Scripture: Acts 11:1-30
- When Peter gets back to Jerusalem he’s confronted by a group of believers who really, really value circumcision
- Peter’s told that because of this Cornelius business, he’s got some ‘splaining to do.
- Peter retells the story of his vision with the animals being lowered down from heaven and how he said, “No thanks,” but God said “It’s cool, they’re clean now” and how Peter ended up at a Gentile’s house and that before he could even finish his sermon the Holy Spirit descended on them (just like it did earlier, at Pentecost, remember?) and he recalled that Jesus had said stuff about baptizing people with the Holy Spirit and so Peter’s like, “I’m not getting in God’s way. Nu uh.”
- And circumcision crew was cool with what had happened… for now
- Meanwhile, some believers start preaching to Gentiles in Antioch
- The church in Jerusalem decided to send Barnabas to Antioch to see what the deelio was
- Barnabas assessed the sitch and found it to be cool.
- Barney then went and found his old pal Saul and brought him back to Antioch where they began preaching and saving folks.
- The people of Antioch labeled these new believers “Christians” (more on this below)
- A bit later, some prophets roll into town with some bad news: famine’s a comin’
- The believers in Antioch round up some supplies for their less fortunate friends to the south and send a care package via Barnabas and Saul
Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. It was estimated to have between 500,000 and 800,000 people (about the size of Long Beach or larger), including a Jewish colony of 70,000. It had two great colonnaded streets intersecting at the center and dividing Antioch into quadrants, each named after an emperor (Octavian, Tiberius, Trajan and Hadrian). It had temples, theaters, a colonnade, a circus, a bath aqueduct–“all the architectural features and embellishments of a Roman metropolis.” (Coffman)
Culturally, first-century Antioch was a melting pot of Greek, Roman, Semitic, Arabic and Persian influences (GCI), and it had a thriving economy because it sat at the crossroads of trade routes south to Palestine and Egypt, east to Persia and west to the Asia Minor peninsula. It was referred to as “Antioch the Great, Queen of the East.”
The city was not only known for its sophistication and culture but also for its vices. In the city was a temple dedicated to Apollo surrounded by a laurel grove dedicated to Daphne. Daphne was a female nymph associated with fountains, wells, springs, streams, etc, who fatefully attracted the attention of the god Apollo. Apollo chased her down, and just before being overtaken, Daphne pleaded to her father, a rivergod, for help. So he transformed Daphne into a laurel tree.
To commemorate this myth “Seleucus I had constructed the Groves of Daphne, wherein was the mighty temple of the Pythian Apollo. It was a center of vice, featuring the harlot-priestesses of Daphne and Apollo who on occasions engaged in public ceremonies ‘stripped of clothing.'” (Coffman) In these laurel groves, the temple priestesses would be pursued by “worshippers” without the good fortune of being turned into shrubbery.
“Fashion was the only law, pleasure the only pursuit, and the splendour of dress and furniture was the only distinction of the citizens of Antioch.” (Wikipedia)
They were first called Christians:
“Christians” was not a name that the early church gave to themselves. They referred to themselves as “The Way” or “disciples” or “saints” or “believers.” Interestingly enough, the term “disciples” occurs 72 times in Matthew, 44 times in Mark, 38 times in Luke, 77 times in John, and 30 times in Acts–261 times in the first five books of the New Testament; but it is not used even once in the last 22 books of the New Testament. (Coffman) The term “Christian” is used only three times in the Bible (Acts 11, 26 and 1Peter 4), and all of the occurrences have a negative connotation. It wasn’t until the second century that believers formally adopted the name “Christian.”
This was probably for several reasons. First, The term “Christian” was most likely a derogatory term made up by the residents of Antioch (who apparently liked to make up these types of nicknames). “‘Christians’, or Cristianos in Greek, was coined to distinguish the worshippers of Christ from the Kaisarnarios, the worshippers of Caesar.” (Wuest, pg 19). Though Cristianos literally means “made after the pattern of Christ” or “followers of Christ” or “the party of Christ,” which sounds good on the surface, it is the contrast it provides within that culture that is negative. If these people follow Christ then it means they don’t follow Caesar. If they don’t worship Caesar then they are against the empire. If they are against Caesar, they want to ruin the status quo and maybe even overthrow Rome.
Secondly, being given the new designation of “Christian” would’ve opened the door for formal persecution: “As long as it is seen as another variant of Judaism, the church is better able to obtain protection from Rome as a religio licita — a legal religion. Judaism has long enjoyed such protection, and it would be helpful for the church to continue to claim that umbrella for itself.” (GCI) But if it is a new religion, particularly one that looks to usurp Caesar’s authority, then according to Roman law it can (and should) be squashed.
It is notable that it is at this point in history that Christianity took on a new identity through the name “Christian.” The movement could no longer be considered a sect of Judaism once they had begun to let Gentiles into their fold. And so, the (non-believing) Gentiles living in Antioch invented a name to distinguish this unique group of people who are not followers of Caesar, nor Herod, nor Judaism. These people said they belonged to someone called “Christ”. (Note: the Jews would not call them Christians because of their own use of Cristo the Messiah. The Jews had already termed them Galileans or Nazarenes. (Bakers))
- Luke emphasizes that it was circumcised believers who had a problem with Peter, not the whole Jerusalem church (Longenecker). This was a select group of Jewish believers who were particularly zealous for the law.
- Peter taking six people with him was no accident. Ancient laws often required seven witnesses to prove a case true. The number seven was often associated with completeness or importance (eg. seven seals were used to indicate important Roman documents (Barclay))
- Note that Peter does not fully repeat his sermon to his accusers. “He rests his defense, not on what he said, but on what God did” (Furneaux).
- The complaint against Peter does not seem to have been that he had baptized a Gentile, but that he had baptized a Gentile without first requiring him to submit to circumcision and come under the law of Moses. (Coffman)
- The “circumcised believers” may have had a practical concern: Peter, a leading apostle, has disregarded the sacred and traditional laws of separation in order to associate with a Gentile. Thinking in terms of the Jewish paradigm of Israel as God’s holy nation, some emphasize that the church is a holy people. It is to be separate from the pollution of the world, including fraternizing with Gentiles. But now the church is tainted because one of its leaders violated ritual separation. If they fail in this regard, they might suffer the fate of the Hellenistic Jewish Christians who were persecuted and expelled. The Sanhedrin may persecute the remaining, and more conservative, Jewish converts in Jerusalem. (GCI)
- Fear of tainting the holiness of the church may have caused the Jerusalem mother church to acknowledge James as its leader, rather than any of the apostles. James was known to be a scrupulous practitioner of the Torah, for which he is called “James the Just,” or “James the Righteous.” He enjoyed a good reputation with the Jewish community, which would’ve helped diffuse any potential crisis with the Sanhedrin.
- Note how the believers preach about the “Lord Jesus” to the Greeks in Antioch (verse 20). To the Greeks Jesus is called the “Lord” and “Savior” (words commonly used to describe Caesar) vs. “Christ” or “Son of Man” (Jewish words to designate the Messiah) (Bruce)
- Prophets are important in the early church. Luke mentions them several times in Acts (13; 15; 21). Paul lists prophets as belonging to a God-ordained function in the church (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4). The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and he ranks the latter next after apostles (Ephesians 2). He also recognizes prophets as having an important charismatic function (1 Corinthians 14;Ephesians 3). (GCI)
- It seems that the Jerusalem church is living on the edge of destitution. Its more wealthy members may have been the Hellenists who fled the city. The early practice of selling personal property to contribute to the common fund may have reduced the economic strength of the church community. Thus, it is ill-prepared to cope with a famine that strains its resources to the breaking point. (GCI)
- “The new congregation in Antioch — composed of gentiles who a short time before were considered questionable subjects for the gospel — responds generously to the appeal for help in Judea.” (William Willimon)
- The debate over wether the Gentiles christians needed to be circumcised (and follow the Mosaic Law, in general) raged on for decades after this event. Why didn’t Peter’s vision and actions resolve it once and for all? Why do you think Paul never relays the story of Cornelius in his letters as justification for how he thought about Gentile converts? This issue split many churches in its day. Do we have a similar debate going on in our churches today? What is it and how can it be resolved?
- We don’t know the names of the people who first took Christianity to the Greeks in Antioch after Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, nor do we know the names of the people who opposed Peter when he got back in Jerusalem, but both anonymous groups represent two ends of the spectrum: the early adopters and the protective traditionalists. Which side would you find yourself on in a similar situation? What is the benefit to the church of you being on that side? What is the benefit of you being on the other side?
- A surprising amount of generosity is shown by the fledgling church in Antioch towards the “mother church” in Jerusalem. Are we still this generous? Do we still see churches across the world this connected and caring for each other? Why? Why not?
- Prophets were an important part of the early church. Why do you think we don’t talk about them much? What is it about 21st century, Americanized Christianity that finds the idea of prophets predicting the future unpalatable?
- Christians eventually came to be known by an name that was originally intended as an insult. What insulting term(s) would our society label Christians as today? Are any of those labels worth wearing?
- Robertson’s Word Pictures
- Barclay’s Commentary
- FF Bruce Commentary
- Grace Communion International
- Wikipedia: Daphne
- IVP Commentary