News reached Jerusalem about developments in Caesarea. The apostles and other “brothers” (fellow believers) in Judea heard that non-Jews (literally, “the nations”) had accepted “the word of God.” This “word” or message related to Jesus Christ and is the good news that God wanted his Son’s disciples to make known. (11:1)
When Peter arrived in Jerusalem, certain circumcised believers confronted him with the objection that he had entered the house of uncircumcised men and eaten with them. (11:2, 3; see the Notes section.) He then began to relate the specifics. (11:4) His words basically repeat what had earlier been described as his experience. (10:9-21) He had been in Joppa and praying at the time. While in a trance, he saw, in vision, a “large sheet being lowered from heaven by its four corners,” and it reached him. (11:5; see the Notes section and also see http://bibleplaces.com/joppa.htm for pictures of and comments about Joppa.) On taking a closer look, he saw on this sheet-like object “quadrupeds of the earth and beasts and reptiles and birds of heaven.” (11:6)
Peter heard a voice that told him, “Rise, Peter, slaughter and eat.” (11:7) He, however, objected, “By no means, lord, because nothing common [‘profane’ or ‘defiled’] or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” As in verse 14 of chapter 10, “lord” appears to be a respectful manner of address, as Peter would not then have been able to identify the source of the voice. The animals seemingly were all unclean according to the terms of the Mosaic law, but they would have provided meat for non-Jews who were not under the dietary requirements of the law. For non-Jews, the meat from these creatures would have been “common” (koinós), but for Jews, it would have been ceremonially unclean or defiled and, therefore, prohibited as food. (11:8)
For a second time, the voice from heaven responded with the words, “The things God has cleansed, you should not call common [‘profane’ or ‘defiled’].” (11:9) This occurred a third time, “and everything was drawn up again into heaven.” (11:10) At this time, three men who had been sent from Caesarea stood at the house where Peter was staying. (11:11; see http://bibleplaces.com/caesarea.htm for pictures of and comments about Caesarea.) Through the operation of God’s spirit, he then received the message that he should go with these men, without “discriminating” or giving way to doubt. At this point, Peter is quoted as adding a detail that had not been previously mentioned. Six “brothers” (fellow Jewish believers) accompanied him from Joppa, and all of them “entered into the house of the man” (Cornelius). (11:12)
Peter then related the words of Cornelius about having been instructed by an angel to send men to Joppa and to have Simon (surnamed Peter) summoned to have him explain what he and his whole household needed to know to get “saved.” Being “saved” signified having one’s sins forgiven and thus being delivered from the condemnation to which sin leads. As forgiven persons, individuals become part of the family of God’s approved children, with a relationship with him and his Son that continues for all eternity. (11:13, 14)
Peter’s quoted words that the holy spirit fell upon those gathered to hear his words when he “began to speak” may mean that this occurred when he had just begun to share the message about Jesus Christ. It could suggest that there was much more that he had in mind telling them. All those assembled received the holy spirit just as had the apostles and fellow Jewish disciples “at the beginning,” which would have been on the day of Pentecost following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven. (11:15)
Upon witnessing the outpouring of God’s spirit on non-Jewish believers, Peter recalled the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, “John indeed baptized with water, but you will be baptized with holy spirit.” (11:16) “If, then, God gave the same gift to them as to us [Jews] who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to have been able to hinder God?” It was the Jewish apostles and other fellow Jewish disciples who had received God’s spirit as persons who had put faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah or Christ and the Son of God. The outpouring of God’s spirit on non-Jews established that they were acceptable to him on the same basis of faith and did not first need to become Jewish proselytes and live according the commands involving ritual purity. (11:17; see the Notes section.)
On hearing Peter’s explanation, those who had confronted him became silent, not raising any objection. They recognized God’s will in the matter and “glorified” or praised him, acknowledging, “Then also to the nations [non-Jews] God has granted [the opportunity of] repentance for life.” By repenting of their sins and putting faith in Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death for them, they would cease to be under the condemnation that results in death. Accordingly, their repentance would be a repentance that would lead to life. (11:18)
Before this outpouring of holy spirit on non-Jewish believers, the disciples who had been scattered subsequent to the persecution that arose after Stephen was stoned to death focused their attention on fellow Jews and proselytes. Scattered disciples headed as far north as Phoenicia, sailed to the island of Cyprus, and traveled to Antioch in Syria. Although there were many non-Jews living in the areas where they went, the disciples proclaimed the “word” or message about Christ exclusively to fellow Jews and proselytes. (11:19; see http://bibleplaces.com/antiochorontes.htm for pictures of and comments about Antioch.)
There were, however, “some men, Cyprians and Cyrenians,” who, after arriving in Syrian Antioch, began speaking also “to the Hellenists,” making known to them the good news about the Lord Jesus. These “Hellenists,” as the subsequent context reveals, were non-Jewish Greek-speaking people. The account does not reveal why these believers who were originally from the island of Cyprus and from Cyrene on the northern coast of Africa decided to share the message about Christ with non-Jews. It cannot be established whether they did so on their own initiative or whether they were moved to do so after hearing about what had happened in the case of Cornelius, his household, relatives, and close friends. (11:20)
Their efforts in reaching out to non-Jews in Antioch were blessed. “The hand of the Lord was with them.” This could refer to their having had either God’s aid or that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since the Father and the Son are united in purpose, to whom the designation “Lord” here specifically applies is really immaterial. The mention of the Lord Jesus in the previous verse may provide a basis for identifying him as the intended Lord. On the other hand, verse 23 mentions that the “favor of God” was evident to Barnabas, and so the measure of ambiguity about the designation Lord cannot be definitively resolved. Divine backing, aid, and blessing became manifest by the increase in the number of believers. The message that the disciples proclaimed focused on the Lord Jesus Christ, and so the mention of individuals as “turning to the Lord” could signify turning to him by accepting him as Lord. Because non-Jews were involved, however, the reference could also be to their turning to God, becoming his devoted worshipers as persons who believed in his Son. (11:21; 26:20)
“Word” or news about developments in Antioch reached the “ears” of the congregation in Jerusalem, and this community of believers then sent Barnabas to Antioch. The nature of his commission, however, is not disclosed in the account, but the context does reveal that he proved to be a source of spiritual benefit to the believers in the city. (11:22)
Upon his arrival in Antioch, Barnabas “saw the favor of God.” Divine favor would have been evident from the good effect the faith of Jews and non-Jews had on the way they lived their lives and the blessings they enjoyed as fellow children of God. What he witnessed among the believers in Antioch filled him with joy and “he encouraged all [to have as their] purpose of heart to remain in the Lord.” His objective was to help them to become strong in faith, being resolved in their “heart” or inmost selves to remain steadfast as loyal disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ who are “in” or at one with him. (11:23; see the Notes section.)
Barnabas is described as being a “good man and full of holy spirit and faith.” On account of his praiseworthy attributes, he made a valuable contribution to the community of believers in Antioch. As a “good man,” he was exemplary in his compassion and deep concern for the needs of others. His life would have demonstrated that he was guided by God’s spirit in disposition, word, and action. The purity of his conduct and the zeal with which he made known the message about Jesus Christ must have revealed to observers that he was filled or thoroughly imbued with the holy spirit. For Barnabas to have been full of faith suggests that his faith in God and the Lord Jesus Christ was strong and steadfast. He did not waver in his trust in them and their aid and guidance. It appears that the efforts of Barnabas, backed by his laudable example, bore fruit. A sizable crowd “was added to the Lord,” indicating that many became disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. (11:24)
Barnabas apparently came to see that he needed help to serve the community of believers as it continued to grow in numbers. Therefore, he left for Tarsus to search for Saul, whom he had earlier introduced to the “apostles” and who had been forced to leave Jerusalem and to return to his home city Tarsus on account of a serious threat to his life from hostile unbelieving Jews. (10:25; 9:27-30; see the Notes section.) After succeeding in finding Saul, Barnabas invited him to go with him to Antioch. For a “whole year” the two men assembled with the congregation there, and during this time they taught a sizable crowd. It was in Antioch that, for the first time, the disciples came to be called (chrematízo) Christians. The account does not reveal who was responsible for originating the name that came to distinguish believers in Jesus Christ from Jews. (11:26; see the Notes section and also see http://bibleplaces.com/tarsus.htm for pictures of and comments about Tarsus.)
During the time Barnabas and Saul continued to serve there, prophets “came down” from the elevated location of Jerusalem to Antioch. One of these prophets, Agabus, through the operation of God’s spirit upon him, foretold that a great famine “was about to come upon the whole inhabited land [oikouméne].” The Greek word oikouméne has been defined as meaning “inhabited earth” or “world” and, in certain contexts, can denote the Roman Empire or a much smaller inhabited territory. This famine did take place during the reign of Claudius, the Roman emperor who ruled from 41 CE to 54 CE. Ancient historians (Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, and Josephus) mention famine in the time of Claudius, but it is not possible to definitively link their statements to the reference in the book of Acts. (11:28; see the Notes section for details regarding the foretold famine.)
Based on the prophetic word, the disciples in Antioch decided to help their fellow believers in Judea who would be affected by the famine. They contributed funds to the extent of their personal ability and entrusted Barnabas and Saul with the contribution to be delivered to the elders in Jerusalem. (11:29, 30; 12:25)
According to the expanded text of verse 2 in Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis), Peter wanted to go to Jerusalem for a considerable time. After calling the brothers to come to him and strengthening them, he left. On his way to Jerusalem, he spoke and taught. Then, when he went to meet the brothers in Jerusalem, he reported to them the “favor of God, but the brothers of the circumcision disputed with him.”
The repetition (starting in verse 5) of the experiences that involved Peter and Cornelius is purposeful. Their respective visions were complementary, including specifics that could only have had their source in divine revelation. The six brothers who had accompanied Peter heard Cornelius relate the content of his vision, and they witnessed the speaking in tongues that followed when God’s spirit descended upon Cornelius and the other non-Jews who had assembled in his home to listen to Peter. The repetition of what was seen and heard reveals unmistakably that eyewitnesses could testify to the fact that everything took place at God’s direction and that he, by imparting his spirit to believing non-Jews, had accepted them as his people.
In verse 17, Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis), in connection with “gift,” omits the words ho theós (“the God”). This codex, however, expands the text about hindering God to refer to hindering him from giving holy spirit to those who “had believed in him,” that is, believed in Jesus Christ.
Fourth-century Codex Vaticanus and a number of other manuscripts (in verse 23) include the preposition “in” (en [“in the Lord”]), but this word is missing in many other manuscripts.
According to the reading of verses 25 and 26 in Codex Bezae, Barnabas “heard that Saul was in Tarsus” and “entreated him to come to Antioch.”
In verse 26, the form of the Greek verb chrematízo can relate to something of divine origin. In itself, however, the word has a more general sense and can signify “give instruction,” “command,” “reveal,” “treat,” “commission,” or “be called.” Therefore, no definite conclusion can be drawn from the verb about who initiated the use of the designation “Christian.” It could have been Paul and Barnabas, the community of believers in Antioch, or even the people of the city because believers talked about Jesus Christ.
The following are quotations from ancient histories regarding the famine in the time of Claudius (verse 28):
“When there was a scarcity of grain because of long-continued droughts, he was once stopped in the middle of the forum by a mob and so pelted with abuse and at the same time with pieces of bread, that he was barely able to make his escape to the palace by a back door; and after this experience he resorted to every possible means to bring grain to Rome, even in the winter season.” (Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 18:2)
“Scanty crops too, and consequent famine were regarded as a token of calamity. Nor were there merely whispered complaints; while Claudius was administering justice, the populace crowded round him with a boisterous clamor and drove him to a corner of the forum, where they violently pressed on him till he broke through the furious mob with a body of soldiers. It was ascertained that Rome had provisions for no more than fifteen days, and it was through the signal bounty of heaven and the mildness of the winter that its desperate plight was relieved. And yet in past days Italy used to send supplies for the legions into distant provinces, and even now it is not a barren soil which causes distress. But we prefer to cultivate Africa and Egypt, and trust the life of the Roman people to ships and all their risks.” (Tacitus, Annals, 12:43)
“On the occasion of a severe famine he considered the problem of providing an abundant food supply, not only for that particular crisis but for all future time. For practically all the grain used by the Romans was imported, and yet the region near the mouth of the Tiber had no safe landing places or suitable harbors, so that their mastery of the sea was rendered useless to them. Except for the cargoes brought in during the summer season and stored in warehouses, they had no supplies for the winter; for if anyone ever risked a voyage at that season, he was sure to meet with disaster. In view of this situation, Claudius undertook to construct a harbor, and would not be deterred even when the architects, upon his inquiring how great the cost would be, answered, ‘You don’t want to do it!’ so confident were they that the huge expenditures necessary would shake him from his purpose, if he should learn the cost beforehand. He, however, conceived an undertaking worthy of the dignity and greatness of Rome, and he brought it to accomplishment.” (Dio Cassius, History, 60:11)
The Jewish historian Josephus mentioned a severe famine in Judea at the time Queen Helena of Adiabene came to Jerusalem to worship at the temple. This famine was so severe that many died. When Helena witnessed the plight of the people, she sent some of her servants to Alexandria, Egypt, to purchase grain. Other servants she sent to Cyprus to obtain dried figs. When the cargo arrived, she arranged to have the food distributed to those in need. (Antiquities, XX, ii, 5)
Josephus again referred to this famine, saying that it took place when Fadus and Tiberius Alexander were procurators in Judea. (Antiquities, XX, v, 2) Fadus became procurator in 44 CE after the death of Herod Agrippa I, and Tiberius Alexander succeeded Fadus in 46 CE. This may mean that famine conditions existed in the time of Fadus and then also when Tiberius Alexander was the procurator of Judea. The Acts account relates that Barnabas and Saul brought contributed funds to help believers in Judea, and their return to Antioch from Jerusalem is mentioned after the death of Herod Agrippa I. (11:30; 12:20-25) This would fit the general period of the famine that Josephus mentioned.
The references in the extant writings of Josephus, however, are not without dating problems. Antiquities, Book III, chapter xv, paragraph 3, mentions a great famine that began a little before the war with the Romans at the time “Claudius was emperor” and “Ismael [Ishmael] was our high priest.” Ishmael, though, functioned as high priest in the time of Nero, which would have been not long before the start of the war.