Sabbath School Lesson for November 10-16, 2018
To understand some of the conflicts in the early church, we will explore…
- cultural differences–the Greek widows receiving less than the Hebrew women (found in Acts 6–Sunday)
- the Holy Spirit working for both Jews and Gentiles–the vision Peter was given and the conversion of Cornelius, which helped break down cultural barriers (found in Acts 10–Monday)
- the Holy Spirit enabling the spread of the work among Gentiles, as the work spread to Antioch–fulfilling Jesus’ prediction that they would go outside Jerusalem to evangelize other nations (found in Acts 11–Tuesday)
- the Jerusalem Council–solving doctrinal dilemmas and knowing which traditions to hang onto (found in Acts 15–Wednesday)
- understanding how Gentiles, and all of us, are saved–developing a mindset of love, trust, and unity (Thursday)
The survival of God’s church has been threatened repeatedly throughout history. The push to “divide and conquer” has been the enemy’s strategy from day one. It may have appeared that Adam and Eve were united when they both ate fruit from the wrong tree. But as it turned out, their lack of trust in their Maker has caused animosity between the sexes ever since. And such is Satan’s desire and strategy to divide us.
There have risen untold numbers of divisions among other people groups. The early church even experienced them not long after Pentecost. But the Holy Spirit guided them toward solutions that may well equip us to handle some of the conflicts we see in the church today.
Whether they be ethnic differences, interpersonal disputes, or doctrinal misunderstandings, the early church of the first century struggled with them all. We’ll see this week how the apostles and those first Christian believers held it together and gave us a model to follow and the faith to withstand Satan’s assaults on our most important asset–our unity.
Memory Text: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:27, 28 NKJV
No one disputes the fact that there are differences in any of these categories of people. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, we are all affected by whatever culture or environment we are born into. This means there will be real differences in our human interactions, personalities, and lifestyles.
But when it comes to God, salvation, and our relationship to our Creator, there’s a level playing field. God sends the Holy Spirit in some measure to each of us. We are all given a chance to become active members of His household, working to spread the gospel to everyone who listens.
Sunday: Ethnic Prejudices
The first hint of conflict came when it was noticed that Greek widows did not receive as much of the daily distribution of goods as the Jewish widows. Whether real or perceived prejudice was behind this neglect, it was brought to the apostles’ attention and a solution was devised to ensure more equality in the distribution process.
Notice in Acts 6, where this story evolves, the twelve apostles called for a general assembly of all the disciples (v. 2), to make their suggestion for a solution and to ask their help in implementing it.
Thus, seven devout men were appointed by the assembly to deal specifically with the distributions. With the laying on of hands and special prayers for their ministry, these seven men proved to be a powerful spiritual asset to the church as well.
Thus, we can see that proper church organization can be helpful in providing adequate means to solve conflicts.
Read Acts 6:1. What reasons might there have been for this neglect of the Greek widows? How might rapid growth of the church have been a factor?
Read Acts 6:2, 3 and Exodus 18:17, 18. How might these two situations have been similar and why might they apply to our church organizational structure today?
Read Acts 6:5, 6, 2 Timothy 1:6 and 1 Timothy 4:14. What was the purpose of the “laying on of hands”? How does this relate with the current practice of ordination of our church leaders today?
Monday: The Conversion of Gentiles
The first Christian believers were, of course, those Jews who were close to Jesus during His earthly ministry. Beyond the twelve disciples, there were many of Jewish heritage who launched the early church.
These faithful ones brought with them their knowledge of how to keep God’s law, as it had been taught them by their parents and rabbis. This law included the true commandments of God, and those added and traditionally kept by their ancestors. Many unnecessary practices therefore proved to be barriers in their ability to reach the Gentiles around them.
The Holy Spirit moved swiftly to lift these ill-conceived ideas about how to treat others, who weren’t like them. The dream about unclean animals, followed by the conversion of Cornelius, was shared by Peter when needed, and did much to alleviate the tensions that existed between the Jews and Gentiles.
Therefore, let’s not devalue the Holy Spirit’s ability to guide the church to correct outcomes through spiritual gifts and miracles. Our testimony about these experiences, like that of Peter and Paul, is helpful in changing mindsets and improving relations.
Read Acts 10:9-16. Why was Peter’s first thought of the dream being about diet and what to eat or not to eat a reasonable conclusion of its meaning? What circumstances made this a likely assumption for Peter?
Read Acts 10:24, 28. How did the unexpected visit of Cornelius begin to shape Peter’s understanding of his mysterious dream?
Read Acts 10:44-46. Why was this experience necessary as an encouragement for God’s disciples to continue ministering to Gentiles?
Tuesday: The Spirit Is Leading
The result of Cornelius’ conversion was astounding to Peter and his Jewish friends at the time. Cornelius and his household were immediately given the same spiritual gift of speaking in different languages as was received in the upper room right after Pentecost.
Back in Jerusalem, when Peter was confronted with his “unlawful” interactions with Gentiles, he was adamant about his defense. Due to the vision he had received in Joppa, and what he had witnessed following Cornelius’ conversion and baptism, he was convinced of God’s approval of their ministry to the Gentiles.
His moving testimony may have inspired Barnabas to go to Antioch, north of Jerusalem, and start what would become a thriving evangelistic effort with Paul that resulted in many more of the Gentiles receiving the gospel.
Read Acts 11:3 and 10:28 and John 4:9. How did Jesus try to correct those Jewish practices that hindered the spreading of the gospel? Why did Peter and the other disciples have such a hard time understanding the misapplication of God’s laws and statutes that lead to their isolation as a nation?
Read Acts 1:8. Why was there hesitation and confusion on how Gentiles would be received into the family of God?
Read Acts 11:12, 15-18 and John 16:13. How had Jesus predicted the work of the Holy Spirit, as experienced by Peter in this story? What do you think was the purpose of Cornelius’ household receiving the gift of tongues?
Wednesday: The Jerusalem Council
The Jerusalem Council was the driving force that shifted the thinking of those believers in Jerusalem, allowing them to reconsider how Gentiles should be treated, especially those converting to Christianity.
Previously, the goal was to first convert them to Judaism. This required the rite of circumcision for the males, and was understandably not a welcome ceremony for Gentiles, and most likely turned many away from the gospel.
In their vote to dismiss the need for circumcision, they made a first step toward accepting, without reservations, their Gentile brethren into the family of God. Of course, this did not end all the opposition. But it did put them on the right track toward unity. It allowed for the growth of the new Christian movement that was beginning to envelope the world.
The Council also provided the apostles, like Paul and Barnabas, a chance to share their witnessing success stories with those who remained at home in Jerusalem. Their enthusiasm did much to encourage further support of their work, allowing them to go to other areas of the world with the gospel.
Read Acts 15:1, 2, 28, 29, and 31. What was the problem and solution produced by the council in Jerusalem? How was it received by the Gentiles?
Read Acts 15:11 and Romans 5:15. What is it that saves us? And why was this hard for the Jews to embrace?
Read Galatians 2:11-14. How did the issue of circumcision still influence the way Gentiles were treated by some of the Jews, even after the Jerusalem decree? Why was Paul so disturbed by their behavior?
Thursday: A Difficult Solution
The council’s decision to accept Gentiles without their becoming Jews first, without the need of circumcision, was not an easy choice. But the Holy Spirit had moved enough hearts that the first step in becoming a more unified movement could be felt by the fledgling church.
As they delved into the Scriptures, they discovered truths and concepts that had previously gone unnoticed. For far too long, they had emphasized the physical part they had in the covenant, such as that of being circumcised. But the whole purpose of God in establishing Israel was so they would be able to bless ALL nations (Genesis 12:1-3). It wasn’t just for the Jews.
James, in pronouncing the decision of the council, proved that study of the prophets was crucial to their new understandings. He quoted Amos 9:11, 12 as evidence that Gentiles were being called by God.
Submitting to God’s Word, with an attitude of loving trust and humility toward their fellow brethren, brought them much closer to the unity which they sought.
Read Acts 15:13-21. What had James and the others begun to see that was changing their thoughts about Gentiles (see v. 21)?
Read Genesis 12:1-3. How and why did the descendants of Abraham become so focused on their own success and failures? How did this affect their keeping of the covenant?
Read Acts 11:18. When have you had an abrupt change of opinion in some matter, whether theologically or otherwise? What were the steps that led to your change of heart?
The whole purpose of conflict resolution in the church should be to enable the mission of the church to go forward, without distraction or barriers.
Several principles for conflict resolution emerge from the valuable experience of the early church…
- Problems must be acknowledged openly and dealt with in a timely manner. (such as what happened when the Greek widows were neglected)
- Well-chosen, trustworthy leaders should be appointed to handle the day-to-day operation of the church. (such as when the seven deacons were chosen to help with the distribution of goods to those in need)
- Opinions on both sides of a conflict should be heard by all those involved. (the first step of the Jerusalem Council)
- Evidence must be Bible-based, and driven by the Holy Spirit. (what happened during the Jerusalem Council)
- Open, clear communication of decisions, and the reasons behind them, must be shared with all parties. (what happened at the end of the Council)
Just as with any trial, we can allow conflicts to tear us apart or grow us spiritually.
Next Week’s Lesson: Unity in Faith
To read the Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly or see more resources for its study, go to https://www.absg.adventist.org/
Other Outlook blogposts by Teresa Thompson, are at http://outlookmag.org/author/teresathompson/