Acts 11

1. Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God.

This chapter takes up right where chapter 10 left off, immediately following the conversion of Cornelius and his household. Now, the story leaves the house of Cornelius with Peter staying there and takes us out into the rest of Judea. Word travels quickly, and news of what happened in the house of this Roman centurion spreads among the apostles and brethren like wildfire.

Now some people in their vain imaginations regarding Scripture imagine that the word of God had gone out to Gentiles from the very first. Not acknowledging that the events of Acts 2 took place in the temple of God where only the Jews could gather, they imagine that a multitude of Gentiles heard and believed the word on the day of Pentecost and had gone out and spread the word to thousands more, so that by now there was a great multitude of Gentiles that believed. Yet this is not the case. Peter went to the house of one Gentile man and preached the word to him and his family, and this event rocked the believing world at the time. The shocking and sensational news spread throughout the region that the nations had also received the word of God.

Remember that the word “Gentiles” in the New Testament is the Greek word ethne, and means “nations,” and should be translated that way in every occurrence. Clearly here the “nations” referred to are those other than Israel. Yet would it not be better to translate this word “nations” and let the reader decipher for himself that this is what it means? The translation of “Gentiles” is a bad one, and is misleading in many passages. It is best if we always think of “nations” when we read this word, and get rid of this idea of “Gentiles” altogether.

2. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him,

When Peter arrives at Jerusalem, his friends and colleagues there do not congratulate him upon his successful ministry to a Roman centurion, as many preachers today seem to think they should have done. Instead, they contend with him, thinking that he had done something most improper. Do we today know so much better than the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do we even understand why they were upset? Do we really think of these men as God’s apostles, or do we imagine that we are so much wiser and better than they? We had better examine our own attitudes and positions before we dare to criticize these men!

3. saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!”

They contend with Peter because he went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them. It should be no surprise that they had this attitude, for Peter himself had had it until he received a vision from the Lord thrice repeated, as well as direct instructions from the Holy Spirit what to do. These men, therefore, just have the same attitude Peter did before God told him something else.

These men did not believe that it was time for them to go and preach to those who were not Israelites. According to the understanding of the apostles and all the believing brethren at this time, this was not how things were supposed to go. They thought that their mission was to go out to the entire world and reach their fellow Israelites in whatever place they might be found. Then, once they had reached all their fellow Jews, they would as a nation enter into the kingdom of God, and go out to all the other nations as ambassadors to bring them into the kingdom as well.

With this game plan in mind, the Jews went out as declared in Acts 11:19, “Preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.” This was not their mistake, but the Lord’s command, for He Himself had said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) Moreover, when He sent them out, He said, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” (John 20:21) If He was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, then when He sent His disciples the same way, He sent them just to the lost sheep of the house of Israel as well.

Now of course the apostles knew that eventually they would go to men of other nations. The Lord Himself had told them this in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” So they knew they were going to other nations eventually. Yet they also knew that Israel was their first priority, and the ones who were to receive the word first.

Now, though, God had thrown them a curve. He had sent Peter to the home of a Gentile, and then had given that Gentile and his company the same gift of the Holy Spirit that the Jews had received on Pentecost. This was not as things were supposed to go according to their understanding of it. No wonder they were not quick to accept this, therefore, or eager to welcome Peter’s work as a great addition to what they were doing. According to their understanding of it, Peter had gone against the program, and violated the order of instructions laid down by the Lord Himself. For this, they would call even so great a man as Peter to account.

4. But Peter explained it to them in order from the beginning, saying:

Peter takes these charges seriously. Indeed, he could hardly do anything else. He certainly must have understood their attitude, since he himself would have had the same attitude if it had been one of the other apostles who had been sent in this way rather than himself. Therefore, he carefully explains the whole thing to them in order from the beginning. He probably believes that, upon hearing the matter out like he did, they will be able to come to no other conclusion than what he came to, for this was clearly not something Peter just decided to do, but rather was something he did under direct orders from the Lord. Whether or not it fit with what they understood the program to be, they could not doubt that what he did was the will of God.

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.

Peter repeats for them the story, as we have it laid down for us in chapter 10. Rather than just tell us that Peter repeated the story, the Holy Spirit records for us his words. Clearly, in the Lord’s mind, this is a significant event, and deserves repetition. He clearly thinks that it is most important that we get this story straight, and understand exactly what went on here. Yet many refuse to consider the message of this story, or the truth that it implies. We would do well to consider the things that God thus emphasizes by carefully repeating them. If He considers them important, then we should as well.

Now Peter starts to tell the story from the time when he was in the city of Joppa praying. This is not how the story was told in chapter 10, for there the Lord took us first to the house of Cornelius and introduced us to him. Yet this time the story is repeated from Peter’s perspective, so here he starts out the story where it started for him, which was while he was praying in Joppa.

Now Peter relates the strange vision he had in a trance of an object like a great sail off a ship, held up by the four corners to make a large bag or vessel, and let down to the earth before him. Notice that he does not repeat some of the details that the Spirit recorded for us in chapter 10, like the fact that it was meal time and he was hungry. Peter tells what seems important to him, and this message is tailored to an audience that wants an explanation of  his actions. Telling them about mealtime perhaps was not necessary here, though it does have a place back in chapter 10.

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.

Peter in defending himself was speaking officially, and I believe his words were the inspired words of God. Thus, we would expect them to accurately fit with what we read in chapter 10. Yet Peter also supplements the story somewhat here by telling us that he observed the vessel intently and considered it. Chapter 10 did not share these details. Yet of course Peter saw in the vessel what we learned of in chapter 10: four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. These are the same things, and listed in the same order, as we had them in chapter 10. These stories complement each other, but when they speak of the same thing, they give the same details. When God inspires, He does not have to say the exact same thing twice, but what He does have to say must always be right.

7. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’

These are exactly the same words we had in chapter 10, only now told from Peter’s first-person perspective. The Greek quotation here is exactly the same as Acts 10:13.

8. But I said, ‘Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth.’

Peter’s words as he gives them here are not exactly the same as in chapter 10. Yet remember that this was repeated three times, and so perhaps Peter did not protest using the exact same words every time, though the voice from God did speak the same every time. This should not surprise us, for when we repeat ourselves, we often will change the wording slightly, so as not to sound like a broken record. Generally, though, we change it so little that what we say clearly means the exact same thing. That is what Peter did here.

9. But the voice answered me again from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’

Again Peter repeats what the heavenly voice said, exactly as it was spoken to him. The Greek is exactly the same as well here. Peter did not change the words even a bit.

10. Now this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven.

Peter closes out the vision exactly as he had seen it. Three times this was repeated, and then everything was drawn back up again into heaven, ending the vision. Now, through Peter’s story, the rest of the apostles have been brought to the same point Peter was in Acts 10: wondering what this vision and command from the Lord might mean. Peter will bring them along into the further light he received in the next verses.

11. At that very moment, three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent to me from Caesarea.

Peter explains to the apostles and brethren that at the very moment this vision ended, three men stood before the house where Peter was. This was no coincidence, and showed clearly that God had worked this all out. This whole scenario was of His doing, not Peter’s. Interestingly, Peter notes the three men just after he had had this vision three times. The significance of this could not have been lost on him.

Peter tells them that these men were sent to him from Caesarea. The word “sent” here is a form of the Greek word apostello, for they had been sent with Cornelius’ authority to bring Peter back to him. Peter does not mention that these men were uncircumcised Gentiles, for all his listeners already knew this, and it was the reason they were so upset with him in the first place. Yet now God is showing them that this was His will, not Peter’s.

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.

As if things weren’t obvious enough before, the Spirit had at this point spoken to Peter and told him to go with these men, doubting nothing. Moreover, Peter at this point presents to them the six brethren who accompanied him on this journey. He is confident that they will witness and testify to the fact that things did indeed happen as he said they did. They had taken Peter’s word for this initially, and been willing to accompany him into the house of a Gentile, even contrary to custom. Now, they can affirm all that Peter says took place there.

We might think poorly of these men for needing so much evidence to believe that what Peter did was right, and yet remember that Peter himself had needed all this in order to be convinced himself that he should go to a Gentile. These men were no more reluctant to believe that this was God’s will than Peter himself had been. This was just not what they saw as being God’s next move. He had surprised them all by this event.

13. And he 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,

Peter now repeats for them in his own words the story that Cornelius told him. He relates how the angel appeared to Cornelius, and told him to send for Peter.

14. who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.’

Peter summarizes what the angel said rather than repeating it word-for-word. The angel had Cornelius send for Peter so that he could speak the word to Cornelius by which he and all his household would be saved. If we wish to see what that word was, all we need to do is go back to chapter 10 and read Peter’s words in verses 36-43.

15. And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning.

Peter relates that as he began to speak, before he had even finished what he had to say, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. He had done this just as he had upon them at the beginning. Notice that the Holy Spirit had not continued to fall upon them since that time. Once they were baptized with the Holy Spirit, His power remained with them, and there was no need for any further fallings.

Notice also that the Spirit fell upon them “as upon us at the beginning.” Some try to teach that the speaking in tongues of Acts 2 was languages recognized by the hearers, but that what happened here was the unrecognizable babble of modern so-called tongues-speakers. Yet Peter’s testimony here makes such a suggestion impossible. The Spirit fell upon them just as he had upon the men at Pentecost. There was no difference. This was not some new kind of tongues, but the same kind as at the beginning.

The phrase “Holy Spirit” here is to pneuma to hagion in Greek, or “the Spirit the Holy.” With the articles “the” in place, we know this means the Person of the Spirit, not His power. He was behind this, and purposefully poured out His power upon these men. Thus, God Himself testified to the legitimacy of what happened to them.

The “at the beginning” is en arche here in Greek, or “in (the) beginning.” It clearly refers to Pentecost. This can help give us some guidance as to what the meaning of “the beginning” is elsewhere in the New Testament. This could be particularly valuable in books like I John, where “the beginning” is mentioned quite often.

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.’

Now this caused Peter to remember a word of the Lord. This does not mean that Peter had forgotten that the Lord had said this. Rather, Peter means that this brought this saying of the Lord’s freshly to his mind, as it clearly applied to this situation.

What Peter remembered was that the Lord had promised that as John had baptized with water, so they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Here this is pneumati hagio, or “spirit holy,” and without the article “the” present indicates the power of the Spirit, not His Person. The Lord had promised the disciples that they would be identified with holy power, as they had been at Pentecost. Now these Gentiles, too, had received that identification, as Peter could clearly see.

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?”

Peter came to this conclusion therefore, and he confidently declares it again before this group of apostles and elders that are questioning him. If God gave the same gift to these Gentiles as He gave to Peter and his fellows when they believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, how could Peter withstand God by refusing them fellowship? God had clearly acted, and it was not Peter’s job to question it at this point, but rather to obey. Thus Peter concludes his testimony, and considering who he was, and the six witnesses who could confirm all this for him, it was a powerful testimony indeed.

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.”

When the apostles hear this, they are no longer able to speak against it. What can they say when this whole thing was clearly from beginning to end brought about and motivated by God Himself? Yet thankfully we cannot charge them with being reluctant to go along with this. It may not have fit their understanding of God’s work to think that the Gentiles would not be granted repentance to life, but upon hearing that He has, they glorify Him. It was not through lack of care for the Gentiles that these men had acted, therefore, as many are wont to charge them as being. Rather, they did not believe that this was the current plan of God.

Therefore we see that eight years after Pentecost, the very first Gentiles are brought into the Acts period company of believers in the form of the household of this one man, Cornelius. Though many would like to imagine more Gentiles becoming believers before this, this whole story cries out to us against any such idea. Clearly, Cornelius and those with him were the very first Gentiles to receive the word regarding the Lord Jesus Christ, and to believe it. Moreover, they were the last for another six years, until the apostle Paul began his ministry. Many are reluctant to believe this latter truth as well, but we will see this is the case as we study through the following chapters. God had brought these Gentile believers into their company without explaining it to them or letting them know what His intention was in doing it. He would let it rest there until Paul started his ministry, when He would reveal further His purposes regarding the Gentiles and the part they would have to play in the great work He was doing in the book of Acts.

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