A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 11:27-30. The Greek mission is authenticated by good works.
It was *during this time* Luke continues, that *some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch* (27). *One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world* (the *oikoumene* or ‘inhabited earth’ being regarded as more or less coterminous with the empire). Luke adds in parenthesis that this predicted famine *happened during the reign of Claudius* (28). Claudius ruled from AD 41 to 54, but historians do not record ‘a severe and world-wide famine’ (NEB) during this period. F.F.Bruce therefore proposes the more general expression ‘great dearth’ (AV), adding that this period ‘was indeed marked by a succession of bad harvests and serious famines in various parts of the empire’. For example, Josephus wrote of a great famine which during the reign of Claudius oppressed the people of Judea, so that ‘many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food withal’, although Queen Helena bought and distributed large quantities of corn and figs.
Luke’s concern, however, is not so much with the fulfilment of Agabus’ prophecy as with the generous response of Antioch’s church. For *the disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea* (29). Moreover, their decision led to action. They were soon *sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul* (30), who, having ministered as evangelists and teachers, were glad now to minister as social workers also. This second visit of Saul’s to Jerusalem, which Luke here records, seems (although not all scholars agree with this) to be the same as the second visit which Paul himself mentions in Galatians 2:1-10. The Parallels are striking. He writes there that he travelled ‘with Barnabas’, that he went ‘in response to a revelation’ (i.e. Agabus’ prophecy), and that the leaders urged him to ‘continue to remember the poor’, which was ‘the very thing’ he was ‘eager to do’, namely in bringing the famine relief.
One naturally wonders why, apart from the famine, the Jerusalem church was now so poor as to need this relief, and whether perhaps their extreme generosity which Luke has described in Acts 2 and 4 was a contributing factor. At all events, it was now the turn of the Antiochene believers to be generous. They gave *each according to their ability* (cf. 2 Cor.8:3), just as the Jerusalem believers had previously distributed ‘to anyone as he had need’ (2:45; 4:35). I have often wondered if Marx knew these two passages and bracketed them in his mind. For in his famous ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ (1875), that is, of the united policy of the two wings of German socialism, he called for something much more radical than they proposed, when society can ‘inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!’
Whatever our political and economic convictions may be, these are plainly biblical principles, that is, ability on the one hand, need on the other, and how to relate them to each other. These principles should characterize the family of God. It is not an accident that the Jerusalem recipients of Antiochene relief are called ‘brothers’ (29). More important still, this brotherhood or family included both Jewish and Gentile believers, and the fellowship between them was illustrated in the relations between the two churches. The church of Jerusalem had sent Barnabas to Antioch; now the church of Antioch sent Barnabas, with Saul, back to Jerusalem. This famine relief anticipated the collection which Paul was later to organise, in which the affluent Greek churches of Macedonia and Achaia contributed to the needs of the impoverished churches of Judea. Its importance to Paul was that it was a symbol of Gentile-Jewish solidarity in Christ, ‘for if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings’, he wrote, ‘they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings’ (Rom.15:27).
Tomorrow: Acts 12:1-25. 2). Opposition: the church in Jerusalem.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.