water ring November 14-15 Chronological Bible Study

Timeline. Map. Go to today’s Bible reading: Acts 8, 9, 10, 11

Note: Because of the theme, this is a combined study. It is recommended that the Scriptures be read on November 14 and the Bible study on November 15

Grace Extended

A person tosses a rock into a pond. What happens? Water is displaced and a water ring ripples out from the center. The larger the rock, the bigger the ripple that is created. As more rocks are thrown into a pond more concentric circles are formed. That is what it was like when Saul (who later became the Apostle Paul) began to persecute the church; there was a displacement and rippling of Christians. The stones of persecution scattered believers from Jerusalem, and they preached the gospel wherever they went. The Christian witness reached into Judea and Samaria, Gaza, Caesarea, Joppa, Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch in Syria.

Why did God allow the persecution? The answer is that he planned to extend his grace beyond Jerusalem (Matthew 28:19-20), and so he had to get the church out of her comfort zone. Jerusalem at this time had more than 5,000 converts in the church, all Jewish. New Christians were added to the number daily. Even in today’s world that number of believers gathering together would be considered a Mega Church. If a typical church in America today experienced growth like that the members would probably hire more ministers and build a beautiful church, educational center, and recreation center. They would create a bunch of programs to minister to those who attend, and would strive to be culturally relevant and seeker-friendly to keep the believers in the fold and to attract even more people.

Mega churches have a lot to offer but a couple dangers of big church ministries are self-absorption and atrophy. This was not God’s plan. He had given a commission to the apostles: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” (Acts 1:8, NIV). How would this happen? Acts 8:1b records that on the same day of Stephens’ martyrdom, “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria,” (NIV). Persecution has its purposes: it sharpens our spiritual life, it motivates us to help others who are treated unfairly, and it helps to extend the gospel of God's grace.

Although this mission was introduced earlier by Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20), it still must have come as somewhat of a shock to the apostles. After all, everyone despised the people of Samaria. They were half-breeds. Their nation (their neighborhood if you will) was avoided. The apostles and Christians now became ministers, not only to scattered Jews, but also to Gentiles. The Jewish believers in Jerusalem and Judea had some trouble with that. Gentiles were non-Jews. They were considered no better than dogs. But God is a God of love and mercy. In his great compassion he loves those who are unlovely and even those who are hated.

Through Phillip the evangelist the gospel first began to be preached in Samaria, then in Gaza to an Ethiopian Eunuch, then Azotus and the entire region of Caesarea. Peter and John checked out the report of salvation being brought to Samaria. They caught the same vision as Phillip and continued there preaching the gospel. Later, Peter traveled around Lydda and Joppa, and then Caesarea proclaiming the gospel. The gospel at this time reached the areas from Gaza, southwest of Israel, to Antioch in Syria, north of Israel. The ripple effect from persecution caused the spreading of the gospel outward from Jerusalem in great waves. As we read about the gospel being extended, we witness the love and mercy of God to all people. As his witnesses today, will we extend his saving grace to all people, even to those whom we might despise?

How do we reach those who are despised by society or those whom we despise? Our hearts need to be changed. Saul, a highly regarded Pharisee (a Jewish religious leader), went with letters to arrest Christians in Damascus. In his religious zeal he probably thought he was doing this for God. He believed Christians were a Jewish cult and dangerous to their nation, but he was mistaken. He needed a heart change. On the road to Damascus Saul was stopped in his tracks by a blinding light and a voice from heaven. Saul was converted when he believed in Jesus. If we are going to reach those whom we despise or those who are despised in our society, we also need a transformation of our hearts. Will we allow Christ to change our attitudes, or will we just be content to keep our own religious prejudices?

Second, to reach those who are despised, prejudice needs to be removed and replaced with love and acceptance. That means our thinking and our actions need to change. That is not easy to do. We are born in a prejudicial society and sometimes acquire feelings of malice towards those who are different. It certainly was not easy for Peter and the Jewish church in Jerusalem to change their thinking about Gentiles. But after seeing the grace of God bringing salvation to the Gentiles and giving them the same Holy Spirit they possessed, they came to the conclusion that God had indeed extended saving grace to Gentiles, and they praised God (Acts 11:18). They (and we) must change, not only our thinking, but also our actions. If we start acting with love and grace, then our feelings will follow.

Last, we need to remember that, unless we are Jewish, we did not inherit the covenant or the promises of the Jewish people. We were not a special people to whom God chose to bless. Our ancestors were despised and rejected, but God, who is rich in mercy, graciously reaches out to us and saves all who call out to him in faith. Since we have received his mercy and grace, we ought to extend mercy and grace to others.

Lessons to live by:

  • Persecution has a purpose: it sharpens our spiritual life, it motivates us to help others who are treated unfairly, and it helps to spread the gospel.
  • Be converted. Repent and find forgiveness from God through faith in Christ Jesus. Confess your sins of prejudice, and God will change your heart. (more...)
  • Recognize the love and grace that God has extended to you and extend it to others. Start acting with love and grace, and your feelings will follow.

Today’s Bible memory verses:

Ephesians 2:8-10 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (NIV)

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