Bible Study with Jairus – Acts 11

The Jerusalem Church Is Controlled by A Religious Spirit and God’s Work Turns to The Gentiles in Antioch

A religious spirit is an evil, demonic force that tries to “replace a genuine relationship with God with works and traditions.”[i] In Acts 11, a religious spirit was gradually gaining more influence in the church in Jerusalem. To conquer this spirit, God sovereignly allowed persecution to scatter the believers in Jerusalem. The scattered believers began spreading the gospel to the Jews who lived among the Gentiles, and later to the Gentiles themselves, giving birth to the Gentile church in Antioch. Sometimes, the only way to break free from legalism is to leave the location where the religious spirit has gained a stronghold.

In Acts 11, The members of the circumcision party, who were bound by the religious spirit, argued with Peter in Jerusalem (verses 1-18); it seemed that they were concerned that the scattered believers were preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (verse 22). Some disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene began preaching the gospel to the Greeks as well as to the Jews (verse 20). In response, the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas, also from Cyprus, to see how the church in Antioch was doing (verse 20). When he arrived, Barnabas saw evidence of God’s grace in the church in Antioch (verse 23), and he led many more people to faith in Christ (verse 24). Then Barnabas, likely inspired by the Holy Spirit, went to Tarsus to find Saul and brought him to the church in Antioch. Saul was called by God to be an apostle to the Gentiles, so he stayed there for a year. Throughout this passage, we see the religious spirit being defeated, only to resurface in another place regarding another issue.

The Religious Spirit Turns Principles into Rules

One thing that religious spirits often do is to turn the founder’s teachings into law, refusing to accept new guidance from the Holy Spirit. This suppresses the new work of the Holy Spirit and the freedom of believers. For example, while Brother Witness Lee was alive, he was very opposed to the spirit of religion. He vigorously promoted innovative group exercises to attempt to break the power of the religious spirit in the Local Church, which he founded. However, by the time I was saved in The Local Church, Brother Witness Lee had been in heaven for several years. In his absence, a religious spirit was invading The Local Church.

The Methodist pastors in my seminary classes said that current-day Methodists did the same thing. They turned John Wesley’s teachings into dogma and distort his original words. For example, some Methodist churches are opposed to the filling and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, even though John Wesley himself attached great importance to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In the same way, the members of the Jerusalem church clung to Moses’ teachings about circumcision and used this teaching to restrict others and require them to comply. The Jews in Jerusalem turned Moses’ teachings on circumcision into religious rules, just like many denominations rigidly follow their founders’ guidelines.

The Religious Spirit Raises Concerns about Cornelius

The religious spirit is pervasive in the church, especially among second- and third-generation Christians. The first generation of believers often has enough authority to resist the religious spirit. For example, Peter, who was a first-generation Christian, tried his best to resist the religious spirit. In today’s devotional, we will learn about Peter’s bravery in resisting the religious spirit.

Let’s read the account in the first three verses: “Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, ‘You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.’” In the previous chapter (Acts 10), Peter followed divine guidance, went to visit Cornelius, and preached the gospel to the Gentiles. When they believed, the Holy Spirit was poured out on them and they were baptized with water. But in Acts 11, the circumcision party members did not care that these Gentiles had been eternally saved, nor that they were baptized with water, nor that God poured out manifestations of his Spirit such as tongues (verse 10:46). The only thing they cared about was that their rules were being broken. They accused Peter of eating with uncircumcised Gentiles, which their law did not approve of. The spirit of religion can distort people’s thinking to such an extent that they no longer care about other people’s well-being or God’s will, but only about their own dogma. The only thing they care about is whether you follow their doctrine and rules. They do not care about you as a person.

The circumcised party did not care how much it cost Peter to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit to preach to the Gentiles. They did not applaud the courage he showed or comfort him because of the pressure he was under. They did not care about the souls that were saved, and they were not concerned about God’s guidance for a new era. They only cared about one thing: whether or not you were circumcised. In today’s world, the issue they were concerned about seems irrelevant and silly. Why would someone get worked up about that? But today, the religious spirit chooses things that are just as irrelevant and makes them into huge issues in the church. People fight about whether or not to speak in tongues, whether or not to use rock music in worship, whether or not women can preach, and other topics.

In response to their concerns, Peter told the story of how the Holy Spirit had guided him through visions to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. After he finished speaking, he said, “‘If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?’ When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (verses 17-18). Peter successfully resisted and restrained the religious spirit. It seemed like everything would be fine from then on. But the religious spirit is sneaky, and it never stays silent for long.

The Power of the Religious Spirit in Jerusalem

The religious spirit was very powerful in Jerusalem. The religious spirit in Jerusalem had crucified Christ and Stephen, and the Holy Spirit did not have much freedom in this city.

On the surface, the Jews appeared to be protecting religious teachings through their strict adherence to the Mosaic law. But in essence, they were cooperating with Satan to prevent God’s message of grace from spreading—especially the message given through Paul.

When Barnabas invited Saul (Paul) to minister in Antioch, Paul began his public ministry. After a long period of private training in the wilderness, God finally brought Saul (Paul) to center stage at the church in Antioch. Though Paul had likely not yet written the book of Galatians at the time, he had probably received its content from the Holy Spirit while in the wilderness. He was ready to share the truths of Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” This was the message that the religious spirit did not want to spread.

The religious leaders in Jerusalem strongly resisted this message of grace. After Paul was saved, Jesus clearly told him that his testimony for the Lord would not be accepted by the residents of Jerusalem. Because of this, God sent Paul far away to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21). It was not that God was unwilling to work in Jerusalem, but that He knew how strong the religious spirit was in that city. The religious spirit in Jerusalem not only crucified the Lord but would also refuse the testimony Paul would give.

The religious spirit likes to tie people to a specific building, sect, or religious system, or to a specific set of religious rituals, procedures, or established culture. God’s Spirit often wants to set aside these human patterns and procedures so people can be free to follow where He leads. But instead, believers become fixated on these structures and can’t accept breaking them. For example, many churches in the United States have committees that vote on church proceedings rather than giving the Holy Spirit free reign. Perhaps the inventor of the church committee model wanted to enhance cooperation between believers; however, over time, this tradition became a rigid rule that hindered the movement of the Holy Spirit.

Satan’s influence was widespread in Jerusalem. He tried to use the religious spirit in Jerusalem to restrict the influence of the disciples in Jerusalem and to stop God’s work among the Gentiles. Thankfully, the power of the Holy Spirit is unstoppable. Even though people resist his work, He continues to flow through those who obey His guidance.

However, sometimes people have to leave the physical location in order to break free from the power of legalism. God sovereignly allowed persecution to arise in Jerusalem so the disciples would scatter and leave Jerusalem. Freed from the control of Jerusalem legalism, they could follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

After they left Jerusalem because of persecution, some disciples continued to teach only the Jews. Perhaps they were still holding onto Jesus’ teaching about not entering the homes of the Gentiles. They went all the way to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the gospel only to the Jews. But some other men from Cyprus and Cyrene came to Antioch and spoke to the Hellenists as well (19-20). When the Gentiles believed their message and the Holy Spirit fell on them, the Holy Spirit confirmed that he approved of preaching to the Gentiles. Verse 21 goes on to say, “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.”

As soon as the believers got out from under the power of the religious spirit in Jerusalem, they broke the tradition of preaching only to the Jews. Perhaps they thought, “No matter what, we need to preach to the Gentiles. Out here, the rules and regulations of the religious spirit will not be accepted. The Gentiles need to know the gospel, and we can no longer deal with so many restrictions.” It takes tremendous courage to break through and tear down the restrictions of religious spirits, and sometimes it requires a physical change of location.

Similarly, Brother Witness Lee strongly recommended small group meetings in homes because they were less easily influenced by the religious spirit and more open to the Holy Spirit. Within the church halls, people feel restricted by dogma, rules, and procedures. People feel constrained by the church’s laws and unwritten rules. But in homes, believers are free to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Once they left the church halls, they could follow God’s leading with freedom.

The Religious Spirit Raises Concerns about Antioch

Even though the believers were free from the religious spirit in Jerusalem and were preaching to the Gentiles, the religious spirit did not give up. Verse 22 goes on to say, “The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.” This is very interesting. Why was it a problem that they were preaching the gospel to the Gentiles? When Peter explained the circumstances of Cornelius’s salvation, everyone fell silent and acknowledged that God had given grace to the Gentiles. So why were they suddenly concerned about it again?

This story shows that the religious spirit had not been defeated by Peter’s testimony, but only temporarily silenced. It continued looking for other opportunities to restrict the work of the Holy Spirit, who was spreading the gospel to the Gentiles. After the Jerusalem believers heard Peter’s testimony and accepted the fact that God wanted to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, the circumcision faction must have gained the upper hand once again.

Barnabas was sent to investigate, perhaps because he was from nearby Cyprus and was familiar with the culture. Or perhaps Barnabas was an acceptable go-between for both parties. Who were the two parties? First, the Jerusalem believers who advocated for circumcision; and second, those who supported preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, including Peter. Perhaps Barnabas was someone that both parties could accept.

God used Barnabas to bring Saul (Paul) to Antioch to serve the Gentile church. Barnabas helped Paul step onto center stage and begin his public work. God’s Holy Spirit was at work through each of his apostles.

This is not the last time we hear from the religious spirit. Much later, even Barnabas would be trapped by legalism. In Galatians 2, we learn that Peter frequently ate with Gentiles before certain brothers arrived from James. But when they arrived, Peter no longer ate with the Gentiles, and even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. This time, Paul had to stand up to Peter. Clearly, the religious spirit had become more and more powerful, even trapping Peter and Barnabas.

The Religious Spirit Resists the Prophets

I believe that the religious spirit also restricts the flow of prophecy. At the end of Acts 11, we learn that Agabus and several other prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch to prophesy that there would be a great famine over all the world. I believe it is no accident that the prophets came to Antioch to deliver these words of prophecy. The religious spirit had pervaded the church in Jerusalem. When religious spirits gain strength, the movement of the Holy Spirit is restricted. When the movement of the Holy Spirit is restricted, there are usually fewer prophetic words. And even when there are prophetic words, people often don’t have ears to hear them. I believe that the Jerusalem believers were unable or unwilling to accept the prophetic warnings due to the power of the religious spirit.

If the Jerusalem believers had accepted the warnings, why would the prophets have needed to come from Jerusalem to Antioch? I believe the Christians in Antioch were open to the Holy Spirit, and they accepted the words of these prophets and actively prepared for the famine by storing food that could later be sent to the believers in Judea. Through the arrival of the prophets, the Holy Spirit laid the groundwork for Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem to provide for the brothers.

Agabus and the other prophets who came to Antioch were following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When there is movement of the Holy Spirit, there is also movement of the prophetic gifts. Prophets are a group of people who are very sensitive to the movement of the Holy Spirit, so the prophets coming to Antioch may have been them following the movement of the flow of the Holy Spirit.

In some churches, the movement of the Holy Spirit is restricted. While I attended The Local Church, I had no idea that the gift of prophecy was still active today. Only when I attended some Charismatic gatherings did I see the power of the Holy Spirit through prophetic gifts and words. I saw the power of the Holy Spirit, and my eyes were open. If we rarely see such prophecies taking place in our churches, it shows that the influence of the Holy Spirit is not very strong in the church.

The gospel flourished in the church in Antioch, and Saul and Barnabas worked together to get God’s work in the Gentile churches off to a good start. They were open to prophetic words and took action. They not only took care of their own church family but also actively provided for the church in Jerusalem. Although the religious spirit in the Jerusalem church attempted to persecute the Antioch church, they lovingly cared for the Jerusalem church. The church in Antioch sets a wonderful example for us to follow.