Jerusalem To Rome

The Acts of the Apostles

By Charles Fremont Sitterly


From the Persecution by the Sanhedrin to That by Herod Agrippa I. A. D. 33 To A. D. 44

Chapter 11

Apostolic Sanction of Peter’s Course


Paragraph 1. THE CASE REPORTED AT JERUSALEM. Verses 1-4.

Now, the Apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the Word of God. When, therefore, Peter returned to Jerusalem the partisans of circumcision kept finding fault with him.

“You visited people who were not circumcised,” they said, “and you ate with them!”

Then Peter began and explained the situation to them from first to last.  


Luke appears not to have given undue emphasis to this episode. It was of so important a nature that reports of it were carried not only to Jerusalem but to every congregation of native Jews throughout Judea. The persecution from without which had so greatly scattered the new faith now finds its counterpart within the Christian brotherhood and threatens even greater disaster to peace and progress. By the time Peter returns to the capital much criticism of his course is openly expressed, and from a standpoint which we in recent days can appreciate, since the incident in Southeast Africa relative to the sharing of the Holy Eucharist between different types of believers has stirred up the whole Christian world. Despite all the advances of two thousand years this sort of bigotry bids fair to engage some minds till the end of time. Though Paul himself was cured of it as by a miracle, yet he had to suffer its dogged persistence, on every field of operations where real Hebrews were encountered, to the last ditch. Peter, with one slight defection, was probably rid of it as fully as Paul, and in his wide range of conquest as indicated by his letters and by early tradition he had to battle with it everywhere in the Eastern Diaspora. The parallel features between Paul’s experience at Damascus and that of Peter at Joppa and Czsarea are marked. The vivid and repeated visions from the sky, the extreme form of prejudice involved, and the clear expressions of divine sanction on the part of the Holy Spirit when the advances have been made, cannot be without real significance. The essential democracy of the early church is also observed again, for Peter as well as Paul is held accountable to the general assembly of the mother church.  

Paragraph 2. PETER’S MASTERLY DEFENSE. Verses 5-17.

“I was in the city of Joppa praying,” he said, “and while in a trance I saw a vision—a kind of receptacle coming, like a great sheet let down from the sky by the four corners. It came right down to me, and when I looked steadily at it I began to see various kinds of animals— wild beasts, reptiles, and birds. Moreover, I also heard a voice saying to me,

‘Rise, Peter, kill and eat.’

‘By no means, Lord,’ I replied, ‘for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered the second time from the sky:

‘What God has cleansed do not regard as common.’

“This occurred three times, when everything was drawn up again into the sky. Now, at that moment three men came to the house where we were, sent from Cęsarea after me. And the Spirit told me to go with them without any hesitation at all. Moreover, these six brothers accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house. He then described to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying:

‘Send to Joppa and bring hither Simon, surnamed Peter. He will tell you how you and your entire household may be saved.’

“Now, I had only just begun to speak,” said Peter, “when the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He fell upon us at the beginning, and I remembered the words of the Lord, how He used to say,

‘John baptized with water; you, however, shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

“So, then, if God gave to them exactly the same free gift that he did to us when we first believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I should be able to frustrate God ?” 

  Here, as in the narrative of the previous chapter, we find that Peter emphasizes the fact that he was praying when his vision came. He also makes clear again his own Pharisaic pride in his claim that nothing had hitherto entered his mouth contrary to the strictest Hebraic ritual, that the pantomime debate was three times repeated, and that the Holy Spirit specifically commanded him to go to Cesarea without further parley. Now comes to the front the peculiar value of his six witnesses from Joppa, who not only as fellow witnesses shared with him the experience, but gladly assumed their part in the responsibility. More than this, Peter disclaims any honor for having persuaded the centurion’s household to believe, for he says, as we have seen, that it was just the other way; Cornelius was already convinced, and it was Peter and his party who needed the last steps to conviction, for “he had only just begun to speak when the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He fell upon us” at Pentecost. Peter adroitly heightens the effect by saying that, as he stood spectator to the scene, the oft-repeated promise of Jesus came to his mind, that the baptism of John should be at length in the case of His followers succeeded by that of the Holy Spirit. It therefore followed that, if the Gentiles had the spiritual baptism, they must be acceptable disciples of the same Lord, its only source. Thus the conclusion was inevitable, and Peter wisely refrains from pressing or stressing it, leaving his hearers to answer the question for themselves—“If God has determined to share His highest favors with those of the uncircumcision, who can withstand or say Him nay?”



On hearing this they ceased to object, and glorified God and said, ‘So, then, God has actually granted to the Gentiles the repentance which leads unto life.”  


Peter and his six witnesses from Joppa have won the case. Every possible objection has been met, and the opposition joins in the general verdict, “No cause for action,’ and outbursts of praise and jubilation mark the end of the inquiry. But there seems to have been some formal record of the general position attained. Luke’s sense of historical balance leads him to insert this minute here, as an offset to the similar opinion reached in Paul’s similar trial and triumph later, to show the consistency and continuity of official opinion from this time forward. By referring to our general outline of the book it may be seen that this event falls just at the crown of the hill between the Jewish and Gentile periods.  


Now those who had been driven in different directions by the persecution that arose over Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, but they preached the Word to none but Jews. Some of them, however, were Cyprians and Cyrenzans, who when they arrived at Antioch began to speak also to the Greeks, and told them the gospel of the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, so that a great number believed and turned to the Lord.


There are no doubt good reasons why neither Samaria, Damascus, Joppa, nor Cęsarea was destined to become the proper starting point for the new outreach of Christian conquest. Suffice it to say, that they were in no case such typical centers of Gentile life, nor were they, like Antioch, situated at the gateway of Asia Minor, which must be the next territory traversed in reaching Rome, the imperial capital. At the same time Antioch, like no other city in the empire, was the direct doorway into Babylonia, Persia, and India, which must also have the benefit of the universal Christ. Again, Antioch was the metropolis of Syria, and so the next natural center for operations in extending the strategic lines of the new faith. It could have but one rival in any event, and that was Alexandria, a somewhat larger city, and one most favorably furnished for receiving the preachers of the New Covenant, since it was the home of probably the largest colony of Jews in the empire, one that had given the then “Authorized Version” to the world in the Greek Septuagint. That Alexandria was visited by apostolic Evangelists almost as soon as Antioch and with equally large and abiding results is not to be doubted, but Luke does not choose to divide the interest of his readers among various high places and personages. Though the new drive outward from the home base, started by Saul’s persecution following his lynching of Stephen, had already reached Antioch, it had kept the good news for the ears of Jews only. But now that the Jerusalem church has officially sanctioned still wider evangelization, some Greek-speaking believers, natives of Cyprus and Cyrene, arrive at the Syrian capital and openly preach to the Greeks themselves. Divine approval is at once manifest, and great success marks the new departure.



When the report about these reached the ears of the church in Jerusalem they sent out Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and had seen the favor which God had bestowed he was glad and kept encouraging them all to remain faithful to the Lord with heartfelt purpose, for he was a good man and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith; and a great throng was added to the Lord. Then he went off to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch, and thus it happened that for a whole year they were associated together in the church there and taught a great multitude. And it was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. During those very days certain prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch, and one of them named Agabus came forward and foretold by the Spirit that a great famine was coming throughout the whole world— it took place in the reign of Claudius. Therefore the disciples determined to send relief, each in proportion to his means, for the brothers who were living in Judea. This they did, sending on their contribution to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.


As always in this book, advanced steps must be referred for approval to the home council at Jerusalem. This being done, Barnabas is chosen to visit Antioch, and he discovers such manifest tokens of heavenly sanction already given that he enters heartily into the situation and encourages the work to the highest degree. It soon surpasses the possible capacity of direction even thus available, and he recalls the fact that his friend Saul, of Tarsus, is just the person needed to fill out the complement of preachers and teachers. It is several years—some think nearly ten—since Saul had been sent off by urgent and solicitous friends, among them Barnabas, from the quay at Caesarea. What had engaged his eager mind during the interval can only be conjectured, but it is not dificult to believe that he was largely employed, carefully rereading the entire Old Testament in the light of his experience at Damascus and knowledge of the events preceding and following the death of his newly found Saviour. We cannot accept the theory that he had been actively proclaiming the new faith throughout Cyprus, but it is hard to believe that he had kept his talent unused in Tarsus. Now, however, his hour is fully come. He is sought out and brought to Antioch by great-hearted Barnabas, and for a whole year is his true yokefellow there, teaching and preaching the gospel with great success, and undisturbed, it would seem, for the only time in his career, from jealous antagonism. The fact that the disciples of the new faith are here for the first time called Christians, as Luke says, may indicate as well that Paul had so given his talents to the exaltation of the Anointed One that it marked a new epoch in the character of apostolic teaching. It may be truly significant that “Christ” is the favorite title for the Saviour in Paul’s writings, occurring in the Epistles to the Romans and Corinthians more times than in all of the other books of the New Testament,

The episode of Agabus’s prophecy is an instance of the kind still vouchsafed by the Spirit in the first period at least of the life of the church, as proved by other New Testament references. In Chapter xxi, 10ff. a prophet of the same name—not a common one nor elsewhere used in Scripture—comes from Jerusalem, the same city, to Cęsarea and performs a like act of predictive and striking prophecy, and it is in like way fulfilled to the letter in due time. The famines of the emperor Claudius’s reign (A. D. 41-54) recurred nearly every other year during that entire period, and are abundantly referred to by Josephus, Eusebius, Dio Cassius, Suetonius, and Tacitus. From Josephus (Antiquities, XX, ii, 5) we suppose the severest and most widespread of these, occurring in A. D. 45, to be that coinciding with this prophecy. This was also the time when the famous queen of Adiabene, Helena, was residing at Jerusalem, and it is told of her that she also rendered much assistance to the stricken Hebrew people there. As Antioch was a very wealthy city, and, from its vast commercial interests, quite independent of crop conditions for a single season, this provision for the relief of the Judean believers in straitened conditions was not only immensely magnanimous but quite possible on the part of the church in the Syrian capital. No doubt Barnabas was at the bottom of the project, and he took care to have Saul appointed fellow committeeman, so that he might again introduce him to the elders of the mother church under most favorable circumstances.