In Acts 10 we heard the account of Peter’s vision as it happened, then his telling of it to Cornelius and the preaching of the Gospel. And now we hear another re-telling of it, but this time in a different context: explaining his actions to those who considered it wrong. And then the focus widens again to tell us about the spread of the Gospel to Gentiles more widely.
There is perhaps not much more to say in here about the actual accounting of the vision, which we heard twice in Acts 10. However, the context of this specific telling is important.
Peter has returned to Jerusalem, and there are some in the “circumcision party” who challenged him, that he erred according to Jewish law by visiting and eating with uncircumcised men. The issue here is not on the medical procedure, but on what it meant: membership in the covenant people of Israel. The circumcision party was a group of Jews who believed, taught, and confessed that Gentiles could become Christians, but only by becoming Jewish, including all the Jewish rites such as circumcision. This discussion/divide will be magnified in the coming chapters, culminating in a great council in Acts 15.
So what Peter is doing here is explaining or answering why he did what he did. In formal terms, this is called an “apology”, not as we normally use the word—as in, saying he was sorry—but “making an answer/defense”, from the Greek word apologia that combines apo which means “(away) from”, and the word family having to do with saying/speaking (logios/legō/logos). Though this specific word isn’t used here in Acts 11, that’s what Peter is doing. The word does come up in Peter’s first Epistle as he encourages his hearers/readers to be ready to “make an answer” for the hope that lies within them.
11:17 At the end of Peter’s explanation, he summarizes: God clearly showed that the Gentiles received the same gifts as they did. How could Peter not be a part of that? Sometimes Christian ministry is “getting out of God’s way” so that He can do His work through His Word rather than us thinking we know best how it should be done.
11:18 There’s an allusion back here to the first Pentecost, where it happened that after hearing the Word, the people asked Peter what they should do, and he said “repent and be baptized...for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:37-41). Again, notice that even now they recognize that it’s God doing the work here: “God has granted repentance”.
11:19-21 Again we return to the fact that even through persecution and Christ’s Church being scattered, the Gospel travels, both to Jews and Gentiles. Some chose only to preach to Jewish people, but others, notably some from the island of Cyprus, and some originally from Cyrene (in North African) made a point of going to Greek people as well. (Cyrene may be familiar to you as you remember that the man who the Romans made carry the cross of Jesus was from Cyrene (Simon, Luke 23:26).)
As word travels back to Jerusalem about what’s happening in Antioch, Barnabas is sent by the church there, and then goes to get Saul/Paul from Tarsus (which was his hometown) and they work together there.
11:26 It’s in Antioch that Christians are first called that. Previously they had been known as people of “the Way” (9:2). The word “Christian” is a Greek term, where the suffix -ian is borrowed from Latin and has to do with belonging to, allegiance, or even the connotation of slavery. So really, “Christian” (likely intended as an insult) is simply another way of saying “belonging to Christ”. So the teaching, though using a different word, is the same as in 9:2; this sort of thing is found all throughout the Bible—sometimes different words used, but still the same teaching.
Luke’s historical references also help ground us in the reality of all these events, in addition to the geography. Not just that they happened in real places, but in real times, with real people too (Claudius was a Roman emperor from 41-54 AD).
11:27 Even though Antioch is far north from Jerusalem, the language is that of going “down from” Jerusalem. We would think of going north as going “up” to Antioch, but the Jewish way of speaking about it was always going up to and down from Jerusalem. This had to do with the fact that Jerusalem was situated on a hill, yes, but it was also the central place, the highest point of reference.
11:29-30 Help now comes from Antioch back to those who would experience hardship in Judea. The Church of Jesus aids as she is able, not only locally but beyond as well.