11:1-18 The Church in Jerusalem Decides to Baptize People of other Nations
Luke was a Greek speaking Jew, and he was deeply interested and personally involved in Paul's mission to establish churches among non-Jewish people. That is why he now devotes another chapter to the revolutionary change that took place in Judaism when Peter baptized the friends and family of a Roman Army Officer in Caesarea (see notes on Chapter 10). News of what Peter had done quickly came to Jerusalem, and Peter was summoned to explain how this happened.
11:1 The news was not just that some Gentiles had believed (see comments on 10:1-2), but that Peter had baptized some uncircumcised Romans and formed them into a new congregation of the church in Caesarea (founded through Philip, 8:40, and Peter, 9:32).
11:2-3 Peter was summoned to explain this radical step, and the main objection was that Peter had eaten (perhaps taken communion with) these uncircumcized Gentiles (see comments on 10:23, 48).
11:4-10 Peter did not give a philosophical or theological answer but simply went over in sequence exactly what he experienced (as in 10:9-16). We might note that experience often initiates theological change, but it should not go against what Jesus did and taught (Matthew 28:20)..
11:11 Peter stressed the precise timing of events that could only be God's intervention. The messengers from a Roman officer's household in Caesarea arrived exactly when he was puzzled about the threefold vision he had received (10:9, 17).
11:12 There was also the clear guidance of the Holy Spirit (10:19), and he stressed the approval of six members of the church in Joppa (10:23).
11:13-14 And when he arrived in Caesarea the Roman Centurion with his household was waiting for him to come and ready to hear what they needed for their salvation (10:24, 30-33).
11:15 Peter then explained that while he was rehearsing the main facts of the Good News (10:34-43), his Roman hearers were suddenly formed into a community of the Spirit. They were given the same gifts of the Spirit (10:44-46) as on the Day of Pentecost (2:4, see 4:31). This was also what took place when the Church in Samaria was formed (8:17).
11:16 After putting together all these evidences from what had actually occured, Peter added the prophetic words of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11). Evidently the baptism of the Holy Spirit is what happened when the first church was formed in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, in the formation of the church in Samaria (8:17), and the new Roman congregation in Caesarea (10:44-48). This was also repeated in Paul's church planting ministry (19:1-6). I suggest, without being able to prove this, that each new congregation of the early church was formed into a body in this way. "For in the one spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13). The baptism of the Spirit is therefore not the experience of an individual alone, but the essential beginning of the new life of the Spirit in a congregation.
11:17 If a new community of the Spirit had been formed among these Roman Christians, who was Peter to refuse them baptism? The normal experience was baptism to become a disciple, then beginning to learn all that Jesus had taught (as in 8:12, Matthew 28:19-20), and this was followed as soon as possible by being formed into a church congregation (8:15-17).
11:18 Peter's explanation was so unanswerable that there was no further question or discussion. They concluded that God had granted to Gentiles the life-giving turning of baptism and renewal by the Spirit (Titus 3:5). From now on people of any nation could be baptized and formed into a community of the Spirit without having to be circumcised or submit to Old Testament rules such as kosher food. There was a counterattack from the Judaizers (as in Galatians 3:1-5), and this had to be settled after much discussion in the Council of Jerusalem (see 15:5-6).
11:19-26 The Growth of the Church in Antioch
The church in Antioch was founded by Greek speaking Jews who had been scattered by the persecution that was led by Saul of Tarsus (8:3-4, 11:19-21). Luke was particularly interested in the Antioch church because they had sent Paul out on his mission, and he returned there after each missionary assignment (13:1-3, 14:26, 15:30, 18:22). Luke also discovered that the name 'Christian' (Messiah person) originated there.
11:19 Luke lists three areas that received Christian refugees from Saul's persecution (8:3-4). Phoenicia was the coastal area centered on the cities of Tyre and Sidon to the north-west of Galilee. Cyprus was a Greek-speaking island, the home of Barnabas (4:36). Antioch was 300 miles by sea north of Caesarea. And at first the church in these places consisted only of Greek-speaking Jews.
11:20-23 The Greek word ellynis means a Greek, as opposed to a Barbarian., so the translation 'Hellenists' (Greek speaking Jews) is obviously wrong. The church in Antioch already consisted of Greek speaking Jews, but now these visitors from other churches also preached the good news to Gentiles (as had happened in Caesarea, 10:45). Many of these became disciples, and Barnabas was sent from the church in Jerusalem to form them into a church of the Spirit (as with the Samaritans in 8:14-15).
11:24-25 The consequent growth of the Gentile congregations in the church in Antioch was so great that the only solution was for Barnabas to take an overnight ship to Tarsus to see if he could find Saul, the converted rabbi, and invite him to help in the teaching of these new disciples.
11:26 Barnabas brought Saul to Antioch, and they (together) met in (not with) church gatherings, and taught "a great many people" (literal translation). The text suggests meeting places in many homes across the city where such huge numbers could be accommodated. Those who gathered were called Messiah People (Christianoi). The term is used just three times in the New Testament (11:26, 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16). The only definition of a Christian is a disciple or learner. It is nothing to do with how good the person is, or how much he or she has experienced, understood, and believed. Jesus made many disciples, but many of these got miffed and left him (John 4:1, 6:66) as he pictured in the parable of the Sower. "These have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away" (Luke 8:13).
11:27-30 The First Church Aid Project
From the beginning church members had shared with one another and met the needs of their local brothers and sisters (2:45). They also made sure that the widows of the community were taken care of (see comments on 6:1). Here we have the first example of outreach to meet the needs of another church which was 300 miles away by sea (a four week journey by land). News of the needs of the church in Jerusalem was brought by a prophet named Agabus. And the Antioch church was proactive in heeding his prophecy of a famine which would soon occur. The Roman emperor Claudius reigned 41-54 AD so this famine (all over the Roman world) would have been early in his reign. Later in his reign (49 or 50 AD) he expelled all Jews from the city of Rome, among whom were Aquila and Priscilla (18:2). We note how carefully Luke roots his story in Roman and Jewish history (as in Luke 3:1-2).
11:27-28 Men and women functioned as prophets in the Old Testament period, and John the Baptist was the greatest and last of these (Matthew 11:9-11). In the New Testament prophecy is one of the gifts of the Spirit given in church communities (21:9-12, Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians12:10, 28, 14:1-5). About eighteen years later Agabus was in Caesarea and warned Paul not to go up to Jerusalem (21:8-12), but Paul did not follow his advice. Which goes to prove that prophets are to be listened to, but not necessarily followed in every detail.
11:29 The disciples in Antioch responded with generosity, and they gave each "according to their ability" (as Paul explained in 2 Corinthians 8:3).
11:30 The money that was collected was taken to the mother church by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. These same two leaders were later sent to Jerusalem to fight for the freedom of Gentiles not to be circumcised (15:2). The money was given to be distributed by the church elders of congregations, not only in Jerusalem but in the surrounding area of Judea.
Note In our day we know that aid for famine relief is often misused and very little reaches those in need. In the church of Antioch the money was collected without elaborate fund raising efforts. The money was taken to its destination by the two best known and responsible leaders in the church. And they gave it into the hands of the elders of each congregation in the area. It has been proved that the distribution of relief funds through the eldership of local churches is far more likely to be effective than handing it over to greedy officials.
There was however the problem of dependency. Ten years later the church in the area of Jerusalem was still needing aid (1 Corinthians 16:3). "Please, please, we desperately need still more." Which may explain why people were slow to respond to Paul's long fund raising appeal for the Jerusalem church (2 Corinthians 8:1-9:14).