A First Generation Church (Acts 11:1-30)

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As we saw previously, with the conversion of Cornelius we also have the accompanying conversion of Peter. He turned away from an ethnocentric approach to the Great Commission and turned to a multi-ethnic approach. For the first time, he now understood the truth that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ really was for all peoples and that it was not necessary to become a Jew in order to become a Christian. He came to appreciate more fully that salvation is of the Jews (in the sense of through them) but not exclusively for them; that salvation is not by race but rather by grace. God was not partial to the Jews but rather He was seeking a people who would worship Him from every tribe, tongue, kindred and people group.

As Peter proclaimed the gospel to Cornelius and to his household (and to everyone else whom his house would hold!), the Holy Spirit came upon them and regenerated them. The proof was seen in the spectacular manifestation of speaking in tongues—just as had happened at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. As has been observed by many, this event in Acts 10 was the Gentile Pentecost. From this point forward, the distinction between Jew and Gentile would fall away in fulfilment of the revelation that God had probably already given to Paul in Arabia; that is, that the middle wall of separation between Jew and Gentile had been done away in Christ. The Lord would form one people out of two peoples (see Ephesians 2).

Acts 11 opens with an account of how the church in Jerusalem responded after Peter repeated the events that had transpired in Caesarea. “The importance that Luke attached to this incident is shown by the amount of space that he devoted to it. In ancient times a writer had by no means unlimited space. . . . And yet he finds this incident of Peter and Cornelius of such paramount importance that he relates it in full twice. . . . We usually do not realize how near Christianity was to becoming another kind of Judaism. . . . Luke gives us this incident in full twice over because he sees it as a notable mile-stone on the road along which the Church was groping its way to the conception of a world for Christ.”1

Needless to say those “of the circumcision” were not over the moon to hear that their esteemed apostle and shepherd had fraternised with Gentiles—and Roman soldiers to boot! But Peter very patiently and graciously (and probably excitedly as well) related to them what had transpired.

In a wonderful scene, they all agreed with Peter and rejoiced that indeed the door of the church was now wide open to the Gentiles. Truly, the times were changing! This first generation church in Jerusalem was growing up.

After recording this world-changing account Luke then gives us an account of what transpired in another part of the world, some 450 kilometres to the north.

You will remember that, when unconverted Saul turned his fury against the church in Jerusalem, “they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (8:1). Though the word “all” is no doubt used in an exaggerated way to make a point, the fact is that a significant number of believers were forced to flee Jerusalem. But, of course, God’s hand was in this. He was scattering these believers for the purpose of scattering the seed of the gospel. And one place where this seed needed to be sown was in Antioch of Syria.

Acts 11:19-30 records the planting of another first generation church; one that would become quite literally a world-impacting church. It was from here that Barnabas and Saul would become the first recorded commissioned missionaries in the history of the new covenant church. And from the launching of this missionary duo the world would eventually be turned upside down for the glory of God (17:6).

As we study this chapter in its entirety, we will note four characteristics of these two first generation churches. These same characteristics are shared by any church that the Lord uses to impact His world for His glory with His gospel. Such characteristics, in different measures perhaps, have been true of BBC for the past 40 years.

On 6 June 2012, BBC celebrated the 40th anniversary of its founding. The church began as a Sunday school in a garage up the road from its current location, and eventually grew to the point where it was officially established as a church.

In His kind providence, God brought us as a church to this particular text on the Sunday following the 40th anniversary of the church. It was quite fitting, therefore, to study the planting of the gospel among the nations by making relevant applications and pointing out relevant parallels with BBC.

It is my prayer that what has marked BBC for all these years will continue to mark it increasingly and in a more glorious way for another generation—indeed, for a thousand generations.

Submissive to the Word

In the first 18 verses of our text we find the Jerusalem church manifesting wonderful submission to God’s Word.

Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” But Peter explained it to them in order from the beginning, saying: “I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object descending like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came to me. When I observed it intently and considered, I saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered me again from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ Now this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven. At that very moment, three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent to me from Caesarea. Then the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, ‘Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”

(Acts 11:1-18)

Much of this material, as mentioned, has been seen in chapter 10, but here Peter was called upon to give an answer for the reason for the hope that was in him (1 Peter 3:15). These critics were what we might term “unbelieving believers.” They believed the gospel but they were having a hard time believing that Gentiles could be accepted by God in the same way that believing Jews were. But here Peter made the case very plain that this was precisely the case.

It is probably difficult for us to appreciate the paradigm shift that was required for the first century—the first generation church—when it came to grasping that the Israel of God was not restricted to Israel! Prejudices die hard, especially those that have been engrained for so long that they have become a part of one’s unquestioning worldview.

Note that the problem was in reality twofold.

At one level it was not unheard of for a Gentile to become a follower of Jesus; but to do so apart from circumcision was difficult for many to grasp. On the other hand, the problem may have been more to do with the fact that Peter had violated social custom when he “went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” Harrison comments, “These two issues—the reception of Gentiles into the church and having table fellowship with them—were bound up together.”2

Peter recounted how the Lord—with  a multiplicity of witnesses—had persuaded him that Gentiles were also acceptable to Him through the gospel. He told of the vision of the four-cornered sheet (perhaps representing the four corners of the earth?) that on three occasions was let down containing all manner of non-kosher animals and how he was instructed to eat. He “observed it intently” and knew that there was more there than an invitation to a midday meal. Of course, this was a revelation that God was doing a new thing. Rackham writes, “the sheet is the church,” which will “contain all races and classes without any distinction at all.”3

Peter then provided further evidence that his unusual behaviour with reference to Gentiles was God-inspired. He told, remarkably, that at the very same time as he was having his ecstatic vision, three men were standing at the door of the house where he was staying, who had been sent by Cornelius—an “unclean” man! Due to the leadership of the Holy Spirit he responded to their request to accompany them back to Caesarea.

As noted previously, it is interesting that, in the providence of God, Peter took six men with him who would, as it turned out, become witnesses of the subsequent events. In the Roman world there had to be seven authenticating seals to testify to the authenticity of a legal document. Peter and his six companions would indeed prove to be such a seal to God’s new thing. Of course, the Old Testament called for just two or three witnesses. In any event, Peter’s story was well attested.

Peter’s next evidence was that, upon arriving at Cornelius’ home, this complete stranger informed him that the angel of the Lord had told him to send for Peter—by name! If this was not sufficient proof that Peter was merely responding to the clearly revealed will of the Lord the next and final evidence clinched it: the baptism by the Spirit of these Gentiles. The Gentiles were clearly born again by the Spirit of God even as Peter proclaimed the gospel. The spectacular manifestation of the gift of tongues was proof positive that they were included in the Body of Christ. In the light of this, how could Peter legitimately withhold fellowship from them (vv. 16-18)?

What I find interesting is that the final appeal was made to Scripture (v. 16, cf. Acts 1:5). It is vital to see that, though Peter’s defence included several references to providence, his final appeal was to Scripture. And this is what clinched the argument for him. Note v. 18: “When they heard these things they became silent.” The case was closed. Stott summarises well: “Water-baptism could not be forbidden to these Gentile converts, because God could not be forbidden to do what he had done, namely give them Spirit-baptism. The argument was irrefutable. . . . To be sure, to give Christian baptism to an uncircumcised Gentile was a bold, innovative step, but to withhold it would be to ‘stand in God’s way.’”4

Since this clearly happened according to Scripture, all they could do was to submit to it to the glory of God. Therefore they concluded, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” This is a wonderful testimony to this first generation church. They were on a learning curve and were willing to change as God revealed truth to them. They were willing to reform according to the Word of God.

It is true that they had a long way to go. They would still battle with this issue for several years, but eventually the penny would drop and maturity would ensue. This is a wonderful testimony to their submissiveness to God’s Word. And largely, this has been the testimony for the first generation of BBC.

I have been at the church long enough to have witnessed first-hand many reformations in response to the Word of God. We too have been on a learning curve and still are on it. The Lord has been kind to us in leading us to be submissive to His Word, and I am excited about the prospects of further growth in maturity in the years to come.

It is obvious to me why this is true. I believe that the foundation laid by BBC’s first pastor, Jack Moorman, was significant. It is ironic that one of our major reformations has come about in the very area in which Jack and I would strongly disagree: eschatology. And yet a major reason that the church been able to embrace this change has been because of Jack’s consistent teaching with reference to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Jack taught our church that Scripture is the final authority, and this has assisted the church invaluably in embracing change. As a church, we give thanks to God for the ministry of Jack Moorman.

Again, what is so wonderful about this account is its transparent honesty. There is no glossing over the obvious presence of a discriminatory spirit among many in this first generation church. Luke paints the picture warts and all. But what is further remarkable—remarkable and encouraging—is that, once they heard the evidence (confirmed by the presence of six witnesses), they submitted to it. They accepted the biblical verdict even though this went against their previously held prejudices.

Before we are too hard on these brothers let us think about our own history. When BBC began 40 years ago the entire surrounding community was white—by law. Think about that for a moment. Though I am aware that, particularly with reference to Jason and Marlene van den Heuvel (in whose home the Sunday school and church was first planted), there was no discrimination practiced by BBC towards non-whites (a terrible term, by the way!), nevertheless I am also not so naïve as to suppose that there were not some in the church who battled with racism. In fact when I came here almost 19 years ago some of those were still in the church. The terminology that they used to describe those of another ethnicity was indication enough that they would not even consider having a social meal with them!

But thank God that, over time, not only has our society changed to such an extent that we have a very ethnically diverse congregation, but many of the ungodly attitudes of ethnocentrism have been supplanted by a biblical worldview. Because of the Word of God BBC is quite colour-blind. Oh that we were completely so!

Further I want to note the risk that this involved. Longnecker notes with great insight, “Now if it were really true that Peter, the leading member of the apostolic band, had gone further in disregarding the traditional laws of Judaism in favor of a direct association with Gentiles, what good will still remained toward believers in Jerusalem would be quickly dissipated. The practical implications for the existence and the mission of the Christian church in Jerusalem were grave, and such practical considerations undoubtedly led to principal questions.”5

This too at times has been the experience of BBC. There have been many issues over which BBC has been willing to make a stand based on its conviction from God’s Word even though this has not made it popular. Nevertheless, 40 years later, BBC carries on. Like the believers in the church at Jerusalem, there has been a lot to learn and a lot to reform; but because of submissiveness to God’s Word we have made some good progress.

Success through the Word

Because they submitted to God’s Word, the Jerusalem church also experienced great success through the Word.

Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. 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. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. 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. 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. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.

(Acts 11:19-24)

Luke “now” (v. 19) refers back to the events that transpired as a result of the persecution recorded in Acts 8. The events recorded here were chronologically parallel with what happened in Acts 10. The reason that Luke now writes of them, of course, is because of their relevance to the theme of the gospel going to the Gentiles.

What we find here is the establishment of the first Gentile church in the history of the world—and that of another first generation church. We also find that, for the first time, the Jewish church was taking the initiative to reach those outside their own ethnic circle. This truly was a new thing, and Barclay captures it well, “In their sober and restrained sentences these few words tell of one of the greatest events in history. Now, for the first time, the gospel is deliberately preached to the Gentiles.”6

We read here of believers, forced to leave Jerusalem, who travelled some 500 kilometres north to Syrian Antioch where they preached the Lord Jesus to Hellenists. There is some debate as to the ethnicity of this group, but most conclude that these were Greeks, and thus Gentiles. As they proclaimed the gospel “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (v. 21). This is remarkable.

Antioch was the third greatest city in the Ancient world, behind Rome and Alexandria. It had a population of some 500,000 and was a major—and prosperous—centre of commerce. It was also a hub of wickedness and was infamous for immorality in connection with the worship of the goddess Daphne. But in this city the Spirit of God did a powerful work of regeneration through the ministry of Christian laymen.

It is interesting that we have no idea of the names of these lay evangelists. What we do know is that they loved the Lord and were bold in their proclamation of His Lordship. God honoured a people who honoured His Son and a wonderful, world-impacting church was planted. Some historians say that eventually twenty per cent of the population became believers and members of this church.

Barclay writes with words that can apply in some ways to the founding of BBC: “Here we have a truly amazing thing. The Church has taken the most epoch-making of all steps; and we do not even know the names of the people who took that step. All we know is that they came from Cyprus and Cyrene; but who they were no man knows and no man will ever know. They go down to history as the nameless pioneers of Christ.”7

Let me note some of the parallels here to the founding of BBC. Our church was founded by a lay couple. Jason and Marlene were not missionaries, sent by a local church for the purpose of establishing a local church in Brackenhurst. Jason was not a pastor. It was simply a case of a believing family, who moved to Brackenhurst, and desired to start a church. They took the initiative to begin a Sunday school at their own home, which eventually grew, by God’s kind providence, into the Brackenhurst Baptist Church.

A further parallel lies in the reach observed in our text. BBC has impacted various parts of the world and we trust that, like Antioch, it will continue to do so for generations to come.

When the church in Jerusalem heard about this new assembly they immediately sent a representative to see if the reports were true. They were no doubt excited and concerned. Perhaps they even wanted to see if what had happened in Caesarea was merely a fluke, or if the conversion of Gentiles was spreading. So they sent Barnabas, the man whom Barclay believes “had the biggest heart in the Church.”8 Luke informs us that he was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (v. 24).

When he arrived, he found indeed evidence of God’s gospel grace and was encouraged. It seems as if what he found there was the same thing that he had just come from in Jerusalem. In other words, he felt quite at home.

Let me point out that the same Word that had formed the first generation church in Jerusalem had also formed this first generation church in the Gentile world. The success in one place spread to another. And as Barnabas remained there and ministered, the church continued to enjoy gospel growth to the glory of God.

Let me make an application at this point.

When I first came to BBC I felt right at home. I saw the grace of God, the same that I had seen in my sending church. I found that the Word which had built the First Baptist Church of Milford was building the same thing in Brackenhurst. This was the major reason why I made the decision to immigrate to South Africa and to remain at BBC for what I hope will be a lifetime.

The Lord continues to give gospel success to BBC through the Word, and I don’t mean by that exclusively with reference to the pulpit and formal teaching ministry of our church. Rather, I include in this the many members who reach out to others with the Word of God in evangelism and discipleship.

Strengthened through the Word

Third, our text informs us that the Antioch church, like the Jerusalem church, was strengthened through the Word. “Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 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” (vv. 25-26).

This, to me, is one of the greatest stories in the Bible, which shows a tremendous Christlike spirit and spiritual sensitivity on the part of Barnabas.

The church seemingly was growing by leaps and bounds (v. 24) and Barnabas was no doubt a significant factor in this. But he did not write a book and set up church growth conferences throughout the world. Instead, after perhaps a considerable length of time, he realised that the task was not only too big for him, but probably particularly suited for the man who had been chosen to the be the apostle to the Gentiles (9:15). Therefore Barnabas sets out to find Saul.

Saul had been in Tarsus for perhaps some 6-8 years, where he no doubt had been evangelising the region of Cilicia. Barnabas located him and brought him back to Antioch where, for a whole year, they team-taught the church, strengthening the disciples to such an extent that the locals (who were known to be fond of nicknames) labelled them “Christians.” The term, which was probably intended to be somewhat derogatory, literally means “followers of Christ” or, more literally, “little christs.” Not a bad accusation at all!

This name was very significant, for it was now becoming increasingly clear that the “people of the way” were not merely a sect of Judaism but rather a “religious” group in its own right. This, of course, also put them at risk since the Roman policy was to give freedom of religion to recognised religions. Judaism was one such recognised religion; Christianity was not.

Nevertheless, the church was strengthened by the ministry of the Word through these two teachers and the result was eventually a world-impacting church. It should be noted that for the next two centuries (many generations) the church at Antioch became host to many well-known and gifted teachers in the church. Consider such individuals as Peter (Galatians 2:11-13), Ignatius, Theophilus, Lucian, Theodore, Chrysostom, and Theodoret.

The point that I want to emphasise is that this first generation church was strengthened by the Word and continued to be for many generations—and not merely by the preaching and teaching ministry of one man.

BBC has a similar history and I believe that it will have a similar future. God will continue to strengthen us through gifted teachers who will, we trust, strengthen our worship and lengthen our reach.

In fact this will be the last study in Acts that we have for a while to come. I intend to conclude our study of this book over time, but my fellow elders have advised me to make a significant change in my preaching schedule, which will allow me to focus primarily on Sunday mornings. They believe that it will be better in the long run both for the church and for me if I give my attention to the Sunday morning ministry of the Word. This will free me up to pursue other important ministries of BBC—with particular reference to a relaunch of our Shepherd’s School, and to the training of pastors elsewhere. As noted, I will occasionally take the opportunity to preach on Sunday nights (I do want to finish this exposition of Acts), but for the most part others who are gifted will be filling this slot.

This is good for BBC. May the Lord strengthen us and lengthen our outreach as the pulpit is shared.

Shaped by the Word

Finally, in these closing verses we read of the exercise of their Christ-like character. We read of how this first generation church was now used of God in response to a need that was being experienced in the original first generation church.

And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. 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. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

(Acts 11:27-30)

The church in Antioch was growing up, as evidenced by its caring for others. It was no longer a child dependant on outside help but rather was now able to provide life-support for others. There was a huge shifting of responsibility from Jerusalem to Antioch to the glory of God.

We are familiar with this scene. A great famine was prophesied that would cover the entire Roman Empire. Rather than these believers thinking only of their own needs, they chose to think of others. They therefore sacrificially gave to alleviate the suffering of a poorer church. They truly were Christians. The Word had shaped them to put the needs of others first. The Word had shaped them to give.

BBC has also matured over the years and by God’s grace He has used her to help other churches in many parts of the city, the nation, and even other parts of the world. The Word of God has shaped us so as to experience some measure of sacrificial giving. And those days are not all behind us. New opportunities await us and as we continue to grow in our devotion to Christ (through prayer and the ministry of the Word), we will find more and more responsibility being shifted to our plate. May the Lord give us such grace that we will see this as a blessing and never as a burden. Indeed as one missionary from the church of Antioch said to the elders in Ephesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

As we conclude our study of these two first generation churches, I would again thank the Lord for the first generation of BBC, and anticipate, work and believe God for more gospel growth for a thousand generations.

Show 8 footnotes

  1. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 90.
  2. Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 187.
  3. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 194.
  4. Stott, The Message of Acts, 196.
  5. Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:396.
  6. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 92.
  7. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 93.
  8. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 95.