Week 5: Acts 5-11 Persecution Leading to Expansion
Someone has said if you want to understand the blue collar working man, listen to Bruce Springsteen. If you want to understand the South during the civil war, don’t read a history book, read “Gone with the Wind.” To gain perspective of the early church in the first century, we need look no further than our readings this week, Acts 5-11. This week’s readings give us the best picture of what the early church looked like, complete with its internal strife, its persecutions, and its spread outside of Palestine.
Even though there was plenty of excitement over the revival, there was also sin in the community. In Acts 5 it is lying and hypocrisy, in chapter 6 it is an issue of alleged inequity, injus- tice, and consequent divisiveness. They even struggled with divisions along racial lines between Grecian Jews and Hebraic Jews. The leaders address these issue by creating a group of deacons (literally servers), to make sure needs are met. Like the deacons of today, they were charged with serving the community. The deacons were there to address the internal troubles in the community.
The troubles turn deadly in the next chapters as persecution hits the church. Stephen is martyred while Paul looks on. This tragedy forces the dispersion of the believers. If you don’t obey Acts 1:8 ‘go into all the world,’ then you will get Acts 8:1 ‘on that day severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem. In other words, they chose to stay in their comfort zone with people like them, but the persecution forced them out into the world where God had called them to go all along.
Immediately when they go out into the world they start rubbing shoulders with people from different cultures who have never heard of Jesus. The body of Christ grows more colorful and diverse as the rest of Acts unfolds. From an Ethiopian, to a zealous Jew, to a military leader, who was obviously a Gentile, people were being converted to Christianity from all walks of life. Finally in chapter 10 and 11 Peter undergoes a conversion of sorts himself. Peter, a devout Jewish Christian has probably never considered that God was inviting non- Jews into the body of Christ. But through a dramatic vision, Peter understands the Gospel is for everyone. It was God’s idea, not an elaborate church growth strategy, to include us all.
Who Do You See? (Tip #5)
The next couple of weeks we will study the six W’s of Bible study; who, what, where, when, why and wherefore. Now you might be saying-- this is like 7th grade English. True! But let’s think a minute about what makes a great fisherman great (and a terrible fisherman like me so bad!). One difference (outside of the fact I am so impatient) is the tools he uses. With the right bait, a fisherman can increase his chances of catching the big one. It’s the same way with Bible study. If you ask the right questions, like a detective, you can get great answers.
This week let’s look for WHO. Look for the key people in the text. Do you see people from the Gospels who are still in the picture (like Peter). Or are we being introduced to someone who will be really major later (like Paul...he’s called Saul in Chapter 7). Find out what the text is saying about who they are. For example, are they Jewish? Are they a new convert? Have they undergone a major change? Try to imagine their appearance. Are they wealthy? Do they have connections to other important people in the story (for example in chapter
4 James is killed. Who is James? He was the brother of the beloved disciple John. It is no minor thing when he dies.) Ask, “what do they say and how does it show who they are?” If you know of other passages in the scriptures that describe them, look at these. This is especially important when an Old Testament character is brought up in the New Testament. Cross referencing gives a more complete picture. The Bible is one story and God wants to show how He changes people and how we can apply that lesson to our own lives. There is no greater way for us to see the impact of the gospel than when we study the people of the Bible.
Notes from My Journal
One of my favorite characters in the Bible is Barnabas. He is rather wealthy. Indeed, he gives the early church a tract of land at the end of Acts 5 that sets into motion a jealous, duplicitous comparison with Ananias and Sapphira that eventually costs them their lives. I guess God really does hate hypocrisy, doesn’t He?
Anyway, we don’t know much about Barnabas. Some think he could have been the rich, young ruler who eventually saw the light and followed Jesus. All we do know is he’s wealthy, he is a Jesus follower and eventually he goes on Paul’s first missionary trip to Galatia.
Why do I like Barnabas so much? His name means “son of encouragement” and that’s who he is. Every time we experience him in the pages of Scripture, he’s always encouraging someone. And that’s why I like him. We all need encouraging people in our lives. We need people who give us hope, who see the best in us, who believe tomorrow may bring a brighter day. We need to surround ourselves with these kinds of people; people who recharge our hearts, not drain them.
I know I want to be a Barnabas to you. Many of you have been a Barnabas to me by writing notes and praying for me. Thank you!
And here’s the final step: go be a Barnabas to someone today. Give someone an encouraging word. Give hope to someone.
It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to another.