First Gentile Church
Published by Stanley Pouw in 2023 · 5 March 2023
The plan of the evangelization of mankind began at Jerusalem and then it just spread. As we come to Acts 11, the gospel has already been taken to Jews in Jerusalem and outside Jerusalem. It has been taken to Samaritans, and in Acts 10 it was taken to the first group of Gentiles in the house of Cornelius and Peter was the messenger. Cornelius was saved and as was his household.
Now Peter has to go back to Jerusalem, in Acts 11, and he must report to the Jews in Jerusalem, what has happened. And he realizes that it is not going to be easy for them to accept this. God had to give him a special vision to prepare his heart. The Jews are still locked into the typical prejudice to the nationalistic spirit. He returns beginning in Acts 11:1, and this is the record of what occurs.
Acts 11:1-3, “Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. 2 And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, 3 saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” Word came to Jerusalem of what had happened, and before Peter could defend himself, they had already formed their ideas.
“They that were of the circumcision” and that’s the name of a party. That was a group of Jews who believed the only way to become a Christian was to become a Jew first. The physical act of circumcision was a prelude to salvation. So, “The party of circumcision contended with him.” They didn’t believe this. Contended in the imperfect tense means it was a prolonged thing.
Verse 4-6, “But Peter explained it to them in order from the beginning, saying: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object descending like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came to me. 6 When I observed it intently and considered, I saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air.”
The sheet represents the church. In Israel certain animals were clean, and others were unclean. Unclean animals were not eaten and they also picture the Gentiles. Verse 7-9, “And I heard a voice, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8 But I said, ‘Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth.’ 9 But the voice answered me again, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.”
God said, “Don’t argue with Me Peter. I say they’re clean.” Verse 10, “Now this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven.” God gave him this vision, so Jews and Gentiles are included in the church. Something new. All the ceremonial laws also were wiped out, and Jews no longer had to restrict their diet. And immediately God gave them a chance to react.
Verse 11-12, “At that very moment, three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent to me from Caesarea. 12 Then the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.” Here Peter goes with them and six Jewish friends all go along and they go into a Gentile’s house.”
Verse 13-14, “And Cornelius told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, ‘Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, 14 who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.” So the Spirit says, Peter, you go to Cornelius and the Spirit says, Cornelius, you go get Peter, and the Spirit’s pulling the thing together.
Cornelius was a prepared man, so was his household, and Peter was the instrument to bring the message. Verse 15, Peter says, “And I began to speak the Holy Spirit fell on them as upon us at the beginning.” In effect he’s saying, I just was talking folks and it happened. Verse 16, “Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Peter said, “Sure, it happened. Seven of us were there. More than that I remembered that Jesus said this is how it is.” And it was. They couldn’t argue with the testimony of seven reputable witnesses. Verse 17, Peter says, “For as much then as God gave them the same gift as He did unto us.” The Holy Spirit is a gift. Everybody who believes Christ gets the same Holy Spirit in the same way.
Verse 17, “If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” It was scriptural. God promised and God did it. What can I say? Verse 18, “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”
That ended the argument. It’s just a repetition of Acts 10. In my study of scripture, I can’t think of one other place in scripture where you have the same thing repeated twice in a row, one immediately after the other. That means that it’s very important. When God repeats it, it is very important. And all of the other thousands that were being saved, they could have been included.
Yet he spends all this space saying the same thing three times just filling a whole lot of scroll with this Cornelius account. And this whole concept of getting it out to the Gentiles was a monumental crisis in the life of the church and in the plan of God. So Luke just repeats this whole thing so that you might understand what a milestone this is for the church to evangelize the world.
Usually our life patterns are determined a great deal by our prejudice. Prejudice controls and dominates the lives of most people. But all that had gone on in the house of Cornelius was designed to shatter prejudice. It was designed to crush the belief of the Hebrews that the Gentiles were a second-class people. The battle for Gentile acceptance had to be fought strenuously one step at a time.
Peter goes just like a tape recorder right down the whole deal. Because the issue explained itself. If the facts are on your side you don’t have to pull rank, just recite the facts. Peter knew it was the Spirit’s leading but he tested it two ways. Number one, he didn’t act alone. He took six people with him. Because he wanted the testimony of six others to confirm his own.
Verse 18 is a catalyst verse in the history of the church. They finally admitted that Gentiles could be saved. It took seven years from Pentecost to the founding of the church at Antioch. And then from here the groundwork is done and they move out. They begin the work of evangelizing Gentiles. Now when God spoke to the early church He spoke through the apostles.
And they laid out the doctrine. They had no New Testament. So when the early church came together what were God’s standards? So there needed to be time for the apostles to lay down a solid doctrinal base. What happened was, for seven years, the apostles laid that doctrinal foundation. And once that foundation was firm then somebody could start the building of the Gentile church.
The second reason there was a delay of many years, because the right instruments had to be prepared. When the church was formed everybody was a baby. Here they had to have time to mature, to grow, so that they would know who could do what. It’s important to have a good foundation. So they needed time for preparation. And they needed time for prejudice to come down.
Verse 19, “Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.” There is still prejudice. Antioch became the capital of Syria, and it was a strategic place. But the Cornelius incident happened while they were scattered, which means they hadn’t heard of it.
Verse 20-21, “But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.” They actually preached to uncircumcised pagans. They obviously have the gifts of preaching and they preached and people got saved.
Antioch was the third largest city in the world. It had 600,000 people at least. It was famous for culture and business. All the caravans of the East unloaded their wares in all the warehouses of Antioch. Cicero said it was a land of most learned men and liberal studies. But it was basically known as an evil city. The people lived for their pleasures. Life was a perpetual festival of vice.
Nobody knows who planted the church. Why? They were more preoccupied with finding out more about the name of Jesus Christ than they were their names. The hand of the Lord means power with blessing. And, “A great number believed and turned to the Lord.” Verse 22, “Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch.”
Well they had a good response. They sent Barnabas. He was a beloved character in the early church. When Saul came to Jerusalem and said, “Hey, I’m your friend now. I’m converted.” And they did not believe him. Barnabas put his arm around Paul and says, “Come on I’ll take you.” He leads him in and says, “I want you to meet him. He’s for real.” Barnabas was that kind of a loving person.
Verse 23, “When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord.” What qualified Barnabas? Number one, he had the spiritual qualifications. Somebody who could open up to a Gentile, somebody who wasn’t structured in with the walls of Judaism but who was loving. He had the right spiritual attitudes, love.
Verse 24, “For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.” He was righteous, full of faith, and full of the Holy Spirit. Those three things describe the three necessary attributes of a really committed Christian. Right toward men, toward himself, and toward God. And new Christians need exhortation. He had the gift of exhortation.
What else do they need? Teaching. Barnabas had the gift of teaching. What else do they need? They need to be led in evangelism. He had the gift of preaching. He had all the right attitudes, the right qualities, and the right gifts, spiritually. He was from Cyprus. And the guys who founded the church in Antioch were also from Cyprus. He’s one of them. That means that they know his gifts.
Number two, practice His presence. “Hold on to the Lord with all your strength.” So, how do you hold on? Well, he persuaded them to continue in the grace of God.” Paul and Barnabas made this a part of their ministry. Every time they got a new group of believers they exhorted them to hang on, continue to cling to Christ. To take the Word and to hold on to the Word. That’s the key.
Well the work got too much. He said, I’ve got to have another man, can’t handle this. Every minister realizes sooner or later, when things get going, that’s what you have to do. You’ve got to find the right man, and so Barnabas had the same dilemma that every guy in Christian service has, that I have continuously, to find the right guy for the right task. He knew the man he wanted.
Verse 25-26, “Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” Those Christians were productive and Barnabas was productive. People were being saved.
Now in the meantime years had passed. They kicked Saul out of Jerusalem quite a while ago. They sent him back to Tarsus in Cilicia. He went all over Cilicia starting churches. Well in the meantime according to 2 Corinthians 11, he was being attacked mercilessly. Barnabas finally caught up with him. They worked together with the church and for one year together they taught.
They taught men who became teachers of other men. The calling of every Christian is to teach and make disciples, not to entertain the saints, but to teach the saints. Teaching is the goal and the design of the church. “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” They had never been called Christians before. 1 Peter 4 says, “If any of you suffer for being a Christian don’t be ashamed.”
The Spirit of God explains in verses 27 to 30 that in Antioch it wasn’t just doctrinal, they were also very loving. Verse 27-28, “And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar.”
Verses 29-30, “Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. 30 This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.” Here are Gentiles showing their love to the Jews who have so long hated them. What a beautiful picture of love. It says they sent according to his ability. Every person maximized their gift.
These people showed real love because they gave according to their ability to give. If they had a lot, they gave a lot. If they had a very little they gave a little. But they gave in proportion to what they had and they supplied the need of those Jews in Jerusalem who had a hard time loving them. They not only sent money, they sent men. And which men did they send? Their best, Barnabas and Paul. Let us pray.