Acts 11Observe here, 1. How the Jews, apprehending that Christ and his grace had been only promised and confined to themselves, the call and conversion of the Gentiles became a dreadful stumbling-block unto them, even to the believing as well as the unbelieving Jews.
Hereupon observe, 2. How they contended with Peter for eating and conversing with the Gentiles, and especially for admitting them into the gospel-communion without circumcision: Whereas, although God forbad marriages with the Gentiles, he never forbad commerce and conversation with them: No conversation with the Gentiles, in order to the gaining of the Gentiles unto God, ws ever forbidden by God; but only such as might withdraw the Jews from God, and corrupt them by idolatry.
Observe here, 1. How far St. Peter was from pretending a superiority over the rest of the apostles; he did by no means think himself so far above them, as to disdain to render an account of his actions to them, but with great sincerity and humility, rehearsed and related the whole matter of fact, to their entire and joint satisfaction.
Observe, 2. How he acquaints the apostles with the vision he had seen, in which he was commanded to make no distinction of clean or unclean: because there was not natural turpitude in any kind of meat, save only as it was prohibited by God; and that God, who having made the law about difference of meats, had now abrogated it, and made all meats clean, and free to be eaten.
Observe, 3. How he gives them the interpretation of this vision, and acquaints them with the end for which this vision was designed; namely, not so much to reveal to him the lawfulness of eating all sorts of meats, as to acquaint him with his liberty and duty to converse with and preach the gospel to the Gentiles; whom he was no longer to look upon as unclean, though they were not circumcised; but as "heirs and fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God."
Observe lastly, The conclusion which St. Peter drew from these premises: "Seeing God hath made the Gentiles equal in grace with the believing Jews; seeing the Holy Ghost coame down upon them in the same manner, and with the same effects as he did upon us apostles, I could not reasonably deny them baptism, and by baptism admission into the gospel-church; for having the grace signified by baptism, they ought to have baptism, the seal of that grace; they that have the inward, are not to be denied the outward baptism; and they that were baptized with the Holy Ghost (as Cornelius and his family were) might and ought to be baptized with water, as Cornelius was: for had I denied them church-communion for want of the ceremony of circumcision, it had certainly been a downright resistance of, and disobedience against God."
Thence learn, that it is a downright opposition to the will of God, to shut them out of the church, and to debar them from the communion of it, who have received the sanctifying graces of God's Holy Spirit; but differ from us in external rites and ceremonies only.
Observe here, 1. That Antioch becomes the Jerusalem of the Gentile Christians: That is, the chief place whither the Gentile converts resorted; as Jerusalem, before the dispersion by persecution, was resorted to by the Jews, and made the principal seat of their residence.
Observe, 2. How God over-ruled the persecution and aspersion occasioned by St. Stephen's death for disseminating and scattering the gospel as far as Antioch, Acts 11:19. "They which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Antioch, preaching the word." Thus has the blood of the martyrs all along been the seed of the church, and what the devil and his instruments have designed for the extirpation, God has constantly over-ruled for the propagation of the gospel.
Observe, 3. The great success which the ministers and ministry of the gospel had at Antioch: "The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed."
By the hand of the Lord, is meant the power and assistance of the Lord, which did accompany them in dispensing of his word, and enable them to work miracles for the confirmation of it. The hand is the organ or instrument of working in man. When it is attributed to God, it denotes his power and help: The hand of God was manifested in the miracles which they wrought, and in faith and conversion, which the sight of those miracles produced.
Learn hence, That faith and conversion are wrought by the hand of the Lord; they are his work: Study and endeavour is the minister's, the blessing and success is God's; when he takes the sword of the Spirit into the hand of the Spirit, then shall it work wonders.
Observe, 4. How the joyful tidings of the success of the gospel at Antioch, being heard and understood by the apostles that remained at Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to confirm the new converts at Antioch in the Christian faith.
Learn thence, That the news of any sinner's, much more of many sinners, conversion unto God, by the preaching of the gospel, is matter of great delight and rejoicing to the ministers of Christ.
Observe, 5. The holy and honourable character which the Spirit of God gives of Barnabas; "he was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost, and of faith; and much people were added unto the Lord." By a good man, is meant a kind and charitable man: he having actually sold his estate, and laid it at the apostles' feet, for the benefit of the poor, as Acts 4:36-37, informs us; and his good works accompanyhing his good preaching, his good life seconding his sound doctrine, was a great mean of the conversion of so many, and that much people were added to the Lord.
Observe lastly, The holy exhortation which Barnabas gave these new converts at Antioch: "He exhorted them, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord;" That is, with a firm and fixed resolution of will keep close to the profession of the truth of Christ, whatever tribulation or distress they might meet with. Young converts need exhortation and counsel, to establish and confirm them in the faith of the gospel, and to encourage them to hold fast to Christ.
Observe here, A further instance of the piety of that good man. Barnabas having a great zeal and fervent desire that the gospel might be more and more prompted, he went to Tarsus to seek out Saul, that they might join together in the work of Christ; and having found him, he brought him to Antioch: where, for a whole year, they instructed the church in that city, and taught much people.
Oh how happy is it for the church of Christ, when her ministers, laying aside all private interest, do unitedly apply themselves to promote the common interest of Christianity, by propagating the gospel far and near!
Observe farther, How the believers, both Jews and Gentiles, were united in one common name at Antioch: the Jews had hitherto called them Nazarites and Galileans, and they called themselves disciples, believers, brethren, and those of the church; but now in this place, Antioch, they were first called Christians: A very great honour conferred on this Gentile city, which exalted her now above Jerusalem itself.
At Antioch, a Gentile city, Christ set up his standard for the Gentiles, and displayed his banner, and puts his own name on the despised Gentiles. They who before were counted dogs, and the off-scouring of all things, have now the venerable name of Christ imposed upon them. "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch."
Note lastly, that the disciples did not call themsleves Christians first at Antioch, much less did their enemies give them that name; but they had it by divine authority imposed upon them; God would have Christ's disciples called Christians,
1. As scholars, who receive their denomination from their master, they are taught to learn and imitate Christ, whose name they bear.
2. As the word Christians signifies anointed ones, it put them in mind of their divine unction, which they have received from the Holy One, whereby they are made kings and priests unto God. We are at this day called reformed Christians.
God grant that we may not cheat ourselves with an empty and insignificant name; but let us fill up that glorious title, and be reformed in our lives, as well as in our religion; beautifying our holy profession by an holy and becoming conversation; otherwise an unbaptize heathen, at the great day, will not change estate with many baptized Christians.
Observe here, 1. That the wisdom of God, at the first planting of the Christian church, did confer upon some of its members extraordinary gifts; as the gift of tongues, the gift of miracles, the gift of prophecy, and the like.
Accordingly, at this time, certain persons who had the gift of prophecy, and did foretell things to come, being now at Antioch, by revelation from the Spirit of God, foretold that there would shortly be a great famine over all Judea, and several other parts of the world: which exactly came to pass in the reign of the emperor Claudius.
Where note, That as it is God's prerogative to foreknow future things, so it is his prerogative to enable others to foretell future things.
This famine was here foretold, not by judicial astrology, but by divine revelation: That God, who provided for the patriarchs, by means of Joseph's foreseeing the famine in Egypt, provided now for the Christians, by Agabus's foretelling the famine which came upon Judea: "Agabus stood up and signified by the Spirit, that there should be a great dearthy throughout Judea." As God's omnipotence is exerted for his church's protection, so is his omniscience employed for its sustentation and preservation: Yea, all his attributes are engaged for her benefit and advantage.
Observe, 2. The full proof and evidence which the new converts at Antioch gave of the truth of their conversion to the Christian religion: Namely, their charity, and alms seasonably sent to the succour and relief of their fellow-members in Christ, which were in Judea. These were become very poor, by reason of the extraordinary malice, and long persecution of the Jews against them. And the seasonable succour now sent them from Antioch, was a singular comfort to them, and a sweet-smelling sacrifice unto God.
Observe lastly, The wise regulation of their charity, "every man gave according to his ability." This is the true standard of charity: We are to give alms of such things as we have, and according to what we have.
Christian prudence must direct us in the exercise of Christian charity; that must direct us in finding fit and proper objects for our charity, that we may give most to them that have most need.
Prudence must also direct us in timing our charity, that we do not put our poor brethren off with frivolous excuses and tedious delays.
And it must direct us in the measure of our charity, that it doth not exceed the bounds of our estates.
Few indeed are guilty of erring on that hand; but it is possible there may be an error in the excess, as well as in the defect, of our Christian charity.
To prevent both evils, let the practice of these primitive Christians be a pattern for our imitation: "Who determined everyone according to his ability to send relief unto the brethren, and sent it by the hands of Barnabas and Saul."
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