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.

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