THE GOSPEL TO THE GENTILES
(K.V.: 11:20, 21)
“Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
In 1920, on August 18, a right known as women’s suffrage was ratified to the US constitution and for the first time American women finally had the right to vote after a hundred-year-long protest. Likewise, last week, we saw how God gave a right to the Gentiles to receive the gospel, amending the Heavenly constitution (so to speak). To do so, God first opened Peter’s heart and that led to the chain events: opening the doors of the Gentiles’ heart. That was remarkable and revolutionary. Today, we have the continuation of the story with Peter and Paul in the same chapter (it’s a very rare occasion that two pillars of the church appear at the same chapter). Peter’s explanation on his actions to his fellow believers and the establishment of the Antioch Church seem to be two different stories. However, they are closely connected together, because both of them deal with the same great topic: the gospel to the Gentiles. May God enlighten our hearts to learn His vision for us and for others so that we may be used in his Kingdom work.
1. Peter’s Explanation on His Actions (11:1-18)
Chapter eleven starts with the unexpected tension among the believers because of Peter’s actions for Cornelius’ household. The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. How could such a news spread so quickly among the believers (throughout Judea) in those days (without SNS such as Facebook or Twitter accounts)? Perhaps, it was a very shocking news to the Christian community. It’s like a “Breaking News” with a sensational title (Peter visited and ate with the Gentiles!!) or a special edition of a newspaper to the neighboring regions (“Extra!”). Some of the believers (the circumcised) were very upset that they highly criticized Peter for accepting the Gentiles, saying, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
Why couldn’t they be happy about the gospel being given to the Gentiles? After all, the gospel was not theirs but Jesus’. The things is that they didn’t bother about the first part, the gospel to the Gentiles. They were not even surprised at it. Their only concern was the second part, associating and eating with the Gentiles. We can hardly understand what the believers did but it surely has something to do with a human nature. We cannot deny that everyone comes from a different background (We are all a little different in many different ways🎵). Then, there comes the sinful nature. If someone thinks his/her cultural and religious background is better than somebody else’s, he/she may be vulnerable to pride, prejudice and narrow-mindedness. That’s what happened to the believers.
The Jews were proud of being Abraham’s descendants and Moses’ disciples. Circumcision was given to Abraham and his descendants (namely the Jews) to make them separated from other ungodly people. The dietary laws and various traditions were given to God’s people so that they might be clean, pure and trained before God. That was the way of life of the Jews from early age on.
The first believers of the gospel were all Jews. They were saved through the gospel, but their strong Judaistic background still remained. And it became a hindrance for them to accept the universal nature of the gospel and thus to accept the Gentiles. Overcoming such a prejudice was very difficult for them. That is why the Lord Jesus had to help Peter first overcome his Judaistic mindset using the vision and sent him to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. The Lord Jesus could use an angel to deliver the gospel message to Cornelius and save him. However, it was not what He wanted. In reaching to the Gentiles, our Lord Jesus also wanted the Jews to open their hearts and accept the Gentiles as their own people as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. That was the greater plan of our Lord Jesus: that the Jews and the Gentiles would become one in the gospel! Once, one of 2016 presidential candidates, Dr. Ben Carson said like this. “Because God never creates inferior human beings, each person deserves respect and dignity.” And another quote, “Every single time you lift off the bone and open the durra, and there it is, the human brain, the thing that gives a person a personality, that distinguishes each one of us.”
In verses 4-18, Peter explained to his fellow believers (including the criticizers) why he did what he did. From the very beginning of it, he told them the whole story. Look at verses 5 and 6. “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles and birds.”
This description sounds like one’s watching an IMAX 3D movie. It must be very vivid and impressive so you would never forget! Peter then heard a voice tell him to kill and eat those animals in the sheet. Peter refused to do so, because he never violated the dietary laws by eating unclean animals. He was (sort of) prideful and self-righteous in his refusal. But it was not about eating unclean animals. Just like Dr. Jason pointed out last week, it was about the implication of God’s great plan for reaching to the Gentiles and His people to accept the Gentiles. The voice concluded the conversation by saying, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’
At that moment, Cornelius’ delegates just arrived at where Peter was staying and Peter was told to go with those delegates. Meanwhile, God had also prepared the Gentiles in Caesarea for receiving the gospel. Earlier, He sent an angel to Cornelius to call Peter from Joppa for a life-altering message. Cornelius then gathered his entire household, his relatives and some of his close friends to listen to Peter’s message. As Peter arrived at Caesarea and began to speak, the Holy Spirit came down on them just as he had come on the apostles and others at the beginning. Remember? The Holy Spirit came on the apostles and others like tongues of fire on the Pentecost and they all began to speak in different tongues. With that event, Peter remembered what Jesus said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Peter’s good point was that he always remembered Jesus’ words even at his denial of knowing Him. Based on Jesus’ words and the coming of the Holy Spirit on them, Peter couldn’t but come to the conclusion that the Gentiles should have the same right as the Jewish believers regarding the gospel.
Look at verse 18. When the believers heard about all the details about what happened, they also came to the conclusion that the gospel was given to the Gentiles. Before they criticized Peter. Now they praised God. Note what they said about the gospel in their praising God. That is, “repentance that leads to life.” That is the key part of the gospel. Without repentance, one cannot truly say he has accepted the good news of Jesus.
Charles Grandison Finney (1792-1875) was a pastor and leader in the Second Great Awakening in the U.S. He has been called The Father of Revivalism. Before he became a pastor, he was a promising lawyer. He could lead an affluent life with his law firm. However, after a dramatic conversion experience with the baptism into the Holy Spirit, he quit his legal practice and started his preaching life. The prime of his ministry was at Rochester, NY. There, many times, he challenged the audience and as a result, many drunkards, lazy people and lovers of money were changed into sincere believers. I heard that many bars and liquor stores were closed due to the revivals. In addition, Finney was heavily involved in antislavery work and equal rights movement to women and other ethnicity. He truly believed in “repentance that leads to life.”
What can we learn from this first part? We learn that the gospel is not limited to the certain groups of people but for all people. Also the gospel is meant to break the barriers and unite the Jews and the Gentiles. This event probably affected the next part of this chapter.
2. The Antioch Church (11:19-30)
Ironically, the beginning of the first Gentile church was due to the unfortunate and adverse event for the church at Jerusalem. Look at verse 19. The great persecution on which Stephen was killed scattered many believers to everywhere. They traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. These were prominent cities or regions other than Jewish territory (Imagine you flee from Chicago persecution and go to New York, Boston and Philadelphia). Somehow, those scattered did not forget about the gospel. They could not forget the grace that they received through the gospel. So, wherever they went, they spread the word of God but only among Jews.
Then, what happened at Antioch? Let us read verses 20, 21. “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
Antioch was a very prominent commercial city under the Roman Empire rule (lots of trade routes, from the sea and through the land). The Roman emperors so favored it that they tried to make Antioch as the capital of the Eastern part of Rome. In the first century, Antioch was the world’s third largest city only after Rome and Alexandria. It was also very famous for chariot racing, which was called “the Circus of Antioch” (like Indy 500). Think about it. A commercial city and a sports city. In that environment, it looked very difficult for anyone to preach the gospel. Also Greeks were regarded as very intelligent. However, some Jewish believers, regardless of the city environment or the cultural superiority of Greeks, began to share the gospel with Greeks in Antioch. The believers believed that Greeks needed the gospel, too. Then, what happened? The Lord’s hand was with them and many peopled believed and turned to the Lord. Maybe, there was a great healing ministry by the hand of the Lord. People in the city environment can get easily hurt (mentally and emotionally), lonely and exhausted.
What else happened? News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch to help the new converts there. Because of Peter’s reaching out to Cornelius’ household has been acknowledged, they no longer objected to the work of God among the Gentiles. Instead, they were more than willing to help the Gentile believers. Barnabas was a man of encouragement (His original name is Joseph and he is a Levite from Cyprus). He was a very good fit to the task because of his temperament and his background. When he arrived, he saw the abundance of the grace of God in the Antioch church. Then, he encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. A great number of people were brought to the Lord.
Seeing that he needed more help for the Antioch church, Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul. Why might Saul be the best Bible teacher for the new believers in Antioch?
It is because of God’s grace given to him and God’s call for him as an instrument to the Gentiles. Saul was once thoroughly persecuting the church at Jerusalem. The brothers were initially afraid of taking Saul after his convert. Barnabas was the one who brought Saul to the church at Jerusalem. But at the Antioch church, there would be no preconception about Saul. He would have a fresh new start as a worker of the gospel. Also, Barnabas knew that Saul was well trained under Gamaliel, the best Bible teacher in those days.
So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. Why Christians? Christians means those who are totally devoted to Christ. Maybe it was a good name for the new identity. There would be no preference or affiliation but Christ. At the same time, it might be an insult and a joking name from the outsiders. From early morning till evening, the new believers only talked about the Christ. So from the outsiders’ point of view, they were crazy people. Their name Christians might be like modern-day Jesus-freaks. But I assume the Christians at Antioch must have been very proud of their being called as Christians, even though it was an insult.
In my junior year at college, I got a conscription letter from the Department of Defense in South Korea. So, I had to do my military service in Army stopping everything. I was already an active Christian in UBF ministry. From the boot camp and to the station that I was positioned in, I became known as a weirdo or a crazy missionary candidate. It was because I stood out as a believer and always tried to teach the Bible to whomever possible. I did not mind even challenging high-ranking officers or sergeants. One time, I almost resented one unbelieving sergeant by saying that those who do not have spiritual desires are like beasts in the forest. I was trying to help him to have some spiritual desire but it backfired and he was raving mad at me. Somehow, one smooth-talking cultural Christian corporal intervened and I could be out of trouble. I was known as such a determined missionary candidate that even the Lieutenant Colonel in our battalion told the whole members of soldiers to be firm like me in terms of the future direction. (Hey you soldiers! Private Paul Kim has a clear direction for his future as a missionary. What about you?) I am not as fervent as at that time, but I pray to be a genuine Christian wherever I am.
In verses 27-30, we see the prophet Agabus predicting that there would a widespread famine in the entire Empire. It was like Joseph’s dream predicting seven years of severe famine. It might especially affect the church in Jerusalem due to the poverty. Then, the Antioch church decided to do something unthinkable. Even though they were spiritually young, they decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. It shows the effect of their spiritual blessing. They owed the Jerusalem church in a spiritual sense. They wanted to pay them back by the physical blessing. In doing so, both the Jerusalem church and the Antioch church would be mutually encouraged.
In a nutshell, the gospel being preached to the Gentiles was a historic event. In fact, without it, we all will be in a different situation than where we are now. Without Peter’s detailed explanation, the fellow believers couldn’t overcome their prejudice and ratify the gospel to the Gentiles. Without some bold believers’ daring efforts to serve Greeks, the first Gentile church would not be possible. Of course, Barnabas and Saul helped greatly. May God bless our gospel spirit as well so that we may be used in His kingdom work!