*Scripture verses covered in this section's commentary are noted in italics

Acts 11:1-3 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Acts 11:1
  • Acts 11:2
  • Acts 11:3

Critics of Peter
The apostles and believers in Judea learn that Gentiles in Caesarea received the gospel from Peter. When Peter returns to Jerusalem, some confront him for doing wrong (in their minds). They criticize him for associating with the uncircumcised, specifically for eating with them.

Something world-changing happened in the previous chapter. The Apostle Peter preached the gospel to Gentiles, and they received the Holy Spirit. A centurion in the Roman army stationed in Caesarea named Cornelius, along with his friends and relatives, were given the opportunity to hear Peter tell them that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God. They heard that “through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43). 

As soon as Peter offered the choice of the gospel to these Gentiles, Cornelius and the other Romans believed in Jesus’s name. They did not shout it out; it happened in their hearts: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message” (Acts 10:44).

The reason this was world-changing is because Cornelius and his friends are the first Gentiles to believe in Jesus after His death and resurrection. In the years since Jesus ascended, Peter and the other Apostles have exclusively been at work preaching the gospel to Jews and half-Jews (Samaritans). But the time has come for the gospel to spread beyond Judea, “even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). 

The Apostles were called by Jesus to “make disciples of all nations” and to baptize them in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit (Matthew 28:19). In Acts 10, the previous chapter in Acts, the first Gentiles became believers in Jesus and were baptized. 

This moment did not come about naturally, but supernaturally. Peter had been staying in Joppa, a town in Israel on the Mediterranean coast, when the Holy Spirit intervened to both Cornelius and Peter, arranging that Peter should travel 30 miles up the shore to the port city of Caesarea, to go to Cornelius’ house and preach the gospel. 

Before that, Peter was given a vision, where God commanded him to no longer view Gentiles as unclean or separate from the Jewish people. Jesus had died for the whole world, not just the Jews (Colossians 2:14). Peter took a little goading from God in this vision, but heeded the vision. The Jewish believers who accompanied him to Caesarea were baffled when the Holy Spirit fell on the believing Gentiles (Acts 10:45-46). The Jews were not expecting God to spread His grace to the Gentiles. 

This was a major paradigm-shift for the Jews, to see the Gentiles included into God’s grace. It should not have been so surprising, since God was always calling Gentiles back to Him throughout the Old Testament, as well as during Jesus’s ministry (Isaiah 19:19-25, 56:6-8, Jonah 3:7-10, Daniel 4:34-35, Genesis 15:16, 2 Kings 5:17, Matthew 8:10, 24:14, John 3:16, 12:32); in any case it was something the Jewish believers had to adjust to. There was a period where they had to wrap their heads around what God was doing. They were challenged by God to adopt a new perspective. Some did, and some did not. 

Now in Acts 11, Peter returns to Jerusalem. He will face the same internal prejudice against Gentiles he and his ministry partners had to overcome in the prior chapter. The Jewish believers in Jerusalem have heard what Peter was up to in Caesarea, they heard about his association with the “unclean” Gentiles. In the minds of the first century Jewish people, the Gentiles were regarded as outside of God’s concern, unholy or “unclean” just as they viewed forbidden foods to be unclean. 

Worse yet for the Jewish believers, Cornelius was a Roman centurion, a commander of 100 Roman soldiers. We can speculate that from the Jewish perspective, Cornelius was not only unclean, but a dangerous representative of the Empire that had suppressed God’s chosen people, putting the Jews under their heel. 

News of the Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus spread through the country: Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God (v. 1). We are not told how the entire network of brethren (believers) heard that now Gentiles had believed in Jesus. 

It is possible that Peter himself had sent word to celebrate this new inclusion. He probably knew that it was going to cause a stir among the other Jews which would need to be dealt with, so he may have been trying to get ahead of the controversy and prepare their hearts for this development.

Peter returns to Jerusalem and is confronted by believing Jews for what he has done: And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him (v. 2)

The people referred to as those who were circumcised were Jewish believers, who, new in their faith in Christ, were not yet clear on how much God’s grace had changed their lives. Circumcision was a physical sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, marking Jewish identity and separation from non-Jews by the removal of every male’s foreskin (Genesis 17:10-14). But it had no spiritual power of its own. In fact, in his letter to the Romans Paul insists that the circumcision that actually matters is that of the heart (Romans 2:29). 

Here in Acts 11, there was still a vigorous obeisance to the Law of Moses among those who were circumcised. They believed in Jesus as their Savior and Messiah sent by God, but they also believed that their spiritual service of worship was to obey the Mosaic Law. This of course was correct in a sense. But Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17). Therefore, the Jews were being called to a higher standard of obedience, a standard of grace. 

The Jews were surprised because they expected their Messiah to be sent only on their behalf. For their deliverance. The church (all believers) is young at this point. Eventually a Counsel will be in held in Jerusalem that decides what believers must do in respect to Mosaic law-following (Acts 15). It will be contentious, as many think that the Gentile believers should be required to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). 

The issue will be settled that Jewish believers will continue to keep Jewish religious customs but Gentile believers will not. Apparently not all Jews agreed with this decision. Forever afterward during Paul’s ministry there will be a contingent of men who will seek to make all Gentile believers become Jews in every conceivable way, through becoming circumcised and adhering to the Jewish religious traditions. Some of Paul’s epistles came to us at least in part because he was contending with competing Jewish authorities who were trying to convince Gentiles that they must be circumcised (Romans 4:9-10; Galatians 5:1-2; 1 Corinthians 7:18). 

Throughout the rest of the New Testament, this sect of Jewish believers who contended against Paul’s message of grace to the Gentiles are referred to as the circumcised or “the party of the circumcision” in contrast to Gentiles (Galatians 2:12). Because of them, a wedge will soon appear between these ethnic groups, in which the circumcised believers will campaign for Gentile Christians to become circumcised, and convert to Judaism, and devote themselves to the Mosaic Law to truly become “saved” (Acts 15:1). Saul (Paul) will battle this false gospel all his life (1 Corinthians 7:18-19).

Paul will always point to God’s grace, and to the Holy Spirit which indwells all believers, as the means by which we can live a life in harmony with God’s (good) design. Paul will call living by God’s design “righteousness” or “peace” which reflects the Jewish notion of “Shalom” where all things operate in harmony, as God planned.

Paul will lead believers to understand that being conformed to Christ’s image and gaining the greatest experience and rewards in life comes through a walk of faith, following the Spirit. It does not come about by converting to Jewish religious tradition. Faith in following the rituals and regulations of the Mosaic Law is faith in self. Paul will teach believers, rather, walk in obedience to God’s Spirit, in a direct personal relationship of faith (Galatians 3:25-26, Romans 3:28, Romans 8)

However, at this point in time in Acts 11, these circumcised believers who confront Peter have not yet shifted their perspective. They are outraged simply by the fact that Peter associated with Gentiles at all; this was a violation of Jewish belief that they should remain separate from that which is defiled. They were not considering that Peter had preached Jesus to them. The Jewish believers were offended he had gone into Cornelius’s house and eaten with him. 

Their major contention with Peter was that, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (v. 3). In Jewish culture, to share a meal was an intimate act of fellowship and unity. Jesus uses eating as a picture of fellowship and unity in His teaching to believers (Revelation 3:20). So this is not unreasonable. 

By eating with the Gentiles, the Jews considered that Peter was mingling with the unholy, the common people of the world, outside of God’s chosen people. This criticism is reminiscent of the Pharisees judging Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10-13). But Jesus replied by comparing Himself to a doctor who had come to give medicine to sick people, not “healthy” people, quoting also from the Old Testament about God’s priorities:

for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Matthew 9:13)

Peter was simply obeying God’s leading by eating with uncircumcised men. While the Jewish people at the time considered the Gentiles as outside of God’s concern, this was quite the opposite of what Jesus had taught during His ministry. His final command, known as the Great Commission, explicitly directed His followers to make disciples of “all the nations” (Matthew 28:19-20). In scripture, “the nations” is a term that refers to the Gentiles, the people groups outside of the Israelites. Jesus came to die for all men, to extend salvation and right standing with God to all men (John 1:29, 3:16-17; Colossians 2:14). 

Peter’s decision to obey God’s message to him in the vision and preach the gospel to Gentiles opened the door for the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys to the Gentile nations. This furthered Christ’s commission for people all over the world to be reconciled to their Creator God (Matthew 28:19). This is the beginning of the church’s trajectory—a global community of believers in Jesus where spiritual unity overcomes all ethnic distinctions: 

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
(Galatians 3:28)

Biblical Text

1 Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” 

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