Sabbath School Lesson for July 21-27, 2018
Outline of the Lesson
The establishment of the first church leaders led to these experiences (found in Acts 6-8):
- the appointment of seven deacons to oversee the fellowship aspect of the work (Sunday)
- Stephen’s outreach and his preaching in the Hellenistic synagogues (Monday)
- the content of Stephen’s speech when he was brought before the Sanhedrin council (Tuesday)
- the stoning of Stephen and Saul’s participation (Wednesday)
- the spreading of the gospel to Samaria (as a result of Stephen’s death) and Ethiopia (as a result of Philip’s witness to an Ethiopian eunuch) (Thursday)
Previously, in the first five chapters of the book of Acts, we have seen the beginnings of church growth, which included events like the healing of a lame man at the temple gate, Peter’s sermons and arrests, and the disturbing deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.
By the time we reach chapter six, it’s been estimated that the Christian community of believers in Jerusalem had reached nearly 20,000. A complaint was voiced that the Jewish believers were extending more welfare to the Jewish widows than to the Greek-speaking ones, creating a need for a solution quickly before the dispute threatened their unity and growth.
Here we see that organization was needed to establish a more orderly, fair way of accomplishing their goals. Seven deacons were then chosen to lead out in the practical tasks of the church, such as distributing help to members in need.
We will see how this method of delegating tasks, and others, encouraged church growth and spreading of the gospel.
Memory Text: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:7 NRSV
Just as Jesus had prescribed, the work of the disciples began in Jerusalem. Evidently, the city was enveloped in a thrust of missionary work following Christ’s resurrection, with countless witnesses proclaiming that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed their promised Messiah.
Even a good share of the religious leadership, those who served in the temple, became convinced that the disciples’ gospel message had merit and they gladly joined their numbers.
The possibility existed that the new believers would dwell too much on their local successes and lose the impetus to go out to other areas with God’s truth. But God had other plans for them, even using persecution to further the work.
Sunday: The Appointment of the Seven
Since early church life consisted of both doctrine/prayers and fellowship/breaking of bread (Acts 2:42), it was soon found necessary to develop a plan to provide more efficiently for both of these important areas of church growth.
It was brought to the attention of the apostles that there were complaints about the distribution of help to the widows among them. There appeared to be inequality in providing for the Jewish and the Greek widows, which was definitely not in accordance with the spirit of love they were proclaiming to the world.
Whether the oversight was intentional or not is unclear, but the fact that complaints were made called for action on the part of the apostles. Seven spirit-driven men of good reputation were chosen to oversee the distribution of help and other matters pertaining to their fellowship activities.
These men became known as deacons. Their appointments, designated by the “laying on of hands”, allowed the apostles to focus their efforts on the preaching/teaching aspect of their work.
Read Acts 2:42. What roles do fellowship and doctrine play in developing a new community of any kind, and maintaining it? How did this combination benefit the early church? How can we foster more teaching and fellowship in our churches today?
Read Acts 6:1. Who were the Hellenists, and why were they likely neglected in their fair share of goods for the needy? Is it right to bring inequalities to the attention of our leaders, whether church or civil authorities? When and how is it appropriate to do so?
Read Acts 6:2-6 and 2 Timothy 1:6. How and why do you think SEVEN deacons were chosen? Could it have anything to do with the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 that we later hear about? Also, for what purpose was there a “laying on of hands”?
Monday: Stephen’s Ministry
One of the chosen deacons was effective in preaching, as well as the tasks of church administration. Stephen apparently witnessed heavily in the Hellenistic synagogues in Jerusalem, already being one of the Hellenistic Jews; but his words were interpreted as blasphemy by the ruling Sanhedrin council.
The Jews were quite upset when Stephen denounced the practice of temple veneration that was prevalent in the worship services of the time. See Acts 7:48. Stephen tried to divert the minds of the Jews away from the temple ceremonies that were no longer needed, as Jesus’ arrival as the Messiah now made them irrelevant.
The disciples were beginning to understood that Jesus’ death ended the temple order; but, of course, this would not endear the newly-baptized believers in Christ to the temple leaders and most of their followers.
Read Acts 6:8-10, James 1:5, and 1 Kings 3:9. How is wisdom obtained and how does it benefit the receiver?
Read Acts 6:11-14 and Matthew 26:59-61, 65. How were the trials of Stephen and Jesus similar?
Read Acts 6:15, Exodus 34:35, 2 Thessalonians 2:8, and Matthew 5:16. What made Stephen’s face, or even the face of an angel, so bright? Why are we to let Jesus’ light shine in our lives too?
Tuesday: Before the Sanhedrin
One must remember that there were three things that Jews held dearly. These were the pillars of their faith, and seen traditionally as vital to their religious life:
- the law
- the temple
- their good works
Attacking any of these three would put you at odds with the Jewish population, especially those in leadership positions. Therefore, Stephen became suspect when he downplayed the temple service and declared it as being outdated and not needed any more.
Instead of defending himself before the Sanhedrin council, Stephen gave a lengthy discourse, the longest speech recorded in the book of Acts. His review of Israel’s history sounded much like that of many Old Testament prophets.
The speech reminded them of the positive impact of their patriarchal forefathers–Abraham, Joseph, and Moses–how God was with them, even before the temple was built. However, the faith they encouraged had somehow been lost sight of. Stephen forcefully pointed out that the present leaders over Israel had widely left that faith and become ungrateful and disobedient.
This speech made it obvious that Stephen was taking a stand with the Jesus movement and was no longer considering himself as part of the Jewish community. He used the phrase “our fathers” throughout his speech, but at the last, he called them “your fathers” (Acts 7:51).
These words were more than the Sanhedrin could stand to hear, and they immediately cast him out of the city to stone him.
Read Acts 7:44-50 and Matthew 27:50, 51. What point was Stephen making at the end of his speech? And what sign indicated that his assessment of the temple’s value was correct?
Read Acts 7:11, 19, 38, 44, 45 and 51. Why did Stephen stop referring to them as “OUR fathers” at the very end of his speech?
Read Micah 6:3-5. What value is there is studying history and our heritage, even as Seventh-day Adventists? Is it a waste of time and means to preserve and protect that history?
Wednesday: Jesus in the Heavenly Court
Stephen’s speech just before his execution lacks a call to repentance that was featured in Peter’s sermons. The stoning itself may have shortened his speech. But something else may have caused the omission.
Stephen, being the first recorded Christian martyr, marked the end of the theocracy that God had hoped would make Israel the instrument of salvation for the world. Individual Jews could, of course, repent and follow God, but the nation as a whole was beyond the possibility of repentance.
When the priest rent his garment and others began to “gnash their teeth” in anger, Stephen knew this was his last testimony. Surely, his immediate death was soon to take place. It was observed by those in the crowd that his face shone like an angel, while delivering his speech, and following it, he was heard to say these words…
“Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Acts 7:56 NKJV
Stephen’s godly character was evident in his final words of forgiveness for those who were about to take his life. This included a man named Saul, later Paul the apostle, who did later find that forgiveness for himself and became one of the greatest evangelists of all time.
Read Acts 7:54-56, Hebrews 12:2, and Mark 14:62. What makes the right hand symbolically the greatest indication of power? How did this heavenly vision enable Stephen to endure his fate?
Read Acts 7:58 and 22:19, 20. How did Saul participate in Stephen’s death? Why did he later have remorse over his actions?
Read Acts 8:1, 2 and Philippians 3:6. How could Saul be persecuting the church and yet be blameless, according to the law?
Thursday: The Spread of the Gospel
The stoning of Stephen really marked an increase of the persecution that the followers of Jesus would experience. The harassment and violence became so unbearable that many of His disciples were forced to flee to other parts of the Empire.
The nearest country to the north of Judea was Samaria, a place where Jesus ministered, laying the groundwork for later successful evangelism. (Remember: the woman at the well was a Samaritan–and Jesus’ parable about a good Samaritan)
The Samaritans held many Jewish beliefs, such as…
- monotheism (belief in one God),
- acceptance of the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses),
- the practice of circumcision.
- They even looked for the Messiah.
According to Jewish thought, however, the Samaritan brand of religion was corrupted. They were not considered part of God’s covenant people.
Those who had been Jews all their life were pleasantly surprised when so many Samaritans received them well there. Peter and John even went to assess what was going on in the area, to confirm that the report about the Samaritan conversions was true.
Another deacon then became prominent in the early church. Philip, who had a great desire to spread the gospel and be a witness for Jesus, had an encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza.
This eunuch, who held great authority under Candace, the queen of Ethiopia, was baptized in the name of Jesus by Philip, after a brief Bible study on the meanings of the Messianic prophecies found in the book of Isaiah. This resulted in the work spreading to other parts of the world, just as Jesus had predicted in Acts 1:8.
Read Acts 8:3, 26:10, and 9:13, 14. How would Saul’s persecution affect his later work in the Christian church?
Read Acts 8:4-8 and John 4:39-42. How did Jesus lay the groundwork for the disciples’ work in Samaria?
Read Acts 8:26-29, 35, 39, and Isaiah 53:7, 8. What part did the Holy Spirit have in Philip’s opportunity to witness to the Ethiopian?How did the understanding of this passage in Isaiah complete the religious instruction needed for the baptism of this eunuch?
No doubt all the deacons chosen by the early church were active in spreading the gospel, even though their duties at first seemed to be rather superficial in nature: such as distribution of welfare to the widows of the church. Two of these deacons are spoken of at length in Acts chapters 6-8, which we studied this week.
One of them, Stephen, was evidently a talented speaker, winning many converts through his eloquent public preaching. Sadly, his gospel outreach was cut short, however, by an angry mob of dissatisfied Jewish opponents who violently stoned him to death.
Even this sad event, which further intensified the persecution of the believers in general, did not prevent the gospel from spreading to areas outside Jerusalem. In fact, by causing them to flee the holy city, the message of salvation was able to reach more of the world than they could have anticipated.
Philip’s quiet witness to a fellow traveler was just as effective in growing the church. No matter who we are or what our talents are, God can use each of us in furthering the work, if we consecrate our lives to him. Everyone has a place in God’s church. It will grow only as we allow His Spirit to use us totally and unconditionally.
Next Week’s Lesson: The Conversion of Paul
To read the Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly or see more resources for its study, go to https://www.absg.adventist.org/
All Outlook blogposts by Teresa Thompson, are at http://outlookmag.org/author/teresathompson/