[11:1-18]. «The circumcision party criticised him … But Peter began and explained it to them».
It may seem that this section contains unnecessary repetitions, but the importance of a fact is also the way it is relayed. Therefore, even if its content was more or less seen in the previous chapter, it is necessary to grasp some other aspect.
The episode of Cornelius aroused a vast echo precisely in what, at that time, was the heart of Christianity: that is, Judea and its capital Jerusalem, where the twelve apostles had their base. The “circumcision party” who contested Peter cannot be separated from the apostles, for the apostles as well were circumcised and had great influence on others.
Peter based his defence not on biblical quotations, but on the account of the events that occurred and that could be confirmed by the six brothers who had accompanied him (v. 12). The only appeal to the Word of God, certainly critical, was Jesus’ sentence concerning the fact that his disciples would be baptised with the Holy Spirit (v. 16). So Peter concluded: «who was I that I could stand in God’s way?» (v. 17).
When God works facts that do not fit into our doctrinal schemes, can we ignore those facts? Evidently not, but the temptation is very strong, because not ignoring them is often tiring and sometimes involves the restructuring of all our understanding of the Word of God; with the inevitable challenge on the part of our “travelling companions” who didn’t make that effort.
Contrary to what some think, the believers of the circumcision party were not closed in their minds and became convinced, concluding with a few simple words that summarise well what had happened: «Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.» (v. 18).
Cornelius is therefore accepted as “brother in Christ”, but his way of being a believer is seen as ADDITIONAL to what has happened so far, while then his descendants have willed to pretend that way as a SUBSTITUTE; thanks be to God who has preserved intact the light of his written Word: we must also thank the descendants of Cornelius, to whom I belong.
[11:19-30]. «So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul … and [they] taught a great many people».
In the episode of Cornelius, Peter does not seem to have fared badly, although once again he does not have the typical role of the leader, but as that of one who adapts by necessity (as in the case of Samaria, Acts 8:14). For it is Cornelius who goes to seek Peter and not vice versa; Peter then goes to Caesarea without knowing the reason, on which he will ask Cornelius himself for enlightenment (10:29).
In Luke’s “filigree drawing”, the episode of Cornelius is an essential passage to arrive at the “apostle of the Gentiles”, that is, at Paul. The need for a Paul is clearly and precisely seen by the inadequate behaviour that the Twelve had after understanding that «God has granted repentance to Gentiles».
The Twelve had the task of spreading the Gospel «to the ends of the earth» (1:8) and, after Cornelius, God facilitated the task by pouring out his Spirit even on those who had objective difficulties to submit to the law of Moses (observance of the Sabbath, rules on food and purity, etc.). This opened up immense prospects… but the Twelve continued in their previous commitments, as if nothing had happened!
Then the Spirit carried on his “strategic plan” by means of simple and anonymous believers (v. 20), who did nothing extraordinary but, having heard news that God had granted repentance even to gentiles (11:1), «spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus» (11:20).
To make a comparison, the boy who put five loaves and two fishes at Jesus’ disposal certainly made a noble gesture, but the extraordinary happened when Jesus multiplied them, leaving them with 12 baskets of leftovers (Jn 6:9-13). In parallel, God extraordinarily brought to fruition the testimonies of those believers who came to Antioch in passing and there were so many conversions that the news reached Jerusalem.
In Samaria, the church in Jerusalem sent Peter and John, its chief exponents (8:14). But in Antioch not even any of the twelve went, but Barnabas. It seems evident that the Twelve did not fully understand the importance of the turning point, or perhaps they did not feel able to move effectively in that non-Jewish environment, while Barnabas was born among the pagans and, therefore, was perhaps considered more suitable (the Samaritans, on the other hand, were more like the Jews, and perhaps that is why the apostles went to them).
There is, however, a hint that suggests a particular reason that favoured Barnabas: among those who had evangelized Antioch, many were of Cyprus as Barnabas and had known each other while staying at Jerusalem (4:36; 11:20); so it is likely that the Cypriot evangelists, being in Antioch by way of passage, and not being very experienced, desired the collaboration of their countryman Barnabas.
Barnabas immediately placed at the service of the church his powers to encourage, his goodness, his faith, and the gift of the Spirit which he had received, contributing to great growth in numbers (v. 24). He realised, however, that the development of that community, composed mainly of uncircumcised, posed serious problems of understanding the Word of God, problems he found difficult to face. It needed someone who not only knew the Word of God in depth, but who knew how to apply it to new circumstances, someone who… the profile gave an unequivocal result: SAUL. Barnabas would have thought, «I immediately saw that the young man was of value, but instead we sent him back home and now where will he be, what will he be doing, how will he feel? To go to Tarsus one would have to travel 150 km by sea, but I have to go looking for him».
Going to Tarsus, Barnabas found not only that Saul had remained there, but that he was ready for the task as when they had parted. Then they returned to Antioch and there they carried on a work which Luke describes with the verb “to teach” (or ‘instruct’; v. 26), a verb which he had not used for the action of Barnabas alone (vv. 23-24); thus, making it clear which was the specific contribution of Saul, who recommended to Timothy what he evidently practiced: «Preach the word, be ready in season and out of season […] with complete patience and teaching» (2 Tim 4:2).
For the pagans of Antioch, those who had believed in Christ were evidently no longer pagans, but they had not even become true Jews, even if they looked like them and among them there were some Jews (such as Barnabas, Saul and those who had begun evangelisation). Being a new reality, they invented a new name: “CHRISTIANS”, that is, followers of Christ. Obviously we are not surprised by this name, but we should be surprised that it has not been used before. We have already mentioned this fact (see commentary at 2:41 and 9:1-22) and now wish to review the various ways in which Luke refers to Christians, without making them be perceived as a separate group from the Jews.
Luke begins the account by placing the apostles in the centre (1:2) and then continues with the pronoun “they” (1:4,9,10), presenting a list indicating them with “all these” (1:13-14). With the apostles there were also others and altogether there were 120, whom Luke calls “brothers” (1:15-16): a common term among the Hebrews (cf. e.g. 2:29,37).
The 3,000 converted at Pentecost are called “those who accepted the Word of Peter” (2:41), then generically “those who believed” (2:44). Their whole is referred to as “community” (2:47), while the two thousand that are added then (4:2) are referred to as those who “believed”. In 4:32 they are defined as “the multitude of those who had believed” and we stop here, being now clear that Luke does not fall into the “retro-projection”, that is, in applying the name of “Christians” at a time preceding the actual appearance of that name.
The chapter ends with two marginal episodes, but they have their importance. It is recounted of some prophets who came to Antioch from Jerusalem and of them only Agabus is mentioned (11:27-28), whose prophecy would have occurred punctually. Agabus, incidentally, sometime later would have prophesied specifically about Paul, therefore the episode recounted here, which also exalts its reliability, would then have given more value to the courage shown by Paul in deciding to go to Jerusalem nonetheless, despite the danger announced to him by Agabus (21:10-14).
The relations between the church in Jerusalem and that in Antioch were strengthened when Antioch, which until then had received primarily on the spiritual level, was concerned to bring economic help to the believers of Judea affected by the famine. This task was entrusted to Barnabas and Saul (11:30), who were increasingly seen as closely co-operating: this episode thus serves as a beacon for the account of their subsequent and explicit call from the Spirit (13:2).
The recording of the excellent relations between Antioch and Jerusalem is essential to legitimise the role of the “driving force” that Antioch will come to acquire, instead of a Jerusalem no longer able to carry it out. In Antioch, after the initial prevalent function of Barnabas, there will occur a gradual emergence of Paul, who will eventually continue in substantial autonomy (15:36-40).
Luke, in short, traces a “common thread of legitimacy” that passes from Peter and the Twelve to Barnabas and then to Paul, who is thus characterised as someone who continues the history begun by the Twelve, in the same Spirit. All this, however, will become clearer later.