We have pointed out that Acts is a dispensational book. One verse related to the dispensational element in Acts is 1:8, where the Lord tells the disciples, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the remotest part of the earth.” Before the Lord spoke these words, the disciples asked Him, “Lord, are You at this time restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6). The Lord replied, “It is not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father has placed in His own authority” (v. 7). Then the Lord went on to say that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit had come upon them and they would be His witnesses unto the remotest part of the earth. In 1:8 the Lord Jesus told the disciples that He would use them as His witnesses not only among the Jews in Jerusalem and in all Judea but among those in Samaria, and even among all the Gentiles in the remotest part of the earth. Although the disciples heard this word, they did not realize what the Lord was saying. In this simple word the Lord Jesus was indicating that the disciples would need to break through the Old Testament dispensation. From the disciples’ experience we see that to hear is one thing, but to realize and experience what we hear is another. Peter, for example, heard the Lord’s word in 1:8, but he nevertheless had difficulty with the Lord’s fulfillment of this word.
In 1:8 the Lord said that the disciples would be His witnesses in Samaria. This was fulfilled through the preaching of Philip the evangelist. In chapter eight we see that Philip evangelized Samaria and brought a good number of Samaritans into the Body of Christ. After that, the Lord wanted to go further. He had gone from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria. Now He desired to go from Samaria to the Gentile world. At first Peter did not agree to take this step, but eventually he accepted the Lord’s word concerning the Gentiles and went with six other brothers to the house of Cornelius.
According to 10:23, when Peter went to the house of Cornelius in Caesarea, “some of the brothers from Joppa accompanied him.” In 11:12 Peter points out that six brothers went with him. We have noted previously that in this case Peter did not act individualistically, but with some of the brothers in the principle of the Body of Christ so that they might witness what God would do with the Gentiles through the preaching of the gospel by the breaking of the Jewish tradition and habit. However, Peter may not have been that familiar with the principle of the Body. He may have been acting here out of caution and out of the need to protect himself from the criticism of those of the circumcision. There is no record that the Lord told Peter to take these six brothers with him; neither are we told that Cornelius invited them to come along with Peter. These six were neither sent by the Lord nor invited by Cornelius; instead, they were taken by Peter as a protection for him. We may say that Peter kept the principle of the Body. However, if we could ask him about the matter, he might say, “You give me too much credit in saying that I acted according to the principle of the Body. What I did in taking the six brothers with me was for my protection. I was afraid that the Jewish brothers in Jerusalem would condemn me. Therefore, as a precaution, I took six brothers with me when I went to Caesarea.”
Not only did Peter bring these six brothers with him from Joppa to Caesarea; he also took them with him to Jerusalem. Peter knew that he would face trouble in Jerusalem and that he would be criticized for what he had done in Caesarea. He realized that he would need witnesses. He was a witness of Jesus Christ, and the six brothers that he brought to Jerusalem were his witnesses.
When Peter went up to Jerusalem, “those of the circumcision disputed with him, saying, You went in to men who are uncircumcised and ate with them!” (11:2-3). The saints in Jerusalem heard about what had happened in Caesarea, about what Peter had done in the house of Cornelius. Those of the circumcision asked Peter concerning this. They seemed to be saying to him, “Peter, what did you do? You took the lead to associate with the uncircumcised and to eat with them! What is this?”
According to verse 4, Peter began to explain in sequence what had taken place in the house of Cornelius. When I read the account in 11:1-18 many years ago, I thought that Peter was quite spiritual in the way he explained the matter to those of the circumcision. However, later I came to see that Peter may have actually been somewhat cowardly, somewhat afraid of those of the circumcision. Whatever may have been the situation, Peter explained things in a very nice way.
Peter concluded his presentation with these words: “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as also on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, John indeed baptized in water, but you shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit. If God therefore gave to them the equal gift as also to us, having believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could forbid God?” (vv. 15-17). Peter’s presentation is excellent, and we may learn of him.
Acts 11:18 says, “And when they heard these things, they were silent and glorified God, saying, Then also to the Gentiles God has given repentance unto life.” In this verse the word “then” is not positive, for it does not indicate willingness. Those of the circumcision were surprised that God had given to the Gentiles repentance unto life. Their surprise and lack of willingness to accept this fact are indicated by “then.”
Actually, those of the circumcision should not have been surprised that God had given repentance unto life to the Gentiles. In 1:8 the Lord Jesus had already told the disciples that they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even in the remotest part of the earth including all the Gentiles. That was the Lord’s commandment, but the disciples did not realize it, and they did not accept it. After strong testimony was given concerning the Lord’s move among the Gentiles, those of the circumcision could only say, “Then also to the Gentiles God has given repentance unto life.”
We need to be impressed that Acts is a dispensational book. The matter of the change of dispensation is one of the strong points in Acts. To speak of a dispensational change means that in this book we see the need for a great transfer, the need for a great turn. This transfer, this turn, is from the old dispensation to the new.
In the book of Acts the early believers, including the apostles, were in a period of transition. We have pointed out that not even the apostles had a clear vision concerning God’s abandonment of the Judaic things. Peter and the other apostles, therefore, did not pass through this transitional period successfully. Actually, they had a great failure. This led to a mixture of the church with Judaism, which was not condemned by the early church in Jerusalem. That made it necessary for God to use Titus with the Roman army in A.D. 70 to destroy Jerusalem, the temple, and the religion of Judaism. Through Titus the religious mixture in Jerusalem was also terminated. May we all see from the record in Acts the need for a dispensational transfer.
In this message we shall cover 11:19-30. In this section of Acts we have the spread of the gospel to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch through the scattered disciples (vv. 19-26) and the communication between the church in Antioch and the churches in Judea (vv. 27-30). First we shall consider these verses in a general way. Then we shall pay particular attention to the Lord’s further preparation of Saul.
Acts 11:19 says, “Those then who were scattered by the tribulation which took place over Stephen passed through as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone.” It was sovereign of God that the scattering of the believers from Jerusalem to other localities through the persecution (8:4) should carry out the spreading of the gospel for the fulfillment of the Lord’s word in 1:8.
According to 11:19, those who went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch spoke the word only to Jews. This indicates how strong the Jewish believers were in keeping their traditions. They would not approach the Gentiles (10:28). This condition continued even after Peter’s preaching to Cornelius, an Italian. It surely restricted the Lord’s move in spreading His gospel according to God’s New Testament economy.
Acts 11:20 continues, “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and spoke also to the Greeks, bringing the good news of the Lord Jesus.” These men of Cyprus and Cyrene must have been the Jewish believers in dispersion (see 1 Pet. 1:1). Their speaking to the Greeks was a further step of the Lord’s move in spreading His gospel to the Gentiles following what happened in the house of Cornelius in chapter ten and before Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles began in chapter thirteen. Acts 11:21 says, “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.”
Acts 11:22 tells us that “the account concerning them was heard in the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas as far as Antioch.” Literally, the Greek word rendered “sent out” means to be sent out on a mission as an authoritative representative. Barnabas was sent out from Jerusalem to visit the believers in other places with authority from the apostles, not from the church, because the apostles were there.
Saul was saved by the Lord directly without any preaching channel (9:3-6), and he was brought into identification with the Body of Christ through Ananias, a member of the Body (9:10-19). However, Saul was introduced to practical fellowship with the disciples in Jerusalem through Barnabas (9:26-28). Now Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to go as far as Antioch to encourage the believers, and he went to Tarsus to bring Saul to Antioch (11:25-26). This was a big step. It initiated Saul into the Lord’s move in spreading the gospel of His kingdom to the Gentile world (13:1-3).