During the apostle Peter’s early ministry, people were convinced about Jesus’ messiahship by the evidence of miraculous healings. Two such incidents occurred when Peter visited Church members along the Mediterranean coast of central Palestine. In Lydda (Lod), he met a paralyzed man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years. At Peter’s word the man got to his feet and was healed. This convinced many in Lydda and the Sharon area to become followers of Jesus.
In nearby Joppa (Jaffa), a disciple named Tabitha, or Dorcas, was also the recipient of a miracle. She was known among the believers for her good works and charitable deeds. But she died while Peter was at Lydda. The disciples sent for him and brought him to the room where her body lay. Peter sent everyone out of the room and prayed over her, telling her to rise. She sat up, took his hand and stood. Luke notes that Peter then presented her to the saints and widows. In the New Testament, the term “saint” refers not to a person who has undergone an elaborate investigation of his or her works, followed by veneration, beatification and canonization, but to those God has called into His Church. They are sanctified, or set apart, for service to God by living His way of life. They are simply ordinary people with an extraordinary calling. Dorcas had been a servant and helper to the widows and the other members, and they were very appreciative of her “return.” Her coming back to life became well known in the region, and more were added to the Church.
A Centurion Becomes a Follower
Peter stayed in Joppa for several days at the house of Simon the Tanner. According to Old Testament law, Simon’s work made him ceremonially unclean because he handled the skins of dead animals (Leviticus 11:39–40). But Peter was not averse to staying with him, being willing to associate with people perhaps shunned by others. It was a helpful attitude, bearing in mind what was about to happen with the Roman centurion Cornelius, who lived about 33 miles (53 kilometers) away in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea.
Cornelius and his men were part of the large Italian Regiment stationed in the port city. Like many non-Jews in the first century, he and his household had become worshipers of the God of Israel. They were what the New Testament terms “God-fearers”—people who were committed to God and who attended the synagogue, though not fully members of the Jewish faith. Cornelius had a vision telling him that God had heard his prayers and noted his charitable works, and that he should send to Joppa for Peter, who would tell him what he should do (Acts 10:1–6).
As Cornelius’s servants and one of his God-fearing soldiers approached Joppa, Peter was praying on the rooftop of Simon’s house. He became very hungry, and falling into a trance, he saw a great sheet tied at the four corners coming down to him out of heaven, filled with all kinds of animals including reptiles and birds. A voice told him to rise, kill and eat. Knowing that the sheet contained many animals that the Hebrew Scriptures designate as unfit to eat—unclean meats—Peter refused. The voice from heaven said, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (verses 9–15).
This happened three times and left Peter puzzling about the meaning. Many commentators assert that it was God’s way of telling Peter that the food laws of the Old Testament had become obsolete. Nothing could be further from the truth. Peter’s explanation of what he derived from the experience is found just a few verses later. He said to Cornelius, “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (verse 28, emphasis added). There is not a hint of any change in the food laws. It would have seemed very odd to Cornelius, the God-fearer, whose belief was informed by devotion to the God of Israel and whose Scriptures were the Hebrew Old Testament, to meet a Jew whose message was in part a rescinding of the food laws.
At the request of Cornelius’s servants, Peter and some of the disciples from Joppa went to his house. There Peter recognized that God was opening the door of salvation to the gentiles, just as he had to the Jews. Here was a God-fearing man with his relatives and close friends, anxious to know what God would have them do (verses 24–33). As Peter delivered his message about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit came on the household. Peter instantly knew what was taking place, no doubt recalling what had happened to him on Pentecost, about 10 years earlier, when the Holy Spirit was given to the apostles. He then instructed that Cornelius and his household be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. Like the Jewish apostles and witnesses to Jesus’ ministry, the gentile centurion had become a follower of “the Way” (verses 34–48).
When Peter returned to Jerusalem, the six disciples who had accompanied him to Caesarea became witnesses to what had happened. There the apostle met with opposition from some of the Jewish believers, who accused him of defiling himself by eating with gentile Romans. Peter and his witnesses told their story and convinced the Jerusalem church that God had indeed made His truth and way of life available to all humanity. It was a significant step forward in accomplishing the commission that Jesus had given His disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, … teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20).
Events in Syrian Antioch
Following the murder of Stephen and the persecution led by Saul against the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem (Acts 7:54–60; 8:1, 3), many had escaped to other parts of the region. They had gone to outlying areas in Judea and Samaria, and some to Phoenicia, to Cyprus, and to Antioch in northern Syria (Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19–22). They had talked to others about their new beliefs, but their listeners were exclusively Jews. Some believers who came originally from Cyprus and Cyrene in North Africa had gone to Antioch. In this great crossroads city, the third largest in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria, they had told Greek-speakers—who were probably neither Jews nor gentile proselytes to Judaism, though possibly God-fearers—about Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, “a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). The account’s position in the unfolding story of the spread of the good news adds weight to the probability that these people were not Jewish. As we have just seen, what immediately precedes it is the conversion of gentiles in Palestine and their acceptance by the Jerusalem church.
As a result of the sudden growth in the Antioch congregation, the believers in Jerusalem sent one of their leaders, Barnabas, to discover what exactly had happened. His visit soon confirmed the truth of what they had heard, and as a result of his own encouraging teaching and enthusiasm, more were added to the Church (verse 24). Barnabas was not unfamiliar with unexpected developments in the Church’s work. He had been able to introduce the apostles in Jerusalem to the repentant persecutor Saul and tell them of his astonishing conversion on the Damascus road and his work in the synagogues there.
Now with the growth in Antioch, Barnabas realized he needed help and set out to find Saul once more. Saul had left Palestine some 10 years earlier to escape Greek-speaking Jews who opposed his newfound faith. He had been sent on his way from Caesarea to his home city of Tarsus in Cilicia by members of the Church. What exactly he did during that decade is not known for sure, though Saul (or to use his Roman name, Paul) writes that after his conversion he went to Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:21; see also Acts 15:23, 41). By the time Barnabas found him, he was ready to help in Antioch. Luke tells us that Barnabas and Paul worked together in the city for a year, meeting with the Church, “and taught a great many people” (Acts 11:26).
We also learn that it was in Antioch that “the disciples were first called Christians.” This is a statement that cannot be taken at face value. The conclusion that most draw is that the term Christian is the biblical name for the followers of Christ. Yet the New Testament uses it in only two other places (Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16) and in no case is it a self-description. As various scholars note, it was a term used derisively by others for the followers of Jesus. In the earliest New Testament times, several terms were used by Church members of themselves, including brethren, disciples, believers, saints, followers of the Way and Church of God. It was only in the second century that some were willing to accept the term Christian, but in so doing they ignored early Church understanding and practice.
Events in Jerusalem
While Barnabas and Paul were working in Antioch, prophets came from Jerusalem, and one of them, Agabus, announced that there would be a great famine. Luke records that this actually occurred in the days of Claudius Caesar, who ruled from 41–54 C.E. The disciples in Antioch believed the prophecy and collected relief money to send to the Jerusalem elders with Barnabas and Paul.
Subsequent events in Jerusalem help us date the famine fairly accurately. Acts 12 opens with an account of the attack on the Church there by King Herod Agrippa (11 B.C.E.–44 C.E.). First he killed James the brother of John, one of the original disciples of Jesus, and then he jailed the apostle Peter during the spring holy day season known as the Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread (verses 1–4). Some versions of the New Testament wrongly refer to this season as “Easter,” a word which nowhere appears in the original Greek text.
Because of the king’s persecution, the local congregation was in a state of constant prayer for the imprisoned Peter. Suddenly during the night, he was miraculously freed from his chains. Arriving at the home of a woman named Mary (the mother of Barnabas’s cousin John Mark, author of the Gospel of Mark [verse 12; Colossians 4:10]), where the brethren were gathered together, Peter knocked. The young woman who answered the gate was so happy to see him that she failed to open it, running back inside to tell the others. They simply dismissed her words as impossible, telling her she was mad or had seen an angel—this despite the fact that what they were intently praying for had happened (verses 5–18). Sometimes we do not recognize the answer to prayer when it comes!
An End and a Beginning
Herod for his part, having failed to recapture Peter, went down to Caesarea. There his life came to an abrupt end. He had been angry with the people of the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, who now sued for peace. Herod set a day aside to meet with them, and after they had heard his speech, they acclaimed him a god. Because Herod failed to deny the adulation and give glory to God, Luke records that an angel struck him with a disease, and that he was eaten by worms and died. History records Herod’s death in 44 C.E., and the Jewish historian Josephus mentions that it came after five days of stomach pains. Meanwhile, Luke writes that in the Church “the word of God grew and multiplied” (verses 19–24).
Apparently present in Jerusalem during this time, Barnabas and Paul delivered the relief funds, and taking John Mark with them, they returned to Antioch.
In that city there were several prophets and teachers. Besides Barnabas and Paul, there was Simeon, possibly a black man judging by his Latin surname, Niger. There was another from North Africa, Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, who had grown up with Herod Antipas.
It was among this group, as they were praying and fasting, that the inspiration came to send Barnabas and Paul on a new journey that was to initiate a major phase in the further spread of the gospel message and the opening of the world to the west. It was the first of several journeys that Paul would make over the next two decades, to what would become the new arena for the good news.