After the resurrection, Jesus said that since all authority had been given to Him, the apostles were to “therefore, go” disciple all the nations of the world. The center and most essential point of this mission is the regeneration of individual hearts. But the Bible teaches that this ordinarily happens through public and private, national and individual, external and internal means, all of which is not neat and tidy. The story of Peter and Cornelius demonstrates this, as does the controversy following. Jesus is at work by His Spirit ruling through the challenges and opportunities of making a new people and saving the nations of the world.
The Text: “And the apostles and brethren that were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him…” (Acts 11:1-30).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Those Jewish believers who thought that Gentiles must be circumcised to fully join the people of God contended with Peter when he came back to Jerusalem, questioning him specifically about eating with Cornelius (Acts 11:1-3). Peter responded by retelling the story of his vision of the animals in the sheet, and God’s instruction not to call them common or unclean (Acts 11:4-10). Then Peter recalls the Spirit’s instructions to go with the men from Cornelius, and Cornelius’s own testimony of the angel’s instructions to call for Peter, to learn how his household might be saved (Acts 11:11-14). Peter said he just started preaching when the Spirit fell upon them, and he recalled Jesus promising the baptism of the Holy Spirit and concluded it was from God – and the Jewish believers agreed and glorified God (Acts 11:15-18).
Meanwhile, when the believers had been scattered after the death of Stephen, some landed in Antioch, and many Jews and Gentiles believed (Acts 11:19-21). So the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to encourage them, who did so, and who then also invited Saul to join him in that work (Acts 11:22-26). It was there in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians, and it was in those days that the Spirit indicated that there would be a severe famine and so an offering was collected for the saints and delivered by Saul and Barnabas (Acts 11:27-30).
FIRST CALLED CHRISTIANS IN ANTIOCH
Beginning with the contention of the Jewish believers “of the circumcision” and Peter’s explanation of what happened with Cornelius and then continuing north, in Antioch, both Jews and Gentiles were turning to the Lord, and they were all coming to be called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). This new name highlights the Jewish roots but also the new people being formed. The word “Christ” means “anointed” and could also be translated as Messiah or King. So to be “Christian” is to be associated with the King, or the King’s people. The word “Christian” is only used two other places in the New Testament: when King Agrippa says that Paul almost persuaded him to become a Christian (Acts 26:28) and when Peter encourages believers not to be ashamed if they suffer as Christians (1 Pet. 4:16).
OUTWARD & INWARD
The thing to notice is that in all three instances, the name is an objective, public title. It was not used in the first instance as an exact description of those going to heaven. And this corresponds to how the name Israelite/Jew also functioned. The objective, public sense of the name referred to all who were covenantally connected to the family of Abraham through circumcision, but that outward sign was always meant to be a call to believe in the promises of God and so be circumcised in the heart (Dt. 10:16, 30:6, Jer. 4:4). A true Jew is one who is circumcised in his heart (Rom. 2:29); so not all Israelites were really Israelites (Rom. 9:6). In the same way, we might say, not all Christians are really Christians, and a true Christian is one whose heart is baptized. In Romans 3, Paul immediately asks, then what advantage is the outward, covenantal connection, and he says: “much in every way” because God is still faithful and works through His public people, even if some do not believe (Rom. 3:1-4). Christ rules through His covenant.
The New Covenant is better than the Old Covenant in quality (fullness of Christ), quantity (fullness of forgiveness and the Spirit), and extent (for the whole world) (Heb. 8-10). But the New Covenant is not made out of stainless steel. Jesus says He is a vine, and we are the branches (Jn. 15). Likewise, the covenant is an Olive Tree, which unbelieving Israel has been cut out of and Gentiles have been grafted into (Rom. 11). Old Israel had baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Christ in the wilderness, but they lusted for evil things, served idols, and complained – and the Spirit wrote those things as warnings for us (1 Cor. 10:1-11).
A married man who commits serial adultery is not at all acting as a husband, but he is a husband by covenant – that’s what makes his crime so hideous. Likewise, we live in a land full of baptized unbelievers or unbelieving covenant Christians, which is what makes our situation far worse. Many have trampled the blood of the covenant (Heb. 10:29 cf. 2 Pet. 2:20-21).
Matthew Henry’s father is remembered as saying that whenever his children misbehaved, he would “grab them by their baptism.” The point is that in baptism God says something objectively about us, putting His name on us, and that covenantal reality must be part of our appeal to our children, one another, other churches, and many of our neighbors. When Israel was worshipping idols and committing abominations, they were still God’s people and that only made it worse. We do not confuse the covenantal and eternal realities: John (and other ministers) baptize with covenantal water, but Jesus is the only One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit who seals us forever (Lk. 3:16, Acts 11:16). And His fruit is unmistakable (Gal. 5).
It was hard for faithful Jews to accept Gentiles as full members of the covenant (e.g. Lk. 15:28, Jonah, Habakkuk), and it is often easy to resent how God works in the covenant, with believers and unbelievers, strong and weak, wise and foolish, even heroes and scoundrels. There are plenty of opportunities for envy, resentment, bitterness, or despair. But notice how Barnabas was glad and served the new Christians in Antioch and then promoted Saul (Acts 11:23-26). And notice how the new Christians in Antioch gave freely to the needs in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). Our job is not to sort it all out (Mt. 13). This is the King’s mission. He rules. We obey and glorify Him as we see Him work. We are the King’s people. We are Christians.