Taken from The Bible Treasury Number 348 - May 1885
But God works variously to accomplish His purpose; and so we see at this point of the inspired history. The action of Peter was of the utmost moment, and its acceptance in Jerusalem by those whom God had set in the highest place in the assembly. A fresh apostle had been expressly called outside the twelve, called by the glorified Christ in heaven where all for man is and must be of sovereign grace, called as apostle of Gentiles in formal and acknowledged contradistinction from those of the circumcision. Nor was this all. The free action of the Holy Spirit receives a full and rich expression in the labours of brethren, who, when driven by persecution from Jerusalem, began to preach, but were bold enough to preach without trance or vision or personal direction outside the ancient people of God. and even proselytes.
"They therefore that were scattered abroad through the tribulation that took place on the occasion of Stephen passed through as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none but Jews only. But there were some of them men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming1 unto Antioch spoke unto the Greeks2 also,3 preaching the Lord Jesus. And [the] Lord's hand was with them, and a great number believed and turned4 unto the Lord. And the report concerning them came unto the ears of the assembly that was in Jerusalem; and they despatched Barnabas5 as far as Antioch: who, on arriving and seeing the grace of God, rejoiced and exhorted all with purpose of heart to abide by the Lord. For he was a good man and full of [the] Holy Spirit and faith; and a large crowd was added to the Lord. And he6 went forth unto Tarsus to seek for Saul, and, on finding brought him7 unto Antioch. And it came to pass that even8 for a whole year they were gathered together in the assembly and taught a large crowd, and that the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch" (ver. 19-26).
It will be observed that the account of this early and free evangelizing, first to Jews, but after a little while to Greeks, is reserved for the introduction of Saul's first connexion with Antioch, the earthly starting-point of the great apostle's labours. This is quite in Luke's manner. His order (and none more orderly) is not one of simple sequence, as we may see in the Gospel of Mark; still less does it linger on giving evidences of the change of dispensation, as in that of Matthew. He was led to deal with moral associations, which, if less patent, present a deeper arrangement, and fuller of instruction in God's ways, than a mere chronological series.
Whatever the value, and it was immense, of the episode we have lately had before us in Acts ix. 32– xi. 18 (ix. 31 being a sort of transitional link that closes what goes before and introduces it), God took care that the gospel should reach the Gentiles first in a way altogether informal, even while the highest ecclesiastical authorities were there to commence and sanction its inauguration with the seal of the whole apostolic college in Jerusalem. It pleased the Lord that all should be ordered otherwise; and the work among the Gentiles began with not even distinct purpose nor definite intelligence on the part of its promoters, with nothing apparent save the loving zeal that knew the desperate need of the Gentiles as well as the immeasurable efficacy of the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. It was therefore according to the deepest wisdom as well as divine goodness that the real beginning of the gospel outside Israel should be simply of love flowing out from God only, as far as understanding went, in the circumstances that ensued on Stephen's martyrdom. Then, as we know, the saints generally were scattered through the persecution that set in. In the course of their passage here and there, Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch profited by their testimony. At first, however, the word was spoken to none but to Jews only. Some of them, however, and these foreign Jews, Cyprians and Cyrenians, ventured farther, and in the last of the places named, at Antioch, addressed the Greeks also with the glad tidings of the Lord Jesus.
Was not this very bold? Certainly it was of God who made use of the providential circumstances for His glory. It was love, it was spiritual instinct, in the heart of those who evangelized, whose very names are unknown. God has taken particular care not to name them, perhaps lest we should attribute to them a deeper perception of His mind than was really due. The momentous fact was there; and simple-hearted labourers were those to whom God gave this mighty and profound impulse by His Spirit. Let us admire these ways of God, which are higher than those even of His people, as the heavens are higher than the earth.
Man, even the wisest of His servants, would have expected otherwise. But the same God was now at work, who, if He brought Moses by providence into the house of Pharaoh's daughter, brought him out by faith: who even then did not use him, learned iii all the wisdom of the Egyptians, to the deliverance of His people, till he had unlearned man as well as himself, and realised alone what God is in the wilderness, for forty long years: then and then only was he fitted of God to be a ruler and a deliverer. So now did it to God seem meet to begin Gentile christianity through men of comparatively small account in either the world or the church, before there was the smallest intercourse between Peter and Cornelius. The highest order that ever was established in the assembly on earth could not therefore boast. The Lord is above that oi• any other order; to Him none can dictate. Nor has He abdicated His rights over the earth into the hands of a vicegerent any more than of the twelve. This having been vindicated by His sovereign employment of the Cyprians and Cyrenians, who first planted the gospel among the nations, He does take care to send Peter to Caesarea and to have Peter's action according to His direct command formally sanctioned by the twelve in Jerusalem. His own call of Saul to be apostle of the Gentiles was independent of both the free action at Antioch and the formal in view of Caesarea at Jerusalem; as it was evidently also prior in time, and in many respects superior in claim and power, one may add, to both, though this was not yet fully disclosed.
Of such weight it was in God's eyes to found, confirm, and authenticate this work among the Gentiles, so supremely interesting and indispensable to us, who without it were mere sinners, "without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world." But if to us of such moment, what was it to the glory of His own grace? what to the praise of His Son, the Lord Jesus?
And if these brethen of Cyprus and Cyrene kept speaking to the Greeks also announcing the glad tidings of the Lord Jesus, the Lord's hand was with them; and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. If ever men dared to draw indefinitely on grace without waiting for outward sign or open commission, if any servants of the Lord ever exposed themselves to a seemingly just taunt of going beyond all bounds, more especially as "the twelve" were not only alive but together not so far off, surely it was these pioneers of grace to the Greeks. Antioch in Syria was no doubt a suitable place in God's mind. The city was founded B.C. 300 by Seleucus Nicator; and there, as the Jews possessed equal privileges with the Greeks politically, great numbers lived under the government of an ethnarch of their own. God never forgets kindness shown to His poor people even in their fallen estate, and knows how to repay with an interest unmistakably divine. Here first the Greeks heard, believed, and turned to the Lord.
It is well known that large and good MS. authority supports the reading of the common text, Hellenists, Grecians, or Greek-speaking Jews. But the sense afforded by אcorr A Dpm, and if not all the ancient versions, the Armenian, is made decisive by the requirements of the truth stated. For in Jerusalem itself before the scattering not only were "Grecians" objects of testimony as well as other Jews, but notoriously the murmuring was of that portion against the Hebrews, or native Jews who spoke Aramaic. Nay more, all "the seven" chosen to allay the unworthy outbreak, and to relieve the apostles from a work that hindered for an incomparably better, bore Hellenistic names; and one of them was expressly from Antioch. Again, it is recorded in Acts ix. 29 how Saul of Tarsus spoke and disputed against these Hellenists in Jerusalem. Thus there would be nothing new or peculiar in similar speech at Antioch; whereas it is declared here that at first none but Jews were addressed, and afterwards "the Greeks also," and this effectively under the good hand of the Lord. Now "Hebrew" stands over against "Hellenist," but not "Jew," which includes both. So that "Jew" can only be confronted by " Greek," not by "Hellenists " which falls under that category. The point therefore is so far from immaterial, that " Greeks "9 can alone bear rigid or intelligent investigation, and at once conveys a new and important fact. Further, we must on no account suppose their conversion to the Lord by the gospel to have taken place after the disciples had heard of the call of Cornelius. It has been already stated that it occurred before Peter's visit to Caesarea. Evidently all that our chapter implies is, that the report about their conversion only then came to the ears of the assembly that was in Jerusalem. The fact of the conversion itself had of course taken place considerably before; and we have seen how beautifully its priority contributes its quota to the full scheme of God's grace, which called apostolic authority into action no less appropriately.
Barnabas then, who was of Cyprus, though a Levite, comes to Antioch on his mission of inquiry. Nor can we conceive one more admirably chosen, if a genial heart devoted to Christ were wanted to judge fairly of the work in Antioch and to re-assure those in Jerusalem adequately. For he, when he came and saw the grace of God, "rejoiced and exhorted all with purpose to abide by the Lord" (ver. 23). And striking is the comment of the inspired historian, who in no way grudges his due meed, any more than Paul would, because Barnabas subsequently was betrayed into unbecoming heat for his kinsman's sake. "For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and faith." Grace sealed his visit also; "and a large crowd was added to the Lord." Can we doubt that the work had still its mixed character, with Barnabas a fellow-workman in what drew out his joy?
Again there is another trait very characteristic of this "good man," and not only so but of the real working of the Holy Spirit, both in sending him to Antioch and now in his going off to Cilicia. "And he went forth unto Tarsus to seek for Saul; and on finding him brought him unto Antioch" (ver. 25). Is it thus that we feel and act in presence of a large field of service where we are honoured by the Master's use? Do we in the midst of it remind ourselves of another who might be yet more efficient? Or does jealousy still hinder—still play its dark and deadly part to the dishonour of Christ and the loss of souls within and without? It was not so with Barnabas, who had already done a brother's office when all were alas! afraid of Saul (Acts ix. 26, 27). Now, having learnt his value as a bold preacher when going in and out of Jerusalem, he bethinks him of the help Saul might render at Antioch; and acting on it, he is enabled to execute his desire. "And it came to pass that even for a whole year they were gathered together in10 the assembly, and taught a large crowd, and that the disciples were first called11 Christians in Antioch " (ver. 26). It was Christ's flock, not that of either; and His love animated them both, as others also no doubt, to care for it. In those days not one said that the assembly was his own, but served in it the more lovingly and holily because they always remembered that it is God's, and not man's.
It is not without interest that the Spirit of God here adds that Antioch, notoriously famous of old for witty or scurrilous nicknames, first gave the designation of "Christians" to the disciples, within styled faithful, brethren, saints, &c. It was a name which Gentiles gave in reproach; as Jews called them "Nazarenes," and Julian the apostate at a later day, "Galileans." Jews would never think of "Christ" as the ground of a contemptuous term: what they scorned was that Jesus is the Christ.
"Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem unto Antioch; and there stood up one from among them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that a great famine was about to be over all the habitable earth; which came to pass under Claudius.12 And according as any one of the disciples had means, they determined each of them to send help [lit, for service] to the brethren that dwelt in Judæa: which also they did, despatching [it] unto the elders by hand of Barnabas and Saul" (ver. 27-30).
It is a joy to see that the free activity of the Spirit which began the work and founded the assembly in Antioch was no more restive at the special gifts that ministered in their midst, than it distrusted what the Lord had wrought by simple believers evangelizing as they could. It was not Barnabas and Saul only who laboured there, but prophets came down from Jerusalem, and one of them, Agabus, predicts a great dearth (as we know there was more than once) in the time of Claudius. Is it not of deep interest, the faith and love which responded to this, though it was no charity sermon, without waiting for a call from
saints already impoverished by their generous love after the great Pentecost which first saw the assembly here below? They believed in the coming scarcity, and thought of the saints in Jerusalem as truly one body; and perhaps we may apply here, if one suffer, so do all, and as they sympathize, they succour also. So even the Jews in Ezra's day were roused by the prophets to build, before the renewed intervention of their foes drew out the great king's decree that cancelled the usurper's prohibition. It is blessed to act on heavenly motives in earthly duties; and that what we do should be in the faith that ever honoiirs God's word. So the links of love are maintained on both sides between Jerusalem and Antioch; and this, in things spiritual, yet more than in the carnal, which it was their duty to repay, as Paul afterwards did not fail to remind others. The task was entrusted to Barnabas and Saul through "the elders," of whom we bear for the first time in the associations of the assembly. How they were installed in Judaea we know not from the New Testament; but we have definite instruction in the sphere of the Gentile assemblies, as we may see in Acts xiv. 23.
1) 2) 3) The simple participle is right, not the compounded as in Text. Rec. which drops "also," and reads Ἕλληνιστάς after B D corr E H L P and most, the Sinitic giving the strange blunder of "evangelists" as its primary reading.
4) א Α B and three cursives give "that believed turned."
8) "Even" is omitted in Text. Rec.
9) No wonder that with bin usual tact Abp. Ussher (Works, xi. 21) accepted the reading, even though the Vatican supports that which prevails among the more modern copies, and the Fathers seem to vacillate with their too frequent lack of discernment. The effort of Wetstein &c. fails to make out that 'Ελληνισταί means Gentiles, instead of Greek speaking or foreign Jews, its real import. Equally vain (as founded on the common mis-reading, is the reasoning of Saumaise, Wolf, &c. that they were Gentiles but proselytes of Judaism. It may be well to note that while in the New Testament the Authorised Version distinguishes "Grecian" (=Hellenist) from "Greek," in the Old Testament (Joel iii. 6) the former is used for the latter where the LXX properly have τ. Ἑλλήνων. Kuhnol is quite mistaken in referring έξ αὐτῶν (ver. 20) not to the scattered preachers but to the Jews just named.
10) "In" seems not more literal than exact and full. " With" does not convey the intimacy of their relation, themselves a part of the assembly: it might rather imply a place apart. It will be noticed that here first do we read of "the assembly," or church, in a Gentile city, whence in due time the Spirit sends Barnabas and Saul separated for their work of grace among the nations. Yet God so ordered that Antioch could no more than Rome boast of an apostolically founded assembly; for in the simple way we have seen it began by men who in love preached to all alike the good news of Christ.
11) It is rather bold of Mr. Mere (Norrisian Prize Essay, 1832, p. 16, note) to say as an ascertained fact that "the apostles gave the heathen converts this name." The form of the Greek verb is active, no doubt; but what of its real force? The N. T. usage in the sense here required is limited to the occurrence of the future in Rom. vii. 3, which is beyond controversy opposed directly to the assumption. There it means "shall be called" or "get the name of"; and so it is here. How much more sober is Abp. Ussher on the fact: " Quod nomen, Latina non Graeca a Christo deflexum, a Romanis Antiοchiae turn agentibus impositum illis fuisse videatur." Where a divine communication is intended, the form is different. The classic use for managing, and hence speaking of, business, does not occur in the New Testament, though one can see how from this people would get a name, and at length a name irrespective of their business,
12) "Cæsar" is added in Text. Rec.