No one, I think, can read the account of Acts 11 thoughtfully without realizing how prejudices control and dominate the hearts of men. Most of us are more prejudiced in religious matters than we realize. Sometimes what we call “conscience” is, after all, only prejudice. We profess we cannot have any sympathy with this or that person (because he does not see as we do) on account of our consciences. Whereas, if we were honest, we would have to admit that our lack of sympathy is due in large part to our prejudices. Remember the old saying—“Orthodoxy is my doxy; Heterodoxy is someone else’s doxy.”
Notice too how things have changed during the Christian era. In the early days the prejudice was on the side of the Jews, who looked with contempt on the Gentiles. There was good reason for this. God had said, “This people have I formed for myself; they shall show forth my praise” (Isaiah 43:21). On another occasion he said, speaking of the Jews, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). Thus in a special sense God recognized Israel as His peculiar people, and He Himself put a hedge about them to keep them from mingling freely with the pagan who worshiped idols and indulged in all the unclean things that accompany idol worship. God called the Jews to separation from the sins of the Gentiles. So we need not be surprised that when the time came to carry the message of the grace of God to the Gentile world, even the Hebrew Christians looked with disfavor on reaching out into the pagan world with the proclamation of the gospel.
Now singularly enough, the shoe is on the other foot. Today it is the Gentile, and often the professing Christian among the Gentiles, who looks with disfavor on the Jew and, in many instances, has no sympathy with Christian missionary outreach to Israel. I have often heard it said, “The Jew had his chance; he refused Christ and therefore we have no further responsibility toward him.” That is not the attitude of the Lord Jesus Christ. He commanded His disciples to go first of all to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Paul said his ministry was to the Jew first, then also to the Gentile.
Some five or six years rolled by after Pentecost before the early Hebrew Christians began the work of evangelizing the Gentiles. And how often it is today that we find little spiritual effort on the part of the Gentiles to evangelize Jews! We are so easily controlled and dominated by our prejudices that we forget “there is no difference: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
Destroying Prejudice in the Early Church (Acts 11:1-18)
After Peter’s mission to the Gentile home of Cornelius he was put on trial, as it were, when he returned to the church at Jerusalem. He was called upon to defend himself for going to the Gentiles with the gospel The disciples in Jerusalem did not yet have a vision broad enough to reach out to their Gentile neighbors from whom many of the Jews had suffered so much. We can realize why they hesitated, but in so doing they ignored their Lord’s express command.
The apostles outside of Jerusalem received the news as a wonderful thing. “The apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God.” It seemed almost unbelievable, God, then, was reaching out beyond the confines of Israel to poor, lost, ruined sinners of the nations. This word came back to Jerusalem and the brethren there were perplexed about it. “When Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision [that is, converted Hebrews] contended with him, Saying, Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them.” We remember that when our Lord was here on earth, the same charge was brought against Him when He ate with publicans and sinners, and He had to defend Himself for letting His grace go out to the needy. Peter also had to defend himself for going to the Gentiles with the message of the gospel
Peter then related the whole story and left the verdict to them to decide whether he had been divinely guided. He explained that while he was praying he had seen a vision. In other words, this was not a mere notion of Peter’s. It was not that he had himself decided to leap over national barriers and go to the Gentiles. Rather while he was waiting on God, seeking the mind of God, there came to his soul a revelation of God’s grace in relation to a needy world.
He related his vision of a sheet filled with all types of animals. His Jewish audience recognized that according to Levitical law many of the animals were clean but others definitely unclean. The Jew was punctilious about eating only the things ceremonially clean, but the Gentile indulged himself as he would, eating many things considered unclean by the Jews.
“And I heard a voice saying unto me, Arise, Peter; slay and eat.” I think I can understand something of Peter’s feeling of revulsion— a strict Jew, looking at that heterogeneous collection of beasts, saying, “I cannot select my food from them.” But a voice answered him from Heaven, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” What did this mean? One thing it meant was that the day had passed when one had to distinguish between clean and unclean beasts. Our Lord Jesus Christ had declared that not that which enters into the mouth defiles the man. So it is left to us now to select those foods that are most suitable for our well-being.
However, there is a deeper meaning in the sentence, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” He was referring to the whole world of sinners. In days gone by, the Gentiles were considered unclean. You will remember how the Jews were forbidden to mingle with the Gentiles in marriage. In the days of Ezra, when people failed in this matter and intermarried with the Gentile people, Ezra called them to separate from their wives and put away their children, for they were unclean. It was heartbreaking, but it was the will of God (Ezra 9).
What does it mean then, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common”? It means that, through the atoning blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, even the Gentiles have a way of access to God. Although outside the nation of Israel, they are entitled now to participate in the riches of God’s grace. Even though they are strangers to the covenant of promise, they can know the salvation He has provided through the Lord Jesus. The apostle Paul said that he was “the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost” (Romans 15:16). And we can go to all men everywhere now and say to them, “No matter what your record, whether you are Jew or Gentile, whether you have been punctilious about keeping the law or whether you have been utterly lawless, Christ died for all men, and the grace of God, proclaiming peace for all men, goes out to sinners everywhere.” God’s Word says, “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”
This was the message the Lord was teaching Peter. There are no longer any ceremonial distinctions to be observed; God is waiting in grace to save whosoever will. Peter said the animals were presented to him three times. The same proclamation was made three times in order that he might be assured it was in very truth the mind of God. It often takes quite a little while to get something new into our understanding. “And, behold, immediately there were three men already come unto the house where I was, sent from Caesarea unto me. And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting.” And so Peter started off to the household of Cornelius where he had that wonderful experience of which we read in Acts 10.
“Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house.” That was wisdom on the part of Peter. He was going to do an unprecedented thing and he wanted plenty of witnesses who could testify when he got back to Jerusalem that he did everything according to the mind and will of God.
There are a few points I want to emphasize regarding Cornelius. First, God could have given Cornelius the gospel through the angel that came to him. But it did not please Him to propagate the glad tidings in that way. He prefers to reach sinners through redeemed men and women, and this is a very wonderful and serious thing for us to consider. I am sure, of the myriads upon myriads of angels surrounding the throne of God, any one of them would count it a privilege to come down and stand at any crossroad in all the land and proclaim the gospel of the Lamb of God. But God has passed angels by, and has entrusted the message of His grace to sinners saved by that grace. How have we responded to that—we, to whom this wonderful privilege has been given? Will we rise to our privilege? Are we making known the gospel as we should to a lost world?
In the next place, I want you to realize this: Cornelius was a man whose prayers and almsgiving had been accepted by God, therefore he must have been on the ground of an Old Testament believer. He was already quickened, but was not what the New Testament calls “saved.” When we speak of being saved we mean far more than being safe. All down through the centuries those who turned to God in repentance were quickened by the Spirit of God, and in that sense were children of God and went home to Heaven at death. But they did not know positively that they were justified before God. They could not know for certain that their souls were saved. All these precious truths awaited revelation in the new dispensation.
Cornelius was a God-fearing, earnest man with no knowledge of peace with God. He was longing to be assured that he was accepted of Him. He sent to Peter to know how he and his household might be saved; in other words, how they might come into the full glad knowledge of forgiveness of sins. What a vast number of people in Christendom today are very much like Cornelius. They are undoubtedly God-fearing, and in their hearts believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore have knowledge Cornelius did not have; but they have no assurance of salvation. I am sorry to say it, but this is largely due to the preaching they hear in many places.
In Acts 10 we find the content of Peter’s message. It was Jesus Christ, living His wonderful life here on earth, going about doing good, crucified for our sins, raised from the dead, and ascended on high to God’s right hand. That was the message Cornelius needed to hear.
It is strange to hear people who profess to believe the Bible say they do not think anyone can know he is saved until the day of judgment. The Word of God says, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). There are people who are saved and know they are saved. And there are others who really love the Lord but somehow or other have never dared to step out on His testimony, and so still are in doubt as to their salvation.
Cornelius and his household heard the Word and believed and they were saved, and immediately “the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning”—that is, on the day of Pentecost. Then Peter said in effect, “I realized, when I saw this, what God had done—that He had broken down the middle wall of partition. When I understood that God had accepted them and given them the gift of the Holy Ghost, what could I do about it?” “Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 11:16).
When the brethren in Jerusalem heard all this, they had nothing to say against it, but “held their peace, and glorified God, saying. Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.” Thank God that fact remains blessedly true. No poor sinner in all the world need feel he has gone so far there is no salvation for him, God grants forgiveness to all who will believe His Word, to those who will change their attitude toward the God against whom they have sinned.
Who and What Is a Christian? (Acts 11:19-30)
Acts 11:19-20 carries us back several years to the time immediately following the martyrdom of Stephen. We remember that it was after Stephen’s death that Saul, on his way to Damascus, was miraculously and marvelously converted to preach the faith he had once persecuted. He had already been preaching perhaps three years and had visited Jerusalem, but because the Jews tried to kill him, had gone back to his native city Tarsus.
In these intervening years we find that the brethren who had fled from Palestine on account of the persecution there preached the gospel message to the Jews only. The Lord’s commission had been very definite, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,” but their Jewish prejudices hindered them from realizing that the same message was also for Gentiles. However in His time God overruled and they began to reach out to the nations. We read, “Some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene”; that is, although Jews, they had been born in these countries and had been accustomed to mingle with the Gentiles. So when they returned to their homelands they went to the Greeks and preached the Word.
Antioch was a great Greek city in Syria and there the gospel was first freely proclaimed to the Gentiles, with the result that many were saved. “And the hand of the Lord was with them.” There was a great difference between these Greeks to whom the Gospel was preached in Antioch, and Cornelius to whom Peter carried the Word. Cornelius and his household feared the Lord. They knew God but did not understand the gospel of the new dispensation. It was otherwise with these Greeks. They were out and out idolaters, living in all the sins of paganism. What a day it must have been when the gospel of the grace of God was preached to those men! God worked in power and they were broken down and turned in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ.
“A great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.” I wish we could always keep to the simplicity of things as we find them here. What led them to the Lord? The proclamation of the grace of God. Nothing else. They did not have to depend on all the other things to which preachers resort today in order to attract the people. They simply went to the heathen and preached Christ and Him crucified. God set His seal on that message and brought many to a saving knowledge of His blessed Son.
When the news of this reached Jerusalem, it created quite a stir among the brethren. They had already sat in judgment on Peter for going to the Gentiles. They did not take a stand of direct opposition, but sent Barnabas, a trusted man, to make sure it was really a work of God and not simply some human effort. Barnabas was the man who, we are told in an earlier chapter, had large properties in Cyprus, his native island. He had sold those properties and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet to be used in helping the needy brethren (Acts 4:36-37). He was characterized not only by sincere faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but by his love for others. So he was sent to investigate and report to them as to the character of the work in Antioch.
“When he came and had seen the grace of God, [he] was glad.” How can anybody see the grace of God? Grace is God’s undeserved favor granted to poor lost sinners who put their trust in the Lord Jesus. Strictly speaking, we cannot see grace any more than we can see love, or its antithesis, hate. Then what did Barnabas see? We see the effects of hate in the unkind things it does, and we see the grace of God manifested in the changed lives of those who have received and believed the gospel message. This is how the gospel is propagated. The gospel proves itself by what it does. We hear a great deal about the need of a new gospel for a new age, but the old gospel still works, and works in power. When men and women believe it and receive it in their hearts, they become new creatures in Christ Jesus. Licentious, wicked, unclean people become chaste, holy, and clean; unrighteous people become faithful, honest, and true. This is how the grace of God is seen.
If we profess to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, let us be careful to reveal the reality of our faith by godly lives. The world is looking on to see what the gospel we talk about has done for us. Christian men and women should so live and walk before the world, should so act in their behavior one to the other, that unsaved people will have to confess they see the grace of God in them.
Barnabas went to Antioch and saw the grace of God, and he ministered to them “and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.” How young converts need that encouragement! It is not merely a matter of receiving Christ as Savior. When one does that, thank God, he is saved; but from that moment on we need to cleave to the Lord with purpose of heart. Our Lord has warned us that “no man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). May God enable us to plow a straight furrow—to go forward in the path of devotion to the Lord! How do we cleave to Him? With purpose of heart.
Let me give a few suggestions to young believers. In the first place, give the Word of God its proper place in your heart. Do not let a day go by in which you do not spend some time in your Bible. You cannot grow in grace without that. You are newborn babes and you need to be fed, and the Word is not only for our food but for our enlightenment. We cannot find our way through this world without the instructions we get from the Word of God. Not only should you be careful to meditate on the Word of God each day, but see that you spend some time daily waiting upon God in prayer. Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath. A believer who is not given to prayer will never really count for God in this world. We are told to be faithful in prayer, to pray without ceasing.
Next, if we are going to cleave to the Lord, we should cultivate Christian fellowship—seek the association of those of like precious faith. None of us is strong in ourselves, and we need one another. We are to exhort each other, to be helpers of one another in the faith.
Then let us be unsparing in self-judgment. We need to keep account with God. When conscious of failure and sin, when we have yielded in any sense to temptation, let us not go on getting deeper and deeper into things that are wrong, drifting farther and farther from God. Turn at once to the Lord, face the matter in His presence. Remember, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is what is meant by cleaving to the Lord with purpose of heart—recognizing His authority over our lives and His ownership of all we have and are.
So Barnabas exhorted these young Christians to be faithful to the Lord, in order that their lives might really count for God.
Moreover, we are told this of Barnabas: “He was a good man.” I would like so to live that this might always be said of me. It means far more than for people to say, “He is cultured,” or, “He is talented.” One may be talented, cultured, educated and yet not be good. “The steps of a good man,” we are told, “are ordered by the Lord,” and so we are to seek to be good men. “He was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith,” a man who walked with and counted on God. This was the man to help these new converts. As a result of his ministry, “much people was added unto the Lord.”
But Barnabas was also a self-effacing man; he realized his own limitations and was glad to recognize a man with greater ability than he had himself. As he ministered, he thought, There is another man who can help in a better way. I am going to bring that man here. “Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul.” He had been interested in Saul. Saul had come to Jerusalem and wanted to join himself to the brethren there, but they were afraid of him and feared that he intended to turn them over to the authorities. But Barnabas spoke up and told how Saul had seen the Lord in the way, and that He had spoken to him, and that he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. So the believers at Jerusalem lost their fear of him and received him into their fellowship.
Barnabas appreciated what had taken place in the life of Saul of Tarsus, and recognized his remarkable ability. He knew he was a chosen vessel to give the gospel to the Gentiles. Barnabas might have said, “I can go on ministering here with nobody interfering with me.” But no, he said, “I would do better to fade out a little and get a more capable man to take my place”—and off he went to Tarsus. I would like to have been present during his interview with Saul. So far as we know, Saul was in retirement, as though he had failed to qualify as a preacher of the Word, after he left Jerusalem. We do not read of any work he was doing. But I think one day he was sitting in his home feeling a bit gloomy, thinking to himself, The Lord cannot use me. People are not willing to receive my message—when suddenly there was a knock at the door!
“Welcome, my old friend Barnabas, I am glad to see you.”
“Saul, I have come to take you to Antioch, to help the church there.”
“Why, what do you need me for?”
“There is a great opportunity there, and I feel sure you are the man for the job.”
Then I can hear Paul saying, deprecatingly, “Oh no; I am not worthy—I persecuted this way even unto death.”
But Barnabas assured him, “You are the very man for the place. Come with me!”
And “he brought him unto Antioch.” I like that. It suggests to me that Saul was not ready to go until Barnabas persuaded him, in a kindly way. And so Saul went and “it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people.” Saul and Barnabas, laboring together in Antioch for a whole year! It was there the believers first received the name which this new covenant company has borne throughout the centuries.
“And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” In some commentaries you will read that the Antiochians were given to conferring nicknames, and someone among them is supposed to have derogatorily made up the word Christian from the name Christ. But I question that very much. Thomas Newberry, one of the great Greek scholars of the last century, wrote that the Greek word translated “called” really means, “oracularly called,” or “divinely called.” The disciples were first divinely called Christians at Antioch. This was God’s name for them. Now that the work of evangelizing the world had really begun, God said, as it were, “I am going to give you the name by which I want My people known”—and He gave them the name Christians. We do not find the word used often in the Bible, but it soon became known all over the world. Later on, when Paul was defending himself before Agrippa, the king suddenly interrupted him and said, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” That was the name by which the new company had become known. In the First Epistle of Peter we read, “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.”
Who and what is a Christian? We often use the term in a very loose way today. We speak of Christians as we do of Mohammedans or Jews, as denoting a group of people who profess certain religious views. We think of almost anyone born in a country like America as a Christian. I remember handing a gospel booklet to a man on a train and he turned to me and asked, “What did you give me that book for?” I replied, “I thought you might be interested. May I ask, are you a Christian?” “Well,” he replied indignantly, “take a good look at me—do I look like a Jew or a Chinaman?” “You look and talk like an American.” “Then,” he responded, “that is your answer.”
No, there are millions of Americans who are not Christians, and thousands of church members who are not Christians. What is a Christian? The disciples were divinely called Christians—those who received the Word of God in their hearts. They received the gospel and therefore were born again through the power of the risen Christ in Heaven. They were Christians because they belonged to Christ.
A Christian is Christ’s representative here in this world. Many years ago, when studying Cantonese, one of the branches of the Chinese language, I found the word used for a Christian was Yasu-yan. Yasu was their word for Jesus, and yan was man. Whenever my teacher would introduce me, he would say I was a “Jesus man.” That is what a Christian really is. It is his high privilege to represent Christ in this world. He belongs to Christ, is united to Christ, and now should seek to live out the life of Christ before men. That is what Paul meant when he said, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). God give us the grace to be consistent Christians! There is no greater testimony to the power of the gospel than that.
In the final verses of Acts 11 we have a beautiful little illustration of Christian love in action.
And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul (27-30).
These Gentile brethren, converted to Christ in Antioch, heard of the need and distress of their Christian brothers in Judea and they wanted to help them. They did not have to be urged, or pleaded with. They knew their brethren in Judea were in need and they gladly helped.
What started men thinking beyond the boundary lines of their own nations? It was the love of Christ shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Spirit. Here is perhaps the first instance in history of people putting together their money in order to send relief to men of another nation. Christianity is the truest philanthropy! Christianity teaches men formerly driven by selfishness to find real joy in ministering to those in less comfortable and less agreeable circumstances than their own. How could it be otherwise? We owe everything for eternity to the One who came from the heights of glory to lay down His life for our sins, and surely “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”