Acts 11:1-30

The Power to Overcome Legalism

2000, J.W. Carter
Scripture quotes from KJV

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Chapter 10 in the book of Acts marks a turning point in the early church. The members of the body of believers were of Jewish background, and as such, they saw themselves as Jews who were fulfilled with the knowledge of the Messiah. The basic evangelistic message was that Jesus was the Messiah, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, that message was bringing thousands of Jews to Jesus Christ. Because they saw themselves as Jewish, the thought of taking the gospel outside of the Jewish community was unthinkable. However, in Chapter 9 we see the description of Peter’s Spirit-led trip to The Gentile Centurion, Cornelius. Peter led him, his family, and many others to Jesus. Peter learned that the gospel of Jesus Christ was not intended to be for Jews only, but to be spread to all people.

This message was a radical one. We begin to see the repercussions of sharing the gospel with non-Jews as soon as Peter returned to Jerusalem.

Acts 11:1-3.

And the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. 2And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him, 3Saying, Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them.

What happened when Peter returned to the church in Jerusalem? Even though the members there were Christians, as Jews they still observed the oral law that included a prohibition of fellowship with non-Jews. While some embraced the universality of the gospel, others still could not put this new wine into old wineskins. What Peter had done was so controversial that the news of his visit with Cornelius preceded him to Jerusalem. Recall that Peter was staying in Joppa at the time of the visitation with Cornelius. When Jesus came to share the good news of the Gospel, He completely fulfilled the content and purpose of the Old Testament law, to release people from the burden of the sin that the Law exposed. The oral law that so obliterated the Mosaic law with an almost endless list of rules and regulations was not instituted by God, and still held the Jews in bondage to it. Consequently, when Peter had broken one of the most important oral laws, what was the result? He was criticized by the church members for breaking those rules.

How do we refer to rules that are instituted by men that add a burden to Christian believers? This is legalism. In what ways do legalistic opinions affect the church today? Many churches add rules on dress and behavior that add to the Gospel of Grace, and by doing so add a burden to the life of a Christian that Jesus died to remove. This is a very important issue in today’s church as it seeks to evangelize a culture that is driven by fewer and fewer rules.

Many Christians have experienced the criticism that comes from proponents of legalistic doctrine and theology. Using a misapplication of the biblical instruction to "avoid the appearance of evil," I was heavily criticized by influential members of a church when I was engaged in a ministry that took me in local bars at late hours of the night. As a church staff member, I was told that such a ministry was inappropriate and it should be stopped immediately. I continued to engage in this ministry that impacted many people’s lives until I left the church and that area. During the time of that ministry, the conflict with the proponents of legalism was never completely ended.

What happens to the gospel when it is overshadowed by human legalism? Had I relented to the legalistic viewpoint held by a church leader, a productive ministry to about 30 young people would not have taken place. If Peter had relented to the legalistic position held by, essentially, the entire body of believers, the spread of the gospel into the world would have been significantly impeded.

Recognizing this, Peter addressed his critics.

Acts 11:4-17.

But Peter rehearsed the matter from the beginning, and expounded it by order unto them, saying, 5I was in the city of Joppa praying: and in a trance I saw a vision, A certain vessel descend, as it had been a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came even to me: 6Upon the which when I had fastened mine eyes, I considered, and saw fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. 7And I heard a voice saying unto me, Arise, Peter; slay and eat. 8But I said, Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean hath at any time entered into my mouth. 9But the voice answered me again from heaven, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. 10And this was done three times: and all were drawn up again into heaven. 11And, behold, immediately there were three men already come unto the house where I was, sent from Caesarea unto me. 12And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house: 13And he showed us how he had seen an angel in his house, which stood and said unto him, Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; 14Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved. 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. 16Then 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. 17Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?

How did Peter explain his actions? He simply gave a complete testimony of what happened. Note that he made no actual overt attempt to correct or criticize the congregation. Instead of arguing with them about the appropriateness of what he had done, he simply shared what happened and let the people who were criticizing him decide for themselves if he had done the correct thing.

There is a lesson to be learned here. When we are criticized, we will often react by defending ourselves in an overt manner that can result in damaging the relationships we have with one another. We might end up criticizing the critic, demeaning or subjugating the one who is criticizing us. Peter’s response made no attempt at judging the position held by his critics, so the opportunity for a counter-attack never arose. The people heard the entire story.

This leads to a second, complementary lesson. The criticism that arose, developed from a position of ignorance. How quick are we to criticize one another when we hear of an action or event that we disagree with? More times than not, the source of such information is hearsay, and we are actually ignorant of all of the circumstances surrounding the event we are criticizing. This is why we are instructed not to judge one another (Romans 12.) Such judgment is unreasonable when we will always lack a full understanding of the circumstances surrounding the one we are criticizing.

Acts 11:18.

When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life.

What was the response of the church in Jerusalem. Considering their life-long dedication to Judaism, their assent is surprising. Rather than counter Peter with arguments pertaining to their law and his compromise of it, they listened to him. Certainly, he was one of their most dynamic and influential leaders. However, human nature always empowers us to bring down leaders, particularly when we think they have done something morally wrong. However, in this case, we see the true love of God in their fellowship when they so quickly see the truth when it is presented to them.

What enabled the people to overcome their legalistic position? They loved one another and cared enough to listen, responding without judgment. By doing so, one of the most adhered to, and one of the most damaging oral laws is being set aside. However, setting aside something that one has believed for life can be difficult. Many in the church acceded to Peter’s teaching for the moment, but their discontent with the breaking of the oral law would continue. They would become known as the "circumcision party," and the conflict they would engender by forcing their beliefs on others would be one of the most significant conflicts in the early church.

Acts 11:19-21.

Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only. 20And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.

During the persecution of the church that included the attacks on it by Saul of Tarsus, many of the Jews who had come into Jerusalem for Pentecost returned to their homes. By scattering the Christian Jews, Saul had unwittingly furthered the gospel message. His attempt at putting out the fire of the Lord was like trying to stomp out a forest fire. As he tried to stomp out the fire, he scattered its flames throughout the entire region, and the number of Christian Jews was growing fast. Again, however, note the target of the evangelism that was taking place.

To whom were the Jewish Christians taking the gospel? Because of their prohibition of fellowship with non-Jews, the gospel message was shared with other Jews. However, there were some who broke through those walls of prejudice and spoke to non-Jews. Who were these? Those that traveled to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch (all Mediterranean cities) shared with non-Jews. Many of these, most likely, were returning home after the Pentecost experience, and consequently, were not Jerusalem Jews. The church in Jerusalem was considered the "mother church," and was certainly influential in the start of the spread of the gospel. However, by being removed from Jerusalem, many were removed from the hotbed of legalism that was there. It was much easier for the Jews who lived among the Greek culture to share the gospel with the Greeks. Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman world (behind Rome and Alexandria,) and had a very metropolitan culture that was both varied and tolerant in its religious and philosophical views. This made Antioch a particularly fertile soil wherein to sow the Gospel.

Acts 11:22-24.

Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. 23Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. 24For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord.

Following the experience with Peter, the church in Jerusalem started to hear about the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles in Antioch. Why did they send Barnabas to the church at Antioch? Some have argued that he was sent by the legalistic church establishment to quell the controversial activity, but given the experience they had just had with Peter, and given the nature of Barnabas, this argument is not likely. The Jerusalem church wanted to know what was happening in Antioch, and to have it reported by someone they knew and trusted. Furthermore, Barnabas was a Jew of Hellenistic descent, and would be more comfortable in Antioch than the Apostles. Note how Barnabas was uniquely qualified for this task. God provides each Christian with a unique set of talents, abilities, and backgrounds that enables them to exercise their gifts in a unique way. Using this variety of people, God can use them to accomplish His purposes in all areas.

What did Barnabas find when he arrived at Antioch? He found a thriving church that contained a large number of Gentiles. His response is quite instructive. What did Barnabas do? He encouraged them to remain true to the Lord. This statement is significant. How does one share the gospel with a Jew? Because the Jew is already familiar with scripture, it is necessary that it is communicated that Jesus is the Messiah. However, such an approach would be meaningless to a Gentile. Gentiles understood the concept of Lord. They knew of authority. Consequently, rather than preach Jesus as Messiah to the Gentiles, he preached Jesus as Lord. What does this say to us about our efforts to communicate the gospel to others? We must always be ready to share the gospel from the position of the hearer. As Paul said, we must become "all things to all people," meaning that we need to meet them where they are. We need to use words that the hearer can understand. We need to speak from a context that meets the need of the hearer. Such an approach requires us to be sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and sensitive to the needs and state of the hearer.

Barnabas is described here as being full of the Holy Spirit, and in such a state, he could listen to the Holy Spirit as he ministered to the Gentile community. Barnabas’ realized that he needed help in order to reach such a large community. What Barnabas did next would shape the landscape of evangelism forever.

Acts 11:25-26.

Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul: 26And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

Barnabas remembered the experience of Saul of Tarsus. He saw the zealous and confident manner in which he preached the gospel. He also was well aware of Saul’s particular calling: to share the good news of the Gospel among the Gentiles. Who could there possibly be who could help Barnabas in this Gentile ministry other than Saul? So, Barnabas went to Tarsus in search of Saul. Unlike Cornelius’ vision that identified Peter’s location, Barnabas did not know where Saul was. Where had Saul been? According to Paul’s testimony in his letter to the Galatians, he went to Asia for a period of three years where the gospel message was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit. By this time he had returned to Tarsus having no idea of where God would use this knowledge. Most likely he was sharing the gospel in and around Tarsus, so he was probably not too hard to find.

Paul and Barnabas worked together for about a year in the church at Antioch. The name, Christ, is the Greek form of the word, Messiah. During this time, the people were known as followers of the Messiah, Jesus, or more contextually, followers of the Christ, Jesus. It is here first recorded that they were referred to as Christians; "Christ people", or in English, "Messianics." Even today when a Jew comes to the Lord, we refer to the new believer as a "Messianic Jew." This is the first recorded public ministry of Saul of Tarsus, a ministry that would continue and result in his becoming the most influential evangelist of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that ever lived.

Acts 11:27-30.

And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. 28And 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. 29Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: 30Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

What was happening in this church during the year that Barnabas and Paul are serving there? We see a church that is thriving. We see a visit from some church members from Jerusalem who had a gift of prophesy. They forewarned of a famine that would spread through the Roman world, which included their own. Why would prophesy of such an event be purposeful in this setting? First, it would glorify God as he is recognized for warning the people, and second, with a warning in hand, they could better prepare for the event. Luke includes a parenthetical statement that relates the historical record of the famine that had been prophesied. With this knowledge, the church was determined to help the other churches in the area to get through this event. Obviously, they received the prophesy in faith, and responded with real action. One can be reminded of a prophet who, for one hundred years, warned of a coming flood and nobody listened. This generosity was extended toward Jerusalem, a church that accepted Gentile Christians, but at the same time was never effective in reaching the Gentile community. They had not associated with Gentiles before, so this association was probably quite perplexing to them. The Power of the Holy Spirit was at work in the early church, breaking down walls of prejudice, annulling laws of legalism, and changing the lives of thousands as they came to know Jesus as Lord.