Acts, Lesson 12: Gentiles in the Church; the Gift of Prophecy

St Peter Church in Antioch (610x352)Peter and the Jewish Christians with him saw God giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. That means that they were full-fledged members of Christ’s Church, the same as the ethnic Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah. But growth and change do not always take place smoothly and without incident, which our study of Acts will show us.


Peter reports to the Church in Jerusalem

Read Acts 11:1-3

Matthew 5:17: [Jesus speaking to a crowd of Jews:] “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them, but to fulfill them.”

  • What did some of the Christian Jews in Jerusalem specifically object to concerning Peter’s interaction with Gentiles?


Instead of setting aside the requirements of the Law, Jesus came to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). He perfectly carried that out from the day of His birth (circumcised on the eighth day, Luke 2:21) to the day of his death (the care of his mother, John 19:26-27). Because Jesus is both human and God, His own righteousness is credited to us through faith in Jesus, not the Law (Romans 3:28). 

  • When the “circumcision party” objected to Peter eating with Gentiles, what did that show about their worldview as to what eating with someone meant?


  • Discuss: Was their worldview wrong or their understanding that Gentiles could now be in table fellowship with Jewish Christians?


  • How is the proper understanding of table fellowship lived out in the Church’s communion practice?


Read Acts 11:4-18

In this section of Acts 11, Peter repeats what happened in Acts 10 from his perspective, with minor variations and with more focus and brevity. Like the book of Acts repeating the story of Saul’s conversion three times (Acts 9, 22, and 26), Luke also includes the conversion Cornelius three times (Acts 10, 11, and 15). This thrice retelling stresses the importance that event. After all, it was a world-changing event for Gentiles to be included in the Church.

  • What conclusion did Peter draw from the Holy Spirit given to the Gentiles?


In the Greek, Peter literally said that God had granted the Gentiles “repentance into life.” “Repentance into life” sums up Christian conversion. Repentance involves a twofold movement of the heart: one who repents turns away from sin (1 Kings 8:35, Ezekiel 18:30) toward God (Hosea 6:1, Sirach 17:25-26, and Hebrews 6:1).  

The goal of repentance is to receive God’s gift of His own divine life, which cannot take place if one chooses to remain in his sin. Yet, Peter is clear that “repentance into life” is something that God grants. Even repentance, the turning away from sin, is brought about by God.

  • What are the implications of this in understanding our salvation?


  • Do we ever outgrow our need for salvation?


  • How did the Jerusalem Church now respond?


The Church in Antioch

Read Acts 11:19-21

  • At first, whom did the Christians evangelize?


  • Who else gets evangelized as Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene join with the Christians in Antioch?


  • What was the result?


Read Acts 11:22-26

  • At this point in the Church’s life, what have we seen in the book of Acts as to which church was the head church?


  • What does Barnabas encourage the Antiochene Christians to do?


  • Although they focused on remaining faithful, what also happened?


  • What did Saul and Barnabas do for an entire year at Antioch? Discuss why.


  • How does this show the relationship between pastor and congregation?


Christianos, Christian; Christianoi, Christians: The New Testament mentions the word “Christian” only three times (Acts 11:26, 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16). In all three instances, Christian was a term that outsiders used to describe those in the New-Covenant Church.

At the root of “Christian” is Christos, the Greek word for messiah. However it has a Latin suffix added to it, “ianus,” which became “ianos” when rendered back into Greek. “Ianos” means “belonging to.”

Originally, Christianos seems to have had a negative connotation, as Christians did not use it to refer to themselves. Roman historian Tacitus in his Annals (15.44) described Christians as, “Those people, loathed for [their] vices, whom the rabble used to call ‘Christians.’” The first extensive use of “Christian” by a Christian was Ignatius in the early 2nd century, who was a student of the Apostle John.


The Prophecy of Agabus

Read Acts 11:27-30

Agabus predicted an empire-wide famine. Emperor Claudius ruled from 41 to 54 AD, and there were several famines in various parts of the empire during his reign. Historians, such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus, mentioned a particularly bad famine that gripped Palestine and the eastern Mediterranean world starting in 46 AD.

  • What did the Christians in Antioch choose to do?


Excursus: Prophecy in the New-Covenant Church

In his Pentecost sermon, Peter explained to the Jews gathered there that day how to understand what they had seen and heard. Peter quoted the Old-Covenant Prophet Joel:

“In the last days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Then your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. In those days I will even pour out my Spirit on my servants, men and women alike, and they will prophesy.” [Acts 2:17-18]

Peter preached that one result of the Holy Spirit given to all of God’s people (unlike what took place in the Old Covenant) was that the gift of “prophecy” would be manifested among the rank and file in the New Covenant. Men and women, young and old, and slave and free would be able to prophesy. This prophesying, however, was to take place within the vocations where God placed a person to serve, since “everything must be done in a proper and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40).

Prophecy does not refer mainly to the gift of declaring coming events in advance, although that did occur with Agabus. Simply put, prophecy is the ability to speak the will of God, which includes speaking the Gospel and presenting the doctrinal teachings of the Scriptures, which, when Acts was being written, was not yet completed and compiled into what we today call the New Testament.

In the book of Acts, we see such prophesying. When Paul and Barnabas went on a missionary journey, that mission was initiated by prophecy (Acts 13:1-3). Through their gift of prophecy, Judas and Silas could encourage and strengthen Christian congregations in Asia Minor to accept the decisions of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:31-32). New converts spoke in tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:6), and Deacon Philip’s “four virgin daughters prophesied” (Acts 21:9). Agabus prophesied and predicted both a famine (Acts 11:28) and Paul’s impending suffering (Acts 21:10-11).

The above-listed examples in Acts highlight the importance that Luke attributed to Christian prophecy. In his epistles, Paul spoke of prophecy, of speaking God’s word, as something that built up the Church: “the person who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort” and “builds up the Church” (1 Corinthians 14:3-4). Paul counseled Christians to “desire spiritual gifts, especially the ability to prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1). Paul then repeated himself, “Desire the ability to prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:39).

However, such prophesying was not an “independent” arm of the Church or took place with prophets “doing their own thing.” Such prophesying was to support the apostolic ministry that Jesus instituted, exercised under the control of the Apostles, for building up the Christian community. “God has appointed in the Church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers …” (1 Corinthians 12:28).

However, there was also a dark side to this prophesying, for the New Testament does warn against false prophets (Matthew 24:11, 24; 1 John 4:1; and Revelation 2: 20). Thus, false prophets and false prophecies are possible. Because of that, even prophets in the Church need to be evaluated and tested (1 Corinthians 14:29, 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22). One way to do that today is by knowing Scripture, since “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (1 Timothy 3:16). Further, those who prophesy should also be evaluated by their “fruits,” that is, the life they lead (Matthew 7:15-23).

  • Discuss: How could such evaluating and testing of those who prophesied be done before the New Testament was written and collected into a corpus? (1 Corinthians 12:10)


Gift of Discernment: Every Christian is responsible for discerning the spirits; however, some have a better ability to do so. This is the gift of discernment–a special ability to distinguish between the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. A person with the gift of discernment can discriminate between that which is of God and that which pretends to be. This gift helps protect the Church against the wiles of Satan who in every age transforms himself into an angel of light, in the person of false teachers.


Luther, in Postil 235, quoting the Apostle Paul, wrote that Paul held the gift of prophecy to “a standard and rule by which it is to abide. ‘If anybody prophesies,’ says he in Romans 12:[6], ‘let it be similar to the faith,’ that is, so that it may fit and agree with the doctrine of the faith.” Since Paul encouraged all Christians to “desire the ability to prophesy,” for us today, it must consist of thoroughly understanding Scripture and adequately speaking it. Thus, all who can impart Biblical truth can exercise the gift of prophecy in a general or broad sense.

Others claim that before the Scriptures were canonized, the Church needed the gift of prophesy; now that we have the New Testament, such prophesying is no longer needed. However, nowhere does the New Testament itself speak to the gift of prophecy disappearing in the New-Covenant Church. We only find the Apostle Paul telling us that the gift of prophecy would eventually be no more. But the context of Paul’s words affirm that this will happen on the Last Day, when Jesus returns and perfect knowledge will be given to us (1 Corinthians 13:8-12).


  • Discuss Agabus-styled prophecy in the Church today.


  • Discuss: If Paul told the Christians in Corinth, “Desire the ability to prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:39), what does that say about developing and nurturing an “ability to prophesy”?


Click here to go to the next lesson.