Peter Reports to the Church
This passage is the conclusion to the story of Cornelius and Peter. Word spread among the believers in Judea that Gentiles had received the gospel and were saved. That is what Luke meant by “received the word of God”. (1)
Not everyone was happy about this, however. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, some criticized him for going in to a Gentile’s house and eating with Gentiles. (3) Luke calls them the “circumcision party”. These were Jewish believers who were still zealous for the law and Jewish customs, who did not believe Jews should interact with Gentiles.
In defense, Peter told them the story of his vision while in Joppa. He told how he had seen the vision of clean and unclean animals and was told to kill and eat, but refused because he would not eat anything unclean. But the Lord told him not to call unclean what the Lord had made clean. He also said that the Spirit told him to go with the servants of Cornelius. (11) Peter was making clear that he followed the command of the Lord to go and to visit with these Gentiles.
Peter went on to say he took six brothers with him and they went to see Cornelius, who had been visited by an angel. He had witnesses to his story. Peter said the angel told Cornelius that Peter would declare the message by which he and his household would be saved. (14) “Household” would mean his family, servants, and any others under his authority.
The salvation of the Gentiles was verified by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them. Peter said “God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ”, meaning the Holy Spirit. (17) Peter remember Jesus saying they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. He, therefore, could not stand in God’s way to prevent them from being baptized as full members of the church.
Peter’s story silenced his critics. (18) The believers glorified God for granting repentance to the Gentiles so they could be saved.
God’s timing here is impeccable. He showed the apostles that the evangelization of the Gentiles was his will in this small demonstration. He thus prepared them for seeing it happen on a large scale in Antioch.
The Gentile Church in Antioch
The persecution in Jerusalem that arose over Stephen continued to produce evangelism as believers fled to other countries. Some traveled to Phoenicia, which is modern Lebanon. Some traveled to the island of Cyprus. There was a large Jewish colony there. Some went to Antioch, in what is now Syria, about 300 miles from Jerusalem. It was a large city of about 500,000 people, about 70,000 of which were Jews. Many of these Jewish believers shared the gospel with the Jews they encountered in their new countries.
There were some, however, that preached to Gentiles. These preachers were Jewish believers from Cyprus and Cyrene. Cyrene was a prominent Greek and Roman city in what is now Libya. You might remember that a man named Simon from Cyrene was conscripted to carry the cross when Jesus was unable to.
Possibly because believers from these two places were accustomed to dealing with Greeks, they began to preach to them in Antioch.[The English Standard Version says they preached to “Hellenists”. It posts a footnote to explain that these are non-Jewish Greeks. The New International Version says “Greeks” which is clearer, since the term “Hellenists” was previously used to refer to Jews born in countries outside of Judea.] Many of them believed and were saved. (21)
When the news of this came to the church in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to Antioch to check it out. This shows the high regard for Barnabas in the church. Luke wrote that Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. (24) Also, Barnabas was from Cyprus and would have some connection to those evangelists who were also from Cyprus.
Barnabas liked what saw in Antioch. He exhorted them to remain faithful. (23) But, since many were coming into the church in Antioch, Barnabas realized they needed to be taught. That is part of the Great Commission given by Jesus, to teach all that he commanded. (Matthew 28:20) Barnabas remembered Saul, his great knowledge of the Scripture, and his powerful preaching. So, he went to find him in Tarsus.
Barnabas found Saul in Tarsus and convinced to him to come to Antioch with him. (26) The two of them spent a whole year meeting with the church and teaching. (26)
Luke added a note that it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. The Greek word (Christianoi) means partisans of Christ. They were known as those who were always talking about Christ. They were the Christ People, or Christians.
One mark of a Christian is generosity. The church in Antioch manifested this trait. When they heard, as a matter of prophecy, that a famine was about to occur, they took up an offering and sent it to Christians living in Judea. Barnabas and Saul took the gift and delivered it to the church elders in Judea. (30)
With this account, Luke shifted his narrative back to Jerusalem.
James Killed & Peter Arrested
The King Herod of this chapter is Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great. He grew up in Rome and had friends in the imperial family. When Gaius became emperor, he gave Agrippa territory in the south of Syria and the title “king”. Then he gave him Galilee and Peraea. When Claudius became emperor, he gave Agrippa Judaea. Agrippa ended up with all of the territory ruled by his grandfather, Herod the Great, and a little more.
Agrippa was popular with the Jews because his mother was Jewish and a member of the Hasmonean family that had briefly ruled Israel. Agrippa worked to keep the favor of the Jews. To do so, he began to arrest members of the church, specifically the apostles. He killed an apostle, James the brother of John. He killed him with the sword, which may mean he was beheaded.
Jesus had foretold the death of James. He had told the disciples: “…you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles”. (Matthew 10:17) Jesus told James and John: “The cup that I drink you will drink”. (Mark 10:39) James was the first of the apostles to be martyred.
When Herod saw that the death of James pleased the Jews, he had Peter arrested also. His intent was to execute hm as well. Herod placed in in prison under heavy guard until the Passover was finished, so that he could bring him out and publicly execute him. It would have been similar to Pilate’s execution of Jesus.
But, the church prayed earnestly for Peter’s release. (5)
So, the church in one place suffered persecution. The church in another place grew unhindered.
God worked in both places to accomplish his will, the spread of the gospel over the earth.