Monday, June 27, 2016

Give us a king

My Life Group lesson for June 26, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

You know how General George Washington led American troops to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War.

But did you know … the rest of the story?

Allegedly, at least.

Legend has it that, after his victory in the Revolutionary War, Washington was so popular that a group of citizens frustrated with the Continental Congress wanted to make him king of the new nation. He turned the suggestion down. It's probably just as true as Washington chopping down the cherry tree.

After the war, in London, English King George III questioned the American-born painter Benjamin West what Washington would do now he had won. West said he would return to his farm. "If he does that," said the king, "he will be the greatest man in the world."

We also know that as president, Washington stepped down after two terms to set a precedent of leaders not holding onto power for too long.

Like those early Americans looking for King George Washington, the Israelites sought a king for leadership. Problem is, they were rejecting the ultimate King.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

1 Samuel 8:1–11:15

*** It might be difficult to believe in our age of government control and bureaucracy everywhere, but prior to King Saul, Israel had no central government to enforce Old Testament law. After Joshua's leadership to conquer Canaan, early Israel had no king or national ruler, no capital city, no bureaucracy, no tax collectors, no highway department, no national court system, no representative body (like a congress or parliament), no welfare department, and no standing army.

*** God would raise up "judges" sporadically to deal with foreign oppressors, such as when Gideon fought the Midianites. There was no official office, and no system of succession.

*** Local affairs would be taken care of by elders in cases of criminal or civil law. Militias served as defense against intruders.

*** The Israelites were expected to be faithful to their covenant with God as their king, without enforcement necessary by a central state.

*** This brings us to 1 Samuel chapter 8, and now the Israelites want a human king to lead and protect them.

A KING DEMANDED (1 SAM. 8:4-5)

4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and went to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not follow your example. Therefore, appoint a king to judge us the same as all the other nations have.”

*** Game of Thrones.

--- As Samuel grew old, he named his sons as judges. This was rare; the sons of earlier judges did not take over from their fathers. (The one exception was Abimelech, son of Gideon, who tried to succeed his father and to actually claim the title of king. That ended in complete disaster (Judg. 9).)

--- However, just as Eli the priest's sons were awful, Samuel's boys, Joel and Abijah, "turned toward dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice," according to 8:3.

*** All the king’s men.

--- A group of elders told Samuel that since his boys were corrupt, he should appoint for them a king.

--- The elders, therefore, had rejected that God was their king, and that He had appointed Samuel.

--- They could have asked Samuel to step down and take away his sons' authority. Israel had survived for hundreds of years without a constant leader.

--- The elders reveal their true desire by saying that they wanted a king "the same as all other nations have."

--- Israel wasn't supposed to be like the other nations. they were supposed to be better according to God's leadership.

--- Instead, Israel had a history of idolatry, and demanding a king was just one more example of giving lip service to their trust in God while proving faithless in their actions.

--- Our actions can reveal our spiritually blindness to God's power and leadership, too, when we trust in man instead of trusting in the Lord.

*** Question – Is it easier to trust in a strong leader or in God?

REJECTION DECLARED (1 SAM. 8:6-9)

6 When they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” Samuel considered their demand sinful, so he prayed to the LORD. 7 But the LORD told him, “Listen to the people and everything they say to you. They have not rejected you; they have rejected Me as their king. 8 They are doing the same thing to you that they have done to Me, since the day I brought them out of Egypt until this day, abandoning Me and worshiping other gods. 9 Listen to them, but you must solemnly warn them and tell them about the rights of the king who will rule over them.”

*** You've made your bed, now lie in it.

--- God reassures Samuel that the people weren't rejecting Samuel's leadership, but far worse, a rejection of God as their king.

--- God tells Samuel to go along with their request.

--- According to Deut. 17:14-20 this was permissible, so long as God chose the king.

--- This does not mean that God approved of their action. He is willing to let people choose their own path, even if their choices are poor and will cause them pain and regret.

--- Israel had been turning from God ever since the exodus from Egypt. (Lack of faith, idolatry, and corruption became a pattern.)

--- The period of the judges was a time of freedom. From the time of King Saul through the Roman emperors, they would always be under a king, whether their own or a foreigner.

--- Samuel warned the people in verses 11-18 that if they had a king, he would have the power to confiscate wealth and property, draft men into the army for his own purposes, and take women to use for royal service.

--- The end result was that the Israelites would discover they had no rights at all: “He can take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves can become his servants. When that day comes, you will cry out because of the king you’ve chosen for yourselves, but the LORD won’t answer you on that day” (1 Sam. 8:17-18).

*** Question - What kind of consequences should we consider when we turn our faith and dependence away from God and place it in someone else?

REBELLION DETERMINED (1 SAM. 8:19-22)

19 The people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We must have a king over us. 20 Then we’ll be like all the other nations: our king will judge us, go out before us, and fight our battles.” 21 Samuel listened to all the people’s words and then repeated them to the LORD. 22 “Listen to them,” the LORD told Samuel. “Appoint a king for them.” Then Samuel told the men of Israel, “Each of you, go back to your city.”

*** Gods and Kings.

--- The Israelites were determined to live under the own system, to fight their own battles instead of following God’s will.

--- Instead of bowing to God, they would bow to a man the same as “all the other nations” did with their pagan kings.

--- The other nations treated their kings as gods, as if they had superhero powers to defeat their enemies and bless the people:

Egyptian pharaohs were kings of Ancient Egypt, and were considered gods by their culture.

Some of the Roman emperors, including Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus and Caligula claimed divinity.

Japanese emperors claimed to be divine.

Dalai Lamas are considered divine re-incarnations in Buddhism.

We saw in Acts 12:20-23 last month, Herod Agrippa I so impressed the Phoenicians with his generosity and splendor that when he spoke, they shouted, “It’s the voice of a god and not of a man!” But God was not impressed with Herod. He struck him with a severe and sudden illness, and he died.

This doesn’t even count rulers treated as a personality cult such as Adolf Hitler, or the rulers of Iran who claim to speak for God while running police states.

Of course, the most famous movie example, Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars. He starts off as a senator, then manipulates events so that the people clamor for a strong leader to crush rebellion, and ends up as the evil emperor of the Galactic Empire.

--- The saying goes, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Israel would be led by some competent and faithful kings, but too often Israel would find itself in ruin because of ungodly leadership.

--- When we fail to acknowledge Jesus as our Savior and the King of kings (Rev. 19:16), chaos will be the inevitable result.

*** Question - How is it spiritually dangerous to look to a human being as your savior? What will that do to your relationship with God?

REVIEW AND TAKE-AWAY POINTS

How often do you tell your kids, "If you would just do as you are asked, you wouldn't be in trouble right now?!"

How often do you tell them, "I can't do that for you right now. You'll understand someday?"

If the Israelites had been faithful to God, He would have protected them and given them all the prosperity they could handle.

We can repeat the same foolish decision made by Israel by turning away from Jesus, the one true King.

We read God's Word and it convicts us of the sin in our lives and yet we justify and continue on without any consideration for what God says knowing that we are doing things outside the blessing of God.

*** Only God is worthy of being looked to as the Ruler of His people and of His creation.

*** When we turn to other things to provide us satisfaction, protection, security, and purpose, we become idolaters. Jesus is the One whom God appointed as the true King—the One who died and rose again! We must ask ourselves, "Who sits on the throne of our hearts?"

*** Sometimes the best answer God can give us is “no” when we ask for something that’s not in our best interest. At other times, God allows us to have what we demand—along with the negative consequences—to teach us that His plan is truly the best path for us.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Worthy!

My Life Group lesson for June 19, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

This past Monday was Flag Day in the United States.

Think about how mad we get when we see our country’s flag torn down or burned.

You may not know Rick Monday’s name but he’s a flag-saving baseball hero.

Monday played centerfield for the Cubs in L.A. on April 25, 1976, when two protestors ran into the outfield and tried to set fire to an American flag during the 4th inning. Monday ran over and grabbed the flag while the intruders were arrested. When Monday came to bat the next inning, he got a standing ovation from the Dodgers crowd and the stadium flashed the message, “Rick Monday, you made a great play.” He later said, "If you're going to burn the flag, don't do it around me. I've been to too many veterans' hospitals and seen too many broken bodies of guys who tried to protect it." Monday had served a commitment with the Marine Corps Reserve as part of his ROTC obligation after leaving Arizona State.

In what ways do we honor the United States flag? (the way we display it; the way we fold it; it can’t touch the ground; it should never be dipped to any person or thing; etc.)

What are some symbols of the Christian faith? (Bible, cross, church buildings, etc.)

How do we feel when these are disrespected?

We are right to be angry when our symbols are trampled, but we must be careful not to misplace our trust and worship any symbol or person, or anything over God. This is the lesson the Israelites had to learn and that we need to learn as we study this week's study.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

1 Samuel 4:1–7:17

*** Samuel grew up in Shiloh in Israel’s primary sanctuary. Several sacred items were stored there, most notably the ark of the covenant that contained the Ten Commandments and a jar of manna, which served as a symbolic throne of God.

*** 1 Samuel 4 tells how Israel lost the ark to the Philistines. They carried it into battle, thinking it would guarantee victory, but were defeated, the ark taken and Eli the high priest’s sons were slain. They had been displaying superstition and not genuine faith.

*** This week we’ll see what happens to the Philistines when the ark is in their possession and God takes control.

THE HOLY GOD (1 Sam. 5:1-5)

1 After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod, 2 brought it into the temple of Dagon and placed it next to his statue. 3 When the people of Ashdod got up early the next morning, there was Dagon, fallen with his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and returned him to his place. 4 But when they got up early the next morning, there was Dagon, fallen with his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. This time, both Dagon’s head and the palms of his hands were broken off and lying on the threshold. Only Dagon’s torso remained. 5 That is why, to this day, the priests of Dagon and everyone who enters the temple of Dagon in Ashdod do not step on Dagon’s threshold.

*** Raiders of the lost ark.

--- The Philistines treated the ark as a trophy of their victory over Israel. Bad idea.

--- In the Old Testament, the ark was God’s dwelling place on earth. The ark itself was not God, like other nations had man-made idols, but God used the ark to display His power and glory:

Exodus 25:21-22 - Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.

Numbers 7:89 - When Moses entered the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant law. In this way the Lord spoke to him.

--- The Philistines placed the ark in the temple of their god Dagon as if it had defeated Israel’s God.

--- This puny idol stood no chance next to a jealous and mighty Lord. (Isaiah 42:8 – “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.”)

--- God made a mockery of Dagon, which was found face down before the ark, then broken into pieces.

--- The Philistines would see that all must bow before the one and only living God.

--- They should have recognized that Yahweh was so awesome that even their own so-called god bowed to Him.

--- Today we might not worship at the feet of a statue, but we’re just as susceptible to idolatry when we look to man-made things for our joy and contentment.

--- We must submit all that we are and have to the Lord to keep everything else from turning into idols of the heart.

*** Question - In what ways does God demonstrate His superiority over false gods? How would you describe to a friend the destructive effect of worshiping a false god instead of the God of the universe?

INSTRUCTIONS FOLLOWED (1 Sam. 5:6, 6:11-12)

6 The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod, terrorizing and afflicting the people of Ashdod and its territory with tumors. …
11 Then they put the ark of the Lord on the cart, along with the box containing the gold mice and the images of their tumors. 12 The cows went straight up the road to Beth-shemesh. They stayed on that one highway, lowing as they went; they never strayed to the right or to the left. The Philistine rulers were walking behind them to the territory of Beth-shemesh.

*** Vengeance belongs to the Lord. (Like Liam Neeson in “Taken,” He will find you …)

--- Once God humiliated Dagon and the Philistines for blaspheming Him and the ark, they were afflicted with a traumatic sickness.

--- There are consequences of idolatry. God does not share His glory with anyone or anything.

--- The plague might have been bubonic plague. The tumors that the verse mentions may have been buboes, the inflammation of the lymph glands associated with bubonic plague. Also, the offering that the Philistines sent when they returned the ark included golden images of mice (6:4). Infected fleas that infest rodents often spread plague, and thus the Philistines may have associated their affliction with mice.

(The ancient Greek translation of this verse includes the words, “And (the hand of the Lord) came against them and spread to them in the ships, and mice swarmed over the middle of the land itself.” This implies that the infected mice arrived in Ashdod on cargo ships and then carried the disease throughout Philistia. This has a parallel in the European Black Death of the 14th century. It began in 1347, when galleys containing infected men and rats landed in Sicily and then in Genoa, Pisa, and Venice. Philistine Ashdod, like those cities, was on the coast.)

--- Whenever one Philistine city would send the ark off to another one of their cities, almost immediately the new possessor of the ark would experience the disease (5:7-12).

*** Send it back!

--- Realizing that nothing good was coming from holding onto the ark of the covenant, the Philistines decided to send it back.

--- Their own pagan priests decided how to do so, without asking an Israelite priest or prophet such as Samuel.

--- They sent the ark back with five gold mice and five gold tumors (gee, thanks?), because they knew that somehow they had to honor the Lord God Almighty so their afflictions would stop. (The number five represented the five cities of the Philistines: Ashdod, Gath, Gaza, Ekron, and Ashkelon.)

--- They hitched the cart carrying the ark to two cows. If the cows went toward Israel (Beth-shemesh) then they knew it was the Lord who did this and all the troubles weren’t by chance.

--- The cows headed for Israel, proving to the Philistines that it was no coincidence.

--- In a primitive way, the Philistines were asking God to forgive them.

--- The apostle Paul would tell the Athenians (Acts 17:29-31) that God “overlooked the times of ignorance” when pagans worshiped gods of wood and stone and when they lived by myths and omens. Now, though, there must be repentance and following Jesus Christ as Savior.

*** Question - What was the message God was sending to the Philistines through this incident?

(They may have been allowed to beat the Israel army, but the Israelite God was sill superior to their god. Even their god bowed before the God of Israel!)

WORSHIP OFFERED (1 Sam. 6:13-16)

13 The people of Beth-shemesh were harvesting wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they were overjoyed to see it. 14 The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there near a large rock. The people of the city chopped up the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 The Levites removed the ark of the Lord, along with the box containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. That day the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices to the Lord. 16 When the five Philistine rulers observed this, they returned to Ekron that same day.

*** Hark! There is the ark!

--- Beth-shemesh was a town in southwestern Judah on the edge of Philistine territory, so the people knew all about their brutal and pagan neighbors.

--- For them, seeing the ark coming was experiencing God’s salvation.

--- God had shown Himself to be more powerful than the Philistines and their gods.

--- In contrast to the Philistines, the Israelites jumped for joy at getting the ark, treating it with reverence and worshipping God with gratitude and praise.

--- The way the people of God worshiped served as a testimony to the Philistines who saw it.

--- In the same way, the church’s worship is a witness to the community of how much we value God.

*** Winner, winner, chicken dinner.

--- As an epilogue, the people of Israel turned back to the Lord.

--- In Samuel chapter 7, Samuel implores the Israelites to put aside their idols and serve the idols only.

--- With a renewed worship, they were able to rout the Philistines in battle, keeping them away throughout the rest of Samuel’s life.

REVIEW AND TAKE-AWAY POINTS

In today’s lesson we focused on (1) The misplaced worship of the Israelites; (2) The misdirected worship of the Philistines; (3) The refocused worship of the Israelites.

We live in weird, troubled times, and as a country you could make a case that we have lost our way when it comes to worshipping the one true God.

We’re no better than the ancient Israelites when it comes to letting Christ be dishonored and our Christian symbols desecrated.

Jesus said, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

Adrian Rogers wrote that what most of us are hungering and thirsting after happiness instead.

We are seeking to satisfy the hole in our heart with things of this world instead of He who died to save the world.

Rogers writes that he believes happiness is something you stumble over on your way to seeking righteousness.

When you are serving, worshipping, and praising the Lord, happiness is a by-product.

The deepest need of your heart will only be met in Jesus.

*** Only God is truly holy, and only He has the power to save. Neither the ark of the covenant nor anything, any action, or anyone other than Christ has the power to save us.

*** Think of one thing you think you could not live without. What is the object of our affections, our efforts, and our attention? Where does the majority of our time go? On what do we spend the greatest amount of our resources? Pray about that one thing this week to determine if you have let it become an idol in your life.

*** There is only one true God who is worthy of worship and praise. Our worship is to be focused on God and not our own tastes and preferences. It is not about us.

Called

My Life Group lesson for June 12, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

“Stupid autocorrect.”

Modern technology is great. We talk into our phones and the text magically appears. We type and it completes the words for us.

Unfortunately, sometimes the message gets a bit messed up.

Anyone have any examples of autocorrect errors that were humorous and even problematic?

Spiritually, our leaders are tasked with knowing what God desires and sharing that with the people. Sometimes they fail, like we'll see with Eli today. And other times the message is loud and clear, as we'll see with Samuel.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

1 Samuel 2:12–3:21

*** Last week we began our study of the book of 1 Samuel. We talked about Samuel’s mom, Hannah, and how her prayers and faithfulness to have a child were answered after years of desperation.

*** The end of the period of Israel being run by the judges was a time of immorality, chaos and idolatry. No matter how many times the people would suffer and call out to God for help, they would go back to their old ways.

*** God called Samuel to lead the people as He prepared them for the time of the monarchy.

A VOICE (1 Sam. 3:1-10)

1 The boy Samuel served the Lord in Eli’s presence. In those days the word of the Lord was rare and prophetic visions were not widespread. 2 One day Eli, whose eyesight was failing, was lying in his room. 3 Before the lamp of God had gone out, Samuel was lying down in the tabernacle of the Lord, where the ark of God was located. 4 Then the Lord called Samuel, and he answered, “Here I am.” 5 He ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “I didn’t call,” Eli replied. “Go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down. 6 Once again the Lord called, “Samuel!” Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “Here I am; you called me.” “I didn’t call, my son,” he replied. “Go back and lie down.” 7 Now Samuel had not yet experienced the Lord, because the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8 Once again, for the third time, the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli understood that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 He told Samuel, “Go and lie down. If He calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 The Lord came, stood there, and called as before, “Samuel, Samuel!” Samuel responded, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.”

*** You better shape up, 'cause I need a man (to be a prophet).

--- Samuel was a boy at this time, possibly around 12, maybe older, taking care of tasks such as making sure the menorah kept burning through the night.

--- The Scripture makes it clear that God wasn't talking directly to His people during this time, likely due to the corruption of the religious leaders who were unworthy (1 Sam. 14:37; Ps. 74:9; Lam. 2:9; Amos 8:11, 12).

--- You can understand Samuel's confusion, then, since even though he slept within view of the Ark of the Covenant every night, he didn't know what God's voice sounded like.

(How many Christians can say the same thing, though, that even though the Lord speaks to us through His Word, it's not recognized?)

--- This is a good indication, then, that the Lord found favor with Samuel.

--- After a long period of silence, God was again speaking, and Samuel would be his messenger.

--- Symbolically the light in Israel was about to go out, but the ministry of Samuel would be the dawn of a new day and new hope.

*** Here am I, Lord, use me.

--- It takes a few tries to get through, but God kept calling until Samuel was ready to listen.

--- It can be that way for us today, too, when we are called to a task, to the ministry, to anything in God’s service, and we must yield to His call.

--- Eli had his failings as a priest (especially in how he let his sons get away with atrocious sins), but he recognized that God was speaking to Samuel and advised him on how to respond.

--- If we want to be receptive to the word of the Lord, we must not harden our hearts (As said in Hebrews 3:15 -As it is said: Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.).

--- A willing and receptive heart prepares us to hear from God.

*** Question - How can we prepare our hearts to hear God’s voice?

--- God still reaches people today, though we don’t have to wait for him to kick us awake with an angel. The Bible and the church are right here, and we grow in faith by reading the Word and gathering together.

A MESSAGE (1 Sam. 3:17-18)

17 “What was the message He gave you?” Eli asked. “Don’t hide it from me. May God punish you and do so severely if you hide anything from me that He told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything and did not hide anything from him. Eli responded, “He is the Lord. He will do what He thinks is good.”

*** The truth hurts.

--- Eli’s sons were bringing down the whole family of Eli. They were out of control, stealing offerings and sleeping with women who worked in God’s sanctuary.

--- Eli had not stopped his sons from defiling the temple, and in chapter 2 someone called a “man of God” prophesied to Eli about what was going to happen.

--- The man said that the sons, Hophni and Phinehas would die on the same day and die young and without an heir, and then a “faithful priest” would do God’s work.

--- By the time Samuel delivered God’s message to Eli, there was no longer any room for repentance. God had determined that the time for judgment had come.

--- The next morning Eli demands that Samuel tell him what God said, and after the boy tells reaffirms everything Eli had been warned about, Eli accepts God’s will.

--- Samuel is young and has been raised by the priest, so it surely took some steel nerves to tell him everything.

--- Eli in many ways is a tragic figure. Unwilling to keep his boys out of trouble and removing them from the priesthood, he could only respect God’s verdict without complaint.

--- However, Eli’s loyalties were divided. Jesus later said that allegiance to the cross takes priority over the natural ties of life:

Matthew 10:35-37 - For I came to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of me.

--- Later, for Eli’s sake, when the Israelites went off to war against the Philistines, Eli was far more concerned about the safety of the ark of the covenant than he was about the safety of his sons (4:13,17-18).

--- As Samuel didn’t hide from telling Eli what God had said, when we hear God’s Word, we in turn must share it without compromise.

*** Question - How can we end up failures not by own personal problems but by the people we love?

A PROPHET (1 Sam. 3:19-21)

19 Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and He fulfilled everything Samuel prophesied. 20 All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a confirmed prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear in Shiloh, because there He revealed Himself to Samuel by His word.

*** My buddy and me.

--- God was right there as Samuel grew up on a path of godliness.

--- We don’t know everything that Samuel prophesied, but the Bible tells us that they all happened because as Peter wrote, a prophet does not speak on his own but is carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).

--- Samuel’s fame spread around Israel, from Dan in the north to Beer-sheba in the south. (As we’d say, from “coast to coast.”)

--- From the perspective of the books of Samuel, it is God’s presence with someone that makes the difference between success and failure.

*** Question - Can you recall any time of crisis when one person arose with the faith and strength necessary to hold things together and enable people to make it through to the end of the trouble? Have you seen such a thing in a church, a business, or a family?

REVIEW AND TAKE-AWAY POINTS

What would life be like if God revealed His will to you audibly, giving directions at every turn, like on a GPS? (And hopefully using Morgan Freeman's voice.)

What are some questions people would like God to answer? (Ex.: Should I take a new job? or Should I move to a new city?)

While God can speak in any way He chooses, most often He speaks to us through His Word, the Bible.

As Samuel grew, Eli helped him learn to recognize God’s voice.

Today we looked at the importance of recognizing God’s voice when He calls.

***God deeply desires to communicate with His children. God communicates directly to a quiet heart that is prepared to listen and obey.

*** Look for affirmations from others that reflect the direction God is leading. Look for how others are being impacted by what you are doing.

*** Ultimately, all Christians are called. We are called first and foremost to God Himself through Jesus Christ. We must first answer the call of the Lord concerning our salvation, and then we can begin to discern what it is He wants us to do with our life.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Prayers answered!

My Life Group lesson for June 5, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

Think of the word "entrust."

It makes a difference it makes in our lives when we understand that everything we have—family, friends, material possessions, physical health, spiritual gifts, time, and so forth—are gifts that God has entrusted to us.

In our study of 1 Samuel, we will be looking at the lives of several individuals to whom God entrusted great responsibility.

Today we will be discussing our responsibilities when God entrusts something to us.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

1 Samuel 1:1–2:11

*** We're studying the book of 1 Samuel for the next 12 weeks this summer.

*** 1 and 2 Samuel used to be one book in Hebrew texts. Jewish tradition says that Samuel wrote the first part of the book, which was continued by Nathan and Gad. But there had to be another, too, since the prophets lived at the same time as David.

*** 1 Samuel tells the history of Israel’s first kings and of wide-ranging wars and royal squabbles.

*** In the timeline of the Old Testament, Samuel lived about 1105–1030 B.C.

*** 1 Samuel comes after Judges, which ends with Israel in moral chaos and oppressed by the Philistines.

*** First, though, we meet Hannah, an Israelite woman who lived during this time of the judges (pre-Saul, David and the rise of kings).

*** Hannah could not have a child, and the book begins with an account of how God answered her prayers and gave her a son, Samuel.

HANNAH’S PRAYER (1 SAM. 1:10-11)

10 Deeply hurt, Hannah prayed to the LORD and wept with many tears. 11 Making a vow, she pleaded, “LORD of Hosts, if You will take notice of Your servant’s affliction, remember and not forget me, and give Your servant a son, I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut.”

*** The hand that rocks the cradle.

--- Hannah is one of the most sympathetic people in the Old Testament. She just wanted to have a child, to nurture and raise and to give her beloved husband Elkanah an heir.

--- Hannah wasn't just sad, the scripture says she was "deeply hurt."

--- The words translated as deeply hurt are literally “bitter of soul.” This is similar to how Naomi spoke of herself in Ruth 1:20: “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara.” Mara is the Hebrew word found in 1 Samuel 1:10. As we shall see, Naomi and Hannah were in one respect in the same situation.

--- Elkanah even had a second wife, Peninnah, who was a real pill. Elkanah married her just so he could have kids to pass on his property, so she taunted Hannah constantly.

(Remember how Abraham had to deal with his servant having a child and shoving it in Sarah's face. Polygamy wasn't explicitly forbidden in the OT, but it never seemed to work out very well, either.)

--- The Bible makes clear that Elkanah loved Hannah more and deeply than Peninnah, but in that time it was so important for a man to have a son to pass on his property, and a woman needs children to care for her in old age.

--- If Elkanah died, Hannah might very well find herself kicked out of the home, and she wouldn't have anyone to help her.

--- Remember what happened to Naomi in the book of Ruth, whose husband passed and she needed a relative, Boaz, to take responsibility for Naomi and Ruth.

*** Question - Through prayer, Hannah directed her pain toward the Lord. Why is it important to be honest with God about our pains and frustrations?

What do we always say about prayer? To take all of your cares – your discouragement, your pain, your despair, your suffering – and give it to God? Hannah is a great example of someone who did just that.

*** Let's make a deal.

--- In her desperation Hannah prayed to the Lord for help, with a promise.

--- Hannah vowed that if God gave her a son, she would give him up to God and he would be a Nazirite (see Numbers 6:1-21 for the rules).

--- This meant that Samuel wouldn't touch anything dead, wouldn't cut his hair and wouldn't eat or drink grapes or anything made from grapes.

--- The vow usually was in force only for a short period of time to show devotion to God.

--- We know of only two men who were consecrated from birth to be lifelong Nazirites—Samson and Samuel. Both were born to women who had previously been barren, and both became judges in Israel.

*** Question - So what do you think that Hannah seems to be making a bargain with God?

--- Usually we say that someone doing that doesn't understand God or pray often. But even believers can be desperate enough to try to make a deal with Him because of illness, financial crisis, etc.

--- The Bible does not forbid the making of vows, but it does encourage restraint and forethought. (Numbers 30:1-6)

--- Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 says clearly: “When you make a vow to God, don’t delay fulfilling it, because He does not delight in fools. Fulfill what you vow. Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it.”

--- God is free to answer a personal appeal as He wishes. He can accept the proposal, or not. God's gifts are according to His grace, not because we make a grand bargain.

--- We must never bargain with God, but if we make a vow to Him, it is sacred.

ELI’S AFFIRMATION (1 SAM. 1:12-18)

12 While she continued praying in the LORD’s presence, Eli watched her lips. 13 Hannah was praying silently, and though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and scolded her, “How long are you going to be drunk? Get rid of your wine!” 15 “No, my lord,” Hannah replied. “I am a woman with a broken heart. I haven’t had any wine or beer; I’ve been pouring out my heart before the LORD. 16 Don’t think of me as a wicked woman; I’ve been praying from the depth of my anguish and resentment.” 17 Eli responded, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant the petition you’ve requested from Him.” 18 “May your servant find favor with you,” she replied. Then Hannah went on her way; she ate and no longer looked despondent.

*** You got to pray just to make it today! (With apologies to MC Hammer.)

--- Hannah and her household were in Shiloh, which was an important religious center before the kings and where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

--- Eli the high priest is sitting nearby and sees Hannah praying so hard and emotionally that he thinks she is drunk. (Like the people who thought the followers were drunk during Pentecost.)

--- It’s possible that Eli’s never seen anyone actually pray so fervently. Or he’s seen too many people make a show out of praying just to look holy.

--- When Eli realized that Hannah wasn’t drunk but was pouring out her spirit to the Lord, he comes around and blesses her effort that God would give her as she asks.

--- He didn’t know what she wanted, but prayed for her “unspoken request” nonetheless.

*** How Hannah got her groove back.

--- After her prayer and Eli’s blessing Hannah is at peace. She looks good, and even gets her appetite back.

--- Her circumstances hadn’t changed, but she changed after casting her cares on the Lord. She left it in His hands.

--- Psalm 55:22 says to “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken.”

--- In other words, God’s got this.

--- In this case, God blessed Hannah with a son, Samuel, who grew up to be a great man of God and the last of the judges.

*** Question - If you could ask God any question about prayer, what would it be?

(The disciples even asked Jesus how to pray correctly. We want to be worshipful, we want our prayers heard.)

HANNAH’S PRESENTATION (1 SAM. 1:26-28)

26 “Please, my lord,” she said, “as sure as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the LORD. 27 I prayed for this boy, and since the LORD gave me what I asked Him for, 28 I now give the boy to the LORD. For as long as he lives, he is given to the LORD.” Then he bowed in worship to the LORD there.

*** I love it when a plan comes together.

--- God answered Hannah’s prayer, and Hannah kept her vow.

--- As soon as they got back home Hannah got pregnant and had Samuel.

(Various meanings of the name “Samuel” have been suggested, including “heard by God,” “he who is from God,” “name of God,” and even “son of God” (as one “given” or “promised” by God).)

*** Ultimate child dedication service.

--- As soon as Hannah weaned Samuel, she took him to Eli so that Samuel would be of service to the Lord.

(At the child dedication two Sundays ago, you would have left your kids with Pastor David and said, “Here you go.”)

--- Eli didn’t adopt Samuel, but took on the role of father and mentor to his young apprentice.

--- Hannah went back home where she was even more blessed with three other sons and two daughters.

--- 1 Samuel 2:19 says that while Samuel grew in the temple, Hannah, every year, sent him a little robe. She’s still his mom!

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

Nothing gets our prayer life going like being desperate.

When we’re at rock bottom, hopeless, helpless, ready to surrender, God does His best work.

God uses our troubles and our faith to bring out what’s best for us according to His will.

Question - What was a time when you have experienced a change of attitude as a result of praying about a difficult situation?

This chapter is about an ordinary woman who was in great distress and who prayed to God.

This is what gives it such appeal. Life is made up of the struggles of ordinary people, and while God’s work may have meant deliverance for Israel, it also meant deliverance for the private torments of one person.

When praying know that there is a specific reason the Lord has led you to the place you are currently in, with the people currently around you, with the job or no job you currently have, and in the specific time period you currently live in.

Paul wrote to the Philippians (4:6-7): Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

*** Think of your greatest disappointment in life at this moment. Take time to pray about this issue, following the example set by Hannah.

*** Don’t give up. Give it up to a gracious and holy God.

*** Think of one area of your life in which you need to be a more faithful steward of what God has given you.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Extraordinary

My Life Group lesson for May 29, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

So who here has a Fitbit or something like it?

How many steps per day do you try to reach?

Does it matter how you get there? Running or moseying?

Our Christian walk is the same. We try to get in a full 10,000 steps before we are called to heaven, finish the race, as Paul wrote.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Acts 12:1-25

*** This is our final lesson for the spring and the first 12 chapters of the book of Acts.

*** Chapter 12 is the last record in Acts of the followers in Jerusalem. Chapter 13 begins a shift to recording the ministry of Paul.

*** Chapter 12 begins with growing persecution by Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great who was king when Jesus was born and ordered the infants killed in Bethlehem. Herod Agrippa was brought up in Rome and made king in Judea and surrounding territories by Gaius the emperor.

He ruled as king of the region from A.D. 41 to 44 and sought favor with the Jewish leaders by going after Christians, including the execution of James, brother of John.

This was the first recorded instance of persecution from secular authorities. Before it had been from Jewish leaders.

*** Peter was arrested next and scheduled for execution following Passover. But God ...

DELIVERANCE (Acts 12:7-10)

7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell. Striking Peter on the side, he woke him up and said, “Quick, get up!” Then the chains fell off his wrists. 8 “Get dressed,” the angel told him, “and put on your sandals.” And he did so. “Wrap your cloak around you,” he told him, “and follow me.” 9 So he went out and followed, and he did not know that what took place through the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they passed the first and second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened to them by itself. They went outside and passed one street, and immediately the angel left him.

*** A supernatural Get Out Of Jail Free card.

--- It's the middle of the night, Peter’s scheduled to be killed, sleeping between two soldiers.

--- Sleeping soundly, it appears, since he’s half-asleep as all this happens. Which in itself is astounding since he was about to be put on show trial and killed.

--- An angel appears to Peter, divinely removes the chains, tells Peter to put on his sandals and leads him right out of jail, with the guards none the wiser.

--- The Roman guards were ready for traditional opposition with weapons, but that’s not how the early church reacted to persecution. They knew they had a higher power in the Lord who could flick off shackles and ignore locked doors.

--- God can deliver us physically and spiritually from all forms of bondage.

*** When God's People Pray. (“And take the pains of earth to the doors of heaven” … “There is hope reborn, there is sin forgiven. And miracles you can't explain away.”)

--- While Peter was in prison he was benefiting from the prayers offered on his behalf from the church.

---The faithful prayers of God’s people combined with the will of God resulted in Peter’s deliverance.

--- It's easy to scoff at prayer and think, "If God's will is done, what does it matter if I pray?" But the Bible makes clear, prayer matters.

--- When Christians hear of persecution or suffering by Christians in our world today, we should pray, knowing that our prayers make a difference. We cannot enter the countries or prisons where many believers today are held, but we can pray for them.

--- We should also note that it's not always God's will to deliver his faithful servants from harm, as we saw with early martyrs Stephen, then James.

--- God has different plans for different lives. The death of James and the deliverance of Peter both accomplished God’s purposes for their lives.

*** Question - What does it say to you about Peter’s faith that he slept so soundly on the night before his scheduled execution?

DELIGHT (Acts 12:11-12, 16-17)

11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know for certain that the Lord has sent His angel and rescued me from Herod’s grasp and from all that the Jewish people expected.” 12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had assembled and were praying. ... 16 Peter, however, kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astounded. 17 Motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he explained to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. “Report these things to James and the brothers,” he said. Then he departed and went to a different place.

Amy Grant sang all about this in her song "Angels:"

"Take this man to prison," the man heard Herod say
And then four squads of soldiers came and carried him away
Chained up between two watchmen, Peter tried to sleep
But beyond the walls an endless prayer was lifting for his keep
Then a light cut through the darkness of a lonely prison cell
And the chains that bound the man of God just opened up and fell
And running to his people before the break of day
There was only one thing on his mind, only one thing to say..."

*** "He's got His angels watching over me, every move I make."

--- Once Peter snapped out of his sleepy angelic stupor did he realize the miracle that had just happened.

--- Peter notes that God freed him through supernatural means.

--- He then heads to a home where Christians were praying for him.

--- John Mark was a relative of Barnabas and would soon play a major role in the first international mission (Acts 12:25). John Mark was also the author of the Gospel of Mark.

--- This shows how important it is for believers to assemble as the body of Christ.

*** Guess who!

--- Even though the servant girl Rhoda ran to tell everyone the good news, no one believed that Peter was really there, so Peter had to stand outside for a few minutes until the gate was unlocked.

--- They likely prayed that God would help Peter during his impending trial. They could not imagine that God would take him from the prison and release him miraculously.

--- Peter thought he was dreaming and his friends were astounded, because even as we pray for miracles we're still amazed by what we think is impossible.

--- Peter’s deliverance was again a testimony to the power of faith and God’s grace.

--- We can be thankful that God’s willingness to answer our prayers is not always limited by our faith.

*** Go tell it on the mountain.

--- Peter’s comment to tell James and his brothers is a reference to James the brother of Jesus.

--- From here Peter would depart Jerusalem to an unknown place and James would take leadership of the church there.

*** Question - What makes people skeptical of God working in an unexpected way? How would you feel if you knew people were gathered together praying for you?

DISTURBANCE (Acts 12:18-19)

18 At daylight, there was a great commotion among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. 19 After Herod had searched and did not find him, he interrogated the guards and ordered their execution. Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.

*** You had one job.

--- Roman practice was that soldiers who lost their prisoners were subject to the same penalty due to the prisoners. (Wonder if they drew straws to decide who got to tell Herod of their failure?)

--- Herod wouldn’t have seen a supernatural explanation for Peter’s escape any more than Pharaoh allowed for God to get credit for the plagues, so he would assume someone was helping him or of sleeping on the job, literally and figuratively.

--- Herod, therefore, executed those who were supposed to watch Peter.

--- Notice that no one realized Peter wasn’t there until daylight, giving Peter plenty of time to get out of town.

*** Peter’s ministry.

--- Following the death of Herod not long after this, Peter returned to Jerusalem (Acts 15:7). Peter later produced two epistles (1 and 2 Peter), and the early church historian Eusebius credited Peter as the primary source of information for Mark’s Gospel.

--- Jesus had predicted that Peter would be killed when he was old (John 21:18-19).

--- Tradition says that Peter was executed during Nero’s reign about A.D. 64, and crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy of crucifixion in the same position as Jesus.

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

Adrian Rogers tells of a little boy who was trying to roll a rock as his father watched from a distance.

The boy was trying his hardest, but he couldn’t turn the stone over.

His dad said, “Son, are you using all of your strength?”

The boy said, “Yes, Daddy, I’m using all my strength.”

And the father said, “No, you’re not, because you haven’t asked me to help you. My strength is your strength.”

Sometimes we wrestle with problems and say, “I don’t know what to do.” Our Heavenly Father wants us to say, “I’ve run out of my strength,” and run to His.

There is no problem too big for Jesus to solve.

We’ve seen in our study of the first 12 chapters in Acts that there were many attempts by religious and secular powers to halt the progress of the early church.

All of them ultimately failed because of the power and will of God. In fact, we saw where every time the gospel was advanced and the church grew.

No matter what your circumstances are, you can rest assured that God is at work.

God often uses our dire circumstances to work in an extraordinary way for the advancement of the gospel.

Some Christian leaders suffer martyrdom while others experience miraculous deliverance. James died by the sword, while Peter was delivered from prison.

If you’ve never met resistance, ask yourself why. Is it because you aren’t openly sharing your belief in Jesus Christ and looking for opportunities to witness to others? Or, is it because you stay in your comfort zone without opposition?

All of these events can encourage us to be just as bold in our witness as the early Christians were.

We can be encouraged that our efforts are always accompanied by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

*** Pray specifically and with purpose for someone this week. “Pray for God’s will, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.” (Bobby Richardson, former NY Yankees 2B)

*** When we pray, remember:

--- The love of God that wants the best for us.
--- The wisdom of God that knows what is best for us.
--- The power of God that can accomplish it.
(William Barclay, Prodigals and Those Who Love.)

*** Share with someone who needs encouragement, tell them about how God has been extraordinary in your life.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Accepting: Breaking Down Barriers

My Life Group lesson for May 22, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

It has been said that “good fences make good neighbors,” which goes back to a Robert Frost poem called “Mending Wall.”

Question - Do you spend most of your time on your front porch welcoming the world, or in your backyard in isolation?

Do you feel like you spend less time getting to know your neighbors today than when you were growing up?

Why do you think we are less likely to hang out with our neighbors nowadays?

We may build a fence for privacy, for protection or just decoration.

But some walls of separation become barriers that keep us from people and things we don’t like.

North and South Korea are separated by two miles of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and 60 years of history following the Korean War.

Because of the freedoms enjoyed by the South and the poverty and repression in the North, North Koreans are up to three inches shorter than those in the South. The average South Korean woman is now about the same height as the average North Korean man.

East and West Berlin, Germany, were separated for nearly 40 years by the Berlin Wall. During that time the West flourished economically while ten feet away the people in the East were under the boot of communism.

25 years later there are still differences. Of the 500 richest Germans, only 21 are in the east and, of those, 14 are in Berlin. Of the 20 most prosperous cities, only one is in the east.

It has even affected their spiritual lives. Communism does not allow for real religion, and three-quarters of East Germans do not belong to a religious community, while three-quarters of West Germans do.

Today’s lesson deals with God helping Peter overcome a barrier to reach more people to Christ.

We have to tear down some walls to share the gospel to different cultures and backgrounds.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Acts 10:1–11:30

*** The apostles had broken down the barriers with Samaritans, and now in order for The Great Commission to truly extend beyond Judea, Jewish believers had to understand God’s will for the inclusion of Gentiles in the church.

*** In Acts 10:1-8 we meet a Roman centurion named Cornelius who is said to be god-fearing and generous .

--- Cornelius has a vision from the Lord telling him to send messengers to Joppa to get Peter.

*** Peter’s been spending time in Joppa after bringing Tabitha/Dorcas back from the dead.

--- We’ll see today that Peter also receives a vision from God.

*** When Peter and Cornelius get together it would change the shift of Christianity and break down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles.

THE VISION (Acts 10:9-15)

9 The next day, as they were traveling and nearing the city, Peter went up to pray on the housetop about noon. 10 Then he became hungry and wanted to eat, but while they were preparing something, he went into a visionary state. 11 He saw heaven opened and an object that resembled a large sheet coming down, being lowered by its four corners to the earth. 12 In it were all the four-footed animals and reptiles of the earth, and the birds of the sky. 13 Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” 14 “No, Lord!” Peter said. “For I have never eaten anything common and ritually unclean!” 15 Again, a second time, a voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call common.”

*** The Hunger Games.

--- Peter was hungry, both physically and spiritually.

--- How many of us, when we’re super hungry, go pray instead of hovering in the kitchen asking when it will be done?

--- While he was praying, Peter had a vision from God.

*** Eat your veggies!

--- We have trouble breaking down barriers to eat foods we don’t like (fish heads, anyone?).

--- For Peter it was even more serious, and he was unwilling to violate the Old Testament laws that prohibited eating unclean animals.

--- These ceremonial laws had been set up to show their holiness and fulfilling them meant salvation.

--- There were different types of laws. The moral laws of God found in the Mosaic Law were unchangeable, such as those dealing with sexual morality, speaking truth, and honoring parents. They are rooted in the nature of God that does not change.

--- But the ceremonial laws about food were a major reason Jews and Gentiles were set apart. Jews wouldn’t go into a Gentile’s home because they considered them unclean.

--- This would be a sticking point when it came to getting Jewish and Gentile Christians to break down that wall and find fellowship in the early church.

--- God’s telling Peter here that the old ways are gone.

--- In the new era, both Jews and Gentiles are declared “clean” through Christ, not by their works.

--- Jesus had already indicated as much in Mark 7:14-23: “Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” such as “evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess,[d] blasphemy, pride, and foolishness.” (Mark 7:21-22)

--- Just as the dietary laws no longer apply, there’s no reason to reject anyone who seeks to be part of the family in Christ. ALL are welcome.

--- Peter protested at first, maybe because he did not understand these distinctions at the time of his vision, but he would soon learn the radical implications of what he saw and heard.

--- Of course, he also just touched an unclean dead Tabitha to raise her from the dead, so he was already on the right road.

(As a Gentile I'm thankful that Peter no doubt discovered the awesomeness that is ham and bacon, he also discovered the value of Gentiles in the new Christian world.)

*** Question - In what way might the early church have been impacted if God had allowed Peter to dismiss the heavenly vision?

THE DECLARATION (Acts 10:43-46a)

43 All the prophets testify about Him that through His name everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins.” 44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came down on all those who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46a For they heard them speaking in other languages and declaring the greatness of God.

*** The Odd Couple.

--- Immediately after Peter’s vision, the messengers sent by Cornelius arrived at the house where Peter was staying and urged him to accompany them to Caesarea.

--- Peter finally understands the vision he received.

--- Peter knew that the Holy Spirit wanted him to share the gospel with Cornelius and to embrace Gentiles like Cornelius who believed in Jesus as Savior.

*** "The Gentile Pentecost."

--- Peter’s sermon to those with Cornelius was his first chance to preach to a primarily Gentile audience.

--- Peter made clear that the Old Testament prophets all pointed to Jesus as the savior for everyone, not just Jews and works.

--- Amazingly and supernaturally, the Holy Spirit descends on those in the room, just as at Pentecost, and the Gentiles begin speaking other languages.

--- The Jews who had come with Peter and still had doubts about welcoming these “Gentile believers” were flabbergasted and couldn’t doubt any longer that this is what God wanted.

--- Mentioning that these were "circumcised" believers foreshadows an equally major barrier in the early church, since the Gentiles were uncircumcised.

--- Circumcision served as the symbol of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants, and for Jewish Christians was difficult to accept this change.

--- God can even change those who are not culturally like us, despite our prejudices and expectations.

THE ACCEPTANCE (Acts 10:46b-48)

46b Then Peter responded, 47 “Can anyone withhold water and prevent these people from being baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for a few days.

*** (“I put my hand upon your hip”) When you dip I dip we dip. (With apologies to Freak Nasty. “)

--- After Peter's vision and now the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Gentile believers, Peter had all the proof he needed to treat them equally as brothers in Christ.

--- Peter then calls for them to be baptized, a mark of entrance into the church community.

--- It's not required for salvation but it is an outward sign of God’s work in their hearts and their personal faith in Jesus Christ.

*** The walls came down.

--- Cornelius’s conversion was the launching pad of the expansion of the gospel from the Jew to the Gentile.

--- This opened the door even further for the church’s growth and demonstrated God’s love that is freely offered to all.

*** Question – Who in our world might we exclude from sharing the gospel?

--- The walls that exist today may be different, but they are nonetheless real. These walls might be based on race, education, social position, or cultural background.

SUMMARY

Have you ever changed your opinion on an issue you felt strongly about?

In the news lately, the owners of a vegan restaurant in Northern California have received death threats and faced a boycott after angry customers learned the owners started eating meat again.

Matthew and Terces Engelhart were vegetarians for nearly 40 years, but decided to return to eating meat after leaving San Francisco and starting a farm about 55 miles away in Vacaville. They started with eggs and cheese from the farm's chickens and cows. Then, after one old cow had to be put down, they decided it made sense to incorporate meat into their diets as well.

The couple is now being inundated with messages on social media forums criticizing them as "flesh eaters" and calling them hypocrites for owning vegan restaurants but eating meat at home.

In today’s lesson the issue was about far more than diet. God meant for Peter to learn an important lesson about acceptance.

In a similar way, there were people in Peter’s day who didn’t think the gospel should be shared with the Gentiles.

Acts 11:1-18 provides an epilogue to the story.

When Peter returned to Jerusalem, Jewish believers were miffed. They weren’t happy that Peter was associating with Cornelius and Gentiles.

Peter explained his vision from God and the Gentile Pentecost.

The evidence convinced the Jewish Christians that God had accepted the Gentiles, and their faith results in everlasting life the same as they had.

The issue wasn’t over, but it was clear that God was tearing down the walls separating Jewish and Gentile believers.

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

*** (1) Jesus saves all. Romans 10:13 - For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

*** (2) To reach everyone who needs to hear the Word we have to go beyond our cultural comfort zone and be open to all who believe.

*** (3) Take the initiative to expand your relationships at church and through your group. Reach out to those who may feel excluded.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Bold

My Life Group lesson for May 15, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

This weekend we started off with a couple of duels featuring weapons that weren’t exactly fair for a fight, kind of like Indiana Jones taking down the swordsman with a pistol in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

We're much more confident when we know we have the weapons we need.

Knowing we have the power of God behind us can make us bold when it comes to sharing the gospel. It can help us to push aside a culture that is negative towards Christianity.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Acts 9:32-43

*** We last saw Peter in Acts 8 when he was in Samaria with Philip. Peter then moved to the coastal towns, including Lydda, the district capital of Samaria.

*** In 9:32-35 Luke records Peter healing a paralyzed man in the name of Jesus, bringing glory and attention to the gospel.

*** Peter then moves to Joppa, where a cherished disciple had died. Another miracle was on the way!

THE FINAL REST (Acts 9:36-39)

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha, which is translated Dorcas. She was always doing good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became sick and died. After washing her, they placed her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples heard that Peter was there and sent two men to him who begged him, “Don’t delay in coming with us.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them. When he arrived, they led him to the room upstairs. And all the widows approached him, weeping and showing him the robes and clothes that Dorcas had made while she was with them.

*** A graceful gazelle.

--- You might recognize Joppa as the port on the Mediterranean Sea from which Jonah sailed while running away from God. (Jonah 1:3)

--- Her name Tabitha in Aramaic is translated as "Dorcas" in Greek, and both mean "gazelle."

--- She was a female disciple known for "always" doing "good works" and "acts of charity."

--- That's a great way to be described as being bold in your Christian life.

--- Showing acts of grace by meeting the needs of others is just as important as proclaiming the message we speak.

--- She notable for helping widows, such as making clothes. (v. 39)

*** Tabitha's appointed time.

--- Unfortunately we see in verse 37 that Tabitha died after an unknown illness. (Living a godly life is no guarantee of a long life.)

--- Instead of moving her body for burial, her household placed her on the second floor.

--- The washing of the body was not unusual, but the delay in preparing the body for burial was. Typically the body would be prepared with spices, wrapped in a burial shroud, and taken to the place of burial within 24 hours to avoid the odor of decomposition.

--- The death of this outstanding Christian woman must have brought tremendous grief to the church in Joppa. So much so that they delayed her burial and ran to find Peter miles away, having faith for a miracle.

*** Peter comes as called.

--- Peter was in Lydda, ten miles from Joppa, when he got word of Tabitha's death.

--- Peter responds immediately, surely praying along the way for God's will to be done.

--- The disciples were willing to be used at any time in any place. (Remember a couple of weeks ago Philip had the same reaction when an angel told him to head south on a mystery mission.)

--- When Peter arrived in Joppa he was taken to see Tabitha and the widows testified to her ministry.

--- We don't know if they expected her to be raised from the dead or just wanted comfort from the leader of the church.

*** Question - Why is it important for believers to be willing to adjust their lives, as Peter did, to help others in Jesus’ name? What can hinder one’s willingness?

THE RESTORATION (Acts 9:40-41)

40 Then Peter sent them all out of the room. He knelt down, prayed, and turning toward the body said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her stand up. Then he called the saints and widows and presented her alive.

*** The power of God.

--- Peter asks everyone to clear out. (Surely with all those widows there was a lot of crying and sniffling, and Peter wanted to focus.)

--- Sound familiar? All of this parallels Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead in Luke 8:40-56, including someone dear passing, being told of it from afar, rushing to the scene to perform a miracle in God's glory.

--- Also in a similar way Jesus sent mourners from the room of Jairus’s daughter, allowing only the parents and select disciples to remain (Mark 5:40; Luke 8:51).

*** Praying Peter.

--- Peter kneels in prayer before turning to Tabitha.

--- This is important. Peter didn’t raise her from the dead. God did. If Peter hadn’t prayed first, do you think she would have popped up?

--- The temptation would be for Peter to think that he's doing these miracles and getting pats on the back and feeling important. But he knows it's not him. It's Jesus.

*** Question – Why do people sometimes confuse miracles with something else that eliminates God from the equation?

THE RESULTS (Acts 9:42-43)

42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 And Peter stayed on many days in Joppa with Simon, a leather tanner.

*** Do you believe in miracles?

--- What's your favorite miracle in the Bible? (Parting of the Red Sea, burning bush, raising of the dead, sun stays up longer, etc.)

--- Has anyone wondered why miracles don't seem as obvious or frequent as in Acts?

--- Nowadays we call anything a miracle. Maybe that's because we don't seem to see it as much as during the early church. Or we credit ourselves, our scientists, our doctors, for God's miracles.

--- Of course, many saw Jesus perform miracle after miracle and still weren't convinced.

--- God still does miracles today.

--- If we only see the miracle then we miss half the message. We have to see the purpose behind the miracle.

--- The Lord used this miracle to open a door for Peter to share the gospel.

--- Just as Tabitha’s life pointed others to Jesus, her resurrection prompted many to believe.

--- In our studies of the book of Acts we've seen numerous examples of how the numbers of believers grew after each instance that God's glory is shown through miracles, signs and adversity.

--- The faith of current believers would be strengthened, too, and Tabitha's testimony would be incredible.

*** Simon the tanner.

--- By staying with Simon Peter would have to be in the same household as unclean animals.

--- Jews believed tanning to be an unclean profession because it involved contact with dead animals (Lev. 5:2).

--- The gospel was breaking down barriers between people.

--- In a vision in Acts 10 Peter is told by God that the ritual laws of Judaism no longer apply.

*** Question - Where have you seen barriers broken down to share Jesus' message?

SUMMARY

When Peter got to Tabitha’s home the first thing he did was pray before going to her. There was probably a lot of prayer going on in the household as well.

This week at work we had a news story about a report in which peopled were polled about prayer and health.

It found that 80 percent of people surveyed have prayed for their own healing. And 90 percent say they’ve prayed for someone else’s health.

The author of the report said he expected high numbers but the results still blew him away.

I was a little shocked that the professor was shocked. It’s not like people haven’t been praying for the sick for thousands of years.

So does this mean people think prayer works? Or it couldn’t hurt? Or just makes everyone feel better?

Of course, when God chooses not to use his power to heal our bodies, we must still trust in His will. And like Tabitha, the death of our loved ones also presents opportunities to share the gospel.

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

*** Boldness in life and the power of God work to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

*** Boldness is often frowned upon in our culture, but it shows that we are confident in the truth.

*** Miracles are awesome, but we don't need them to share Jesus as much as how we live our lives testifies to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cooper and Penny having fun at Mammaw Margie's ...

Monday, May 02, 2016

Obedient

My Life Group lesson for May 1, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

Growing up, what’s the most disobedient thing you’ve done?

Or, what have your own kids done?

What makes us disobey? What keeps us from doing so more often?

Today we’re going to learn about a time when God used the obedience of Philip to lead an Ethiopian to touch the life of someone with the gospel.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Acts 8:4-40

*** In Acts chapter 7 Stephen is stoned and becomes the first Christian martyr.

*** As Acts chapter 8 begins, persecution of believers becomes widespread. Believers were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria as Saul began dragging men and women to prison.

(Another way to think about it: Jesus said that the Word had to spread around the region and then the world, but so far the apostles and believers were hanging out near Jerusalem. Without the killing of Stephen and the persecution of Christians the Gospel wouldn't have traveled far and wide as quickly.)

*** Instead of hiding, "Those who were scattered preached the word wherever then went," (v. 4) including Philip, who first went to Samaria and preached and performed signs and miracles.

--- The fact that Philip chose to go to Samaria to preach was a big deal. To put it lightly, the Jews were not fans of the Samaritans. This had been going on for hundreds of years, since the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians. But Jesus specifically told followers to carry the gospel to them before He ascended. (Acts 1:8)

--- While he was in Samaria, Philip encountered a magician named Simon who was jealous of Philip’s supernatural power to heal. Philip credited the Holy Spirit. Simon even made a profession of faith. But when Simon offered to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter severely rebuked him and declared him to be still in the bondage of sin. Simon asked to be forgiven and requested that Peter pray for him.

COMPELLED TO SEEK (Acts 8:26-29)

26 An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip: “Get up and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is the desert road.) 27 So he got up and went. There was an Ethiopian man, a eunuch and high official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to worship in Jerusalem 28 and was sitting in his chariot on his way home, reading the prophet Isaiah aloud. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go and join that chariot.”

*** On the road again.

--- Philip was in Samaria when an angel told him to pack up and head about 16 miles south to Gaza, once one of the five principal cities of ancient Philistia (see 1 Sam. 6:17). It was a coastal town located about three miles inland from the Mediterranean Sea. In Philip’s day it marked the location of the last oasis on the road leading south to Egypt.

--- Philip immediately obeys and heads south.

*** Ethiopia? You mean that poor place with the starving kids?

--- That’s pretty much the stereotype today, but the area has a rich history related to Israel.

--- Although, we’re talking about what’s called the Cush region in the Old Testament (named after one of Noah’s grandsons; Moses’ wife was a “Cushite woman”), also known as the kingdom of Nubia, south of Egypt and not quite where we find the Ethiopia of today.

--- Candace was not the personal name but the title of the queen (as “Pharaoh” was the title of Egyptian rulers).

*** What’s a “eunuch?”

--- This word refers to either a castrated man who oversaw royal harems (hence the emasculation) (Esther 2:3) and later important government officials. In this case, the Ethiopian was in charge of the royal treasury and therefore a high official.

--- He traveled by chariot, indicating his importance.

*** Reading from Isaiah.

--- The Ethiopian went to Jerusalem to worship, so he feared God.

--- As he went by Philip he was reading from the book of Isaiah.

--- The Holy Spirit tugged at Philip and told him to join him.

--- The Holy Spirit gave Philip a clear call to seek an opportunity to share the gospel. Opportunities to share the gospel are all around us. We need to be sensitive to the Spirit’s call and the situations in which we find ourselves, as well as being open to share at any moment.

An angel told Philip where to go, but it was up to Philip to actually do it. (Proverbs 16:3 – “Commit your activities to the LORD, and your plans will be achieved.”)

*** When has the Holy Spirit ever tugged at you to do something in the service of God? Did you obey? (Did you find that God had already laid it out for you as he did for Philip?)

PREPARED TO SHARE (Acts 8:30-31,35)

30 When Philip ran up to it, he heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” 31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. […] 35 So Philip proceeded to tell him the good news about Jesus, beginning from that Scripture.

*** Wait for me!

--- In obedience, Philip runs to the Ethiopian.

--- The eunuch says he can’t understand who the passage he’s reading is about.

--- The verses from Isaiah that the Ethiopian was trying to understand was Isaiah chapter 53, specifically verses 7 and 8 that refer to the suffering and sacrifice of the coming Messiah:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb is silent before its shearer, so He does not open His mouth. 33 In His humiliation justice was denied Him. Who will describe His generation? For His life is taken from the earth.”

--- How perfect was that? It’s like the ball was already teed up and Philip just needed to swing away.

“Oh, you want me to explain the chapter in the Old Testament that most directly points to Jesus as our Savior? Absolutely!”

(If the Ethiopian had been reading the passage about the Lord’s mercy to eunuchs (Is. 56:3–5; cf. Deut. 23:1), it would have been natural for him also to read Is. 53.)

--- Since Philip knew the Scriptures, he was equipped to share his faith. You don’t need formal training in ministry, but knowing the Word makes it a lot easier to be used.

--- This is why it’s so important that we know the Bible, so that when the chance comes, we are ready to connect the dots for the lost. Today, especially, a lot of people know next to nothing about what’s actually in the Bible.

--- Philip was able to point out to the Ethiopian how this passage connects to Jesus, and in fact, how the entire Bible points to Him.

*** Question - What different approaches have you used or seen in sharing the gospel with people from differing religious or cultural backgrounds?

FOCUSED ON SALVATION (Acts 8:38-39)

38 Then he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any longer. But he went on his way rejoicing.

*** The Holy Ghost dip.

--- Not only did God plan this out for Philip to run into the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza, but God did so knowing that even in this desert region they’d have a random pond or lake nearby for baptism.

--- The Lord commands a public confession of faith in Jesus as our Savior, and baptism by immersion is the way to follow that up.

(Not sprinkling or pouring water on your head. The Greek verb here refers to immersion of ships, and the fact that Philip used a lake here and not water on the chariot is telling.)

--- Paul would later write that the symbolism of baptism depicts our death, burial, and resurrection through faith in Christ (Rom. 6:3-4).

--- After the baptism Philip was “carried away,” and the Greek verb does suggest a literal supernatural transportation. Philip had other things to do, and right away!

--- Jesus said to proclaim his Word to ALL people to the ends of the earth. God used Philip to reach this Ethiopian, who as an important official would share the good news of the gospel with all others and watch Christianity spread beyond the Middle East and Roman Empire.

--- The Ethiopian went away rejoicing! Conversion and baptism are joyous instances that should be celebrated! Rejoicing is the only appropriate response to finding salvation in Christ.

*** What was your experience after salvation and baptism?

SUMMARY

Just as Philip had to be obedient in the direction that the Lord was leading him to share the gospel, so also the Ethiopian would be challenged to demonstrate his obedience in the practice of baptism.

There are people whom God has placed in our path so that we can share the good news with them.

There are a lot of barriers to overcome to share Jesus with others. Use Philip’s example in how to overcome these barriers.

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

*** We must be constantly ready to share the gospel and provide an opportunity for those with whom we are sharing to respond.

*** We must also be sensitive to the Spirit’s work in all situations and allow the Spirit to lead us in our sharing.

*** Conversion and baptism are joyous instances that should be celebrated! Rejoicing is the only appropriate response to finding salvation in Christ.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A lesson in church unity

My Life Group lesson for April 24, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

What is the hardest, crummiest, dirtiest job you’ve ever had?

What makes a job like that difficult? What makes it worthwhile?

Would you do it for free as a service?

The leaders of the early church wanted to make sure that followers weren’t doing it out of duty but out of service. It was a heart issue. Their attitudes provided us a great example for serving selflessly.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Acts 6:1–8:3

*** A young and growing church is successfully dealing with significant challenges.

*** Two weeks ago we talked about a problem the early church had to deal within, which was hypocrisy. Last week we talked about physical persecution at the hands of religious authorities.

*** This week the apostles learn to organize the early church after internal dissension over the treatment of some widows supported by the early church.

A NEED DISCOVERED (Acts 6:1-2)

1 In those days, as the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. 2 Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters.

*** Take care of the widows.

--- We’re not sure how much time passes during the first chapters of Acts, but some scholars believe it may have been five years since Pentecost by the time we get to chapter 6.

--- There’s unity in the early church, but there are occasional issues that have to be addressed.

--- A complaint about the provision for Greek-speaking widows came to the apostles.

--- The age-old problem (no pun intended) of discrimination emerged: the widows of Greek-speaking Jews were considered outsiders by native-born Jews and were not getting their share of the food distribution.

--- Even in a membership sharing a Jewish background, there were significant language and cultural differences. So we’re not sure if it was intentional or lack of communication.

*** Good leaders delegate.

--- The apostles realized that taking on more tasks would mean neglecting their mission of teaching and preaching.

--- They didn’t have time for drama but it also needed to be taken care of, because for the apostles this could affect the spread of the gospel message to the world.

--- 1 Timothy chapter 5 describes the characteristics of widows, women who could not care for themselves, whether because of financial or physical needs. The selfless act of caring for widows demonstrates love that is shown without any expectation of return. This principle led the early church to direct their attention to the place of ministry needs within the body of believers.

--- The apostles select seven godly men to deal with the issue.

--- The Greek verb used for handle financial matters (diakoneo) is the basis for our word deacon. They aren’t called that and the word “deacon” isn’t used in Acts, but the seven men have a similar role.

--- The church takes on the responsibility of caring for their own.

--- These new leaders would need to deal with the disagreements and reconcile the parties. They would secure the funds to buy the food for those in need. They would make sure the food was available and that no one went hungry.

*** Question - What differences among the members of your church pose a threat to unity? (((Language, music, worship style, and ethnic backgrounds can and do challenge the unity in the local church.)))

A SOLUTION REACHED (Acts 6:3-7)

3 Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.” 5 The proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch. 6 They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.

*** A good reputation.

--- The apostles trusted the church to select the seven men based on criteria they set: Good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom:

The men selected must have a proven record of trustworthiness. They would be entrusted with money and must not have a reputation for greediness. They must be above reproach in their personal morality.

Spirit-filled Christians are spiritually mature, growing in Christ, not addicted to sinful habits, and faithful in the pursuit of spiritual disciplines.

Determining the amount to be given to each person required wisdom. Dealing with people who are angry requires the self-control of wisdom. Denying people who ask for things they do not need requires wisdom. Leaders make decisions, and only those who are wise make right decisions.

In 1 Timothy 3:8-10 Paul lays out qualifications for deacons in the church that lines up with what the apostles said: “Deacons, likewise, should be worthy of respect, not hypocritical, not drinking a lot of wine, not greedy for money, 9 holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And they must also be tested first; if they prove blameless, then they can serve as deacons.”

*** The magnificent seven.

--- Every man chosen had a Greek name, suggesting that these individuals came from the Hellenistic Jewish community. They were best suited to care for the Hellenistic widows.

--- Stephen is mentioned first and noted for his reputation as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Stephen would soon distinguish himself in ministry beyond the care of widows.

--- Philip would play a prominent role in leading the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ in chapter 8.

--- Another interesting reference is to Nicolaus who was said to be a proselyte from Antioch. Nicolaus was a Gentile who followed the Mosaic Law until he accepted Christ as His Savior. His mention at this early stage prepares us for the shift toward Gentile missions later in Acts 11.

--- No further mention is made of Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, and Parmenas.

*** Long story short: It worked.

--- The result was that the preaching of the Word of God flourished and the number of disciples multiplied greatly.

--- The apostles could now devote themselves to prayer and preaching.

--- The apostles did not think the responsibility to care for the widows was beneath them, but no leader can do everything.

--- The ministry of service is taxing and cannot be done by the power of man. As we pour out our lives in service, we need God’s power to sustain us and refresh us.

--- If the apostles had been tied down to management concerns, they would not have had the freedom to preach the gospel.

--- When pastors are able to focus on the ministry of the word, and when servant leaders are full of faith and the Spirit, the church will run on all cylinders.

*** Question - How would you compare the way this issue was handled to the way similar issues are sometimes handled in today’s churches?

A SERVANT TESTED (Acts 6:8-10)

8 Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some from what is called the Freedmen’s Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.

*** Stephen, the ultimate servant.

--- Stephen didn’t just serve the widows, but became known as someone who proclaimed the gospel and performed wonders.

*** Stephen’s haters.

--- The Freedmen’s Synagogue was made up of former slaves who were now free, in this case from Cyrene and Alexandra in North Africa, and from modern-day Turkey.

--- Saul of Tarsus, who appears later in Stephen’s story, was from Cilicia (see Acts 21:39) and may have worshiped at this synagogue.

--- Stephen was so full of grace, wisdom and power in the Holy Spirit that his opponents couldn’t stand up against him.

--- Stephen’s approach was just what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15-16 on how to face opposition: “honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. 16 However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame.”

--- Stephen didn’t back down, which led to him becoming the first martyr in the early church.

--- As believers, we can know that the Holy Spirit is our helper at all times, and we can withstand any trials or temptations that come.

--- Fear of opposition continues to be one of the primary reasons why Christians do not share their faith today. Most of us do not like conflict. We see potential disagreement in sharing our faith with others, and we remain silent to avoid conflict. Many Christians feel inadequate to potentially engage others for fear that unbelievers will ask questions they cannot answer. A lack of formal biblical training is used as an excuse to leave witnessing to the so-called professionals.

*** Question – What can we do if we do not like conflict but still want to share the gospel?

Christians today need to realize that our greatest assets in sharing our faith are the absolute truth of the message we proclaim and promise of power from the Holy Spirit. Unbelievers may ask questions that we cannot answer, but the personal testimony of Christ’s transformation of our lives is undeniable.

SUMMARY

Music legend Prince died Thursday at his home in Minneapolis.

He was beloved around the world for his music and his message.

You don’t get to be that successful without hard work, a steely-eyed focus, and good organization.

In the early church the leaders knew that to spread the gospel others had to step up and meet the needs of the church and the community.

Even if you’re wearing a “Raspberry Beret” and driving a “Little Red Corvette.”

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

*** (1) Believers honor God and further His kingdom through selfless service.

*** (2) Organization and unity is vital to church growth. Internal dissension saps the strength and spirituality of a church.

--- Paul spends a lot of time trying to keep the church together during his missionary trips, such as he writes in Galatians 6:10 – “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

*** (3) Even as we take care of our responsibilities in the church, we are called to reach out to non-believers and grow the kingdom of Christ.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Faithful

My Life Group lesson for April 17, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

It’s baseball season!

Who’s your favorite baseball team? Or if you’re not a baseball fan, what is your favorite team in any sport?

What makes a fan faithful to their team?

Today we’re going to look at the faithfulness of the early church.

Our faithfulness to Jesus Christ is more important than loyalty to any sports team, whether they’re winners or losers.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT
Acts 5:17-42

*** The early church is growing fast.

*** The apostles are healing people left and right. People are just hoping to be in Peter's shadow in the hopes of being healed. (5:15)

*** The apostles are arrested a second time by the religious leaders who are alarmed by the growing numbers of Christians. (5:17-19)

--- Their previous attempt to silence Peter and John failed.

--- This time, an angel divinely released the apostles from jail (5:19-21) and told them to keep preaching in the temple courts.

RETURNING TO THE SCENE (Acts 5:25-28)

25 Someone came and reported to them, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple complex and teaching the people.” 26 Then the commander went with the temple police and brought them in without force, because they were afraid the people might stone them. 27 After they brought them in, they had them stand before the Sanhedrin, and the high priest asked, 28 “Didn’t we strictly order you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to bring this man’s blood on us!”

*** Don’t keep it to yourself.

--- After being freed by an angel from prison, the Sanhedrin once again confront the apostles in the temple court.

--- The apostles were feeling very good about what God was doing. The night before, an angel had led them right through the jail cell. Who gets that chance?

--- The leaders ask nicely for the apostles to come with them because they’re actually a little afraid of the people turning on them. They know that there’s a lot of resentment toward them. Everyone knew they were corrupt. That’s why Jesus went there and assaulted the place at the beginning and end of His ministry, called it a “Den of thieves.”

--- The apostles agree to be taken peacefully. After all, no one wants violence, and the apostles are ready to see where God is leading all of this.

--- The Sanhedrin get mad at Peter. They are in denial, worried that they would be seen as responsible for the crucifixion, which they were indeed part of.

--- Remember in Matthew 27, as the leaders stirred up the crowds to choose the criminal Barrabas instead of Jesus, the people called out, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

--- They got it. Peter repeatedly calls them out for it. In chapter 2 he preaches, “Men of Israel, this man you nailed to a cross,” and “Let all the house of Israel know for certain that God hath made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Chapter 3, verse 15, “You put to death the Prince of life.” Chapter 4, verse 10, “Let it be known to all of you and all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene whom you crucified.”

--- After the miraculous deliverance from prison, the apostles are bolder than ever, confident in the Lord’s protection, even from these armed guards.

--- Wouldn’t it be a great compliment if someone came up to us and said, “Hey, you guys at First Baptist, you’re filling Millington with teaching!”

*** Question - What motivated the religious leaders to silence the apostles? How is that motive seen in today’s world?

STANDING THEIR GROUND (Acts 5:29-32)

29 But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had murdered by hanging Him on a tree. 31 God exalted this man to His right hand as ruler and Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

*** Civil disobedience.

--- The apostles won’t even pretend to agree with the Sanhedrin to stop preaching in Jesus’ name.

--- Peter also shows boldness again by blaming Jesus’ death on the religious leaders, right in their faces, and saying that God placed Jesus at His right hand.

--- Peter confronts them with this not to accuse but so that they would repent of their sin. He offers forgiveness by Jesus.

*** Timeless truth.

--- Verse 29 can encourage us to do the godly thing in our daily lives.

--- Peter did not deny that they had deliberately disobeyed the orders of the Sanhedrin; he did, however, indicate that they were following instructions from God.

--- When your commission is from God, it trumps the commands of men.

--- No scheme of man can stop the power of God.

--- We cannot be quiet when we have the life-changing message of God.

*** Question - When is it appropriate for believers to submit to earthly authorities? When is civil disobedience appropriate?

--- Daniel displayed a classic example of civil disobedience when he continued praying to God despite a ban imposed by King Darius (Dan. 6:10). We cannot disobey lawful authority simply because we disagree or don’t like a rule. We are only justified in defiance when obedience to human authority would directly violate a command of God. This was the case when Peter and the apostles refused to obey the Sanhedrin. They respected the authority of the Sanhedrin but could not comply with their command to cease preaching the gospel.

WAITING DURING DELIBERATIONS (Acts 5:33-35,38-39)

33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered the men to be taken outside for a little while. 35 He said to them, “Men of Israel, be careful about what you’re going to do to these men. […] 38 And now, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of men, it will be overthrown; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.” So they were persuaded by him.

*** Gamaliel the lenient.

--- The leaders don’t repent. Instead they get so mad they want to kill the apostles.

--- God then provides help from an unlikely source.

--- One of the most famous rabbis of his time, Gamaliel was Paul’s teacher (Acts 22:3) and probably a grandson of Rabbi Hillel, the leader of one of the two great schools of Jewish legal interpretation. In contrast to the school of Shammai, Gamaliel and the school of Hillel were known for their lenient interpretation of the law.

--- Is it any coincidence that “Gamaliel” sounds a lot like “Galadriel,” the strict but kind elf leader used by J.R.R. Tolkien in “Lord of the Rings?” (No? Just me?)

--- Luke mentioned the respect Gamaliel had among the Jewish population.

--- Gamaliel was a smart man and a voice of reason. He knew that you don’t fight God.

--- Gamaliel intervened and counseled caution before executing the apostles. He reminded them of previous popular leaders who gathered large crowds but were killed and their followers dispersed.

--- He advised to let events play out, and that without God it would fail and with God it could not be stopped.

--- The apostles were popular with the people. The Christian population now numbered in the thousands, and even many who had not believed had a favorable opinion of the miraculous healings they performed.

--- God used various methods to protect His servants in these early days of church history. He sometimes miraculously sent angels to aid them, and at other times He directed events through actors like Gamaliel who accomplished their release. God uses many different methods today in sovereignly protecting His people and directing events according to His will.

*** Question - How has God directed others around you to protect or guide your life according to His will?

REJOICING FOR THE OPPORTUNITY (Acts 5:40-42)

40 After they called in the apostles and had them flogged, they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them. 41 Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be dishonored on behalf of the Name. 42 Every day in the temple complex, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

*** “Forty less one.”

--- Gamaliel’s advice prevailed.

--- The leaders took caution, not really wanting to kill the apostles and this was an acceptable way out.

--- The apostles were flogged, warned to preach no longer in Jesus’ name, and released.

--- We shouldn’t shrug off their beating. This would have been bloody and brutal.

The apostles probably each received 39 blows with a whip made of strands of calf leather.

One-third of the blows would be delivered to the chest and two-thirds to the back while they were in a kneeling position.

The practice was based on Deuteronomy 25:3 that allowed 40 stripes for certain crimes. Exceeding 40 stripes was forbidden, and so it became customary to inflict one less than 40 in case of a miscount. The punishment became known as the “forty less one.”

Paul would later say in 2 Corinthians 11:24 that he had endured five of these beatings.

*** Thank you sir may I have another.

--- After their beating the apostles rejoiced in the privilege of suffering for the cause of Christ.

--- They had been imprisoned and threatened, but this was the first recorded instance of physical punishment.

--- These same apostles fled for fear of this kind of punishment when Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified. Now they welcomed the opportunity to suffer for Jesus.

--- The apostles ignored the warnings of the religious leaders and continued to boldly declare the gospel (vv. 34-42).

--- What happened? Chapter 6, verse 1 tells us that “in those days, when the number of disciples was multiplied.” So the church kept growing, even now with the threat of physical punishment.

--- God has not promised the sky is always blue with flowers along our path. God has not promised sun without rain, joy without sorrow, peace without pain. But God has promised strength, rest, grace and love.

*** Question - How can opposition to the gospel produce encouragement and courage in believers? How does opposition and persecution provide a platform for the gospel to be shared and lived?

SUMMARY

We all value faithfulness.

We celebrate 50th anniversaries of couples remaining faithful throughout their lives.

We love players who choose to stay with our favorite teams. (See: Kobe Bryant)

We appreciate employees who work for their company despite other offers.

Throughout history, many Christians have remained faithful to Christ even as they faced intense pressure to compromise their faith. Christians today continue to risk their freedom and lives in many parts of the world.

A lot of Christians get excited that persecution may increase, because it means Jesus could be coming back sooner than later!

In this session, we saw how persecution against the apostles for proclaiming the name of Jesus became intense. The anger and jealousy among the religious leaders was so great that they resorted to beating the apostles and seeking their deaths. In spite of this, the apostles were faithful to the proclamation of the gospel message.

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

*** Pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are currently facing persecution, severe punishment, or even death for their faith.

*** Proverbs 28:1 says that “the righteous are as bold as a lion.” Pressure can bring out the best in those who are striving to be holy!

*** The apostles were beaten for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must be willing to count the cost of our obedience to the mission of God.

*** There will be opposition to the proclamation of the gospel. But remember that when someone tries to stomp out the fire, the embers usually shoot out and spread the fire. God is more powerful than the culture’s threats.