water ring November 14-15 Chronological Bible Study

Timeline. Map. Go to today’s Bible reading (NIV) or alternate versions (use your browser arrow to return): Acts 8–11

Note: Because of the theme, this is a combined study. It is recommended that the Scriptures be read on November 14 and the Bible study on November 15

Grace Extended

A person tosses a rock into a pond. What happens? Water is displaced and a ring ripples out from the center. The larger the rock, the bigger the ripple that is created. As more rocks are thrown into a pond more concentric circles are formed. This is what happens when the rocks of persecution come—people scatter but share the grace of God wherever they go.

In today's Bible reading, the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem begins. Already Stephen has been stoned (see our last lesson). Now Saul, a zealous Jewish religious leader, begins to destroy the assembly of believers, dragging them from their homes and hauling-off many to prison. The stones of persecution scatter believers from Jerusalem, and they preach the gospel wherever they go. The Christian witness reaches into Judea and Samaria, Gaza, Caesarea, Joppa, Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch in Syria.

Why does God allow the persecution? The answer is that he planned to extend his grace beyond Jerusalem (Matthew 28:19-20), so he has to get the church out of her comfort zone. At this time in Bible history, Jerusalem has more than 5,000 converts in the church, all Jewish. New Christians are added to the number daily. Even in today’s world this number of believers gathering together would be considered a Mega Church. If a typical church in America today experienced growth like that, the members would probably hire more ministers, and build a beautiful church, school, and recreation center. They would create a bunch of programs to minister to those who attend, and would strive to be culturally relevant and seeker-friendly to keep the believers in the fold and to attract even more people.

Mega churches have a lot to offer, but a couple dangers of big church ministries are self-absorption and a gradual decline in their effectiveness. This was not God’s plan for the church. He had given a commission to the apostles: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8, NIV). How would this happen? Acts 8:1b records that on the same day of Stephens’ martyrdom, “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (NIV). We don't like persecution, but it has its purposes—it sharpens our spiritual life, it motivates us to help others who suffer hardships or are treated unfairly, and it helps to extend the gospel of God's grace.

Although this mission was introduced by Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20), the salvation of Samaritans and other gentiles (non-Jews) is a shock to the apostles and the early church. Jews despise the people of Samaria! They are half-breeds—half Jewish, half Gentile. Their nation (their neighborhood if you will) is always avoided. The apostles and Christians now become ministers, not only to scattered Jews but also to gentiles. The Jewish believers in Jerusalem and Judea have trouble erasing the prejudice against them —they are not Jewish—they are considered no better than dogs! But God is loving and merciful to all people who turn to him in faith. In his great compassion, he loves those who are unlovely and even those who are hated.

Through Phillip the evangelist, the gospel first begins to be preached in Samaria, then in Gaza to an Ethiopian Eunuch, then Azotus and the entire region of Caesarea. The Apostles Peter and John check out the report of salvation being brought to Samaria. They catch Phillip's vision for reaching gentiles and continue there preaching the good news of spiritual life through Jesus. Later, Peter travels around Lydda and Joppa, and then Caesarea proclaiming the gospel. The gospel at this time reaches the areas from Gaza, southwest of Israel, to Antioch in Syria, north of Israel. The ripple effect from persecution causes the spreading of the gospel outward from Jerusalem in great waves. As we read about the gospel being extended, we witness the love and mercy of God to all people. As his witnesses today, will we extend his saving grace to all people, even to those whom we might consider undesirable?

How do we reach those who are looked down upon by society or those whom we have a prejudice against? Our hearts need to be changed. Continuing in our Bible reading, we see Saul going with letters to arrest Christians in Damascus. In his religious zeal, he thinks he is doing this for God. He believes Christians are a Jewish cult and dangerous to their nation, but he is mistaken. He needs a heart change.

On the road to Damascus Saul is dropped in his tracks by a blinding light and a voice from heaven. It is Jesus challenging him! Saul is humbled and blinded by the light. He is led by the hand to Damascus where he prays to receive Christ and then is baptized by the Holy Spirit. Christians in Damascus and Jerusalem are very wary of Saul because of his reputation for persecuting Christians, but now he is radically changed. If we are going to reach those whom we despise or those who are spurned in our society, we also need a transformation of our hearts. Will we allow Christ to change our attitudes, or will we just be content to keep our own religious prejudices? God can change any man or woman for his name's sake.

Second, to reach those who are not liked, prejudice needs to be removed and replaced with love and acceptance. This means our thinking and our actions need to change. It is not easy to do. We are born in a prejudicial society, and we usually adopt the opinions of our family members. We may acquire feelings of malice towards those who are different. It is not easy for Peter and the Jewish church in Jerusalem to change their thinking about gentiles. But after seeing the grace of God bringing salvation to them and giving them the same Holy Spirit they possess, they come to the conclusion that he has indeed extended saving grace to gentiles, and they praise him (Acts 11:18). They (and we) must change, not only our thinking, but also our actions. If we start acting with love and grace, then our feelings will follow.

Last, we need to remember that, unless we are Jewish, we did not inherit the covenant or the promises of the Jewish people. We were not a special people to whom God chose to bless. Our ancestors were despised and rejected, but God, who is rich in mercy, graciously reaches out to us and saves all who call out to him in faith. We are then adopted into his family and have all the rights of sons. Since we have received his mercy and grace, we ought to be thankful and extend mercy and grace to others.

Lessons to Live By

  • Persecution has a purpose: it sharpens our spiritual life, it motivates us to help others who suffer or are treated unfairly, and it helps to spread the gospel.
  • If in deep remorse, we turn to God from our wrongdoings, we can find forgiveness from him through faith in his Son Jesus Christ. (more...)
  • If we sincerely confess our wrong attitudes and prejudicial actions, God will work to change our hearts.
  • We should recognize the love and grace which God has extended to us and extend it to others. If we start acting with love and grace, our feelings will follow.

Focus Verses

Ephesians 2:8-10 (NIV) “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Watch a video of today's Bible lesson. Start at 48:12 minute mark and finish at 1:15:26

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A Look Ahead: In our Next Lesson we take a short break from the book of Acts and move to the book of James, written at the time of the dispersion of believers from Jerusalem. The book answers the question, what does Genuine Christianity look like? Join us for this practical Bible study.

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