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.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Integrity

My Life Group lesson for April 10, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

First Thoughts

What price is your integrity?

What are you willing to do for $10,000,000?

Two-thirds of Americans polled would agree to at least one, some to several of the following:

Would abandon their entire family (25%)
Would abandon their church (25%)
Would become prostitutes for a week or more (23%)
Would give up their American citizenship (16%)
Would leave their spouses (16%)
Would withhold testimony and let a murderer go free (10%)
Would kill a stranger (7%)
Would put their children up for adoption (3%)

[James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth, 1991.]

Jesus designed His church to be a group of people focused on obeying Him and striving to fulfill His mission.

However, the church is not an assembly of perfect saints.

Sincere believers sometimes fail to practice the virtues they have committed to uphold.

Understand the Context
Acts 4:32–5:16

*** So far in our study of Acts we've looked at the ascension of Jesus, Pentecost, the birth of the church and the first persecution.

***Today we'll see the first recorded reference to a new threat to the church, how sin entered within.

--- Luke recorded no problems in the fellowship of the church in Acts 2–3. Believers were unified and growing in numbers. We see them united in purpose and prayer under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (4:31-35).

*** In Acts 4:36-5:16 Luke contrasts the good deeds of Barnabas with the sins of Ananias and his wife Sapphira, which resulted in the judgment of God.

--- The unexpected internal threat would challenge the resolve of the apostles and the membership to respond appropriately. If they did not respond properly, the witness and integrity of the early church would suffer.

--- God’s Holy Spirit responded with judgment, sending a message to the church—God demands integrity from all members.

Exhibit A: Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37)

36 Joseph, a Levite and a Cypriot by birth, the one the apostles called Barnabas, which is translated Son of Encouragement, 37 sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

*** Mr. Encouragement. (Barnabas is like the SNL character Stuart Smalley: “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and Jesus loves you!”)

--- Barnabas was born on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean and is from the Israel tribe of Levi (which was where priests came from, but there's no indication he served as one).

--- He was named Joseph by birth, but earned the name Barnabas from the apostles, which meant "Son of Encouragement."

--- Jesus used the same Greek word translated “encouragement” to refer to the role of the Holy Spirit who would come to aid believers after His departure (John 16:7). The word literally meant “to come alongside another” for the purpose of assistance. The nickname by the apostles was a great honor and recognition of Barnabas’s outstanding character.

--- Barnabas would be a key leader in the early church:

Barnabas would encourage the early church to accept a recently converted Saul (Paul) of Tarsus (Acts 9:26,27).

He would retrieve Paul from Tarsus and include him in opportunities for ministry at Antioch (11:22-30).

He would be chosen to lead the first missionary journey commissioned by the church at Antioch (13:1–14:28).

Barnabas would insist on including John Mark in a second missionary journey despite Mark’s initial failure.

He would take Mark with him after a disagreement with Paul (15:36-41). Paul would later acknowledge Mark’s value to his ministry (2 Tim. 4:11)—a spiritual recovery attributable to mentoring by Barnabas.

*** All for one, and one for all.

--- Acts 4:32-35 says that believers were "of one heart and mind" to voluntarily pool their resources.

--- They sold their homes and land, then they gave the money to the apostles to distribute according to the church's needs.

--- Barnabas was specifically held up as an example for his generosity.

--- His sacrifice allowed others to benefit the world to come. His gif encouraged others to give.

--- Barnabas followed the key doctrine of stewardship, which is that God is the source of all blessings, temporal and spiritual; all that we have and are we owe to Him.

*** Question - Who has encouraged you at critical times in your Christian life? How have you encouraged others in your ministry to them?

Exhibit B: Ananias (Acts 5:1-6)

1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. 2 However, he kept back part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge, and brought a portion of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds from the field? 4 Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal? Why is it that you planned this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God!” 5 When he heard these words, Ananias dropped dead, and a great fear came on all who heard. 6 The young men got up, wrapped his body, carried him out, and buried him.

*** All about me.

--- In stark contrast to Barnabas, Ananias and his wife Sapphira lied about their gift and paid a terrible price.

--- What we know about Ananias: He was married, he sold a piece of property, he plotted with his wife to deceive the church about the selling price, he was given an opportunity to explain, he dropped dead, he was buried.

*** Why a death sentence?

--- Ananias and his wife had the right to keep all of the proceeds from their land since the land and the money was theirs.

--- But Ananias was looking for pats on the back similar to how the apostles used Barnabas as inspiration.

--- Instead, Ananias and Sapphira plotted to deceive the church. They wanted the praise without the sacrifice.

--- Selling their land? Good. Giving a bunch to the church? Great. Lying about how much they’ve given out of pride? Deadly.

*** God’s precedent for punishment.

--- By using the phrase “kept back” using the same language found in the Old Testament, Luke may be drawing a parallel to the story of Achan in Joshua chapter 7.

--- After the Jews took Jericho, God told them not to keep any of the spoils from the city. But Achan took some and lied about it.

--- Until Achan’s sins were uncovered, Israel couldn’t continue with their military conquests.

--- Similarly, Ananias’s and Sapphira’s lies also had to be dealt with before the church could proceed.

--- As in the case of Achan, God would not allow such rebellion to go unpunished.

--- God is patient with those who sin, but there is a limit that no one can predict. Those who fail to respect the holiness and power of God do so at their own peril.

--- All sickness and death cannot be linked to judgment, but in this case it can. God disciplines those He loves!

*** Our word is the Word.

--- In the early church it was necessary that their reputation was clean. The testimony of the whole church was at risk because of the sins of a few.

--- Spiritual warfare is subtle, and Satan knows his greatest successes will come by corrupting church members.

--- Christians today who commit acts that harm their local church should realize that they are attacking the Body of Christ. God will not allow those who attack His church to go unpunished, whether they are unbelievers or unspiritual Christians.

*** Question - How should the church respond to the conduct of willfully disobedient believers?

Exhibit C: Sapphira (Acts 5:7-11)

7 There was an interval of about three hours; then his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 “Tell me,” Peter asked her, “did you sell the field for this price?” “Yes,” she said, “for that price.” 9 Then Peter said to her, “Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” 10 Instantly she dropped dead at his feet. When the young men came in, they found her dead, carried her out, and buried her beside her husband. 11 Then great fear came on the whole church and on all who heard these things.

*** Til death us do part.

--- Sapphira comes home a few hours after Ananias is dead and buried, unaware of what happened.

--- Peter asks about the money, if she was telling the truth about how much the field was worth and how much they gave.

--- The question gave Sapphira one last opportunity to tell the truth.

--- Sapphira, like Ananias, missed the opportunity for repentance.

--- You can sense Peter saying to himself, "Please don't lie, please don't lie, please don't lie." Then "Aaaugh! You lied! Now you’re dead."

--- To test the Spirit of the Lord referred to the lack of fear she and Ananias demonstrated when they lied about their gift.

--- Peter pronounced God’s verdict, and her life was supernaturally taken in a judgment identical to her husband’s. Following her death and burial, the events surrounding their lies and divine judgment became known throughout the church. The result was great fear that served as a deterrent to any others who might consider taking lightly the call to holiness for the church. Verse 11 is the first time Luke used the Greek word translated church (ekklesia) in Acts.

*** Harsh judgment.

--- Understandably, seeing Ananias and Sapphira killed for lying to the church might seem a bit of an overkill, so to speak.

--- Four things to understand about why this happened:

(1) God takes sin seriously.
(2) Sin is visible to God even if it is invisible to man.
(3) Sin requires punishment.
(4) God expects those who are a part of His church to live holy lives.

--- Maybe the question is not why God’s judgment came with such force on Ananias and Sapphira but why it does not come on others more often.

--- Paul described God’s judgment on disobedient believers in the church at Corinth. Because of persistent sin by some Corinthians believers, Paul said God had brought sickness and even death to some in the church (1 Cor. 11:30).

--- A final consideration involves the question of whether Ananias and Sapphira were genuinely believers. Nothing in Luke’s account of the story casts doubt on the assumption that they were believers. Believers do not lose their salvation through acts of disobedience, but they do risk discipline and the loss of eternal reward.

*** Question – How do you think non-Christians in Jerusalem viewed the early church? Do you think the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira helped or hurt the early church in their community?

Summary

When the Titanic sank in 1912 on its maiden voyage from England to New York, killing 1,500 people (and Leo DiCaprio), everyone assumed that the iceberg left a giant gash in the side of the “unsinkable ship.”

However, scientists later studied the wreckage and found out that the damage was surprisingly small. Instead of a huge gash there were six relatively narrow slits across the six watertight holds.

Small damage overcame the “unsinkable ship,” but that’s all it takes to sink not only a great ship but also a great reputation.

The Lord knows our hearts. No matter how much we may try to cover our tracks, the truth will be revealed.

We are called to genuine sacrificial giving, like Barnabas shows in this passage.

We are to encourage others by meeting their needs with the same love and care that we would use to meet our own.

Take-Away Points

*** (1) Barnabas demonstrated the heart of a faithful follower of Christ who was willing to sacrifice in order to honor God and help his fellow believers.

*** (2) Ananias and Sapphira revealed how Christians can sometimes become prideful and self-promoting. The lives of Ananias and Sapphira were cut short by their own failure to fear God.

*** (3) We should strive to imitate Barnabas and avoid the sins of Ananias and Sapphira. Our effectiveness and future reward depend on a daily decision to fear God and serve Him with all of our hearts.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Peter: Always Reppin'

My Life Group lesson for April 3, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

What is the bravest thing you’ve seen someone do? What does bravery mean to you? What motivates people to accomplish acts of bravery?

At the same time Jesus demonstrated supreme courage in suffering, His disciples fell away in fear for their lives. Even Peter, who had pledged to stand courageous with Jesus, denied the Lord three times.

But Jesus’ resurrection changed everything. The Risen Christ, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, provided believers spiritual power and courage they had never known before. They would need this power and courage as they faced persecution for Jesus’ sake.

Today we will examine one example of bravery that involved the early church leaders, Peter and John.

Just like these first believers, we are called to live a life of faith and courage.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Acts 3:1–4:31

*** Before Easter we studied the first few chapters in Acts, including the ascension of Jesus, Pentecost and the birth of the early church.

*** Acts 3 provides an example of a miracle performed by the apostles, when Peter and John healed a man who couldn't walk, and gave the credit to Jesus.

*** This got the attention of the Jewish religious leaders. That's where we pick up in chapter 4.

THE CHALLENGE (Acts 4:1-7)

1 Now as they were speaking to the people, the priests, the commander of the temple police, and the Sadducees confronted them, 2 because they were provoked that they were teaching the people and proclaiming the resurrection from the dead, using Jesus as the example. 3 So they seized them and put them in custody until the next day, since it was already evening. 4 But many of those who heard the message believed, and the number of the men came to about 5,000. 5 The next day, their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem 6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John and Alexander, and all the members of the high-priestly family. 7 After they had Peter and John stand before them, they asked the question: “By what power or in what name have you done this?”

*** Law and Order.

--- As we begin, Peter and John had been preaching in the temple for a few hours with a lot of success.

--- After Pentecost there were 3,000 saved. Here we see that number climb to 5,000 men, which doesn’t even include the women and children.

*** Opposition appears.

--- With the success of the early church we also see Jewish religious leaders take note and try to stop it, in the form of priests, the commander of the temple police, and Sadducees.

--- The commander of the temple police was a powerful individual with authority second only to the high priest. His job was to maintain order in the area of the temple. He commanded a number of armed guards responsible for maintaining order in Jerusalem and particularly in the area of the temple.

--- The Sadducees were one of three powerful religious sects among the Jews (along with the Pharisees and Essenes).

The Sadducees had serious problems with letting Peter and John preach doctrines that went against the Sadducees’ doctrine.

Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, only accepted the first five Books of the Old Testament (sometimes called the “Torah” or “law of Moses”) as authoritative.

They did not believe in survival after death, final judgment, and resurrection. The Sadducees were infuriated that Peter preached that Jesus was the resurrected Messiah. The declaration that Jesus was the Messiah was heresy to them.

*** Take them into custody, boys.

--- Peter and John were seized and held overnight because it was late in the evening.

--- It’s likely that word spread quickly through the Christian community. The church members gathered to pray for their safety and release.

*** Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin.

--- Peter and John were in a volatile situation: standing before the 71-member Sanhedrin that included two rulers (Annas and Caiaphas). This was the same body that tried and convicted Jesus (Luke 22:66).

--- Verse 6 refers to Annas as the high priest, which he was from A.D. 6–15, and at this time his son-in-law, Caiaphas, served as high priest. The Gospels and Acts agree that Annas wielded the greatest power even though Caiaphas was formally the high priest (A.D. 18–36).

*** Question - What is your typical response to confrontation? How would you have handled being brought before the leaders?

THE ANSWER (Acts 4:8-12)

8 Then Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders: 9 If we are being examined today about a good deed done to a disabled man—by what means he was healed— 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead—by Him this man is standing here before you healthy. 11 This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.”

*** That’s a bold strategy, Peter.

--- Peter took a risk in speaking boldly and directly to these highly regarded religious leaders.

--- The religious leaders thought that with the death of Jesus that all the talk of Him as the Messiah would end. As a result, they likely thought Peter and John would be intimidated by them and afraid to speak out.

--- Instead, Peter used the opportunity to share the Gospel.

--- Peter had been filled with the Holy Spirit and wasn’t going to back down.

--- Peter points out that he and John were on trial for healing a disabled man. This is something Jesus had been through.

--- The leaders gave Peter an opening by asking him in what name does he heal. Peter took the opportunity to say the name Jesus Christ, then stuck it back at them by pointing out that because of them He was crucified.

*** Peter brings the Truth.

--- In verse 12 Peter proclaims that “there is salvation in no one else” except the name of Jesus Christ.

--- Jesus Himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6).

--- That’s it, that’s the list. Today’s so-called tolerant culture – the same folks who panic at chalk on a sidewalk but punish Christian wedding cake bakers - demands acceptance of all religions as equal.

--- The Bible never says that all religions are the same. It says that Jesus is the only way to be saved. Jesus is not the best way to Heaven. Jesus is the only way to Heaven.

*** Question - What factors in today’s culture make it more difficult for Christians to be bold in their faith and witness? What examples in the news have you heard of recently that are an obvious attempt to put Christians “in the hot seat” for their beliefs?

THE RECOGNITION (Acts 4:13)

13 When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and recognized that they had been with Jesus.

*** The Holy Spirit isn’t a “Phenomenon.”

--- The trial didn’t exactly go as the religious leaders planned.

--- They get bug-eyed when they hear Peter and John speak, as if these lowly Galileans – a.k.a. “hicks from the sticks” - had been made into geniuses like in “Flowers for Algernon,” or had a brain tumor that gave them super smarts like John Travolta in “Phenomenon.”

--- The religious leaders are amazed that Peter and John spoke with love and boldness in the power of the Spirit.

--- They considered Jesus uneducated and untrained, yet they could not match His knowledge of Scripture. Now Peter and John demonstrated a similar knowledge and courage.

--- Verse 13 helps us understand what made Peter and John so courageous. It wasn’t their education or their training. It was simply that “they had been with Jesus.” Jesus had spent three years with them teaching them how to be faithful in small things, such as letting Jesus teach a crowd from one of their fishing boats (Luke 5:1) to helping Jesus feed the multitude (John 6:114).

--- Four years prior to this trial, Peter and John would never have imagined themselves in this situation. Peter, a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, could not have predicted how his life would change before meeting Jesus. Jesus called him to be a fisher of men, and now he stood before the supreme court of Judaism in Jerusalem to defend the gospel.

--- The Sanhedrin ultimately let Peter and John go (see Acts 4:21) in order to avoid an uprising and because they had no concrete charges to bring against them.

--- The opponents of the gospel were powerless to stop its advance. The boldness of the disciples and the power of the Holy Spirit continued to prevail over the efforts of opponents to stop their evangelistic efforts.

--- Believers today should be encouraged by the example of the early church. Many institutions of power have become hostile to the preaching of the gospel. Christians may become discouraged in the face of such formidable opposition. We should remember the example of success in the early church.

*** Question - What role did Peter and John’s perceived weakness play in their being effective witnesses for Jesus? How can God use our perceived weaknesses to bring honor to Himself?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

I look around the class and see so many awesome people, so many strong Christians. You guys are kind, loving, and outspoken - almost no jerks! – and we’re exactly who God uses to spread the Gospel.

Peter and John were not responsible for the healing of the crippled man, and they did not take credit for it or become prideful in their actions. Christians can certainly count on the Holy Spirit to equip them to speak with boldness and power, but all honor and glory for anything that is accomplished goes to Jesus Christ.

*** (1) Even in the face of pressure, we must lovingly preach the revolutionary gospel of Jesus Christ. The power of God is greater than the pressure of man.

*** (2) The apostles proclaimed the gospel in the power of the Spirit. Christians are full of the Spirit.

*** (3) It doesn’t matter if you have a Ph.D. or if you’re naturally eloquent, God can work through us to spread the Gospel. We can speak boldly as we are filled with the Holy Spirit. We never know what God has in store for us when we trust Jesus. A great God can do great things with humble servants.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The resurrection changes everything!

My Life Group lesson for March 27, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

What significant days in our lifetimes do you remember vividly?

Some might include the Challenger explosion in 1986, or the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2011.

Our parents and grandparents would remember include VE Day (May 8, 1945); John F. Kennedy’s assassination (Nov. 22, 1963);

Question - How many of you remember where you were when you received the news about one or more of these events?

Our Bible study today will focus on the greatest news of all, the most significant event in human history.

As we celebrate Easter today, we will look back at the events of that magnificent day, but we will also look into the present and celebrate the hope that we have because of Jesus Christ’s resurrection.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Acts 2:14-46; Luke 23:1—24:51

*** We've spent the past few weeks studying the book of Acts, which is written by Luke (a companion of Paul). We discussed Jesus' ascension, Pentecost and the early church.

*** For Easter we'll look at Luke's Gospel, and the resurrection. It’s only the central focus of our entire salvation.

*** I know many of you have been going to church since birth, so you've heard and read about the resurrection quite a bit. But studying the Word and the context opens your eyes to new things every time.

AN EMPTY TOMB (Luke 24:1-3)

1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came to the tomb, bringing the spices they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb. 3 They went in but did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

*** The women come for Jesus.

--- The first day of the week was Sunday. Jesus was crucified on Friday and buried that same day so that it would be done before the Sabbath (which was Saturday).

--- The women watched Jesus die on the cross, saw him carried away and buried. In their grief they wanted to add their spices as a gift of love.

--- It was the normal thing to do. But God had other plans. Instead they were the first to hear the news of His resurrection!

*** Who were the women present at the empty tomb?

--- Matthew 27:56 - Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

--- Mark 16:1 – When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so they could go and anoint Him.

--- Luke 24:10 – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them were telling the apostles these things.

--- John - Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. (v. 2 she says "we don't know where they put Him," so there were more.)

Mary Magdalene was from Magdala, a town on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Mary became a follower of Jesus after He cast out seven demons that tormented her (Luke 8:2). Joanna was as “the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward” (Luke 8:3). She was one of many Galilean followers who provided monetary and material support to Jesus during His ministry. The second Mary was the mother of James. Luke added that other women were also present.

*** The stone was rolled away.

--- Jews preferred burial above ground in caves or tombs cut of rock. The body would have been on a slab of rock. Stones were kept in front of the entrance to keep animals and scavengers away. (After deterioration, the bones would be collected and stored in an ossuary (a container often made of stone) elsewhere in the burial chamber.)

--- So picture the scene: It’s just before dawn, this group of women come to what is essentially a graveyard, and think they’re witnessing a crime. Somebody stole the body of Jesus!

--- This is a FACT. Once this became known, everyone conceded that yes, the tomb was empty. Jesus’ disciples would declare Jesus was resurrected, and the unbelieving religious authorities would claim His body was stolen (Matt. 28:13).

--- If the enemies of the church wanted to stop Christianity in its infancy, producing the body of Jesus was all that would have been necessary. They could not, and the empty tomb provided evidence to affirm the declaration of Peter and the early disciples.

*** Question - How would a news reporter have described the scene that morning? How might you have responded if you had read a news story about this event?

FULL DISCLOSURE (Luke 24:4-8)

4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men stood by them in dazzling clothes. 5 So the women were terrified and bowed down to the ground. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” asked the men. 6 “He is not here, but He has been resurrected! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, 7 saying, ‘The Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and rise on the third day’?” 8 And they remembered His words.

*** Angels among us.

--- While the women scratched their heads, suddenly there were two angels among them.

Angels are important messengers in Luke’s Gospel. They appeared to Zechariah and predicted the birth of John the Baptist (1:13) and to Mary concerning the birth of Jesus (1:35). Angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (2:10).

--- The women needed divine revelation to understand the resurrection.

--- The women are afraid, as is everyone else in the Bible when angels appear.

But they had also been courageous. While the disciples were in hiding, the women didn't know what they'd see when they arrived, with soldiers supposed to be there, and how they would roll the stone away to anoint Jesus' body.

--- The angels make it clear when they ask “why are you looking for the living among the dead” that Jesus wasn’t dead.

--- They reminded the women that Jesus had predicted He would be delivered into the hands of sinful men (Luke 9:44), crucified (9:22), and would rise on the third day (9:22).

More and more, Jesus' followers came to see that He wasn't caught up in circumstances out of His control, but knew exactly what had to happen and submitted to God's plan for salvation.

--- It’s easy for us to be critical of the women and question why they didn’t remember or believe Jesus’ words concerning His resurrection. We are all guilty of forgetting (or ignoring) Jesus’ words to us.

The women came to the tomb with the task of anointing a decaying body, and they left praising God and telling others of the risen Savior.

*** Question - What would have frightened you most: the disrupted tomb, the men in white, or the missing body of Jesus?

COMPLETE AMAZEMENT (Luke 24:9-12)

9 Returning from the tomb, they reported all these things to the Eleven and to all the rest. 10 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them were telling the apostles these things. 11 But these words seemed like nonsense to them, and they did not believe the women. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. When he stooped to look in, he saw only the linen cloths. So he went home, amazed at what had happened.

*** The women returned but were not believed at first.

--- It was now the apostles' turn to be amazed.

--- The women high-tailed it back to where the disciples had been staying to tell them the good news.

--- We think nothing today of the gender of these first witnesses. In the first century A.D., however, women were considered by some to be unreliable witnesses. The Bible contains no such prejudice against the reliable testimony of women. God’s Word honors them, and their testimony will always be remembered as the foundation for the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

*** Jesus’ most intimate followers doubted.

--- There’s not a single “I told you so” from the bunch.

--- These guys had been with Jesus for three years, supposedly heard most of what He said, but still weren't anticipating the resurrection. None of the disciples or Jesus’ followers understood or believed the prophecies He made about His resurrection.

--- Doubts are often present in the lives of believers. We have to remember that we do not always understand God or what He is doing.

--- Like the man in Mark 9:24, it is okay to cry out, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.”

*** Peter: The ancient Usain Bolt.

--- Peter sprinted like an Olympic champion to the tomb, where he saw the cloths folded neatly on the rock slab.

--- Three days earlier Peter denied being a disciple of Christ. But 50 days after the resurrection, Peter would stand before the crowds in Jerusalem and proclaim Jesus had risen from the dead. (Acts 2:14-36)

--- Jesus commended those who would believe in the resurrection by faith in the testimony of others (John 20:29). More than 3,000 people believed based on Peter’s testimony at Pentecost, and they became the first of multitudes who have believed that Jesus died for their sins, was buried, and rose again on the third day.

*** Question - How did the empty tomb change the lives of the people present that Sunday? How should our lives similarly change as believers?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

The resurrection isn't just a tacked-on feel-good ending to the story of Jesus, like movie directors do for bigger audiences.

The story is the same as all four Gospels share four core evidence of the resurrection: 1) The empty tomb; 2) Angelic messengers; 3) Women as the first witnesses; 4) Unbelief of the apostles.

The central focus of the story remains the same. Romans 10:9-10 makes it clear that to be saved you have to believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, and confess it with your mouth.

We as Christians are all witnesses of Jesus’ saving grace through His work on the cross that day.

Salvation is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, in whom we are redeemed.

*** Believers today are faced with similar decisions as those in the early church. How do you respond when you hear that Jesus lives?

*** The responsibility and privilege of every believer who has received Jesus Christ as Savior is to tell others.

*** As C. S. Lewis famously argued, a person can either respond by declaring that Jesus is a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord of the universe. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything, including the purpose and trajectory of your life. Moreover, the church exists to point people to the Risen Jesus who is Lord over all.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Empowered for the Mission

My Life Group lesson for March 13, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

Can anyone here speak another language?

(I mean a different tongue, not like, “I am Southern, but I also understand people from Boston!”)

Who has been to a different country where it was beneficial to know some local lingo and language?

Why is it important to be able to communicate in the native language?

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

*** The title of today’s study is “Empowered for the Mission.”

*** Last week we began our study of Acts with the ascension of Jesus and a promise that the Holy Spirit would come to the apostles.

--- The disciples gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem and prayed in anticipation of the Spirit’s arrival.

*** This week we'll see how Jesus' promise was fulfilled at the feast of Pentecost.

*** This was also the time of the birth of the church.

*** Let’s take a look at how the Holy Spirit’s presence then with the apostles and now with us enables believers to fulfill God’s mission.

THE SPIRIT GIVEN (Acts 2:1-4)

1 When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. 3 And tongues, like flames of fire that were divided, appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages, as the Spirit gave them ability for speech.

*** The Day of Pentecost.

--- Pentecost was one of three annual feasts, along with the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of Booths, during which every Israelite male hoped to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

--- Pentecost comes from a Greek word meaning “fifty” and came fifty days after Passover.

--- Sometimes called the “Festival of Harvest” (Ex. 23:16) or “the day of firstfruits” (Num. 28:26), it marked the beginning of the cutting and binding of the barley sheaves (Deut. 16:9). As a harvest celebration, Pentecost was a time of joy and thanksgiving for the recent crop.

--- By using a time when many were in Jerusalem, a large audience would hear the gospel preached for the first time, and souls would be harvested for the first church.

*** A divine wind.

--- Luke did not describe the group of believers who gathered to wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit. He referred to them simply with the plural pronoun they. We know that the group included the apostles (Acts 2:14) and probably a larger group of disciples numbering 120 (1:15). The larger group consisted of men and women who had believed in Jesus as Savior.

--- The coming of the Holy Spirit was unmistakable. A “violent” rushing wind blew through the home they were in, something they knew couldn’t have been natural.

--- The association of wind with the Holy Spirit is appropriate, since the Greek word for spirit (pneuma) can also mean “wind.” Wind sometimes accompanied God’s appearances in the Old Testament (1 Kings 19:11; Isa. 66:15), and the Hebrew word for spirit (ruach) can also mean “breath” or “wind.”

--- The description also says that "tongues, like flames of fire," came and "rested on each one of them."

The Greek word for tongue (glossa) can refer to the muscular organ of human anatomy and can also refer to language produced by speech. Fire in the shape of human tongues may have been figurative language referring to how fire moves about like a tongue.

--- The result was the supernatural ability to speak in languages previously unspoken by the believers. This could only come from the Holy Spirit.

*** Question - What is an example of another event in biblical history accompanied by miraculous signs? Why do you think God displayed miraculous signs at Pentecost?

(Had to make it obvious that the Spirit was coming, so that none would doubt.)

THE QUESTIONS ASKED (Acts 2:5-13)

5 There were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd came together and was confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 And they were astounded and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 How is it that each of us can hear in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking the magnificent acts of God in our own languages.” 12 They were all astounded and perplexed, saying to one another, “What could this be?” 13 But some sneered and said, “They’re full of new wine!”

*** Biblical Rosetta Stone.

--- The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 by French soldiers in Egypt. The inscription, going back to the second century B.C., was written in Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphics, which finally gave researchers the chance to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit allowed believers to crack the code, so to speak, of reaching Jews and Gentiles around the world.

--- A friend of mine, Jeremy, lives in Kenya where he works for Wycliffe Bible Translators. Their job is the same as started at Pentecost, spreading the Word of God through the languages of every person in the world. Even as connected as our planet is today, their website says that even today, up to 1,800 languages are still waiting for a Bible translation to begin.

** You speakin' my language?

--- Jesus told the disciples to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. Here we see that God equipped them to do so.

--- All the visitors to Jerusalem from different nations heard their language being spoken, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These were Jews who had been scattered throughout the world in the course of history (see Jas. 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1). They represented many different languages based on their nations of origin.

Luke did not suggest the reference, but some commentators have proposed that Pentecost was a reversal of the curse of confusion at Babel (Gen. 11:1-7). At Babel, God confused the languages of the people and forced them to disperse. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit overcame the differences in languages to proclaim the gospel. The different languages represented different nations and indicated the gospel was for everyone.

--- The homelands of the Jews who returned to Jerusalem described in verses 9-11 covered large areas. Parthians, Medes, and Elamites refer to people living in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iran and Iraq). Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia refer to areas in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Egypt, Libya, and Cyrene represented northern Africa. Rome represented the continent of Europe.

The mention of proselytes from Rome is significant. These were Gentile converts to Judaism and would have been present for the Pentecost celebration. Some believe they first took the gospel back to Rome and became the founders of the first Roman church. Cretans were residents of the island of Crete and Arabs were from the area that is modern-day Arabia.

*** Negative nellies.

--- Not everyone believed what was happening was true. Many who heard scoffed that the disciples were hitting the bottle early and often. (Because people often speak other languages fluidly when they're plastered?)

--- It's a good reminder that not everyone will respond positively to our witness. Many will resist because they don't want to give up their sin. Others will mock Christians to justify their unbelief.

--- Pride is a major obstacle to believing in Jesus. Only those who humbly admit their sin and need for a Savior are saved.

--- What are we to do? To use the Holy Spirit to boldly speak of God's greatness.

--- Who knows? Some of those who first mocked the witness of the disciples may have believed at a later time. Our job is to sow the seeds of the gospel and allow God to bring the growth (1 Cor. 3:6 - "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.").

*** Question - What types of things does God use today to lead unbelievers to seek Him and His offer of salvation?

THE OPPORTUNITY SEIZED (Acts 2:14-15)

14 But Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them: “Men of Judah and all you residents of Jerusalem, let me explain this to you and pay attention to my words. 15 For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it’s only nine in the morning.

*** Peter takes the lead.

--- During Jesus’ ministry Peter was frequently told that he would lead the ragtag bunch of disciples and believers when Jesus was gone.

Approximately three and a half years before his sermon at Pentecost, Peter was a fisherman. Jesus came along and called him to be a fisher of men (Matt. 4:19). Peter first correctly identified Jesus as the Christ of God, and Jesus said that he would be an important part of the founding of the church (Matt. 16:16-20).

Peter’s great failure occurred just 50 days before his triumph at Pentecost. He had proclaimed his loyalty and willingness to die with Christ (Matt. 26:33). Jesus then predicted that before the rooster crowed three times, Peter would deny him three times (Matt. 26:34). After a brief show of bravery in the garden when Jesus was arrested, Peter fled in fear with the other disciples into the night. Near the place where Jesus was being tried, Peter fulfilled that prophecy by denying Jesus three times (Luke 22:60-61). Peter fled and wept bitterly over his cowardice and denials of Jesus (Luke 22:62). John recorded the resurrection appearance of Jesus to His disciples at the Sea of Galilee (see John 21). There Jesus specifically restored Peter by asking three times if Peter loved Him.

--- During the morning of Pentecost, Peter took the leadership mantle and delivered his first sermon, telling the people of Jerusalem how significant this event really was.

--- He denied the allegation that they were drunk, noting the early morning hour (9 a.m.) as an unlikely time for people to be intoxicated.

--- Recognizing God was working in the moment, Peter used the opportunity to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations gathered in Jerusalem.

--- The boldness of Peter and the other disciples came from the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Our boldness in witness also comes from the power of the Holy Spirit within us.

*** Question – What does it mean as a church to be focused on Jesus?

What excuses do we sometimes voice about sharing our faith in Jesus? Why do you think we sometimes fail to seize opportunities to witness?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

With the heavy rain all week, think about how often our power goes out from storms, rain, or if zombies take over and no one is alive to keep the power on.

Think about how much we rely on power every day: Electricity for our homes, gas for our cars, propane for grilling, etc.

If you have to choose to live without one power source you currently rely on, which one would you not want to give up?

Spiritually, just as the early church needed help, as believers we depend on the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

*** 1) God filled the apostles with His power as promised. With the Spirit, the church was prepared for their mission.

*** 2) All believers are enabled by the Holy Spirit to fulfill their God-given mission.

*** 3) It is crucial that we seize every opportunity to share Jesus with others. When you recognize that God is working, take advantage of the opportunity and join Him!

The leader guide suggested that I ask during the lesson, “How does your attitude affect your activity as a witness? Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you any attitudes that need to change and to fill you with power to share the love of Jesus this week.”

But that was for me. My witness was horrible, especially Wednesday and Thursday at work. I don’t know if it was working 19 hours Tuesday and didn’t get enough sleep, but I was bitter and critical of everything.

My mission is to be a witness for Christ, and that wasn’t happening.

So be aware of how you look to non-believers, and don’t trip up fellow believers.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Entrusted with a Mission

My Life Group lesson for March 6, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

Have you ever begun a vocation as an intern or understudy only to one day take on more responsibility in the company?

Have you ever been promoted to a position that you once worked under?

In those situations we often feel both prepared and scared.

Prepared because we knew that the day would come. Scared because the day had, in fact, come, and we wonder if we can actually do the job.

In a sense, this is what the disciples faced in this moment.

They had been prepared by Jesus, and now Jesus was handing the mission over to them.

But Jesus did not leave them alone. He provided the power to fulfill the mission.

Moreover, the success of the mission was ultimately dependent on the work of Christ, not on the disciple’s ingenuity.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Introduction to Acts

*** The author is Luke, who also wrote the gospel of Luke. After today’s lesson, the rest of Acts deals with the ministry of the church, especially Peter and Paul.

--- Luke was a Gentile, the only Gentile writer in the entire New Testament. He was a historian and a doctor, so he was well educated.

--- Luke was a friend and traveling companion of the apostle Paul.

*** Most Bible scholars place the date Acts was written about 60-65 A.D. One reason is that Acts makes no mention of the temple’s destruction in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

THE REMEMBERED PROMISE (Acts 1:1-5)

I wrote the first narrative, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day He was taken up, after He had given orders through the Holy Spirit to the apostles He had chosen. 3 After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

4 While He was together with them, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “This,” He said, “is what you heard from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

*** Jesus is Lord: The Sequel.

A sequel usually takes up where a previous book left off and often features the same characters and setting.

Acts picks up where the Gospel of Luke ends, but with a more detailed conversation Jesus had with His disciples before the ascension.

*** Who is Theophilus?

--- We don’t know. But Luke addressed both of his books to him.

(His name means “Lover of God.” He could have been a prominent believer and had social standing, since Luke 1:3 calls him “most honorable.”)

*** Founded on a promise.

--- Luke begins Acts by reiterating the central and essential Truth that Jesus is Lord, that He was crucified, buried and rose from the dead.

--- Not only had Christ risen, He had instructed them on the kingdom of God.

--- There is much responsibility here, but it all rests on the work of Christ.

--- The disciples were instructed to wait on the promised Spirit.

THE RESURRECTION PROCLAIMED (Acts 1:6-8)

6 So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

*** By the power of …

Not Grayskull, but the Holy Spirit. We’re talking about a different He-Man and a real Master of the Universe!

--- The Holy Spirit was promised by Jesus and fulfilled 10 days later at Pentecost. The Spirit fills believers with His presence so that the Gospel can be proclaimed everywhere.

--- The apostles had to wait until the day of Pentecost, but since then all believers are baptized with the Holy Spirit.

--- Paul made it clear that only those who have the Spirit have eternal life. (Romans 8:9-11)

--- This is Luke’s version of the Great Commission.

Matthew 28 memorably phrases it as “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

*** Not through force, but restoration.

--- The disciples knew something very important was about to happen, but they did not yet have a clear understanding of what it would be.

--- The apostles were still expecting that Jesus was going to usher in His kingdom right then through military force. But the kingdom of God doesn’t operate like the kingdoms of this world.

--- Jesus reminds the apostles that He wasn’t restoring the kingdom of Israel, but the eternal kingdom of God.

THE RETURN PORTRAYED (Acts 1:9-11)

9 After He had said this, He was taken up as they were watching, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. 10 While He was going, they were gazing into heaven, and suddenly two men in white clothes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen Him going into heaven.”

*** The mission, should you choose to accept it …

(Is not an “impossible” mission!)

--- The church is sent on mission by Jesus.

As prominent Southern Baptist church planter Ed Stetzer says: “It's not that the church has a mission, but rather that the mission has a church.”

*** The ascension.

--- The disciples watched as Jesus ascended into the presence of God, to Jesus’ rightful place at the Father’s right hand.

--- The two men in white robes reminded them that Jesus will return. Therefore, there is no time to waste.

--- The disciples had a crisis moment as they stared into the heavens, realizing that the mission was left to them. Jesus, their leader, was gone. The mission now rested on them.

--- Awaiting the Spirit, they had to decide to believe Jesus and take His gospel to the ends of the earth.

--- The fact that Jesus would return should give us encouragement and power for today.

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

We are often guilty of looking around, up, or away instead of following Jesus’ command to “be My witnesses.”

With that said, let’s take a chance to clear the air in regards to how this 2016 election season could be messing with our mission.

*** Pray that the Holy Spirit that dwells within you will help you develop the fruits of the spirit and speak through you to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

*** Think about your mission. Your own Jerusalem could be our own homes and neighborhoods. Our own Judea could be Millington and this area. Our own Samaria is surely rough-and-tumble Memphis, and to the ends of the earth.

*** Jesus will return personally, bodily, visibly and victoriously. Now live like you believe it.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Access Granted

My Life Group lesson for Feb. 28, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

I always enjoyed TV theme songs on shows growing up, including all the syndicated shows that our parents watched. Nowadays many shows barely even have music, but in the old days the themes told the story.

Complete the lyric, name the show:

“Let me tell you a story about a man named Jeb …” (The Beverly Hillbillies)
“Just sit right down and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip...” (Gilligan’s Island)
“A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse, of course…” (Mr. Ed)
“Here’s the story, of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls…” (The Brady Bunch)
“Love, exciting and new, come aboard, we’re expecting you …” (The Love Boat)
“Making your way in the world today, takes everything you’ve got …” (Cheers)
“Now this is the story all about how, my life got flipped, turned upside down …” (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air)
“Who lives in a pineapple under the sea …” (SpongeBob SquarePants)
“Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away …” (Sesame Street)
“If you like to talk to tomatoes, if a squash can make you smile …” (Veggie Tales)

Theme songs and their stories help us to remember and connect the dots from week to week to remember it better.

Jesus was a master storyteller. He used illustrations as a major part of His teaching and preaching.

This week we’re going to take a look at one of His parables in Matthew chapter 13.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Matthew 13:1-58

*** The Gospel of Matthew alternates between Jesus teaching and Jesus doing. Matthew opens with Jesus being born and preparing for ministry (ch. 1-4), followed by teaching the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7), miracle work (ch. 8-9) and then Jesus starts teaching the disciples their mission instructions (ch. 10-13).

*** Opposition to Jesus was also increasing from those indifferent to His message and from religious leaders.

*** The disciples, though, were responding in faith to Jesus' message, believing Him to be the Messiah He claimed to be.

A CROWD (Matt. 13:1-3a)

1 On that day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. 2 Such large crowds gathered around Him that He got into a boat and sat down, while the whole crowd stood on the shore. 3a Then He told them many things in parables, saying:

*** Speaking to the masses.

--- The crowds are still following Jesus, so many that if He was trying to do so, Jesus couldn’t kick back by the Sea of Galilee and relax.

He had to get in a boat to separate Himself enough so that He could talk to them without being crushed. (Mark chapter 4 and Luke chapter 8 tell it the same way.)

*** A useful analogy.

--- In Greek "parable" means "to lay something beside something else for the purpose of comparison."

Jesus is comparing something common to the audience and to God's Kingdom in order to drive home a point and reveal the larger truth.

--- In the Gospels it can refer to a brief rhetorical question such as: “How can Satan drive out Satan?” (Mark 3:23); “Can the blind guide the blind? Won’t they both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39). The term also refers to more detailed stories, like the parable of the sower, the good Samaritan, or the prodigal son.

--- Jesus used everyday objects around them to make comparisons, things like mustard seeds, bread, wheat and weeds, fishing nets, etc.

(I don't think Jesus would have used TV theme songs as an analogy to His parables, but He didn't have the option back then, either!)

A PARABLE (Matt. 13:3b-9)

3b “Consider the sower who went out to sow. 4 As he was sowing, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Others fell on rocky ground, where there wasn’t much soil, and they sprang up quickly since the soil wasn’t deep. 6 But when the sun came up they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered. 7 Others fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them. 8 Still others fell on good ground and produced a crop: some 100, some 60, and some 30 times what was sown. 9 Anyone who has ears should listen!”

*** Where is your seed?

--- The parable of the sower is about how people hear and receive the Word of God, rather than a parable of how they come to Christ.

The audience was clear that God is the sower in this parable, using farming language they would understand.

Old Testament prophets frequently referred to God as a sower (Jer. 31:27-28; Hos. 2:23). Isaiah 55:10-11 compares a seed that germinates and sprouts to God’s word “that comes from My mouth” and “will not return to Me empty.”

*** There are four types of soil in which the seeds fall:

(1) Along the path (v. 4) - Jesus explains in Luke 8:12 that "the seed along the path are those who have heard and then the Devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved."

Jesus wasn't doing any focus groups to determine the exact demographic he was trying to reach. He was teaching to anyone and everyone, sowing seeds all over the place. Some of of the people heard the message but didn't understand it or didn't take it to heart.

(2) Rocky ground (v. 5-6) - Since there isn't much soil, the seeds spring up quickly but there's no depth to take root, and thus when the sun got super hot the seedlings were scorched and withered away.

As Jesus explained to the disciples later, this represents people who hear the word, receive it with joy, but fall away in the face of trials. In a time of "pressure or persecution," (v. 21) they stumble and turn away from the Kingdom.

No doubt we've seen this, experienced it, and probably not blamed someone for not making it through the persecution. How many would be in our worship service if they knew that they and their families could lose their jobs and property for doing so? Or even be arrested or killed on the way out?

Kristen's cousin Katy’s team left Vietnam and one of her teammates blogged about rules in government-run churches:

1.) There is to be no clapping, during the songs; 2.) Traditional Bibles are only to be used; 3.) No speakers should be used in the church, due to complaints of it being loud; 4.) A church can be built if over 200 people come; 5.)Songs that are sung should only be from a hymn book; 6.) Don't greet people around you.

(3) Fell among thorns (v. 7) - There was no growth in these seeds because they were choked out.

Jesus interpreted them as “the worries of this age and the seduction of wealth” (v. 22).

Jesus warned of the temptation of greed frequently, telling believers “Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth. […] For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19,21). He added: “No one can be a slave of two masters. […] You cannot be slaves of God and of money” (v. 24).

If you are seduced by the desire for materialism, the chance that you'll produce spiritual fruit is low. If you thought becoming a follower of Jesus meant you'd be automatically prosperous, you've been misled. You'll be strangled in your commitment to God. (4) Fell on good ground (v. 8) - The good news is that some seeds will indeed end up in good soil and produce a bumper crop of souls to be harvested for eternity.

Jesus interpreted the good soil as “one who hears and understands the word” (v. 23).

These are Christians of genuine faith and discipleship, everything we are supposed to be or at least striving to be.

*** Listen!

--- Jesus ends the parable by telling us to pay attention to His teaching.

--- The focus of the parable is not on the sower or the seed, but the soil. Although Jesus gives us four scenarios, really there are only two types of soil: Those that produce fruit and those that do not.

*** Question – How do you respond to Jesus’ use of parables? What can you take away from this parable?

A REASON (Matt. 13:10-13)

10 Then the disciples came up and asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered them, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. 12 For whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand.”

*** The secret word is: “Password.”

--- How many of you have a password that is “12345” or “password” because you are tired of coming up with a new one for everything?

--- What do you use when coming up with a password? Birthdays? Addresses? Anniversaries? Why do you keep the password a secret? What would make you share it with someone?

*** Vague, much?

--- Until this chapter Jesus spoke clearly and without parables. But now when the people weren’t responding to His message, Jesus began using parables that they didn’t understand. But to those who believed, He explained every detail.

--- The disciples asked Jesus why He spoke to the crowd in parables, and Jesus responded: “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know.”

Why did Jesus utilize a method of instruction that would conceal the truth from the crowds? Or was He concealing anything from them?

Jesus clarified the comment with the principle that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Only those with a right relationship to Jesus can understand fully. Those who are willing to hear with faith will receive more faith and will grow in their understanding. Those unwilling to hear with faith will continue to wallow in their unbelief, their blindness ever increasing.

The disciples many times seemed to be slow to grasp the point of Jesus’ ministry, but they had responded to Jesus’ call in faith, so the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven was revealed to them.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, refused to see Jesus’ miraculous deeds as the work of God. They refused to hear His teaching with faith. The result was that their blindness and deafness only increased.

--- In verse 13 Jesus quoted Isaiah 6:9-10 to provide a scriptural basis for His response:

Go! Say to these people: Keep listening, but do not understand; keep looking, but do not perceive. Dull the minds of these people; deafen their ears and blind their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their minds, turn back, and be healed.

As in the days of Jesus, the leadership in Isaiah’s day had shut their eyes to the Truth, and had rejected God and His Word, so God had turned from them.

*** Question – Why are there so many who hear the Word of God but do not understand it, or let it make a difference in their lives?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

People can hear the same song and come up with different lyrics, themes and meanings to it.

Jesus frequently spoke in a way that could be interpreted different ways, depending on our relationship with God.

He wasn’t trying to exclude any listeners. He was trying to reveal the secrets of His kingdom to His followers.

*** What type of soil are you? Are you poor soil bearing no fruit? Where’s the spiritual fruit in your life?

*** Who around you needs a relationship with Jesus in order to have an understanding of His parables?

Monday, February 22, 2016

An Open Invitation

My Life Group lesson for Feb. 14, 2016, using Lifeway's "Explore the Bible" commentary as a guide ...

FIRST THOUGHTS

Today we’re going to talk about, like “The Godfather,” an offer you must not refuse!

Think of all the events you attend: Weddings, birthday parties, baby showers, anniversaries, graduations, fellowships, how fast does your calendar fill up?

Do you accept every invitation that comes your way?

How many do you get every week?

What kind of invites do you feel the need to decline sometimes? Why?

Jesus offered His hearers a special invitation: come to Him and find rest from their weariness. This invitation included the opportunity to learn from Him and serve alongside Him. The issue was whether the people would accept or decline Jesus’ invitation.

UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT

Matthew 11:1-30

*** Jesus began His ministry by teaching the people, caring for the people and healing many, many of disease and deformity.

*** Still, by Matthew chapter 11 there was growing rejection of Jesus in Israel. Jesus was popular when it came to healing and teaching, but the people weren't ready to follow.

*** Chapter 11 begins with John the Baptist having honest doubts about Jesus as the Messiah. But the cities in the verses we'll study today had flat-out rejected Jesus.

--- Jesus wasn’t holding back when it came to those who follow Him:

Matthew 10:14-15 to the disciples being sent out - 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 I assure you: It will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.

Matthew 10:37-38 - 37 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. 38 And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.

PROMISED JUDGMENT (Matt. 11:20-24)

20 Then He proceeded to denounce the towns where most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent: 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes long ago! 22 But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until today. 24 But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

*** God is the same then as He is now.

--- Have you ever heard a Bible critic say that the God of the Old Testament doesn't seem the same as the God of the New Testament?

--- Obviously they never actually read it and saw what Jesus said about unbelievers and the ultimate judgment for those who reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

--- What Jesus said here doesn’t have a different tone than OT prophets used, such as Ezekiel 2:4-5: The children are obstinate and hardhearted. I am sending you to them, and you must say to them, ‘This is what the Lord God says.’ Whether they listen or refuse to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them.

*** See ya, wouldn't want to be ya!

--- The cities in these verses are where Jesus performed numerous miracles and yet they did not repent.

--- The people in these cities had an opportunity to turn to Jesus. They did not. Therefore their judgment would be harsh.

--- Not much is known about Chorazin. Capernaum was the staging point for Jesus' ministry in Galilee. Bethsaida was the hometown of disciples Peter, Andrew and Philip.

--- Jesus speaks of "woe" to the people just as Old Testament prophets did. The cities of Tyre and Sidon in ancient Phoenicia were frequently warned by prophets. (Isa. 23:1-17; Jer. 47:3-5; Ezek. 28:20-21). Sodom was the worst of the worst, full of sexual immorality and injustice, and yet it would be more tolerable for Sodom (Gen. 18-19) to have sulfur burn them up than the coming judgment against Capernaum.

--- But Jesus says that if the depraved people there had heard about Jesus, then they would have repented and the audacity to reject Jesus by these three prideful Galilean cities was worse.

---He performed more miracles and preached more sermons in and around Capernaum than at any other place during His entire ministry. It was there that He raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead and healed the nobleman’s son. It was here that He healed the demoniac, Peter’s mother-in-law, the woman with the hemorrhage, the two blind men, the centurion’s servant, the dumb demoniac, and the paralytic who was lowered through the roof by his friends.

The people of Capernaum never persecuted Jesus, and few of them even criticized Him. They never mocked Him, ridiculed Him, ran Him out of town, or threatened His life. Yet their sin was worse than if they had done those things. Theirs was not the sin of violence or of immorality but of indifference. (John MacArthur)

--- I sure don't want to be judged like these cities for rejecting Jesus as our Savior, our Messiah, our Wonderful Counselor.

--- Question - How many times have we seen people witness the power of God, but not worship Him or turn to Him?

PROMISED REVELATION (Matt. 11:25-27)

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants. 26 Yes, Father, because this was Your good pleasure. 27 All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal Him.

*** Hippity hoppin’ Easter’s on its way!

--- Jesus says that God has hidden truth from the wise. Easter’s coming up in six weeks. Think of when you hide eggs for your children. When you hide eggs for the littlest kids you just drop them on the ground (because even then they may not get them!), while for older kids you make it more difficult.

Either way, the goal is that the eggs are found.

*** You are cordially invited.

--- The most wise intellectually elites depended on their own wisdom, while spiritual infants require outside help from God. No one can know God by worldly wisdom and learning. The person with the highest IQ cannot figure Him out using brains alone.

--- Pride is the downfall of those who consider themselves the elites. Jesus says to go the other way. Later Jesus stated: “unless you are converted and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3-4).

You're not smart enough to figure out God!

--- The theme of wisdom hidden from those who think themselves wise appears frequently in the Old Testament (for example, see Job 12:2; Isa. 19:11-12; Jer. 8:8-9; Ezek. 28:3-12). Paul drew a direct relationship between those who arrogantly claim to have wisdom and knowledge and those who see the message of the cross as foolishness (see 1 Cor. 1:18-31).

*** Answer the call.

--- The Bible says that those whom God calls can receive the message. The Creator must reveal Himself to His creation. We can't know each other unless we reveal ourselves to one another. The only way we can know God is for Him to get down on our level and let us in.

--- At the same time, the Bible also repeatedly stresses the role our free will plays, and Jesus tells His audiences to have ears to hear and all are invited.

--- It's a mystery of God how both divine sovereignty and human responsibility work for our salvation.

--- In verses 20-24 judgment was coming on the residents of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum because their free will was to reject the revelation God had given them.

--- Craig Blomberg captures the balance well when he states: “without God’s prior activity none could ever hope to be saved, but God saves only through the free human actions of preaching and conversion.”

*** Question - Think back to your own salvation experience. Can you recall people and/or events that God providentially brought into your life that served as catalysts for your conversion?

*** Jesus, the Son of God.

--- Verse 27 has an extraordinary claim, that only Jesus knows God more than no one else, and that Jesus has all the authority that God has.

--- Think of how a child often reflects his or her father in ways that nobody else does. Jesus did that well.

--- The Gospel of John declares: “No one has ever seen God. The One and Only Son—the One who is at the Father’s side—He has revealed Him” (John 1:18). Again, John records Jesus as follows: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Thus, the Father has given Jesus the sole authority and prerogative to make God known. If anyone attempts to approach God by any means other than through Jesus, he will not find Him.

--- Saying that Jesus alone is truth seems out of step in a world that celebrates religious diversity.

*** Question - How should we respond when people label Christians as intolerant for asserting that Jesus is the only way to the Father, with no other alternative?

--- Verse 27 demands that we as the Church have the courage to declare one truth.

PROMISED REST (Matt. 11:28-30)

28 Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

*** No "yokin' around!"

--- When two animals are in a yoke they are connected to one another to pull a plow. The animals are under submission and working hard.

--- Verse 28 makes it clear, ALL can come to Jesus and be saved. The invitation remains open, even for those who had initially rejected Jesus.

--- In the old law, the yoke on the people was difficult. It was a legalistic society where works counted more than faith. The demands of the scribes and the Pharisees went far beyond the demands of God. When the law was said to be the way to salvation is was a “yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

--- Peter captured the contrast well in his address to the leaders of the Jerusalem church on the occasion of their debate about whether to impose circumcision, and thus the law, on Gentiles in order to consider them truly Christian. Peter asked, “why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are” (Acts 15:10-11).

--- Under Jesus, He bears our burdens and provides rest for the stresses that weigh us down. There are still demands on us as Christians, but we have assurance that we have found the Living Water and the Bread of Life. (Bro. Joseph)

--- The “wise and learned,” however, would likely cling arrogantly to the belief that they could figure it out for themselves.

*** Question - Jesus promises that following Him is a life of rest, serving Him is an easy yoke, and bearing His burden is light. What evidence do you see in your life that you have come to Jesus and are experiencing rest?

TAKE-AWAY POINTS

Greek mythology tells the story of Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, or Corinth. Sisyphus had gained a reputation as a dishonest, crafty, and deceitful man. To punish him, the gods sentenced him to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity, without ever having the ability to reach the top. Just as he would almost reach the top, the boulder would roll backwards, and he would have to start all over again. His curse was to spend eternity expending his efforts on a useless task, being forever frustrated in the process.

The fate of those who try to earn their salvation is much the same, and this was one of the major problems with Judaism. Keeping the law to the point of perfection, to the point that one could make oneself acceptable to God, was impossible. And yet for the Jews of Jesus’ day, this was what was prescribed. It was a heavy burden, one that would wear them out emotionally and spiritually.

Jesus came to set us free from that impossible burden. He came to offer us rest from trying to do the impossible. Only He could do that which was impossible for us to do. In Matthew 11, He offers us that rest.

*** Note the various ways that people responded to Jesus. Some doubted Him, others were unresponsive, and still others drew near to Him. We should not be surprised when people respond in similar ways today.

*** You cannot outsmart God, and you can never do enough works to earn salvation which comes through grace alone.

*** Have you found rest in Jesus? Are you willing to be yoked to Him, to learn from Him, and to walk with Him today?