Acts 11 Continued
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.
Now we have completed the story of Peter in the household of Cornelius. Leaving him for a moment, we return to following the progress of the gospel that went out from Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen. Remember, the gospel at this point was carried by those who were scattered abroad after the persecution that arose over Stephen. Every one of these was a man who had been trained personally by the twelve during the great unity that existed at Jerusalem in the time period covered by Acts chapters 2-7. Now they have gone out representing the twelve and the gospel they preached into all parts of the land of Israel. We saw an example of one of them in chapter 8, when we read of the activities of the man Philip. This is the second great period in Acts, and how the gospel was carried during it. We might call this portion the great scattering.
Now the word has reached from Judea up through Samaria as we read in Acts 8 and up into and throughout the regions of Galilee in the north. Now, these faithful messengers, having covered the land of Israel, do not stop there. They know that there are Jews living in many of the nations surrounding Israel, and these Jews have not yet heard the word. Thus, these men leave the land and carry the word outside of it. Some of them enter Phoenicia, a country that bordered Israel (particularly Galilee) on the northwest, along the Mediterranean Sea. Some of them go to Cyprus. This was an island off the coast of Phoenicia. Some of them also went to Antioch, a city in Syria, which is the country north of Israel.
Yet though they went to these places outside the land of Israel, we read that they had a very strict policy. Though they were in these lands of the Gentiles, it was not to the Gentiles that they carried the word. Rather, it was to no one but the Jews only that they preached the word.
Now many have been loath to believe the truth set forth in this verse. They would like to imagine that these men who carried the word took it to all who were willing to listen, whether it be Jews or Gentiles. Yet this is not what the word says. Over and over we see that the word was authorized to Jews only. The events in the household of Cornelius were an odd exception, and Peter required a vision thrice given and the expressed command of the Spirit to go there. This single exception serves rather to prove the rule than otherwise. These men were not going to anticipate the Lord and try to milk these instructions for all they were worth. They did not take Peter’s commission to this one Gentile man and his household and decide that left them open to preach to any Gentile they wished. They did not understand why the Lord had told Peter to do this, and He did not as yet explain it to them. Therefore, until He speaks further and instructs them otherwise, they are going to continue from here to carry out the commission as He originally gave it to them. And that commission included only the children of Israel living in every place. As yet there was no gospel open to the Gentiles.
20. 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.
It should not surprise us at all to find men from Cyprus and Cyrene being among those who carried the gospel out from Jerusalem after the persecution that arose about Stephen. While Cyprus is not mentioned specifically as a place from which those who heard the word on the day of Pentecost had come, we know that at least Barnabas was a believer in Jerusalem during the great unity, as we read in Acts 4:36, “And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus.” Cyrene is mentioned as one of the places represented on Pentecost in Acts 2:10, “the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene.” That some of the Jews who took part in the great unity and who were scattered during the persecution that arose after it would have been from these two places is not only possible, but likely.
Now, these arrive at Antioch. According to the Companion Bible, this was actually the capital of Syria at this time, located about sixteen miles from the sea. In this important city, these men start to herald not only to the Jews, but also to the Hellenists.
Who were these Hellenists? Remember, this is the second time we have come upon them in Acts, the first time being in chapter 6 when they believed their widows were being neglected. There we said that a Hellenist was a “Hellenized” Jew. Hellen was the legendary founder of Greece, and we might English this word as meaning “Greekized.” I believe the “Greekized” men were those who had lost the knowledge of the language of their forefathers, and who could only communicate with their fellow Israelites in Greek. We saw this in Jerusalem, the “melting-pot” of Israel if there was one, when those who had moved back to the land from foreign countries failed to learn the local language. Yet such a thing would be rare in the land of Israel as a whole. Out here beyond its borders, however, we might expect to find such a thing becoming more and more common the further from Israel we travel. Thus these messengers start to speak to these Greek-speaking Jews as well, spreading the gospel for the first time since they started their mission in a language other than Aramaic, that of the land of Israel.
Now some Greek manuscripts have this not as “Hellenists,” but as “Hellenes,” or just plain “Greeks.” Then, many will make “Greeks” to mean “Gentiles,” and will express the idea that this means that these men started to reach Gentiles at this time. And yet this would make verse 20 to contradict and absolutely negate verse 19. Why would the Divine Author tell us that they preached to no one but the Jews only, except when they didn’t? This makes no sense, and erases the truth of the passage. These men did not preach to Jews only except when they preached to Gentiles. No, they only preached to Jews. Now, though, in Antioch, they have to preach to Jews who do not speak the native Israelite language of Aramaic. This they do, and so the gospel spreads to them. Yet it did not spread to Gentiles. This is clear from Acts 15, where the only precedent that the apostles offer for Paul preaching to the Gentiles is the preaching of Peter to Cornelius in Acts 10. If a multitude of Gentiles had been reached in Antioch and elsewhere since, why would they not have gone back to this precedent, and not just to Peter with Cornelius? No, these men were Greek-speaking Jews, and not Gentiles at all.
Now I will admit that the manuscript evidence is varied. I cannot totally discount that this could be Hellenes rather than Hellenists here. I think it is probably Hellenists, yet even if it is Hellenes, I do not believe that this means Gentiles here. Yet the study of the word “Hellenes” or “Greeks” is a long one, and worthy of much time and care. I will examine this word in detail in an upcoming study when we come upon the Greeks during the course of Paul’s ministry.
21. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
The Lord was approving of the work of these heralds, and so He worked with them, even as we have it in Mark 16:20, “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen.” So the Lord did here, working with these men and giving them power to work signs and the Spirit to change men’s hearts. So it was that the result of this work was that a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
The fact that these men “turned to the Lord” when they believed does not prove that they were godless men living like Greeks before this point, for the exact same words are used of those in the town of Lydda and Saron in Israel in Acts 9:35. “So all who dwelt at Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.” Thus these men turn to Him when they believe in the same way.
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.
Word of this reaches the ears of the ekklesia in Jerusalem. This was not some organization that existed there, but rather these were the out-positioned men there, particularly the twelve. These men had a position out of Jesus Christ that gave them the authority and responsibility to lead other men who were entering into God’s kingdom. Now, they hear of the success of the word in Antioch. It is their responsibility to aid those who have now come to faith. Thus, they send one of their number out to them. This time, it is not one or two of the twelve they send, however, as when they sent Peter and John to Samaria. This time, they send their beloved brother Barnabas, whom we have already read about in such a positive light in Acts 4 and Acts 9. This was the man Joses who received the surname of Barnabas, the “son of consolation,” from the apostles. This was the man who believed Saul’s story when all others rejected him in Jerusalem. Now, he is to go and do his work of acting as an encourager to the people of Antioch.
There are a couple of interesting Greek words in this verse. The word “news” is actually logos, the “word” or “expression,” the same term that is used to describe our Lord Jesus Christ in John 1. They heard the expression of what took place in Antioch when it came to their ears back in Jerusalem. The word “sent” is actually exapostello, which is the word apostello or “to send with authority,” along with the prefix ex which means “out.” Thus, they actually “apostled out” Barnabas from their number to go on this mission. He then became the apostle of the twelve, who were themselves the Lord’s apostles. Since the twelve acted by God’s authority, there can be no doubt but that Barnabas was the Lord’s apostle as well. Therefore once again we see that this whole book is about the actions of the apostled men. Those who imagine that only the twelve and Paul were apostles are just simply mistaken.
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.
Now when Barnabas came and saw the grace of God that He was holding out to these men in Antioch, it made him glad. Indeed, the grace of God held out to men should always make us glad, particularly when we see them responding positively to it, as these men did here. Thus, Barnabas lived up to his namesake and encouraged all these believers. His encouragement was that with purposeful hearts they should continue with the Lord. Indeed, this would be a good thing to encourage all new believers to do. New believers are often enthusiastic, but they need encouragement to continue with the Lord, for the pull of this world is strong, and can lead them back away from Him. Thus they need purposeful hearts to continue after Him even as they began. This is how Barnabas encouraged these believers, and we need to do the same even today.
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.
Now the Lord assures us of Barnabas’ character. He was a good man, the Lord testifies. Moreover, he was full of holy power and faith. The words “holy spirit” here are pneumatos hagiou here in Greek, or “spirit holy” without the article “the,” and thus indicate the power of the Spirit, not His Person. Notice that holy power and faith go together here. Barnabas was lacking in neither.
Now the result of Barnabas’ journey is not just the encouragement of those who already believe. It also has the result that a great many people more were added to the Lord. Literally, this means a crowd of people. Thus this surely was anything but a small movement in Antioch. A great many people there must have been believers, and so we would imagine that the vast majority of Jews, both those who spoke Aramaic and those who spoke only Greek, had become believers in the Lord Jesus Christ by this time. The word here was anything but rejected.
25. Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul.
In spite of the success of his work in Antioch, Barnabas is not satisfied, for he wishes to see his new friend Saul again and to bring him into this work. Thus, knowing that Saul has returned to his hometown of Tarsus, Barnabas departs from Antioch to Tarsus seeking him. This might well have been at the instigation of the Holy Spirit, for as we saw at his conversion God had a work in mind for Saul to do, and perhaps He thought now was the time for him to start doing it.
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.
Barnabas’ mission to Tarsus is successful, for he finds Saul there. Then he brings him back to Antioch. For a year, then, they assemble with the out-positioned men in that city and teach a great many people. Saul is one of these teachers, as he has learned a great deal in the years since his conversion on the Damascus road.
Now we read that the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. We are inclined to be impressed by this, yet we need to get a good understanding of what this word meant. First of all, we see that it was not a word that came from the believers themselves. Rather, it was what they were called by the Gentiles in Antioch. Antioch was outside the land of Israel, and the word “Christians” is a Greek word, which would have been a much more common language there than in the land.
The word “Christians” meant literally “little christs.” It appears to have been rather a mocking term than a complimentary one, as if these believers went around thinking they could save everyone as “little messiahs.” This term only occurs three times in the Bible, and twice it is in a mocking way, as here. The third time is in I Peter 4:16, where Peter speaks of men suffering under this label, and suggests that rather than being ashamed to be called this belittling term, they should glorify God that they are worthy to suffer under this title.
It was only in the next century after this that men started to wear this term as a badge of honor. There were other names that believers called themselves in Bible times, but not this. Generally, it was probably not thought very wise or humble to call yourself a “little christ.” Men call themselves this name with every other breath in our day, and yet few who do so seem to really be very interested in living like or obeying the One Whom this title would seem to connect them to. A thousand and one ideas are out there as to what makes a man a Christian, and yet in the minds of most it is by connecting yourself to that religion that calls itself “Christianity.” It might be better if we who believe the Word and the gospel would adopt a more accurate term to name ourselves. If one calls himself a Christian, it means little in our day, and the follow-up question seems to be, “What church?” If one calls himself a Believer, however, then the question is “What then do you believe?” And this is the right question, indeed, and the only really important one.
27. And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch.
Now some prophets come from Jerusalem to Antioch. We know that there were prophets throughout Old Testament times, yet as we read through the New Testament, and particularly those books written during the Acts period, we will find that there were a great many prophets that arose during that time. The Greek word is prophetes, and is never used of anything but a true prophet of the Lord. When a false prophet is meant, the word is pseudoprophetes.
These prophets were men who could speak the word of God directly regarding any given situation. This would have been very necessary at the time, for there would have arisen many unique situations that they would not have known how to respond to at this time. The portion of the Bible that we call the New Testament had not yet been written, and so men who could give them the word of God on a problem they were having would have been most valuable and necessary for them.
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.
One of these Jerusalem prophets named Agabus stands up with a word from God. We will read about him again in the book of Acts, for this is not the only time he received an important word from God like this. His name means “Locust,” and both times we see him his prophecies bring bad news. Yet he certainly was a believer, and a true prophet. Now he shows through the Spirit that there is going to be a great famine throughout all the inhabited earth. This famine did come, Luke testifies to us, in the days of Claudius Caesar.
The words “the Spirit” here are tou pneumatos, having the definite article “the” in front, and so indicate the Person of the Spirit. He was the One Who revealed this truth to Agabus that he could not have known on his own. The word “world” here is oikoumenen, which has to do with the inhabited earth, or the world where men dwell. This would have been a widespread famine, then, although this probably refers to the “known world” at that time, and need not necessarily have extended across the oceans to places they did not know of at the time.
29. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea.
It shows us what was in these men’s hearts when we see that, when they hear of this famine, their first concern is not for themselves, but for their poor brethren dwelling in Judea. They knew that Israel was occupied territory at this time, and that the economy there was very bad. Things were much better up in Syria where they lived. A famine would be hard on them, certainly, but not so hard as it would be on the poor inhabitants of Judea. Moreover, the believers there had pooled their wealth and had all things in common. Though this was a good thing, it meant that this might hit all of them quite hard when the whole land fell into famine.
Thus, these believers in Antioch are most concerned with their Judean brethren, and they determine that they must send relief to them in the form of financial help to get them through this difficult time of famine that was coming. Each of them gives what he can according to his ability. Those with little did not leave it up to those with much to do this, and think that their own lack should excuse them from giving. Rather, each gave as he was able, whether that gift was large or small. What a heart these men had! For when they heard of coming poverty, their thoughts did not turn selfishly to their own coming loss, but rather to those who would be harder hit by this than they would be. May we have the same kind of heart when hard conditions come upon our societies and our world.
The word for “send” here is pempsai, related to pempo, the word for a simple sending. This makes sense here, for they were sending the relief, though the ones they sent it with received their authority to take it.
30. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.
Having determined to do this, they carried it out and did so. Then, having taken the collection, they send it to Jerusalem. This was a most important task, for their gift would no doubt have come to a considerable sum once they all had given, and those who would carry it must be worthy of this trust. The wealth they carried could probably have set them up for life if they were to steal it for themselves. So they would have entrusted this money to their most respected men, and the ones they gave it to are Barnabas and Saul. Thus we see in what esteem these men were held in Antioch.
The word for “sent” here is aposteilantes, related to apostello. Thus, as we said in verse 29, the relief was simply sent, whereas the men bringing the relief were commissioned with authority to carry it.
Now they are to carry this money to the elders in Jerusalem. These elders are presbuterous, or representative men. Their task would be to distribute this money as it was needed. This was nothing new, but is just what we see was being done back in Acts 4:35. As we saw there, these elders were under the command of God, and so He would see to it that they would give out this money where it was needed. No one could cheat the Spirit of God, even if they had wanted to. Thus this generous gift was used to alleviate what would otherwise have been a grievous time for the believers in Judea. God was continuing to watch out for His people, this time through the generosity of their fellows. What a wonderful thing He was setting up in the Acts period! Yet how it pales in comparison to what the fullness of His kingdom will be in time to come. May that day come quickly!