Let’s just think back over Peter’s career, up to this point.
He grew up on the water, fishing with his brother Andrew, and his dad. At some point, he and Andrew were going to inherit their dad’s boat, and maybe even build up the business. He may have had some rudimentary reading and writing skills, as did many Jewish boys, in order to read and write receipts, and perform other simple business matters.
At some point he came in contact with John the Baptist, and was so moved he became one of John’s many disciples. He was there when the Baptist pointed Jesus out, saying, “there is the Lamb of God,” the one John had been preaching and prophesying about. Peter and Andrew began to follow Jesus that very day, spending a great deal of time with Him before Jesus tapped them both to become members of His own inner circle of Twelve.
After that, Peter was invariably at Jesus’ side, along with James and John, and often Andrew was there, too. Peter and John became close, life-long friends during the three turbulent, fast-paced years they spent with Jesus, and are often found together throughout the New Testament.
Highlights of Peter’s time with Jesus might include him walking on the water, proclaiming Jesus Messiah, and being called a rock of faith.
Lowlights might be when Peter rebuked Jesus, cut off a servant’s ear (with a sword he had illegally hidden in his robe), and when he disowned Jesus during His darkest hour.
So far, in the book of Acts, Peter has taken a prominent position:
Acts 1: On Peter’s initiative the new twelfth disciple, Matthias, was chosen.
Acts 2: Peter became spokesperson for what was happening in the streets of Jerusalem, and as a result, 3,000 became believers.
Acts 3: Through Peter, Jesus healed a lame beggar at a gate of the temple.
Acts 4: Peter, together with John, preached to all the religious rulers and temple elite.
Acts 5: Peter presided over the giving of gifts to the Jesus community, which included Ananias’ and Sapphira’s startling deaths.
Acts 8: After the stoning of Stephen (and introduction of Saul), the gospel spread to Samaria, where Peter, along with John, were sent to witness the work of the Spirit.
Acts 9: Through Peter, Jesus restored the paralyzed Aeneas, and raised Dorcas back to life.
Acts 10: Peter, along with 6 hand-picked Jewish Christians as witnesses, taught the gospel to Cornelius along with his whole household and extended friends, resulting in a powerful work of the Holy Spirit, akin to the Upper Room in Acts 2, indwelling and filling everyone present.
Peter and his coworkers were blown away by what they were experiencing, and realized they must follow through with what the Lord had begun by baptizing them all into the faith.
Yet, when the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem heard what had happened in the home of Cornelius, the Gentile, the Roman Centurion, despite Peter’s stellar resume, rock-solid reputation, and six trustworthy eyewitnesses, they contended with Peter.
The circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”Acts 11:2-3 (NRSV)
There were two major issues at stake:
- the Levitical laws concerning unclean food
Cornelius was not a proselyte who had become a Jew first before becoming a Christian. He wasn’t like the Samaritans, who had Judaism in their lineage. It was okay to assimilate a few Gentile proselytes, but what do you do when there are a lot of them? They were saying,
Gentiles have to become Jews like us if they want to come into the church, because we don’t want to contaminate the church.
And how could you fraternize with unclean people, anyway? God warns against that, time and again, in the scriptures.
Do you see the beginnings of a church schism? Peter was frank in telling them what had happened, holding nothing back. He gave them God’s principle,
What God has made clean, you must not call profane
and he gave them God’s proof,
God gave them the same gift [the Holy Spirit] that he gave us
Peter’s simple, straightforward logic, and God’s obvious affirmation, rendered them speechless. There was no tenable argument, no counterpoint could be made, God had made His desire and will abundantly clear. So, the leaders of the Jerusalem church, and everyone present had to acquiesce.
But this issue was going to crop again and again. Prejudice is hard to get rid of.
Once the Jewish Christians accepted that God had granted even to Gentiles the repentance that leads to life, it once again blew the doors off of the gospel.
Some scattered, displaced Jerusalem Christians brought the gospel to Antioch, a cosmopolitan city in Syria that was already 300 years old in that day. Antioch was, in fact, one of the three largest cities in the known world, the other two being Rome and Alexandria. There was a mixture of cultures in Syria’s Antioch, wealth, and a notorious reputation for sexual immorality. Yet
The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.Acts 11:21 (NRSV)
Antioch experienced a spiritual breakthrough when Jerusalem Headquarters sent Barnabas to witness and authenticate the work of the Spirit, there. This appears to have been their policy to check on new ministries, though it is intriguing they kept Peter home and sent Barnabas instead.
When the Holy Spirit is at work it will be evident to everybody
When Barnabas saw the evidence of the Holy Spirit, he was delighted. But he also saw the great need for teaching, there was so much for these new, largely Gentile, converts to learn. And, Barnabas also displayed real wisdom in desiring a partner. So often you and I are asked to do something and we try to do it all by ourselves, with no one to pray with us, bounce ideas off of, help us, and labor together with us. That’s a recipe for burn-out! Barnabas knew he couldn’t pull this off alone
But, here’s where it gets even more interesting. Instead of sending back to Jerusalem, where presumably all the great teachers were, Barnabas went to Tarsus to find Saul, that troublemaking Pharisee convert who had been packed off home by the believers in Jerusalem.
Was Barnabas hoping for some good old fashioned conservative Bible teaching? Had Barnabas also been one of those circumcised Christians who had been distressed and disturbed about baptising uncircumcised Gentiles into the faith? Is it possible he felt Paul, so well-versed in the scriptures, and a trained teacher of the Law, would bring some order back into the gospel movement?
Certainly, he would have remembered Paul’s dynamic energy and enthusiasm Together Barnabas and Paul taught for a whole year.
This chapter ends with two firsts: the first time believers began to be called Christians, and the first time one congregation sent support to another.
It also recognizes a subtle shift that had begun in the Gospel Movement. Though Jerusalem would be seen, for years to come, as the center of the church, Antioch would grow as the new nexus.
Innovation, new doctrine, training for mission work, and the intricate lifelines of relationship would all come through this church as the Acts of Jesus through His apostles spread throughout the known world.
[Part of the border of the Megalopsychia hunt mosaic from the latter half of the 5th century from Daphne (Yakto) that may show the Imperial Palace and Great Church of Antioch | Wikimedia, Public Domain]