Bible ancient-futurenetThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 11:1-18

Peter Reports to the Church

11 Now the apostles and the brothers[a] who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party[b] criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ 10 This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. 11 And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. 12 And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

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Last week’s post concluded the visit of Peter to Cornelius’s house where the centurion and those present received the Holy Spirit then baptism.

I also wrote about Cornelius’s life afterwards. He was the first Italian saint, by the way. God gave him that vision so that he could accomplish great things in Christ’s holy name.

John MacArthur says that the events in Acts 11 — particularly the second half of the chapter, describing the establishment of the Church in Antioch — occurred seven years after the first Pentecost. He says that the Apostles did a lot of preaching and teaching to establish Church doctrine (emphases mine below):

Number one, apostolic authority had to be established. Now when God spoke to the early church through whom did He speak? The apostles, right? They were the teachers. They were the ones who were the spokesmen for God. And they were the ones who laid out the doctrine. It says that in 2:42, that they spent their time in the study of the apostles’ doctrine. God spoke to them and they spoke. They had no Bibles. They had no New Testaments. They hadn’t been written yet.

So when the early church came together what was their standard? I mean how did they know whether this is right, and this is wrong? How did they know how to do this, how to do that, what are God’s standards, what are these things unless they had to listen to the apostles through whom God spoke. And so there needed to be time for the apostles to lay down a solid doctrinal base. Can you imagine if they all got saved and then just shot out all over the world without any foundation? They would run into problems they wouldn’t be able to answer because they wouldn’t know what their own theology was. They wouldn’t have a Bible.

Yet, atheists believe that the first converts just bolted out with no rhyme or reason. I’ve heard it before, many times.

There is more:

What happened was for seven years the apostles laid that doctrinal foundation. They spoke, they taught, and these things were compiled and collected in the minds and hearts of men and the framework of doctrine was based as a foundation. And once that foundation was firm then somebody could start the building of the Gentile church on it. But they had to be able to run into a problem and turn around and say, “Hey, there’s an answer because the apostles have thus said.” You see. In other words doctrinal purity, friends, is at the very basis of a church. If it goes the whole building crumbles, right?

So we teach doctrine. That’s everything at the base and so there had to be doctrine and there wasn’t any Bible for everybody to read so they had to hang in and learn from the apostles. And then once it was in them in total they could move out and teach it to somebody else until such a time as the Scripture was completed. There were absolutes that had to be learned and they had to come to the apostles from God and the process was slow and it took time.

The second reason I believe there was a delay of many years before they moved out was because the right instruments had to be prepared. Nothing worse than sending out an unprepared person to do a job. It took time to mature these people

So the third thing you might add to that is that they needed time for prejudice to come down. And so for these reasons the Spirit of God delayed and at least seven years went by before they ever began to move toward Antioch, but believe me when the groundwork was done it was done right. And when that church moved out to build, they really built; they really built.

We wonder then, why St Luke, the author of Acts, did not make the timeline clearer. MacArthur explains:

… the average papari that they used, there was a paparus plant, a kind of a bulrush plant from which they made a long scroll, which they used to write on. This was before book form had come into vogue, and the longest ones that we could ever find; assuming that this would be about the maximum was 35 feet. Now that’s a good-sized scroll, 35-foot scroll. But on a 35-foot scroll you could probably crowd about the content of the book of Acts, 28 chapters to 30 chapters and that would be pushing it.

So Luke had a limited amount of space. He was going to put the whole thing on the scroll. He also had a tremendous amount of things to select from just from a human standpoint. There were many incidents in the church that had happened. There were many miracles. There were many signs and wonders done by the apostles and prophets. I imagine there were some fantastic conversion experiences. I just think about all the three thousand saved on the day of Pentecost. Just imagine what their testimonies could have been like. And all of the other thousands that were being saved all over the place, they could have been included.

As we know, they were not. However, St Luke did include the story of Peter and Cornelius — including their respective visions. We read three repetitions in Acts 10 and the first part of Acts 11:

There were so many fabulous things yet he spends all this space saying the same thing three times just filling a whole chunk of that scroll with this Cornelius account.

That means that Luke believed it was essential to the history of the early Church: the branching out and acceptance of Gentiles into membership.

This brings us to today’s reading.

Incredibly, news of what happened at Cornelius’s house in Caesarea travelled quickly back to the Apostles and other members of the church in Jerusalem (verse 1).

Upon Peter’s return to Jerusalem, he got an earful from the circumcision group who were deeply unhappy he associated and ate with Gentiles (verses 2, 3).

The circumcision party — group — believed that no one could become a Christian unless they became a Jew first. That included circumcision. As we saw from the past few weeks of Acts 10 study, there is no basis for that in Scripture. The Book of Hebrews discusses it in more detail.

MacArthur has more:

I just want you to pick up a few points. Keep in mind that as Peter comes back to report the word has already beaten him there and so they’ve already made up their preconceived ideas. That’s verse one. They’ve already heard and Peter’s going back into a storm. The ultra conservative Jews, particularly of the circumcision party, those former Pharisees who were now Christians who thought that Judaism was all in all and wanted everybody to become a Jew and get circumcised before he could become a Christian, they had already made up their mind that Peter made a wholesale sell out. Peter was probably on the outs because he’d even gone into Samaria and he’d preached all over Samaria and people got saved when the Holy Spirit came. So he was probably in trouble already and this was a wholesale washout on the part of Peter.

So when he came back they started a big argument. They really hassled him badly and they hassled him repeatedly. And you know orthodoxy can get mad. I remember when I was in Jerusalem they said don’t drive your cars in the orthodox section on the Sabbath unless you want it to get stoned. They get upset when someone violates the law, and I mean they got upset then too. And Peter had done exactly what their ceremonial law forbade and they were really upset that he would have anything to do with these Gentiles.

Verse 4 tells us about Peter’s mindset. He did not lord it over them, saying he was the rock on which the Church was built, as Jesus had told him. He approached them with the facts:

You know why? Because the issue explained itself. If the facts are on your side you don’t have to pull rank. Just recite the facts. He could have pulled spiritual rank. He could have said, “I was led of the Spirit,” you know which is a common statement for crackpots to make.

And, Peter went on to recite the facts ‘in order’ (verse 4). Verses 5-12 recount Peter’s vision and his obedience in journeying from Joppa to Caesarea with Cornelius’s men, which I discussed at length here and here.

Peter provided an interesting detail in verse 12, which we did not discover in Acts 10: six men from Joppa accompanied him. We knew there were men from Joppa who went with him, but we did not know the number.

MacArthur explains why there were six:

This is very important. Here’s a principle that you can grab a handle on and use: number one, he didn’t act alone. He took six people with him. Why? Because he didn’t want to be mistaken in what was going on. He wanted the testimony of six others to confirm his own. The Jews knew well Egyptian law and Egyptian law said that where there are seven witnesses the case is closed. And Roman law said that on any will or any testament there had to be seven seals, so seven became a kind of a number of sealing the authoritativeness of something. So Peter had six guys go along with him and that made seven and he was verifying in his own mind from the testimony of others that this thing in fact was true.

In verses 13 and 14, Peter related Cornelius’s vision as the centurion explained it to him, discussed in more detail here.

In verses 15 through 17, Peter explained to those in Jerusalem how the Holy Spirit descended on all present and that he saw no reason to deny baptism to Cornelius and the other Gentiles. I wrote about that last week.

So, Peter recounted the facts of the situation of how Gentiles were admitted into the young Church.

Peter’s legalistic critics fell silent (verse 18). Instead of arguing further, they glorified God and said:

Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.

We will see that, for now, that concluded the matter. However, the issue of Gentiles comes back in Acts 15.

The reason the Apostles needed to build a strong doctrinal foundation was, as MacArthur said, to open the Church to Gentiles and to prepare the Jews for that eventuality. MacArthur explains:

They couldn’t argue with the testimony of seven reputable witnesses. They couldn’t argue with the testimony of Jesus Christ. Peter built his foundation on the Word of Christ. And so they had nothing to say.

As for their statement about Gentiles, MacArthur tells us how significant that was:

That statement right there is one of the most shocking statements in Jewish history. That’s a statement for which Jonah, the failure for Jonah really in his whole life was the fact that he wasn’t willing to make that statement. And there weren’t very many Jews who were in the history of Judaism. What was the statement? Simply this: God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life. Shocking for a Jew to make that admission. Gentiles can get saved, guys. How can we argue? Look at what happened up there. Fantastic admission and people I want you to know that the importance of that statement is hardly able to be measured. You say why? Because until the Jews who were Christians made that statement they could never begin the work of evangelizing the Gentiles, you see. They had to come to that.

Matthew Henry points to this as a fulfilment of a prophecy of Zephaniah:

Now those who prided themselves in their dignities as Jews began to see that God was staining their pride, by letting in the Gentiles to share, and to share equally, with them. And now that prophecy was fulfilled, Thou shalt no more be haughty because of my holy mountain, Zephaniah 3:11. 2. They turned them into praises. They not only held their peace from quarrelling with Peter, but opened their mouths to glorify God for what he had done by and with Peter’s ministry; they were thankful that their mistake was rectified, and that God had shown more mercy to the poor Gentiles than they were inclined to show them, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life! He hath granted them not only the means of repentance, in opening a door of entrance for his ministers among them, but the grace of repentance, in having given them his Holy Spirit, who, wherever he comes to be a Comforter, first convinces, and gives a sight of sin and sorrow for it, and then a sight of Christ and joy in him.

I will cover the establishment of the church in Antioch separately. It is in the Lectionary, but it picks up where Acts 8 left off. It also brings back someone we have not read about since Acts 4: Barnabas.

Next time — Acts 12:1-5

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