May 29, 2014


Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe



Lesson: III.E.4: The Unity in the Church: Antioch to Help Jerusalem (11:27-30)               


Note: The Revised Standard Version is used throughout, except for the text, which uses the King James Version.                                 



Scripture (Acts 11:27-30; KJV)


27And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.

28And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar.

29Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:

30Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.






Verses 27-30 relate a special project undertaken by the Antioch church. Agabus, a Christian prophet from Jerusalem, predicted that a severe famine would occur throughout the Roman Empire. A major famine did occur at that time, during the reign of Claudius. The Antioch Christians saved up and assisted the Judean Christians when the famine struck. Paul and Barnabas were chosen to take the offering to Jerusalem.






27And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.

28And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar.

29Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:

30Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

“In these days” refers to the year Paul and Barnabas spent in Antioch.  Luke, in his characteristic style of not giving the elapsed time between the previous incident and the visit of these prophets from Jerusalem, simply states that “in these days came prophets from Jerusalem.” Agabus was a prophet{2], and he was part of this group of prophets who came to Antioch from Jerusalem (v. 1). This is the first mention of a prophet interacting with a New Testament community. There is ample evidence for such early Christian prophets, and they seem to have largely been itinerate{3], as the present passage would indicate; but there is no evidence that they were in any way ordained to office. The instructions which Paul lays down concerning them (1 Co. 14:29-39) make it clear that their enthusiasm sometimes outran their sense of order and decency. Hence, he gives the injunction to “test the spirits to see whether they are of God (1 John 4:1; 1 Thess 5:20-21{14]). The Pharisees had contended that prophesy was a ministry of the past. The Rabbis were the successors of the prophets and considered themselves as the spokesmen for God. The Christians, however, believed in the continuance of the prophetic function. We meet prophets again in Acts 13:1; 15:32; and 21:10{11]. In Paul’s epistles, it is abundantly clear that the Christian community accepted Prophesy as a valid office in the church (1 Co. 12:28-29{9]; 14:29, 32, 37; Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11).The purpose of true prophesy is not to satisfy our curiosity about the future but to stir up our hearts to do the will of God.


Luke does not tell us the purpose of the prophet’s visit to Antioch. Perhaps they had come to follow up the investigation of Barnabas. If that was their intention, the Western text{10] shows that they were as pleased as Barnabas about what was happening in Antioch for this text adds “and there was great exultation.”


In Antioch, Agabus predicted a worldwide famine{4], and his gift was again manifested in Acts 21:10-11{1], when he prophesized in a dramatic way Paul’s impending arrest in Jerusalem. It is not clear how long before the famine Agabus’s prediction was made. Luke added the “aside” (v.2) that this famine did indeed occur during the time of Claudius, who was Roman emperor from a.d. 41-54. The rein of Claudius was in fact marked by a long series of crop failures in various parts of the empire—in Judea, in Rome, in Egypt, and in Greece; and this was confirmed by both Tacitus and Suctonius. The Judean famine seems to have taken place during the procuratorship of Tiberius Alexander (a.d.46-48), and Egyptian documents reveal a major famine there in a.d. 45-46 due to flooding. The most likely time for the Judean famine would thus seem to have been around a.d. 46. Josephus tells us about a famine, which was the worst that took place in Jerusalem after the death of Herod Agrippa I in a.d. 44 at which time Queen Helena of Adiabene sent food to relieve the Jews in the city. The effect of the famine was especially felt in Jerusalem where the church had been persecuted, decimated, and hurt. They were in dire need during this time.


The impressive fact, however, in this section is the revelation of the sense of unity. The Greeks in Antioch had heard the Gospel and from hearing faith came, and there were evidences of the grace of God which Barnabas had seen. Barnabas and Saul had been teaching and instructing them, and they had been growing in grace. When Agabus foretold the coming of the famine, these Christian men immediately recognized that the famine would bring great hardship to the brethren in Jerusalem. What happened next was spontaneous, and was not initiated by any of the apostles; the new Christians became concerned for the plight of their poor brethren in Judea. It is wonderful to see the fraternal spirit, the bond of love that grew out of that new life that has love at its heart, and that held the early church together. The believers could not stop the famine from coming, but they could send relief to those in need.


The believers in Antioch gave liberally, “every man according to his ability,” for the relief of the believers in Judea. They gave generously because they knew that the disciples in Jerusalem would suffer more in the time of famine because their fellow Jews considered them a heretical sect. The Christians in Antioch probably set aside money systematically until the time of emergency actually came, and then sent Barnabas and Paul as their delegates to take the accumulated sum to the Christians in Jerusalem. If there was an underlying motive for their giving it may have been that by aiding the Jewish Christians in the province of Judea they hoped to gain their full acceptance as the Gentile mission in Antioch and foster better relationships between the Jewish and Gentile Christian communities. They considered their work of relief so important that they chose their two teachers, Paul and Barnabas, to carry it to Jerusalem. Actually, verse 30 does not mention Jerusalem, but 12:25{5] does, in speaking of Paul and Barnabas’s return from this visit. The choice of Paul and Barnabas as their messengers showed that they had confidence in them and that Paul’s brutality as a persecutor of Christians was no longer a concern to his Christian brethren. No doubt they also ministered the Word along the way as they made the long journey from Antioch to Jerusalem. In a short time, the Spirit would call these two friends to join forces and take the Gospel to the gentiles in other lands (Acts 13:1{13]), and they would travel many miles together.


We remember that Saul had been one of those who wasted the church in Jerusalem by his relentless persecution of them. How wonderful it is to see that by his own hands a transformed Saul now brings relief to that same church. That is Christianity in shoe leather, my friend. That is the way it ought to be.


We are seeing a subtle transition in the leadership of the Jerusalem church. This mission by Paul and Barnabas would mark a significant stage in the transference of the churches center of gravity from Jerusalem to Antioch. In the early days of the Jerusalem church the apostles had taken responsibility for matters of charity (See 4:34-5:11). A transition seems to have begun with the selection of the seven Hellenists (6:1-6{6]). Paul and Barnabas laid the gift from Antioch at the feet of “the elders.” This is the first time elders are mentioned as specifically Christian office-bearers. Here they are perhaps the presidents of the house churches of Jerusalem; and in Acts 15:6, 23{11] they appear with the apostles as a kind of church council. The fact that the alms from Antioch were handed over to them suggests that one of their duties was to act as relief officers. Evidently the apostles were giving themselves more and more to the Word, like Peter on his mission tours in Samaria and along the coast. More and more responsibility would be assumed by these lay elders, based almost surely on the pattern of the elders in the Jewish synagogue. It was not in any case the business of the apostles “to serve tables {6].” Paul would organize his own churches along the same pattern (14:23{7]; 20:17{8]). Whether “elders” as early as this would be officially ordained is doubtful, but 14:23{7] shows that in the Paulene churches the custom quickly arose of ordaining them to their office.


In the church, the elders were mature believers who had the oversight of the ministry (1 Pe. 5:1{17]; 2 John 1{15]). When you compare Acts 20:17 {8]and Titus 1:5 and 7{16], you learn that “elder” and “bishop” (overseer) are equivalent titles. The elders/bishops were the pastors of the flocks, assisted by the deacons; and the qualifications for both are found in 1 Timothy 3. Wherever Paul established churches, he saw to it that qualified elders were ordained to give leadership to the assemblies (Acts 14:23{7]; Titus 1:5{16]).


An important spiritual principle is illustrated in this passage: if people have been a spiritual blessing to us, we should minister to them out of our material possessions. “Let him who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches” (Gal. 6:6). The Jewish believers in Jerusalem had brought the Gospel to Antioch. Then they had sent Barnabas to encourage the new believers. It was only right that the Gentiles in Antioch reciprocate and send material help to their Jewish brothers and sisters in Judea. Some years later, Paul would gather a similar offering from the Gentile churches and take it to the saints in Jerusalem (Acts 2:17{11]; and see Rom. 15:23-28{12]).




Scripture reference and special notes


{1] (Acts 21:1o-11) While we were staying for some days, a prophet named Ag'abus came down from Judea. And coming to us he took Paul's girdle and bound his own feet and hands, and said, "Thus says the Holy Spirit, 'So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this girdle and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'"


{2] Christian prophets are mentioned also in Acts 13:1 and 15:32. Philips daughters were prophets according to Acts 21:9. Paul ranked prophets second only to apostles in his list of those gifted by the Spirit (1 Co. 12:28). The gift of prophesy is treated throughout 1 Co. 14 and is primarily valued for its role in edification and encouragement. The Jews believed that prophesy had ceased during the time of the exile but would return with the coming of the Messiah. Peter’s quote of Joel at Pentecost reflected his conviction that the gift had been poured out on the Christian community (2:17-18) and was indeed a sign of the Messiah’s coming. In the New Testament prophesy is primarily viewed as a word spoken under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit intended for the direction or edification of the Christian community.


{3] Itinerate prophets existed as late as the second-century church.


{4] The NIV has the entire Roman world.


{5] (Acts 12:25) And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark.


{6] (Acts 6:1-6) Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Proch'orus, and Nica'nor, and Ti'mon, and Par'menas, and Nicola'us, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.


{7] (Acts 14:23) And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.


{8] (Acts 20:17) And from Mile'tus he sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church.


{9] (1 Co. 12:28-29) And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?


{10] The Western text-type is one of several text-types used in textual criticism to describe and group the textual character of Greek New Testament manuscripts. It is the term given to the predominant form of the New Testament text witnessed in the Old Latin and Peshitta translations from the Greek; and also in quotations from certain 2nd and 3rd-century Christian writers, including Cyprian, Tertullian and Irenaeus. The Western text had a large number of characteristic features, which appeared in text of the Gospels, Book of Acts, and in Pauline epistles. The Catholic epistles and the Book of Revelation probably did not have a Western form of text. It was named "Western" by Semmler (1725–1791), having originated in early centers of Christianity in the Western Roman Empire. The main characteristic of the Western text is a love of paraphrase: "Words and even clauses are changed, omitted, and inserted with surprising freedom, wherever it seemed that the meaning could be brought out with greater force and definiteness


{11] (Acts 15:6, 23) The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. . .  with the following letter: "The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cili'cia, greeting.


{11] (Acts 2:17) 'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;


{12] (Rom. 15:23-28) But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be sped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a little. At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints. For Macedo'nia and Acha'ia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem; they were pleased to do it, and indeed they are in debt to them, for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When therefore I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been raised, I shall go on by way of you to Spain;


{13] (Acts 13:1) Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyre'ne, Man'a-en a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.


{14] (1 Thess. 5:20-21) do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good,


{15] (2 John 1) The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth, and not only I but also all who know the truth,


{16] (Titus 1:5, 7) This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you, For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain,


{17] (1 Pe. 5:1) So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed.