J. W. McGarvey's Original Commentary on ActsActs 11
The novel scene which had transpired in Cæsarea was
soon reported abroad over the country.
(1) "Now the apostles and brethren
throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles had received the word of
(2) And when Peter went up to Jerusalem, they of the circumcision
disputed with him,
(3) saying, You went into the house of men uncircumcised,
and did eat with them."
The prejudice from which Peter had
been delivered was still preying upon the hearts of his Jewish brethren,
including the other apostles. The same change is now to be
wrought in them which had already been effected in him. But there
is no repetition, in their case, of the vision and voices which had
occurred in his. On the contrary, there is nothing brought to bear
upon them but what is contained in the words of Peter.
(4) "But Peter related the matter to them in order from the beginning,
(5) I was in the city of Joppa, praying, and saw, in a trance,
a vision, a certain vessel like a great sheet descending, let down from
heaven by the four corners, and it came to me.
(6) Having looked
intently into it, I perceived and saw four-footed animals, and wild beasts,
and reptiles of the earth, and birds of the air.
(7) And I heard a voice,
saying to me, Arise, Peter; kill and eat.
(8) But I said, Not so, Lord;
for nothing common or unclean has at any time entered into my mouth.
(9) But the voice from heaven answered me, What God has cleansed,
do not you make common.
(10) This was done three times, and all was
drawn up into heaven again.
(11) And behold, three men immediately
came to the house in which I was, sent to me from Cæsarea,
the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing. But these six brethren
also went with me, and we entered into the man's house.
he told us that he had seen an angel in his house, standing and saying
to him, Send to Joppa, and call for Simon who is surnamed Peter,
(14) who will speak words to you by which you and all your house will be
(15) And while I was beginning to speak, the Holy Spirit fell
upon them as upon us in the beginning.
(16) Then I remembered the
word of the Lord, that he said, John immersed in water, but you shall be
immersed in the Holy Spirit.
(17) Since, then, God gave to them the
same gift as to us who already believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who
was I, that I should be able to withstand God?"
The events here
rehearsed by Peter had removed his own prejudice, and now, through
the words which he addressed to the brethren, the same vision of
unclean animals, with the command to kill and eat; the same command
of the Spirit to go with the Gentile messengers; the authority
of the angel who had ordered him to be sent for; and, finally, the same
immersion of those Gentiles in the Holy Spirit, are all pressing upon
their minds and hearts, with precisely the same import that they did
The effect of these influences was the same upon them that it
had been upon Peter.
(18) "When they heard these things they held
their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then has God to the Gentiles also
granted repentance in order to life."
So greatly are their hearts enlarged,
that they now glorify God for the very things on account of
which they had just been censuring Peter.
We have, in this incident, an exhibition of the actual method by
which the minds of Christians were enlightened, and their hearts enlarged.
We see that Peter was first enlightened by a combination of
facts, visions, and words, so as to understand the will of God in the
matter, and that through this enlightened understanding he was made
to feel the weight of divine authority. Although the Spirit of God
dwelt in him continually, and imparted ideas to his understanding
directly, yet, when his heart was to be relieved from an injurious
the end was accomplished by means of ideas communicated to
his understanding. Thus the case stands with Peter, who occupies
the position of an original recipient of truth.
With the brethren in Jerusalem, who occupied the exact position
toward this particular subject which we do to all revealed truth, there
is this difference, that all the influence, both upon the
and the emotional nature, exerted in their case, reached them through
Peter's words. Still, the influence was not inherent in the words, but
in the facts of which the words were the medium of communication.
Moreover, the facts had such an influence only because they indicated
the will of God. It was then, at last, the moral power of God, embodied
in the facts reported by Peter, but brought to bear through the
words of Peter, which so changed their hearts. They had only to
believe what Peter reported, in order to feel this power. If they had
retained their prejudice after this, they would have felt that they were
In precisely this way the converting and sanctifying influence of
the Holy Spirit reaches the hearts of men now. We do not have
direct communication with heavenly beings, as Peter had, but, like
the brethren in Jerusalem, we hear from his lips, and the lips and
pens of other original recipients, the same truth which affected their
minds and hearts, and we find ours affected by it in the same way.
When we resist, we are resisting not Peter and Paul, but the Holy
Spirit, by whom they spoke and wrote. The fact that the Holy Spirit
dwells in us is no proof that his action upon our moral sentiments is
direct or immediate; for he dwelt in Peter, and in the apostles who
arraigned Peter; yet his action upon even their hearts was mediate,
through ideas communicated. He who asserts for us a species of
spiritual influence which was not exerted even upon the apostles and
other inspired me, is, to say the least, a daring speculator.
The scene of the narrative is now about to change to another
Roman province, and to the city of Antioch. Preparatory to this
transition, the historian glances back over a period of several years,
to the dispersion of the Jerusalem Church. He had made that event
his point of departure in rehearsing the labors of Philip and the
early history of Saul, and now, with a degree of system in his arrangement
which should not be overlooked, he starts again at the same
point to sweep over another part of the wide field before him.
(19) "Now they who were scattered abroad from the persecution which
arose about Stephen, traveled as far as Phenicia, and Cyprus, and Antioch,
speaking the word to none but Jews."
From this we learn that while
Philip was preaching in Samaria, and Saul in Damascus and Arabia,
others of the brethren were spreading the truth into Phenicia, the island
of Cyprus, and Antioch in Syria. Thus the knowledge of salvation
was sounded out from Jerusalem simultaneously into all the
Verses 20, 21
Among the brethren engaged in these labors, Luke chooses
to follow in a narrative only those who founded the Church in Antioch.
(20) "And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, having
come into Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus.
(21) The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed
and turned to the Lord."
These men were not immediately from Cyprus
and Cyrene, but were a part of those dispersed from Jerusalem.
The expression, "Some of them," referring to the preceding sentence,
thus designates them. The Hellenists were doubtless numerous in
Antioch, from the fact if its being the chief commercial city of Western
Asia; and these brethren, being also Hellenists, were best suited
for reaching their ears.
Jerusalem was still the chief center of religious influence,
being the chief residence of the apostles. They kept a watchful eye
upon the movements of brethren in all directions, supplying help
and counsel according to the demand of circumstances. They were
anxious to hear of every new success, and the brethren were equally
glad to report it.
(22) "Then tidings of these things came to the ears of
the Church in Jerusalem, and they sent forth Barnabas to go as far as
(23) When he arrived and saw the favor of God, he rejoiced,
and exhorted them all with purpose of heart to cling to the Lord.
For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and faith; and a
great multitude were added to the Lord."
It is not often that Luke
bestows a direct encomium upon the characters of whom he writes, as
he does here upon Barnabas. But it was proper, in this case, that the
selection of Barnabas for this mission, in preference to other brethren,
should be accounted for by stating the noble qualities which led to the
choice. He was certainly a most proper man to send to a congregation
of young disciples, to exhort them to cling to the Lord.
While Barnabas was engaged in these faithful labors in Antioch,
he seems to have longed for the co-operation of a kindred spirit. He
had not forgotten the converted persecutor, whom he had kindly taken
by the hand when all the apostles were suspicious of him, and introduced
to the confidence of the brethren. An act of kindness often
makes as deep an impression on the heart of the benefactor as on that
of the recipient. The heart of Barnabas had followed Saul when the
brethren sent him away to Tarsus,
and now that he needs a fellow-laborer,
his heart directs him where to seek.
(25) "Then Barnabas departed to Tarsus to seek Saul;
(26) and having found him he brought him to Antioch."
The attachment being mutual, he found no difficulty
in securing the object of his mission.
The united efforts of two such men as Barnabas and Saul, in a
community where the gospel was already favorably heard, could not
fail of good results.
(26) "And it came to pass, that during a whole year
they were associated together in the Church, and taught a great multitude;
and the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch."
been much dispute as to whether this new name was given by Barnabas
and Saul under divine authority, or by the Gentiles of Antioch,
or by the disciples themselves. It would serve no practical purpose to
decide between the latter two suppositions, for, with whichever party
it originated, it was subsequently accepted by the disciples in general.
As to the supposition that the name was given by direct revelation
through Barnabas and Saul, a thorough discussion of its merits would
require more verbal criticism than is suited to the design of this work,
and, at the same time, be less decisive in reference to the authority
of the name in question, than the course of investigation which we
prefer to institute. We retain, therefore, the common version of the
passage, which is sustained by the great mass of critics of all ages
and all parties, while we seek a more certain basis on which to rest
the divine authority of the new name than verbal criticism can establish.
If the New Testament furnishes any names for the people of God,
its authority in reference to their use is not less imperative than in
reference to any other use of language. We can have no more right,
in this case, to substitute other names for them, or to add others to
them, than to do the same in reference to the names of the apostles, of
the Holy Spirit, or of Christ.
Religious names are significant. They not only distinguish the
bodies to which they belong, as do modern names of individuals, but
they distinguish them by a condensed description of their peculiarities.
All the peculiarities of a religious denomination are expressed by the
denominational name in its current import. Hence, to call a Baptist
by the name Methodist would be worse than to call Smith by the
name of Jones; for, besides miscalling him, it would be misrepresenting
his religious principles. It is true, that, in thus miscalling the
Baptist, you have not changed him into a Methodist, for he remains
the same by whatever name you call him. Still, you have miscalled
him and done him injustice. Truth and justice, therefore, require us
to use religious names with reference to their significance.
If denominational names are significant, those originally applied to
the body of Christ are not less so. They distinguish the people of
God by designating some of their peculiarities. These peculiarities
were found either in the relations which they sustained, or in the character
which they exhibited to the world. The first relation which
attracted the attention of the world, as they followed Jesus from place
to place, was that of teacher and pupils. This suggested the name
learners, by which they were first designated, and which
is the most common designation in the gospel narratives. From the
fact that there were disciples of John, with whom they might be
confounded, they were, at first, styled "disciples of Jesus." But when
John had decreased, and Jesus had increased, the limiting words were
dispensed with, and the term disciple was
appropriated, so that, standing
alone, it always meant a disciple of Jesus. In the four gospels
the limiting words are commonly employed; but in Acts, where Luke
is giving some of their history as a great people spreading through
the earth, after once calling them "disciples of the Lord," at the time
Saul starts after them to Damascus, he drops the limiting words, and
thence throughout the whole narrative he calls them simply the "disciples."
When the disciples assumed a new relation to their teacher, it necessarily
brought them into a new relation to one another. From the
nature of the moral lessons which they were learning, and which
they were required to put into immediate practice, this relation became
very intimate and very affectionate. It gave rise to their designation
as "the brethren." They were so styled first by Jesus, saying to them:
"Be not called Rabbi; for one is your teacher, and all you are
brethren." [Matthew 23:8.]
This term, however, as a distinctive appellation of the whole
body, is used only once in the gospel narratives, where John says of
the report that he would not die: "This saying went abroad among
the brethren." [John 21:23.]
In Acts it frequently occurs in this sense; but still
more frequently in the Epistles. The latter being addressed to the
brethren, and treating of their mutual obligations, this term most naturally
takes precedence in them, and the term disciple, which is used in
speaking of a brother rather than
to him, is as naturally omitted.
This accounts for the fact that the latter term is not once found in
This increasing currency of the term brethren in the later apostolic
age is intimately associated with the introduction of another name
which came into use in the same period. Jesus frequently called the
disciples his own brethren, and taught them, in praying to say, "Our
Father, who art in heaven;"
but the title, "children of God," which
grew out of the relation thus indicated, was not applied to them during
this early period. It is not so applied in any of the gospels but
John's, and in this only in two instances, where it is evident that he
is using the phraseology of the time in which he writes rather than of
the period of which he
writes. [1:12; 11:52.]
This appellation, as a current and cotemporaneous
title, is found only in the Epistles, being brought into use
after the disciples had obtained more exalted conceptions of the blessed
privileges and high honors which God had conferred upon them. It
extorted an admiring comment from John, in his old age: "Behold,
what manner of love the Father bestowed upon us, that we should
be called the sons of
God!" [1 John 3:1.]
By this time the disciples exhibited to the world a well-defined character.
It was such as identified them with those who, in the Old
Testament, were called saints, and this suggested the use of this term
as one of their appellations. The persecutions which they were enduring
still further identified them with the holy "prophets who were
This name occurs first on the lips of Ananias when
he objected to approaching Saul of Tarsus. He says to the Lord,
"I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he has done to
thy saints in Jerusalem."
In the Epistles this name is used more frequently
than any other.
All of the names we have now considered are well adapted to their
specific purposes; but all of them presuppose some knowledge of the
people whom they are intended to distinguish. An entire stranger
would not at first know who was meant by the disciples, or
but would ask, Disciples of whom? brethren of whom? Nor would
he know who were the children of God, or the
saints, until you had
informed him to what certain characters these terms apply. There
was need, therefore, of a name less ambiguous to those who had the
least information on the subject--one better adapted to the great world.
This, like all the others, originated from circumstances which demanded
it for immediate use. When a Church was established in
Antioch, it became an object of inquiry to strangers, brought thither
by the pursuits of commerce, from all parts of the world. They were
strangers to the cause of Christ in reference to all but the wonderful
career of its founder. The whole world had heard something of Christ,
as the remarkable personage who was put to death under Pontius Pilate,
though many had heard nothing of the early history of his Church.
From this fact, when strangers came to Antioch, and heard the new
party who were attracting so much attention there, called Christians,
they at once recognized them as followers of that Christ of whom
they had already heard. This explains the fact stated in the text,
that "the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." The fact
that Luke here adopts it, and that both Paul and Peter afterward recognized
it, gives it all the validity of inspired usage, and, therefore, all
the weight of divine authority. That it is a New Testament name is
undisputed, and this renders its divine authority indisputable.
This name, whether given by divine or by human authority, was
not designed as an exclusive appellation, seeing that the others were
continued in use after its introduction. It merely took its proper
place among the other names, to answer its own special purpose.
To sum up the facts now adduced, the New Testament usage in
reference to names is this: When the followers of Jesus were contemplated
with reference to their relation to him as their great teacher,
they were called disciples. When the mind of the speaker was fixed
more particularly on their relation to one another, they were styled
brethren. When their relation to God was in the foreground, they were
called children of God. When they were designated with special reference
to character, they were called saints. But when they were spoken
of with the most general reference to their great leader, they were called
Christians. A practical observance of the exact force of each of these
names would soon conform our speech to the primitive model, and
would check a tendency to exalt any one name above another, by
giving to each its proper place.
The names now enumerated are all that are furnished by the New
Testament. We have assumed above that it would be subversive of
divine authority for disciples to adopt any other names. The truth of
this assumption is demonstrated by the rebuke which Paul administers
to the Corinthians for this very sin. He says to them: "It has
been declared to me, my brethren, by them who are of the household
of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that
each of you says, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas,
and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?
Or were you immersed into the name of
Paul?" [1 Corinthians 1:11-13.]
Now, if it was sinful
for these brethren to assume the names of men, how can it be
innocent in us to do the very same thing? The question demands the
most solemn and trembling consideration of this generation.
It is no extenuation of this fault to urge that the divisions which
now exist are of a different character from those in Corinth; for the
difference is entirely in their favor. They had not gone so far as to
divide the Church into separate organizations, but had merely formed
parties within it, like the parties of the present day, which sometimes
exist within a single denomination. The sin of to-day is, therefore,
much greater than theirs.
It is equally vain to excuse our sin, by urging that the party names
now worn are necessary, in order to distinguish the parties from one
another. If the existence of the parties themselves were authorized
by the Scriptures, this excuse would be valid; for we could not censure
ourselves for the unavoidable results of that which is itself right.
But the existence of party divisions constitutes the chief crime in the
case, and leads to the sin of party names, as stealing leads to lying.
The thief must inevitably lie, or acknowledge his theft; so the partisan
must either cling to his party name, or give up his party. The
name, in the mean time, is a necessary evil, but, being self-imposed, it
is none the less evil from being necessary.
Not to multiply words upon this point, it is sufficiently evident, from
the above considerations, that parties and party names among Christians
should be obliterated. If we say that it is impossible to obliterate
them, we are simply saying that it is impossible to bring Christians
back to the New Testament model--for, in the New Testament period,
there were no such divisions, and therefore a restoration of that
state of the Church would be the destruction of parties and party
names. If this is impossible, it can only be from one cause, and that
is, that men professing to take the word of God as their guide are so
hypocritical in this profession, that they will, at all hazard, persevere
in despising its authority in reference to a prominent item of duty.
How shameful it is, that men will uphold parties and party names,
which they know perfectly that a strict conformity to the New Testament
would utterly destroy! There is only one means of escape
from this crying sin. Those who love God must break loose at once,
as individuals, from the bondage of party, and take a position where
they may be upholders of no party, and wearers of no party name.
All who act thus will find themselves planted together on the plain
letter of the Scriptures, as their only rule of faith and practice.
In addition to the observations already submitted on this topic, we
remark that every significant name which a man wears imposes some
obligation upon him, and appeals to him incessantly, though silently,
to discharge this obligation faithfully. Does a man in foreign country
declare himself an American, he realizes that there is a peculiar
demeanor required by the fact, and feels constantly called upon to act
worthy of the name he wears. Even a man's patronymic, which
means no more than that he belongs to a certain family, is forever
warning him not to disgrace the name of his father. So it must be
with all religious names.
Is a man called a disciple of Jesus? He remembers that it is the
part of a disciple to learn what his teacher imparts, and to imitate his
example. Whenever he is reminded that this is his name, he feels
the necessity of studying the teachings of Jesus, and walking in his
footsteps. Whenever he finds himself neglecting these duties, his very
name rebukes him. This thought was not overlooked by the great
Teacher himself. He says to those Jews who believed on him, "If
you continue in my word, you are truly my
disciples, and you shall
truth, and the truth shall make you
free." [John 8:31,32.]
Again he says,
"It is enough for the disciple to be as his
teacher;" and "whosoever
does not bear his cross and come
after me, can not be my
disciple." [Matthew 10:24; Luke 14:27.]
Thus he gives emphasis to that exhortation which the name itself is
constantly sounding in the ear of conscience.
But the disciple is also one of the brethren--a brother to the Lord
Jesus, who is the oldest brother of a large family. This name is full
of affection and sympathy. I can not meet a man and call him
brother, without some thought of the fraternal sympathy which should
exist between us. If, when my heart is poisoned by unkind feelings
toward a disciple, he meets me and calls me brother, I feel reproached
by the word, and am choked in the attempt to pronounce it in return.
It will never let me forget the law of love. Its influence is recognized
by Peter, who says, "Seeing you have purified your souls in obeying
the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see
that you love one another with a pure heart
fervently." [1 Peter 1:22.]
There is another obligation involved in this name, arising from the
fact that the brothers in one family stand on an equal footing in reference
to authority, no one having supremacy over the others, but all
subject to the father. Jesus makes use of this fact as the ground of
a serious injunction. "Be not called Rabbi; for one is your teacher,
and all you are brethren; and call no man on earth your
One who is in heaven is your Father; neither be called Leaders, for
one is your Leader, the
Christ." [Matthew 23:8,10.]
The fact that we are brethren
is thus made to bear directly against that thirsting for titles of distinction,
and for rank and authority in the Church of Christ, which
is invariably the offspring of an unholy ambition. The modern Leaders
of sects--the ghostly Fathers of mystic Babylon, and the swelling
titles by which Doctors of Divinity, and the
Bishops and Archbishops of the present age are distinguished,
exhibit the most flagrant contempt for this solemn commandment of
the Lord. A man who understands the meaning of the fact that he
is one among many brethren, is guarded, by the humility of this title,
from participation in a sin like this.
If such are the obligations implied in the names disciple and
what shall we say of that more exalted title, children of God? It
originates from a supposed likeness between them and their Father.
We are commanded to love our enemies, to bless them who curse us,
to do good to them who hate us, and pray for them who persecute
us, that we may be children of our Father who is in
the very highest moral obligations imposed in the word of God must
ever press upon the soul of him who ears this title, inciting him to
become a partaker of the divine nature.
When, in addition to these appellations, you call a man a saint, you
thrust him as a companion into the midst of all the holy men of old,
and make him struggle to be like them. So palpable is the force of
this name, that the mass of professed Christians have long since ceased
to wear it. When men apostasized from what its meaning indicates,
it hung so heavily upon the conscience, that it became like a coal of
fire on their heads, and they found relief in throwing it off from themselves
and appropriating it to a few of the worthy dead. If we would
ever come back from the long apostasy of ages, we must learn to wear
the name saint, and walk worthy of the company with which it identifies
us. The term saint means
a holy one, and Peter exhorts, "As
he who called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of behavior;
because it is written, Be ye holy for I am
holy." [1 Peter 1:15,16.]
The name Christian embodies within itself, in a more generic form,
all the obligations specifically expressed by the other names. Being
derived from the name of him who is "head over all things for the
whose name is above every name,
it is a title of peculiar
honor and glory. It calls upon the man who wears it to act a part
in consonance with the historic memories which cluster around it, and
encourages him with the reflection that he wears a high dignity even
when despised and spit upon by the powers of earth. So thought
Peter, when this name was most despised. He says, "If any suffer as
a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God on this
account." "If ye are reproached for the name of Christ, happy are
you; for the spirit of glory and of God rests upon
When the servant of Christ remembers that all these names belong
to him; that, because he is supposed to be learning of Christ, he is
called a disciple; because he is one of the happy and loving family of
equals, they call him brother; because the Father of that family,
whose character he strives to imitate, is God himself, he is called a
child of God; that, because he is presumed to be holy, he is called a
saint; and that, for all these reasons, he wears the name of him who
by his mediation and intercession enables him to be all that he is,
how powerful the incentive to every virtue, constantly yet silently
pressing upon his conscience, and how stern the rebuke to every vice!
When we turn from this deep and holy philosophy of scriptural
names, to consider the import of mere partisan badges, how heartless
they all appear! The constant and only influence of party names is
to intensify mere partisan feelings. The man who wears the name
Methodist feels called upon by the fact to simply act like a Methodist;
and when that name is appealed to among those who honor it, it is only
to exhort one another to diligence in that which is peculiarly expected
of a mere Methodist. So with all other party names. There is nothing
in any of them to excite the longings of a sin-sick soul, and hence
they are never appealed to when sinners are exhorted to repent. On
the contrary, the most zealous partisans are often heard to assure sinners,
"Our object is not to make Presbyterians of you, or
or Baptists; but we want you to become
Christians." How strange it
is that men will pertinaciously cling to names which they are thus
ashamed of in the presence of penitent sinners, when there are others
at hand given by God himself, full of honor to the wearer, and of attraction
to all who seek salvation!
We have dwelt long upon the new name given in Antioch;
we must now consider other interesting events which occurred there
about the close of the year in which Barnabas and Saul labored
(27) "In those days prophets came down from Jerusalem
(28) and one of them, named Agabus, arose and signified
through the Spirit that there would be a great famine throughout the
whole world, which also occurred in the days of Claudius.
the disciples, every one according as he was prospered, determined to
send relief to the brethren who dwelt in Judea;
(30) which also they did,
sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul."
This is the first account we have of the gift of prophesy among the
disciples, but Agabus and his companions appear to have been already
known as prophets, doubtless from previous exercise of this gift.
The brethren, therefore, did not hesitate to give full credit to the prediction,
and knowing that such a famine must cause peculiar distress
among the extremely poor in Judea, they were prompt to supply their
wants even before the period of distress arrived. Their benevolence
is not less remarkable than that of the Church in Jerusalem at the
beginning. The poor for whom that Church provided were in their
midst, and suffering from present want; but the disciples in Antioch
anticipate a state of distress yet in the future, on the part of brethren
to whom they are personally unknown, and provide for it in advance.
No more striking evidence could be given, at once, of their benevolence,
and their confidence in the predictions of their own prophets.
This benevolent supply was sent to the Elders, by whom, we are to
understand, it was distributed to the final recipients. This is the first
time that elders, as a distinct class, are mentioned in connection with
the congregations of disciples. They are mentioned, however, as a
class of officials then well known, and, consequently, we must infer
that they had been appointed in the Churches at a still earlier