission of sins.”
The whole is then confirmed by a reference to the prophets, who are God’s witnesses, and who themselves promised that through His Name whoever would believe on Him should receive remission of sins. This completes the threefold witness (see verses 39 & 41).
Forgiveness of sins is continually central to God’s whole plan of redemption (2.38; 5.31; 13.38; 26.18; Exodus 34.7; Numbers 15.28; Isaiah 33.24; 43.25; 44.22; 53:4-6, 11-12 (compare Luke 22.37); Jeremiah 31.34; Daniel 9.9, 24; compare Luke 24:25-27, 44-47).
10.44 ‘While Peter yet spoke these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the word.’
We do not know whether Peter would then have appealed for them to respond for, before he could do so, the Holy Spirit fell ‘on those who heard the word’. As he proclaimed that, “through his name every one who believes on him shall receive remission of sins”, the hearts of the Gentiles responded as one, and the Holy Spirit fell on them. The experience was powerful and immediate. ‘On those who heard his words’ probably means the whole receptive company, not just the particular ones whose hearts responded, because in this company all were responsive. And this was made apparent in that they ‘spoke with tongues’ and ‘magnified God’. This parallels ‘spoke with tongues and prophesied’ in 19.6. That being so the magnifying of God would seem to have been in prophecy. This is confirmed by the fact that words spoken in an unknown tongue would not have had any specific meaning to those who heard them.
But these miraculous gifts stressed that these Gentiles were being received by God in the same way as the first believers had been. It is true that no mention is made here of whether the tongues were understood. But they may well have been, for this would probably be a multinational gathering, and other tongues which were understood by the hearers, as at Pentecost, would have sealed to watchers and recipients alike that God was welcoming people of all races on equal terms. When a phenomenon has been previously mentioned, and then it is again mentioned much more briefly in a similar context, we have a right to assume that it is similar in most respects to the first unless we are told otherwise. Ecstatic tongues coming from Gentiles might rather have put these Jews who heard them off and made them apprehensive. They would know of such ecstatic utterances in demon worship. But if these tongues were similar to those at Pentecost, and understood by some present, they would therefore be comforting. Whatever 1 Corinthians 12-14 speaks of comes much later and, as there they are clearly unknown tongues they do not necessarily relate to these occurrences in Acts, although they may.
10.45-46a ‘And they of the circumcision who were believers were amazed, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God.’
We do well to pause as we consider this verse. Those who had come with Peter may have been expecting a number of things, and a number of them may have been reluctant to come, but what none of them had expected was that God would give His Holy Unique Spirit to Gentiles. Why, it made them as holy as the Jewish Christians. They had become indwelt by the Lord in the same way, and that even while they were uncircumcised. Note the stress on ‘those of the circumcision.’ That was clearly considered important here, and stresses that the others were uncircumcised. The ‘circumcised’ consisted of those who had accompanied Peter, and included Peter himself). They were also ‘believers’, but they were amazed that God should bless these Gentiles in the same way as He had blessed them, even though the Gentiles were uncircumcised. They really had no choice but to accept that God was treating them on an equal basis with the Jewish Christians.
10.46b-47 ‘Then answered Peter, “Can any man forbid the water, that these should not be baptised, who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?” ’
Peter recognised this immediately, and seizing the moment asked ‘the circumcised’ whether they could think of any reason why these uncircumcised Gentiles should not be baptised when they had received the Holy Spirit in exactly the same way as they had. The answer could only be that they could think of no reason. But the significance of the reply and what followed was stupendous. It indicated that men could be baptised who were not circumcised in the flesh. No longer was circumcision required in order to become one of the people of God and enter Christ’s new ‘congregation’ (Matthew 16.18). All that was necessary was the circumcision of the heart (see 7.51; Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6; Jeremiah 9.26), and to be circumcised in Christ by forgiveness (Colossians 2.13).
10.48a ‘And he commanded them to be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.’
Following up his question he gave command that those present be baptised in (en) ‘the Name of Jesus Christ’. They were being accepted on the same terms as Jews, and without circumcision. But it could not be refused, for these Gentiles had already received what their baptism indicated, their part in the pouring out of the Spirit.
As we have seen earlier to be baptised in ‘the Name’ of Jesus Christ was to be baptised into His Name as LORD, to be identified as His and to be baptised into all that He is. The coming of the Spirit had fused them (baptised them) into oneness with Christ’s own body (1 Corinthians 12.13), their baptism in water sealed it before the church and the world.
Wisely he calls on his companions to perform the baptising of these Gentile converts. This will mean that they share with him in the responsibility of doing so. It will also avoid in the future the danger of someone saying proudly or schismatically, ‘I was baptised by Peter’.
Again we have to pause for thought. What has happened here ? Circumcision which was so vital for being a true Jew can no longer be seen as required in order to be a part of the new Spirit-endued Israel, for God has made these men a part of the new Israel without circumcision. The inference was that all God-fearers, and all future Gentile converts, once they had been sanctified and cleansed by God, could enter into full fellowship with, and become wholly one with, all other believers whether Jew or Gentile, without circumcision, because God had by His action here ordained it.
This incident also once again brings out that at the most important moments of the forming of the new body of Christ the Holy Spirit did His work prior to people being baptised. This would later become the norm after New Testament days as baptism began to be delayed, firstly in order to judge whether faith was genuine, and secondly because of the false ideas that grew up about baptism suggesting that baptism cleansed from sin, so that people (even famous bishops) waited until later life to be baptised. But baptism can, in fact, not cleanse from sin. It is the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses from all sin (1 John 1.7). Baptism indicates rather the coming of the Holy Spirit, and new life through the Spirit, along with forgiveness of sin, either as something that has already been experienced before baptism, or as something that can be experienced by the immediate response of baptism (and even then timewise saving faith precedes baptism).
10.48b ‘Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.’
The Gentiles then begged him to stay with them for many days that he may teach them more concerning their new faith. And as always when Scripture leaves us standing in the air we may assume that he did.
Chapter 11 The Church At Crisis Point.
In chapter 1 we were told of Jesus command that His apostles go out as witnesses to Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and the uttermost part of the earth. Subsequently we have seen how this has partially been accomplished as first Jerusalem and then the surrounding area in Judaea and Samaria, including Galilee, have received their witness. We have even learned how it has gone out to Ethiopia. But in all cases the evangelising has been among the Jews and their adherents. For the church in Jerusalem were still limited in their thinking to the evangelising of their own people, with a few proselytes thrown in. They aimed through Christ to make Jews better Jews in readiness for Christ’s second coming.
Of course, Gentiles would be accepted if they turned from being Gentiles and become Jewish proselytes, bathing in order to remove the uncleanness of the Gentile world, being circumcised into the covenant, taking on themselves the responsibility of keeping the Law and the Sabbath, attending at their local synagogue, submitting to the Temple regime, and then recognising in Jesus the Messiah of the Jews and being baptised. But otherwise the Gentile world is excluded. They must be left in their uncleanness.
But then unhappy rumours begin to be spread about. It was being said that one of their leaders, one of the twelve, and a prominent one at that, had entered a Gentile house and eaten with Gentiles, and had then preached there to Gentiles, and baptised them. It appeared as though he was simply ignoring the difference between Jew and Gentile, between ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’. Such a shameful and blasphemous thing was, of course, hardly likely to be fully true, but it would certainly have to be enquired into. We must also remember that many of the Jerusalem Jews would be far stricter than the Apostles, brought up in Galilee where standards were not quite so strict, so that they would find such an idea even more appalling. They would certainly want to call Peter to account. And they would see it as Scripturally necessary. Scripture required that major irregularities be examined into.
The fact that Peter turned up complete with his six witnesses demonstrates that he was expecting to be called to account and had ensured that he had his witnesses with him. He was quite well aware that what he had done would appear to be irregular.
11.1 ‘Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God.’
The news had reached the ears of the Apostles and their fellow-brethren in Judaea and Jerusalem of what Peter was purported to have done. Through him Gentiles had ‘received the word of God’, that is had been accepted as those who had responded to Christ and His word.
That they had received the word of God was good if it was in the right way, by them standing on the edge of the crowds and listening to the preaching, and going away and thinking about it and acting on it personally. But the question was. Had Peter really taken it so far as to be willing to enter their unclean houses in order to reach them? (He had after all stayed with a tanner which might be seen as implying that he was a little careless about such things).
No mention is made anywhere in the enquiry about the fact that the Gentiles had been baptised. But baptising people did not actually contravene any specific Mosaic laws, and they may even not yet have realised that it had happened. What concerned them was the maintenance of the purity of Judaistic Christianity in Jewish terms, in terms accepted by all, a purity they saw as having been tarnished.
11.2-3 ‘And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, those who were of the circumcision contended with him, saying, “You went in to men uncircumcised, and did eat with them.” ’
So when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem ‘those of the circumcision’ came to him to ‘contend’ (or ‘make a distinction’) with him. In 10.45 ‘those of the circumcision’ had referred to Peter and the six men who were with him. It had meant simply all those who were present who were circumcised. We are not therefore probably intended at this stage to see it here as referring to a particular group. We may rather see it as referring to all who were there who were circumcised, (and so everyone), and as being used by Luke simply in order to emphasis their circumcision and contrast them with the uncircumcised whose position they were discussing. On this interpretation all the Apostles and brethren are thus to be seen as included in the description.
However, some see it as referring to a group who particularly stressed the need for circumcision and considered it a major issue. There would certainly be such a group later when circumcision had become an issue. And even now it may be that of those who had come to question Peter some (such as the Apostles) were neutral, waiting to hear his explanation, while others were specifically intent on taking up the issue of circumcision, a subject that they saw as of deep concern (although if that were so it is interesting that they did not do so). There would certainly be shades of feeling on how important the issue was, and on how important ‘cleanness’ was. Not all the Apostles had always been too particular (Mark 7.2). And even Jesus would refrain from ritual washing in order to make a point (Luke 11.38). In the end it does not really matter, for all were undoubtedly there wanting to hear his explanation, and that was so whether they were included in the group or not.
As we look at the incident it is important that we recognise that this questioning of Peter was a valid and Scriptural procedure. The Old Testament made it incumbent on God’s people to check out any instance where it appeared that God’s Law had been broken (Deuteronomy 13.14), and it was right that no exception be made for Peter. Thus the enquiry is to be seen as having been a necessity, not an example of lack of trust or of love. From that point of view the important issue was not the enquiry, it was the attitude with which it was being conducted.
They ‘contended with him’, ‘making a distinction’ between him and them. The reaction was natural. It was not necessarily belligerent. It was the same way in which Peter would have reacted had he not had the vision that he had. They all wanted to know on what grounds he had behaved as he had by joining with the uncircumcised in their home and eating with them. Why was he ignoring the plain requirements of the Law (as they interpreted them)? They had nothing against him preaching to Gentiles in order to turn them into proselytes, but it was quite another to have close fraternisation with them, and to enter their homes and eat with them, homes where any kind of ‘uncleanness’ may be hidden, and where the food would not necessarily be properly prepared and may have included ‘unclean’ elements.
Yet this very questioning was good, for now they would have to square up to the answers. From these they would then have to determine their own position on the matter, and come to a verdict accordingly. They would either finish up by accepting Peter’s new position and taking it for themselves, or they would harden their hearts and resist God’s truth. (Those who did the latter would later form a circumcision party).
11.4-6 ‘But Peter began, and expounded the matter to them in order, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, a certain container descending, as it were a great sheet let down from heaven by four corners, and it came even to me, on which when I had fixed my eyes, I considered, and saw the fourfooted beasts of the earth and wild beasts and creeping things and birds of the heaven.” ’
Peter replied by describing what had happened to him ‘in order’, just as it had happened. The detail is repeated because of its importance. Note how each point that he makes emphasises that it was through God’s initiation. He wants them to know that it was not he who had made these choices. Nor was it Cornelius. It was God Who had insisted on each step that was taken.
He points out that God had first spoken to him through a trance. He pictured to them the great sheet coming from heaven with its content of a variety of four-footed beasts, wild beasts, birds and creeping things. Each one present would probably shudder at the thought of such a mass of unclean things together. Here was something definitely needing to be avoided at all costs. Here was indeed an example of the uncleanness that they were concerned about.
11.7-10 And I heard also a voice saying to me, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But I said, “Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean has ever entered into my mouth.” But a voice answered the second time out of heaven, “What God has cleansed, you must not make common.” And this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven.”
Then he described how three times God had called on him to eat, and how three times he had refused because he had considered that such things were unholy and unclean. And then he explained how three times God had rebuked him and declared, ‘What God has cleansed you must not make common.’ Note the verb ‘make’. The point was that Peter was trying to make common again what God had cleansed and made holy, for God can cleanse what He will. Thus God had made clear that somehow these creatures coming down from heaven, which would normally be seen as unclean, were not to be seen as unclean or unholy, and the reason was because God had cleansed them. They came from God, from heaven. How could they be unclean?
11.11-12 “And behold, forthwith three men stood before the house in which we were, having been sent from Caesarea to me, and the Spirit bade me go with them, making no distinction. And these six brethren also accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house.”
Then he described how three men had arrived who had been sent from Caesarea by Cornelius, and how the Spirit had bade him go with them, and not to make a distinction because they were Gentiles.
After which, indicating the six Christian Jews who had been with him, he stated, ‘these six brethren also accompanied me and we entered into their house.’ So he had not been alone in his decision. There had been unity of thought among these Jewish Christian leaders, and they had all agreed that they should enter the house. And including himself that meant that there had been seven of them, the perfect number to make any such decision. Compare the sevenfold seals of witness on important documents of the time (see Revelation 5.1). We note here the emphasis on unity of thought and united action. Peter claimed no unique authority for himself. He had depended on the combined decision of the seven.
‘In which we were’, referring to Simon’s house, need not involve the six, it may simply mean ‘myself and Simon’. There is no suggestion that the six were also staying with Simon the Tanner.
11.13-14 “And he told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, “Send to Joppa, and fetch Simon, whose surname is Peter, who will speak to you words, by which you will be saved, you and all your house.”
He then explained how once they were in the house they had been told that the reason that Peter had been sent for was because of an angel who had told them to send for him, so that they might hear his words and be saved, along with their households. This confirmation of an angelic messenger, and therefore the clear piety of those involved, would ease the fears of those who were listening. Those who were most Jewish in their thinking would interpret ‘saved’ as meaning becoming faithful adherents to Jewish Christianity, and would thus temporarily be satisfied.
‘Standing in his house.’ If a holy angel was willing to enter Cornelius’ house, then surely it was acceptable for a mere human.
11.15-16 “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, even as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John indeed baptised with water; but you will be baptised in the Holy Spirit.” ’
Consequently, Peter explained, he had begun to speak to them, but even while he was speaking the Holy Spirit had fallen on them, just as he had on those at Pentecost. It had been a surprise to them all. It had been the initiative of God. And this surprising event had brought to his mind Jesus’ own words about His drenching people in the Holy Spirit. Surely, his thought had been, if Jesus Himself could cause His Holy Spirit to fall on these people, it proved that they were ‘clean’ in His eyes?
11.17 “If then God gave to them the like gift as he did also to us, when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?”
Thus, he asked, what should he have done? If God gave to the Gentiles the same gift as He had given at Pentecost to all who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was he to withstand God? God had thereby made it clear that He had cleansed these unclean Gentiles so that they were acceptable to Him. Thus they were no longer common or unclean. They were precious to God and acceptable to Him, and they were that just as they were, in their uncircumcised state. And just as they were they were a part of God’s holy nation.
So Peter has made clear that the initiative was God’s each step of the way. It was God Who had put him into a trance and given him his vision. It was His Spirit Who had bid him go to Cornelius. It was the Angel who had told Cornelius what to do. The coming of the Holy Spirit on them had been as a result of God’s direct and unexpected action. Nothing therefore had been of Peter’s doing.
It should be noted that it was not Peter’s authority that was being accepted here, it was his logic combined with the facts. Thus the other Apostles were willing in the end to put their authority behind his actions. They too knew what it meant for God to direct them, so that not to do so would have been to go against God.
11.18 And when they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also has God granted repentance unto life.” ’
Those who heard his words could, given the circumstances, find nothing to say against what Peter had done. Thus they acknowledged that they had nothing against it. Rather they glorified God in that He had clearly also granted to these Gentiles ‘repentance unto life’. They acknowledged that these uncircumcised Christian Gentiles had in this case clearly been placed by God in the same bracket as the Christian Jews without a requirement for circumcision, and if God could accept them in this way how could they deny them?
They would realise that their decision opened up new horizons. Indeed the result was that for some of them a whole new world unexpectedly opened up, and Christ’s commission suddenly took on a new meaning. Now it became clear to them that the Gentiles also had to be reached for Christ without their being required to become Jewish proselytes, for no such requirement had been made concerning Cornelius and his companions. ‘To the uttermost part of the earth’ now took on a new meaning. It would take some thinking through but they recognised that the result could only be inevitable, for God had spoken.
This fact was probably not, however, accepted by all who were present, and even less by many who were not present. Many Jerusalem Christians were still devout Pharisees, or had been connected with other deeply religious sects such as the Essenes or the Qumran community, and they were thus very much involved in Jewish traditions. That is why it would turn out in the future that many of them were not willing to accept the Apostolic authority on these matters. They would come to the final conclusion that the Apostles were wrong, and that, as Galileans (who were notoriously slack on such matters), the Apostles were going too far. They were still far too attached to the regulations and ordinances of Judaism to relinquish them because of Peter’s experience, and they would later come to be called the Judaisers. This was because they would continue to demand that all who became Christian should be circumcised and become genuine proselytes, observing all their strict regulations. They would even later travel throughout the Roman empire and beyond, visiting churches that others had evangelised and seeking to bring them to their way of thinking, causing Paul a great deal of trouble.
Fortunately James, the Lord’s brother, who was highly regarded in the Jerusalem church by both sections (and by Jews in Jerusalem as well), and was one of its leading elders (bishops), on the whole agreed with the Apostles about the acceptance of Gentiles without circumcision, although still holding to the need for Jewish Christians to hold firmly to the Law, and still backing the offering of sacrifices in the Temple. Such a view could survive as long as Jewish and Gentile churches were kept apart. But it could not go on surviving continual contact. It mainly, however, ceased to be an issue after the destruction of the Temple, although even after that a small group of strongly Jewish Christians did continue to exist within the fellowship of the whole church. Their influential position, however, as the mother church, no longer then existed.
It was because of this emphasis that the influential Jerusalem church, once the Apostles had left there for good in order to carry out their commission, later became a kind of backwater, although always being highly regarded at a distance because of its antecedents. For it remained firmly entrenched in its incompatible position of being fully Jewish and yet Christian. Indeed had it not done so it would probably have found itself under constant persecution, for the Jews would not have tolerated in their holy city an openly Christian church of former Jews who had forsaken Judaism in order to belong to what became seen as a mainly Gentile religion. The Hellenistic Christians had already discovered this, and that without actually abandoning Judaism.
The unanimity found here would partly be due to the realisation of the fact, on the part of the more Jewish of them, that after all these Gentiles were God-fearers, and that the home Peter had entered and the meal he had partaken of could therefore with some confidence be seen as having satisfactorily conformed with the laws of cleanliness (or that as the one who had summoned them had been a Roman official he might have had little choice). While some would be unhappy that these Gentiles had not been required to be circumcised, they would have acknowledged that even Jews did accept God-fearers into their synagogues, and that therefore it was not unreasonable that Christian groups should accept them in the same way. And they no doubt hoped that anyway they would always remain a small minority. This is probably why at this stage they were prepared to make a slight concession. Once it later turned out not to be the case they would change their minds and become strident in their opposition.
Meanwhile, however, the Apostles themselves, and many of their supporters, had gained a new understanding and were moving towards the position of total acceptance of uncircumcised Gentiles as full and welcome members of the body of Christ without the necessity for circumcision. They were genuinely rejoicing in this new wonderful work of God, and would be ready for the next step when the news came through of what was happening in Syrian Antioch. What God had cleansed they must not call common.
Some who read this may ask, ‘this is all very well, but of what relevance is all this to us?’ The answer is simple. It brings to the forefront how much each of us has our own prejudices, prejudices which can work to make the truth conform to our own ideas. Each of us needs to ask ourselves constantly, how much are my beliefs the result of prejudice? Are my prejudices preventing me from a full understanding of the truth and a full appreciation of the views of others? Do my prejudices shape the meaning of the word of God for me, or am I letting the word of God remove my prejudices?
Continued Expansion And God’s New Work Among the Greeks (11.19-26).
Meanwhile the work of God has been going on through many unnamed and unsung heroes, and a number of those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution resulting from the death of Stephen are now seen as having gone out through Phoenicia, Cyprus and Syrian Antioch, taking with them ‘the word’ concerning Christ. What is described here in such a short space would in fact have taken months, and even years, but it resulted in the next triumph among the Gentiles. It is to be seen as but one among many known missionary activities at that time, mentioned here only because of its work among the Greeks, and to emphasise the continual growth of the church.
The activity described in these verses began at the same time as Philip’s ministry in Samaria, but it is placed here in order to present an early example of the move outwards from the Jews to the Gentiles. It is preparing for the full transition from the Jewish Christian outreach to the outreach of Paul and Barnabas.
The Founding and Growth of the Church In Antioch.
The gradual growth of the church in Antioch from small beginnings, and the reciprocal love that was shown by each church to the other, was to Luke a further example of the advance of the work of the Spirit. It is, in abbreviated form, a further illustration of how God’s work has advanced and produced its fruit of love and ‘sharing, in the same way as it had in the beginning. It was founded, blossomed, grew, was edified, expanded still more and became a fountain of love flowing out to others, and of mutual fellowship, just as had been true in the earliest days. Its growth may be outlined as follows:
We shall now look at it in detail.
11.19 ‘Those therefore who were scattered abroad as a result of the tribulation which arose about Stephen, travelled as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the word to none save only to Jews.’
As a result of the persecution following Stephen’s words and death, a good number of Hellenistic Jewish Christians travelled around ‘talking about’ the word concerning Christ, we might even say ‘gossiping the word’, as they travelled from place to place making contacts and talking to men and women about Jesus. But they only at this stage took the message to Jews, for the outreach to the Gentiles had not even been considered. They went first to Phoenicia, north of Galilee, (we learn later of groups of Christians in Tyre, Sidon and Ptolemais (21.3-4, 7; 27.3)), and then from Phoenician ports across the sea to the island of Cyprus (from which Barnabas came), and then eventually to the great city of Syrian Antioch.
11.20 ‘But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they were come to Antioch, spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.’
But on their arrival in Syrian Antioch some of them who were men of Cyprus and of Cyrene (North Africa) spoke to ‘Greeks’, proclaiming the Good News about the Lord Jesus. We may probably assume that news concerning the new situation caused by the conversion of Cornelius had reached them, and it would seem that on hearing it they went immediately among the Greeks proclaiming ‘the LORD, Jesus’. The idea of a ‘divine lord’ was common in various mystery cults, as one who would bring salvation and immortality to his adherents. Now here was One Who had come as the divine Lord, and was prophesied in the ancient Scriptures of the Jews. Furthermore He was real, for He had walked on earth as a man, and had died and risen again (compare for the title 10.36; 16.31; 20.21; 28.31).
Syrian Antioch (now Antakaya in south east Turkey) was at this stage the third largest city in the Roman Empire (after Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt), with over half a million population. It overlooked the River Orontes and was a fine seaport. Large numbers of Jews had settled there with the encouragement of the Seleucids who gave them full citizenship rights. It had become the capital of the Roman province of Syria, and was full of magnificent temples and buildings, being renowned for its culture. Near the city were the famous groves of Daphne, which were a centre of moral depravity, and a sanctuary dedicated to Apollo in which orgiastic rites took place. But Antioch would also become a centre for Christianity.
‘Greeks.’ The MS disagree as to whether we should read ‘Hellenas’ (Greeks - A, D*) or ‘Hellenistas’ (Hellenists - B, E). But either way the reference would seem to be to non-Jews.
11.21 ‘And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.’
And ‘the hand of the Lord was with them’. Compare 4.30. It may thus indicate signs and wonders. But it is a good Old Testament phrase (Ezra 9.7; Is 66.14; compare Luke 1.66) and may simply (if we can say simply in such a case) indicate God’s mighty power at work in men’s hearts. Either way a great number of Gentiles who believed turned to the LORD. Many Gentiles had been waiting for just such a moment and eagerly responded to the truth. We note that the message that these believers proclaimed was of ‘Jesus the LORD’ not of the Messiah Jesus, which would have meant less to Gentiles. However, as they became known as ‘Christ-men’ it is apparent that the idea of the Messiah was not totally neglected. The were aware Who their LORD was.
It is probable that we are to see these Greeks as God-fearers like Cornelius, who were now, as a result of what had happened to Cornelius, seen as directly approachable. In view of the large Jewish population, and the moral depravity for which the city was well known, it is likely that there were large numbers of such God-fearers who looked to the synagogues because of their belief in the one God and their high moral teaching. However, while the Jews continually saw them as ‘outsiders’, even when welcoming them into their synagogues, the Christians now offered them the same belief in the one God and high moral teaching, and added to this their teaching about One Who had come from that one God to be men’s Saviour. Furthermore they gave them a warm and genuine welcome on a level with themselves. And so for the first time we have news of a church where the Greek Christians probably outnumbered the Jewish Christians and took part with them on equal footing.
11.22-23 ‘And the report concerning them came to the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem, and they sent forth Barnabas as far as Antioch, who, when he was come, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and he exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave to the Lord.’
News of what had happened came back to the ears of the church in Jerusalem. We can compare this with 11.1, but what a different response it now produced. Fulfilling their responsibility of oversight, and with a desire to help on the growth of the new church, they sent Barnabas to oversee the work that they had learned was going on. It was both important to maintain the oneness of the church, and to ensure that the church was properly taught, as well as ensuring that all was right. But they chose carefully and wisely, for they sent a Hellenistic Christian leader who was himself a Cypriot, but who was also a Levite and in good standing in Jerusalem from the beginning (4.36-37; 9.27). He was a man who would be satisfactory to both parties, and would best understand the situation And when he arrived he gave his full support to the work, for he recognised the ‘undeserved favour’, the sovereign love, of God at work, and rejoiced. And he himself taught the new believers and exhorted them to ‘stick firmly’ to the LORD with dedicated and purposeful hearts.
The coming of Barnabas was clearly seen as vital for the church in Antioch. The impression given is that the Christians who by their witness and obedience had begun this great work of the Spirit did not have sufficient knowledge of the word or of Apostolic teaching to be able to continue to carry the burden of the newborn church (that would be why Saul was needed). This gap was thus partly solved by the arrival of Barnabas. And yet even he soon felt the necessity to bring in Saul. He recognised the importance of obtaining the very best teaching for this important city church at the heart of the Empire. It takes a great man among a leadership to recognise his own shortcomings, and to bring in someone whom he no doubt knew was his intellectual superior, and even his superior in knowing and interpreting the Scriptures. He had recognised Saul’s gifts and was not jealous of them.
11.24 ‘For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and much people was added to the Lord.’
No greater accolade could have been paid to Barnabas than this, that he was a good man, and that he was full of the Holy Spirit as was evidenced by his outstanding faith (compare Galatians 5.22). And it was this that ensured his success. It also makes clear that the Holy Spirit approved of the work going on in Antioch for it was being nurtured by a man of the Spirit. And the result was that a great many people were ‘added to the LORD’. They not only became members of the church but became ‘one with Christ’ through the Holy Spirit (compare 1 Corinthians 12).
11.25-26 ‘And he went forth to Tarsus to seek for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that even for a whole year they were gathered together with the church, and taught much people, and that the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.’
Barnabas was not only a great man, but a humble one, and he was willing to call to his side a man who would one day surpass him. He recognised that what was involved was too much for him, and even possibly that someone of a superior calibre of reasoning to himself, was needed here (that is one of the signs of true greatness). So he set out for Tarsus to seek out (‘hunt out’ - see 9.30; 21.39; 22.3; Luke 2.44-45) Saul whom he knew would be the ideal man to take on the responsibility with him. And when he had found him he brought him to Antioch.
That Saul had continued to proclaim the Good News in Tarsus and Cilicia we need not doubt. Some have suggested that a number of the punishments which he described in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, which are not mentioned elsewhere, might have been dispensed to him by the synagogues of Tarsus and Cilicia. (We can remember how the Cilicians treated Stephen). Others have argued that Philippians. 3.8 suggests that he had been disinherited by his family. But it is all surmise, although he clearly suffered these things at some time.
Then for a whole year he and Saul laboured together among the people of God (‘the church’), and they taught ‘large numbers of people’. And so great was the impact of the work that it came to the attention of the inhabitants of the city, and they began to speak of the believers as Christiani (‘Christ-men’ - ‘Christians’). They were no longer being seen as semi-Jews who followed the Jewish Messiah. They were being seen as a distinctive people. This had its dangers. Once Christianity was seen as separate from Judaism it would lose the favoured status of being a Licit Religion which Judaism enjoyed, and would become liable to persecution. But that would not be yet.
There are three elements to the name Christiani. It contains the name of the Jewish Messiah, expressed in Greek (Christos) with a Latin ending ‘-iani’. It was thus cosmopolitan, and was very suitable for the new cosmopolitan Christian church.
This giving of a name to the Christians in Antioch was clearly seen as significant by Luke. This church was the first one which had been formed and united together by the conversion of large numbers of both Jews and Greeks. The giving of a name (whoever gave it) was therefore seen as an indication of its recognition by God and His Son. The Gentiles, equally with the Jews, were seen by God and by men as Christ-men, and acknowledged by God as such.
God’s People Reach Out in Love To Meet Each Other’s Needs (11.27-30).
This is in a way similar to the summaries that had followed the early evangelism, demonstrating the spirituality and genuineness of those involved, and what a difference the word had made in their lives (2.42-47; 4.32-35). The same was happening here, although at a different level. They were not close enough for mutual sharing, but here the love of the Christians of Antioch would reach out to the Christians of Judaea in their need. The word was still having its effect, and the power of Pentecost was still being revealed.
11.27 ‘Now in these days there came down prophets from Jerusalem to Antioch.’
It began when prophets from Jerusalem came down to Antioch, presumably because they had heard of the work that was going on and wanted to assist. It was a further expression of the love and concern of the church in Jerusalem for this new church made up of a combination of Jews and Greeks. We know of these prophets from 1 Corinthians 12-14. Their Spirit-inspired expounding of the word could, if wisely used, be a great encouragement and strength to new believers. (Compare 1 Corinthians 14.3, 31; Ephesians 3.4-5). And occasionally, but not often, such prophets would receive ‘a revelation’ concerning the future (at which point all other prophets had to give way. A ‘revelation’ was the only grounds for interrupting a prophet who was prophesying - 1 Corinthians 14.30).
Such prophets, if they taught wisely would be a great help. They were well founded in the Old Testament and the Testimony of Jesus (the recognised tradition about Jesus’ life and teaching), and were inspired by the Spirit in their presentation of them. The local prophets (inspired preachers), being still new to Christianity, would not have the same depth of knowledge of the Scriptures.
11.28 ‘And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world, which came about in the days of Claudius.’
The prophets in the main expounded the Scriptures, but sometimes one or more would receive ‘a revelation’ (1 Corinthians 14.26). Such a revelation came to Agabus, one of the prophets, and he signified by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over the Roman Empire (‘all the world’). This famine, Luke tells us, came about in the days of Claudius (41-54 AD). In fact we have other evidence that reveals that during his reign there was a series of severe famines and poor harvests in various parts of the Roman Empire, including Palestine. ‘All the world’ need only indicate ‘affecting many parts of the Roman world’.
11.29-30 ‘And the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren who dwelt in Judea, which also they did, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.’
So the disciples in Antioch, who would be far less affected by such a famine, and some of whom had the resources to prevent themselves from being too affected, determined to send help to those who lived in Judaea, whom they had gathered would be badly affected by the famine. Thus they gathered together funds, with each giving according to his ability, and sent it to the elders of the Judaean churches by the hand of Barnabas, whom the church of Jerusalem had sent to them, and Saul, Barnabas’ co-worker. As the senior elder Barnabas is mentioned first. This would be Saul’s second visit to Jerusalem as described in Galatians 2.
This was not, of course, just a matter of taking a collection and sending it off. It would take some time for them to get together what was being given, and then to organise it and send it on. And they may then have waited until the famine in question actually began.
‘The elders.’ In a town or city those who were chosen from among their compatriots to have authority in the city and pass judgment in the gate were called ‘elders’. It was the name by which the leaders of the tribes of Israel were known when Moses went to them. It probably originally arose in the distant past because those who were chosen to have authority over tribes or cities tended to be the older, wiser and more experienced men, but in the end it applied to all who shared authority. Thus the organisers and planners who ran the synagogues were called ‘elders’, and here it simply indicates the static leaders of the churches of Judaea.
Jerusalem Finally Rejects the Apostles, Kingship Ceases in Israel, And The Word Of God Goes On Multiplying (12.1-24).
The new centre for world evangelisation having been set up (unknowingly at the time) at Antioch, Luke wants us to know that the old will now be dispensed with. The message of chapter 12 is simple. Jerusalem was faced with the choice between a new ‘king of Israel’ appointed by Rome, but beloved to their hearts, and the Messiah sent by God. This was not just the case of another tyrant whom they did not want. This was a king whom they respected and loved. And so they chose the king sent by Rome, and sought to destroy those who represented the King sent from God and enthroned in heaven. The result will be that Peter ‘departs for another place’, the king is smitten for blasphemy and Jerusalem will no longer be required in furthering God’s purposes.
The point is being emphasised here that, as had their fathers of old, they have chosen a Roman appointed self-exalting king-god, and rejected the God-appointed, God-exalted Holy and Righteous One. The words of Stephen are being borne out yet again.
In order to consider this chapter in context we shall once again consider the plan of the first part of Acts which leads up to it. In chapter 1 we analysed the first twelve chapters as follows. It will be noted that they follow out a telling chiastic pattern:
It will be noted that in ‘a’ the proclamation of the Kingly Rule of God is emphasised, with the instruction that they should ignore the idea of an earthly Kingdom, and in the parallel in chapter 12 the Kingly Rule of God is contrasted with a physical earthly Kingdom of Israel, a Kingdom whose king is brought into judgment and whose people are rejected. God will not at this time restore the kingdom to Israel. In ‘b’ the commission is to go as witnesses to the end of the earth and in the parallel the Good News has been offered to the Gentiles who have been granted ‘repentance unto life’ with the result that a large church has been established in Antioch.
It is clear therefore that according to Luke’s literary pattern, and by comparison of ‘a’ with ‘a’, chapter 12 is closely related to both the idea of the Kingly Rule of God being promulgated by the Apostles as described in chapter 1, and to the idea of a setting up of an earthly kingdom in Israel, which takes place here under Herod. Two ideas of kingship are in opposition. And this is evidenced by the attacks on the Apostles whose position as representatives of the true Messiah can be contrasted with the rule of ‘Herod the king’, which is a false attempt at the restoration of the physical kingdom by the Jews. Theoretically it could have been a triumph. The king could have recognised the Messiah (Psalm 110.1) and the Kingly Rule of God could have been given a physical dimension. But it was not to be so. Jerusalem wanted anything rather than its Messiah.
As a result Israel’s physical king then sought to destroy the representatives of the true King, the Messiah, and the true Kingly Rule of God, in order to try to prop up and establish his own kingdom under the old Israel. It was Satan’s further attempt to set up his own Messiah (compare Luke 4. 6). But as this chapter will reveal, the Lord will step in to rescue His own, and will destroy the Usurper, from then on dispensing with the services of Jerusalem. From now on Jerusalem will drop out of the frame, the hope of the earthly kingdom will cease, and the outreach to the world will take over as being what is of prime importance, carried out through the Holy Spirit from centres such as Syrian Antioch, which has already been prepared as a full functioning church ready for takeover (11.19-30).
It is true that the facts of history prevent Luke from dropping Jerusalem completely (while using history he never alters it to suit his purpose). He has to introduce it in chapter 15 because what is described there happened in Jerusalem, but it was there as a venue where they could establish the rules which would galvanise the Gentile mission, not as an attempt to evangelise Jerusalem or to reach out to the world. And it is later seen to be the trap by which Satan seeks to destroy Paul in chapter 21. Otherwise, as far as Luke is concerned, Jerusalem no longer has any evangelistic importance to the great commission. The main task of the church in Jerusalem was now the maintenance of the faith of those thousands of Hebrew and Pharisaic Jews who still remained (21.20) who would affect no one but themselves (except harmfully). By its acceptance of Agrippa and its rejection of the Apostles Jerusalem had made its final choice. How often Christ would have gathered them under His wings, but they would not. From now on the Good News would go out to the Gentiles, and it would start from Antioch.
The chapter begins by revealing that in the reign of the Emperor Claudius Israel once more had a genuine king. His name was Herod Agrippa I and he now ruled over all Palestine, over the equivalent of ‘Israel’, with the given title of ‘King’. Although he was a grandson of Herod the Great, and had spent much of his time growing up in Rome, (where he had had a doubtful past), he was the first recent king who was pleasing to the Jews, and that was because his grandmother was Mariamne, who was descended from the Maccabees, and he was therefore seen as a Hasmonean. In turn he himself sought to please the Jews and piously observed the Jewish faith in accordance with the tenets of the Pharisees, and at the same time defrayed the costs of large numbers of Nazirites. Josephus eulogised him, and expressed the views of most Jews when he said, ‘It was his pleasure to reside continually in Jerusalem, and he meticulously observed the precepts of his fathers. He neglected no rite of purification, and not a day passed without its appointed sacrifice.’ (This behaviour was for home consumption. He behaved differently when abroad).
The Mishnah also portrays him as a king approved by the people. It describes an incident when he was performing the reading of the Law at the Feast of Tabernacles, saying, “King Agrippa received it (the scroll) standing, and read it standing, and for this the Sages praised him. And when he reached, ‘You may not put a foreigner (he was half-Edomite) over you who is not your brother’ (Deuteronomy 17.15) his eyes flowed with tears, but they called out to him, ‘You are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother’.” (M Sotah 7.8). Thus it is clear that they who rejected the trueborn Messiah according to the Law, were willing to ignore the Law and accept a half-Jewish king contrary to the Law. It is illustrative of the continual attitude of the Jews in those days.
The growth of his rulership, which built up gradually, commenced with his ruling territory north east of Palestine. It then continued with the taking over of Galilee and Peraea under Gaius (Caligula), whom he had known in his youth and to whom he had given support, and was further augmented by the rulership of Judaea and Samaria, given to him by Claudius, whom he had aided in his bid to become emperor. (He was good at wooing the right people). His reign and seeming piety probably stirred up many hopes in Israel of the possible arrival of the Messianic kingdom, for he was the first recent king that they had really been willing to acknowledge, and they loved him for his seeming love of Israel.
This now meant that in Jerusalem two kings were in competition. There were two rival claimants to the loyalty of Israel. The first was Jesus through His Apostles. He had been declared Messiah and Lord, and His Apostles had been seeking to bring men under His Kingly Rule for a number of years, and had been working vigorously in Jerusalem to that end. They wanted Him ‘crowned’ as King of Jerusalem. The other was King Agrippa I, one of Satan’s upraising as his final end shows, who would begin to seek vigorously to dispose of the Apostles of the Messiah Who was claiming Jerusalem. And Jerusalem had to choose between them as to whom they would have to reign over them.
In 1.6 Jesus had been asked, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingship to Israel?’ And Jesus had simply pointed out to them that what God would do in the future, and when, was at that time no business of theirs. But now a physical kingship had arisen over Israel, one that was accepted by most of the people, and it faced all Jerusalem with a stark choice, Christ or Agrippa.
In the face of the choice Jerusalem did not sit on the fence. It made its selection. And its selection meant that it chose Agrippa and rejected Christ, and therefore encouraged the execution of the Apostles. This comes out in that for the first time since the initial outreach, it is the people as well as the leaders who approved the targeting and slaying of the Apostles and revealed their willingness to uphold Agrippa in doing so.
But Luke points out that as soon as ‘Herod the king’ began to target those of the twelve Apostles who were in Jerusalem, and slew the first one, (as with Stephen, Satan was only allowed one of the leaders), things began to go wrong for him. Such opposition to God could only have one result, and after being humiliated by the rescue of Peter by a Greater than he, Herod Agrippa withdrew from Jerusalem and was himself finally destroyed. His reign had proved a false dawn. His kingdom was revealed to be like the kingdom that had been offered to Jesus by Satan, which He had turned down (Luke 4. 6), earthly and based on false and unenduring premises. And the consequence was that from now on Jerusalem became almost ignored as far as evangelism was concerned. It had indicated its final rejection of the Messiah. It had made itself impossible as a source for the evangelising of the world.
So Jerusalem had failed to recognise that God’s everlasting kingdom, promised to the prophets, could not be of this world, as Jesus had clearly told Pilate (John 18.36). This should have been obvious, for if it was earthly it could neither be heavenly nor everlasting. But as Stephen had already pointed out they clung too much to physical things and failed as ever in the recognition of God’s Saviour. The truth now was that the Kingly Rule of God must rather be eternal, and therefore enjoyed in the presence of God in the Beyond, with the picture presented by the prophets being fulfilled in a deeper dimension, in spirit rather than in word (compare John 4.21-24), as a result of the resurrection, and man’s final reception of the spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15.44; compare Isaiah 26.19, the latter still thinking of a physical body).
Yet even today there are some who want to hold on to the dream of a Millennial earthly kingdom, an idea nowhere mentioned in the New Testament. But it is only a dream, and it simply arises from a literalism with regard to Old Testament prophecies which could never be fulfilled, and if taken literally as a whole is merely contradictory. Consider what they tell us. Outside the Temple the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the calf with the young lion, and the leopard with the kid, the children will be playing with the asp. There will be no shedding of blood. All is at peace. Meanwhile, it is only the children’s fathers, inside the Temple, who unaware of this idyll outside. They will be shedding gallons of blood and butchering animals galore, and these not as genuine offerings and sacrifices as the Old Testament demands and as the prophets prophesied if taken literally, but as a totally unscriptural and unnecessary ‘memorial offering’ with no atoning purpose, and described as such nowhere in the Old Testament or the New. That is the illogical picture demanded by extreme literalism. But as will be observed, they do not treat the text literally after all, for as soon as they come to a problem like the sacrifices and offerings they begin to alter their significance to suit their purpose, imagining things the prophets never dreamed of. Perhaps we should thus have said that theirs was a nightmare and not a dream. What we need to recognise is that all such prophecies were pointing forward to greater spiritual realities, in the same way as the Jerusalem and heavenly garden in Revelation 21-22.
But turning back to this solemn chapter it is clear that Luke, by his use of the material in the way in which he does use it, is seeking to indicate that Jerusalem has hereby forfeited its last chance. Its kingship has died horribly, it has rejected the Apostles, who have left it ‘for another place’, and thus apart from the small, rather inward looking Jewish Christian church, whose light glows on but is relatively dim, (there are no signs and wonders, although healing by the anointing with oil goes on - James 5.14), Jerusalem is left with no witness to that Kingly Rule of God which it has rejected by its rejection of the Apostles. From this time on the Apostles will no more be depicted as openly witnessing in Jerusalem. No more will signs and wonders be described as taking place there. From this chapter onwards there will be no further thought of massive outreach and evangelism, or signs and wonders in or from Jerusalem. It will be as though all such had ceased. Rather, in Acts, the only use for Jerusalem will be as a base where the Apostles and elders come together in order to agree decisions with the Jerusalem church for the benefit of the Gentiles (15.1-29), and as a snare with which Satan seeks to entrap the Apostle to the Gentiles (21.17 onwards), although with the assurance that the Jerusalem church itself continues to flourish (21.20).
It is not, of course, strictly true to say that all witness immediately died in Jerusalem, but there can be no doubt that it had grown less strident. Some of the Apostles did gather there from where they were ministering when called on to do so (15.2, 6), but only Peter and James, the Lord’s brother, are actually mentioned as being there, while by 21.18 it certainly seems that only James, the Lord’s brother, remained, and he as a very Jewish Christian in a position of leadership in the Jewish Jerusalem church. He was held in high respect by both Christian and Jew, and after the death of Jesus was heir to the throne of David, which while it had no practical relevance, would give him standing in Jerusalem. He was very Jewish as a Christian, continuing the practise of circumcision, demanding conformity to the whole law by Jewish Christians in accordance with general Pharisaic teaching, stressing Sabbath keeping on the Jewish pattern, and observing worship and daily prayer in the Temple (in other words continuing very much like Jesus had while living on earth). However, he remained true to the Gospel as his letter makes clear.
He was to be martyred by an angry crowd as a result of the jealousy of the High Priest Ananus, at a time of Roman inter-regnum, a martyrdom which the Pharisees, who admired James’ religious fervour, strongly opposed, but such persecution was rare. And that was probably because the church in Jerusalem became smaller and more inward looking, with those who wanted to enjoy the freedom of the Gospel going elsewhere, and ever more accommodating to its Jewish neighbours, burdened down by its need to satisfy the full requirements of the Law (21.20), its submission to circumcision, and its loyalty to the Temple which remained paramount, although these no doubt continued along with its belief in Christ and presumably the maintenance of baptism and the Lord’ Supper, which were now its only distinguishing features. By remaining so Jewish it escaped much persecution, which only arose spasmodically in exceptional circumstances, but its witness was thereby more limited. And finally it fled to Pella prior to the final invasion of Jerusalem, where as far as we know it died a slow and lingering death, although clinging on for centuries as an oddity, and possibly dividing up into two (or more) sections, the Nazarenes who continued to be very legalistic but remained in fellowship with the worldwide church and believed in the virgin birth, and the Ebionites who were also heavily legalistic, but became seen as heretics because of their rejection of the virgin birth and some lack in their teaching about Christ. They both clung to a Hebrew ‘Gospel of Matthew’. It must be recognised, however, that the information we have is scanty and based on unreliable information, with its detail not certain, for the groups were isolated and mainly ignored for centuries.
However, returning to chapter 12, it must surely be seen as significant that once this chapter is completed, apart from the gathering of the Apostles and prophets to consider the question of what Gentiles should be required to observe of Jewish Law in chapter 15 and Paul’s last abortive visit, Jerusalem fades from the scene. In the beginning of Acts everything had centred on Jerusalem, but from now on it ceased to be the centre of the ongoing of the word. As far as Luke is concerned it has descended into insignificance. That privilege now goes to Syrian Antioch. Luke seems to be saying that Jerusalem has had its opportunity, and is now dropped. The Good News is to go to the rest of the world, but it will no longer be from Jerusalem. We could apply to it the words of Paul in 18.6. Jerusalem is put aside. Only its church lives on.
At the same time Jerusalem’s final attempt at establishing a kingdom of God in Israel is also seen as having collapsed. It is as though in this chapter the earthly city and the earthly kingdom are being written off as far as Luke is concerned, as a result of their having finally taken their decision to slay those who are the foundation of God’s everlasting future (Ephesians 2.20; Revelation 21.14). It is a signal that Christians must no longer look to the earthly Jerusalem, but to the Jerusalem which is above (Galatians 4.25-26; compare Hebrews 12.22 - where the heavenly Jerusalem is the city of the living God), and to the everlasting Kingly Rule of God ruled over by Jesus Christ in heavenly glory, in which they now partake, and in which they will rejoice hereafter. This is what the first eleven chapter of Acts have led up to. And to the question, ‘will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?’ they receive the firm answer, ‘No!’ (See the analysis above). And we could add, ‘and Jerusalem no longer counts in the purposes of God’.
With regard to Herod Agrippa I and his behaviour which we must now examine, it is clear that the animosity of the Pharisees and Sadducees towards the Jewish church must have contributed heavily towards it, together possibly with the fact that Christians were said to follow a Messiah and be looking for the Kingly Rule of God. This would have been enough in itself to set him against Christians, but his desire to ingratiate himself with the Jews as a whole no doubt increased his willingness even more. And this may well be why he began to ‘lay hands on’ certain of the church on the grounds that these troublemakers needed teaching a lesson. (Even so, in spite of the dark days, ‘the word grew and multiplied’ (12.24)).
12.1 ‘Now about that time Herod the king put forth his hands to afflict certain of the church.’
Note Luke’s description of him as ‘the king’. It was, of course strictly correct, but here it draws out that Israel now have a king.
Herod Agrippa was a lover of Jerusalem, and ‘about that time’, around the time that the Gentiles began to collect in order to meet the needs of the churches of Judaea, he determined that he would purify Jerusalem. It was at the time of the Passover, and he took the opportunity it afforded as the festal crowds gathered to ‘mistreat’ the Christians in Jerusalem in order to gain popularity. He set himself against ‘certain of the church’. It may well be that in the end James was his first and only victim, although that was certainly not originally his intention. It would not be difficult to find James. The leaders of the church were prominent enough to be well known, they were not in hiding and they were caught unprepared. But whatever was the case James was arrested, and the church reeled.
‘About that time.’ This happened just when things appeared to be becoming brighter because of the love and generosity of the church in Syrian Antioch which they knew would soon be coming their way. It must thus have come as a great blow to the church in Jerusalem who had probably thought that persecution was behind them.
However it may be that it is just a rough time indicator, for the events in chapter 12 take place in 44 AD whereas the visit of Barnabas and Saul may well have been in 46 AD, although preparation for the latter would have commenced earlier.
12.2 ‘And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.’
To the horror of all Christians James, the brother of John, one of the select three of Peter, James and John, was put to death by being beheaded with a sword. In Jewish law death by the sword was the penalty for murder or apostasy (m. Sanhedrin 9.1; compare Deuteronomy 13.2-15). The Apostles were therefore being treated as apostates from Judaism. It was the first death of an Apostle that we know of and must have baffled the church. Why had God allowed this to happen to an Apostle? Previously the Apostles had been sacrosanct.
But as with Stephen, James was allowed to be martyred, as Jesus had strongly hinted might be the case (see Mark 10.39; compare John 16.2, literally fulfilled here). God did not intervene. He was ‘making up that which was behind of the sufferings of Christ’, for the principle of Scripture and the purpose of God is that righteousness advances through suffering (Colossians 1.24). The Servant is the suffering Servant. It is through much tribulation that we will enter under the Kingly Rule of God (14.22). And the Apostles could not be excluded, now that the church was no longer so dependent on them. Note that James died at the same feast as his Lord. He followed in His steps.
It is not for us to ask why James was taken and Peter was spared. Some perish by the sword, others are saved from the sword (Hebrews 11.34, 37). That is God’s pattern and it is He Who holds the reins. But it is interesting in the light of the great commission of 1.8 that both James and Peter were still in Jerusalem. Perhaps this was to be a strong hint to the Apostles that it was now time that they were moving on, in the same way as the martyrdom of Stephen had been a means of despatching the witnessing church out among the nations.
12.3 ‘And when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. And those were the days of unleavened bread.’
In some way the king took on board the fact that he had pleased the Jews, possibly through the expressed approval of the Sanhedrin who informed him how delighted the people were, for he then proceeded to arrest Peter in order to please them even more. It was at the time of the feast of unleavened bread, the seven days following the day of the Passover. It may be that James, like Jesus, had been slain on the day of the Passover as ‘a false prophet’ so that the people might hear and fear (Deuteronomy 17.12-13). But now the following celebrations were in progress and so the decision was made to keep Peter in prison until the feast was over so as to avoid an uproar at festival time (compare Mk 14.2).
12.4 ‘And when he had taken him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him forth to the people.
So Peter was taken and imprisoned, probably in the Castle Antonia, and he was placed under a secure guard of four squads of four soldiers each, rotating in three-hour shifts day and night, with two of them chained to Peter at any one time. Escape or rescue was therefore an impossibility - to man. His intention was to bring him out once the seven days were over.
The excessive precautions taken indicate Agrippa’s determination to destroy Peter, and reveal his view of how dangerous the Jerusalem church was. He had no doubt been warned how Peter, together with his companions, had previously managed to escape and he wanted to ensure that it did not happen this time. (Incidentally this strict treatment helps to confirm that there must have been a previous escape, otherwise why the precautions?) He wanted to ensure that he kept the people of the Messiah in chains.
12.5 ‘Peter therefore was kept in the prison. But prayer was made earnestly by the church to God for him.’
He was right to be worried, but wrong to think that he could do anything against it. Here we have one of those sublime contrasts that so often appear in the Scriptures. On the one hand Peter was kept safely in prison, constantly chained to his two guards. All the power of the earthly kingdom was being called on to keep him chained up. The God of the Apostles was being challenged. But on the other the church met together and made earnest prayer to God for him. They had a power the king knew nothing of. All the power of the Kingly Rule of Heaven was being brought to bear (compare 2 Corinthians 10.4; Hebrews 11.34). Thus two great kingdoms were face to face, the earthly, temporary ‘kingdom of God’ (as they saw it), and the heavenly, permanent and powerful Kingly Rule of God.
12.6-7 ‘And when Herod was about to bring him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards before the door kept the prison. And behold, an angel (or ‘messenger’) of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the cell, and he smote Peter on the side, and awoke him, saying, “Rise up quickly.” And his chains fell off from his hands.’
The night arrived prior to the day when Peter was to be brought out, the night following the Sabbath of the seventh day of unleavened bread. It was the time when ‘Herod was about to bring him forth.’ Peter was asleep between two soldiers, bound with two chains, while a further two soldiers watched the door. They were determined to keep him safe. And as for Peter, there was no tremor on his brow. He was sleeping like a babe (compare Psalm 3.5; Luke 8.23). He was ready to go to meet his Lord. (Or he may simply have always been a very heavy sleeper. But Luke does go to great pains to stress how heavily he had been sleeping so that it took him a good while to wake up properly).
But then all heaven broke loose. He found himself rudely awakened by a blow to his side, and saw a light shining in the cell, and found there ‘the angel (messenger) of the Lord’ who urged him to rise up quickly. And when he sought to do so the chains fell off his hands.
‘The chains fell off his hands.’ Whether as a result of being unlocked or simply by a move of the visitant’s hand is unimportant. What was important was the ease with which God disposed of them. All the king’s efforts were in vain. They were as chaff before the Almighty’s wind.
‘The angel of the Lord.’ This could mean ‘the messenger of the Lord’ and be referring to a human agency. On the other hand in verse 23 the angel of the Lord is undoubtedly an angelic agency, and the same applies in 8.26 (as is also the case in the Old Testament). Thus the most natural meaning here would be of specific divine intervention.
12.8 ‘And the angel said to him, “Gird yourself, and bind on your sandals.” And he did so. And he says to him, “Throw your robe about you, and follow me.”
We must presume that Peter was heavy with sleep, such was the clarity of his conscience, so that the angel had to urgently prod him into action. He bade him to gird himself, that is put his belt on in order to keep his clothing off the ground for fast walking, and bind on his sandals. He wanted Peter to know that he would be coming with him. And Peter did as he was told. Then he urged him to throw his robe around him and follow him.
The detail given suggests that Luke wants us to see Peter as in a daze, and this is brought out in what follows. That the visitant was God-sent is certain, but there is nothing here that necessarily requires that it be a heavenly visitant, apart from the description ‘angel of the Lord’ itself. Had it not been for that it could equally have been a messenger of God on earth.
12.9 ‘And he went out, and followed, and he did not know that what was done by the angel was true, but thought he saw a vision.’
Peter did as he was bid as though in a dream. He went out and followed the angel, totally unconvinced that it was really happening. He knew that it could not be true. Soon he would wake up and it would be all a dream. Luke is bringing out that his escape was totally due to God. Peter, as it were, just stood by, half asleep, and watched the salvation of God.
12.10 ‘And when they were past the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city; which opened to them of its own accord, and they went out, and passed on through one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.’
If it was a dream it was a good dream. Out they went past the first and second guard, both not interfering and seemingly unconscious of their passing, until they came to the iron gates that led out of the castle into the city. And the gate ‘opened of its own accord’. That was how it appeared to Peter. Again we are being impressed with the ease with which God had it all arranged. All man’s attempts to thwart God were as nothing. So they passed out and into one street and then moved into the next. And there the angel left him. He was free. None could bind the representative of the Kingly Rule of God.
Here we may stop and pause for a moment and possibly ask ourselves, was this angel (messenger) of the Lord a heavenly visitant or an earthly one? It actually does not really matter. Whoever it was, it was undoubtedly of God. But while nothing has been said that could not be true of an earthly and carefully planned rescue by a group of sympathisers (but with heavenly assistance), who possessed the necessary keys and had drugged the guards, as described by someone who was half asleep at the time, the mention of the ‘angel of the Lord’ is against it. The ‘angel of the Lord’ is usually a very specific divine figure. But the description of the whole incident is itself evidence of the genuineness of the story, with its picture of a dazed Peter doing just as he was told, and then suddenly finding himself alone. It rings true.
Whether the deliverer was earthly or heavenly is a question we must decide for ourselves. We may make our own choice. What we do know is that God was behind it, and that when God does such work we can only look on in awe, and leave to Him the method that He uses. I am reminded here of another saint of God, the Sadhu Sundar Singh. He too was imprisoned because of his Christian witness, knowing no one, and with no hope of escape or rescue, until awoken at the dead of night by a stealthy figure whom he thought to be an angel, who led him out to safety. But this visitant then whispered ere he left him, ‘the Sanyasi mission’, and he later learned that the whispered words of this ‘messenger of God’ was a member of a secret group of Indian Christians who, he discovered, claimed to trace their origins back to Thomas the Apostle. But who could doubt that he too was a messenger sent from God, and an ‘angel of God?
12.11 ‘And when Peter was come to himself, he said, “Now I know of a truth, that the Lord has sent forth his angel and delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all the expectation of the people of the Jews.” ’
Once Peter had gathered his wits, he could only marvel and say, “God has sent His messenger, his angel, and has delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all that the Jews anticipated that they could do to me.” The words express what Luke is seeking to put over. It was the whole of Jerusalem that was rejoicing at what it could do to this man of God, but God had totally thwarted them. They were waiting in expectancy for his demise.
Peter had been in no doubt about what his fate was going to be in the morning. But now all his enemies had been put to shame. The king of Israel and the people of Israel had planned together his demise, but both had now been thwarted. The rulers and the people had taken counsel against the Lord and against His anointed (Psalm 1), and they had been defeated. He would march on in triumph with God ‘in another place’. But in contrast the king would die a horrible death and Israel, ‘the people of the Jews’, would be left in darkness, and in the not too distant future many of them would perish in the flames of the destruction of Jerusalem. Peter, however, would ‘go to another place’. And as so often in Acts, Peter speaks for all the Apostles.
We note here a similar phrase to that which he had used with Cornelius. There he had spoken of ‘the land of the Jews’. Here he spoke of ‘the people of the Jews’. It was distancing what was spoken of from speaker and hearer. It was now Peter, the Apostles and the church who represented the true Israel (Ephesians 2.11-22; 1 Peter 2.9). This people were no longer so. ‘They are not all Israel who are of Israel’, Paul would later declare (Romans 9.6). These were simply now ‘the people of the Jews’.
12.12 ‘And when he had considered the thing, he came to the house of Mary the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.’
And once he had thought everything through (as far as he could) he sought out the house of the mother of John (Yohen - Hebrew) Mark (Markos - Greek), where he knew that Christians would be gathered and waiting anxiously to hear news of him, and where indeed many were gathered and were praying.
John Mark was the man who would shortly accompany Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (13.5). He was Barnabas' cousin (Colossians 4.10) who would later travel with Barnabas to Cyprus when Paul chose Silas as his companion for his second missionary journey (15:37-39) after a disagreement over Mark. Mark later accompanied Paul again (Colossians 4.10; Philemon 24) as well as Peter (1 Peter 5.13). According to early church tradition he wrote the Gospel that bears his name, served as Peter's ‘interpreter’ in Rome, thus obtaining much of his information from Peter, and later established the church in Alexandria, in Egypt
12.13-14 ‘And when he knocked at the door of the gate, a maid came to answer, named Rhoda, and when she knew Peter’s voice, she did not open the gate for joy, but ran in, and told that Peter stood before the gate.’
The prison gate had swung open of its own accord. It would be a little more difficult getting into this house. That was barred to him. For when the maid, Rhoda, recognised Peter’s voice she was so overjoyed that she raced off to tell all the gathered people that Peter was at the gate, and simply forgot to let him in. The story is so natural that it has to be the record of someone who was there.
12.15 ‘And they said to her, “You are mad.” But she confidently affirmed that it was even so. And they said, “It is his angel.” ’
Then, while Peter continued knocking, they first told her that she was mad, and then, when she continued to affirm that it was true, began a discussion as to what it could be that was at the door. ‘It is his angel’, they said. Perhaps they were saying ‘He is dead and his angel has come to visit us to tell us.’ They had been praying for his safety all night and now they could not believe it. Or perhaps they thought that he was still alive although awaiting the worst and that his angel had come to reassure them. Jesus had spoken of ‘little ones’ having their own angels watching over them (Matthew 18.10; Hebrews 1.14). This may have been what was in their minds. But one thing is clear. They did not believe that God could have answered their prayers.
12.16 ‘But Peter continued knocking, and when they had opened, they saw him, and were amazed.’
Peter, however, continued knocking, and when eventually they opened the gate they were amazed. This part of the story may only have been recounted in such detail because it was amusing, but the idea of the Lord knocking at the door at His second coming was so well known that perhaps this was intended to be a reminder that as His people pray so the Lord is knocking at the door and they should be ready to open immediately in readiness for anything that is coming (Luke 12.36; Revelation 3.20). The hint is that they should have been on the ready. For time is passing, and then it will be too late. This is all of a piece with the fact that this chapter deals with the battle between two kingdoms.
12.17a ‘But he, beckoning to them with the hand to hold their peace, declared to them how the Lord had brought him forth out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James, and to the brethren.” ’
Then Peter beckoned to them to be quiet for a few moments, and recounted how the Lord had brought him forth out of the prison, after which he gave instructions that James, the Lord’s brother and elders of the Jerusalem church, should be informed, along with the whole church, and left. Once again the captive of the mighty had been delivered (Isaiah 45.13; 49.25-26; Isaiah 61.1; Luke 4.18). The Anointed One had triumphed.
12.17b ‘And he departed, and went to another place.’
There is a finality about these words which suggests that they are intended to be seen as significant. Jerusalem had lost its opportunity, and now Peter (and his fellow Apostles if any remained there) were departing from Jerusalem for other horizons. Jerusalem was being left to its unbelief. He was going ‘to another place’. This is backed up by a comparison with 5.25. There the response to release was to return to the Temple to proclaim the name of Jesus at the command of God. Here it is the opposite. It is to depart, to simply to disappear. Jerusalem had refused its second chance.
Of course it was important that Peter vanish immediately, for once his escape was discovered he would be sought for, and must not be found with the people of God, or they would suffer too. But the lack of mention of any destination (it need only have been vague) is surely indicative of a symbolic significance. It is no coincidence that the coming spread of the Good News to the Gentiles also takes place from another place, from Antioch. We do not know where Peter went. It was not considered important. What mattered was that he had left Jerusalem.
And it will be noted how much from this point on, wherever Paul went, although many Jews welcomed him, it was the intransigent Jews who soon incited trouble against him, beginning almost immediately with the Jewish Bar-jesus (13.6). See 13.45, 50; 14.2, 5, 19; 15.1; 17.5, 13; 18.12; 20.3.
12.18 ‘Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers, what was become of Peter.’
We could put it another way. A bombshell had been dropped among his guards. They must have been appalled. They just could not comprehend what had happened. Here they all were, safely in place, but Peter had gone. It was inexplicable. And they had no doubt as to what the consequences would be.
12.19 ‘And when Herod had sought for him, and found him not, he examined the guards, and commanded that they should be put to death (literally ‘led away’). And he went down from Judaea to Caesarea, and stayed there.’
Herod was of course displeased. He was being made to look a complete fool. ‘He sought for him, but found him not.’ But what did he expect when he touched the Lord’s anointed? Here he was making a great show for the people of eradicating these followers of a Messiah, and now this one who was the most important of all had escaped him. He was so embarrassed that he went down from Judaea to Caesarea and stayed there, not realising that he was going to the place where Peter had had his earlier great triumph with the representative of the legions of Rome. This was no small thing for Agrippa. He loved living in Jerusalem.
Sadly the soldiers suffered the fate of all who appear to have neglected their duty. The rule was regularly that if a prisoner was allowed to escape, the negligent guards would suffer the fate that had been intended for the prisoner. And in this case they were probably put to death (they were ‘led away’ to be punished).
12.20 ‘Now he was highly displeased with those of Tyre and Sidon, and they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus the king’s chamberlain their friend, they asked for peace, because their country was fed from the king’s country.’
The king had played fast and loose with God, and now God would play fast and loose with him. He became highly displeased with the people of Tyre and Sidon (we do not know why). He was playing God and trying to boost his ego. This was unpleasant for them, for not only could he interfere with their trade, but they were also dependent on his territory for their food supplies.
So they ‘made Blastus the king’s chamberlain their friend’, presumably by slipping him a nice present, and sued for peace between them and the king.
It may be that there is a hint here that this is what Jerusalem should have been doing with God, making a friend of His anointed Representative, and seeking peace (10.36). These people at least knew what was good for them. But he had not.
12.21 ‘And on a set day Herod arrayed himself in royal apparel, and sat on the throne, and made an oration to them.’
The day came for the royal triumph. On the set day Herod clothed himself regally and sat on his throne and made a great speech to them. The purpose was to make an impression and bring glory on himself. The Messiah rejecter was now exalting himself.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, describes how, on the second day of the festival, Agrippa entered the theatre clad in a robe of silver cloth, with the sun glinting on the silver, producing such an effect that the people (who of course wanted to please him) cried out that this was a god come to them. Josephus then goes on to tell us that at once a sudden and terrible illness fell on him from which he never recovered, and he died of severe abdominal pains five days later.
12.22 ‘And the people shouted, saying, “The voice of a god, and not of a man.” ’
In response to his great show of self-aggrandisement the people responded in a way that could only please him. They cried out flatteringly, “The voice of a god, and not of a man.” He was not the first king to be ready to accept divine honours, but he had professed to be the king of Israel. And furthermore Luke might intend us to be reminded here of the fact that he had sought to destroy those who did serve the God-Man. Thus by his folly in imitating the Messiah his fate was sealed. There is a direct contrast here with 10.26. Peter would not even accept homage, this king wanted full worship. Compare also 14.11-18where Paul and Barnabas rejected such worship.
12.23 ‘And immediately an angel of the Lord smote him, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten of worms, and gave up his breath.’
Immediately the angel of the Lord smote him so that he died, because he did not give God the glory, and the result was that he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. ‘Immediately’ need not be taken literally, merely signifying within a short period. This is, of course, a summary of what happened and much of it would only come out on medical examination. But the point is clear, his death was sudden and ignominious, as Josephus had also testified. He who had set himself up against God and His Anointed had suffered his deserved end. And when his body was examined worms were discovered in it. This is the fate of all such blasphemers (compare Isaiah 14.11; 66.24).
12.24 ‘But the word of God grew and multiplied.’
And in contrast to the end of the pretender, and in spite of what man could do, ‘the word of God grew and multiplied.’ The word of God marched on in triumph, sweeping all before it. Nothing could hold it back as what follows will now reveal.
We may perhaps close this section of the Book of Acts by pointing out the pattern in the chapter above. It began with the king setting himself up against God and His anointed, followed by the people expressing their approval of his attitude, and their strike against the representative of the Messiah, it continued with the deliverance of His representative, and ended with the people being deserted by God’s anointed who departed for another place, and with the king himself being toppled from his throne. Jerusalem which had for so long resisted Him had received its deserts. From now on attention will turn to Antioch. To us this may seem commonplace. In Luke’s day for the early Christians it was revolutionary. It produced a whole new way of thinking.
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