I love the chapters we read last week. Hard, yes. But they paint a deep picture of what life was like for the early church and provide us valuable lessons about the heart of God.
Early Church Conflict
In Acts 6 we see the first hint of discord within The Way.
The disciples, who were busy growing the church, seeing people come to Christ, gaining followers, could have easily dismissed the complaint about widows being mistreated. They could have told them to figure it out themselves, told everyone to get along, or pushed it off on someone else. Instead they listened and came up with a plan. They went to the whole community and asked them to appoint seven men to ensure the widows were taken care of equally. It honored those being mistreated and brought the whole fellowship together in a solution. It was not handled behind closed doors. They did not dismiss it because it was not what they “should” be focused on. Instead they stood before the whole community and said, “let us come to a solution together.”
Stephen – a Man of Faith
We are introduced to Stephen: a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. We are also told he was full of grace and power, capable of doing great wonders and signs among the people!
We also get to see the power of jealously and what people will do when they feel threatened. The Jewish way of life was being challenged. The disciples were telling the Jewish population everything had changed. They were no longer God’s only chosen people. And that made some nervous and fearful.
Stephen, full of faith and power, stirred up this fear and was arrested on false accusations. His response in chapter 7 is God inspired. He gives a rundown of his people’s history. At the end he rebukes these “stiff-necked people” – stubborn, close-minded, un-leadable. Like a stubborn ox that won’t respond to guiding. He calls them out for living the law, but not letting it settle into their hearts. They have missed God’s messengers because of their hard-hearts and attachment to the law without mercy or justice.
Being called out on our sin is uncomfortable. If our first response is anger, then chances are the message touched something within us. The question is will we stop and seek why we are so defensive and angry or will we lash out and make things worse?
Stephen’s rebuke so enrages those listening – they stoned him to death. Stephen’s last words are reminiscent of Jesus on cross: Lord, do not hold this sin against them (Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…).
It is here we are introduced to Saul – the key figure of the rest of Acts. The first words about him are chilling: And Saul approved of Stephen’s execution. Those stoning Stephen laid their cloaks at Saul’s feet. He was present at Stephen’s death – egging the crowd on, proud of what was happening.
Saul grew up being taught by the most religious of the religious. As you read the Gospels and Acts, remember Saul was a Pharisees. Jesus’ rebukes to their way of life would have been aimed at Saul as well.
Saul not only approved of Stephen’s death, he made it his mission to persecute all like him. We are told he “ravaged the church.” Hunting down those who believed in Jesus and throwing them in jail. To him, this new way was so wrong and harmful to all he knew he was compelled to hunt down those who believed in it. Not just in Jerusalem. Saul got permission to track down members of the Church in other cities.
But in Saul’s actions we see Jesus’ charge fulfilled. In Acts 1 Jesus told his disciples: …You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Until now the disciples were content to stay in Jerusalem. But Saul’s actions pushed them to Judea and Samaria, where the church was strengthened and grew (see Acts 9:31).
Saul’s conversion on the Damascus road is worthy of its own post. It is a cautionary reminder to remember that no one is outside the reach of God. The early church had to forgive and then accept (even follow!) Saul. They did not hold his past against him. But as we will see, Saul’s previous life played heavily into his testimony about who God is.
We have to give people the grace and space to change. We cannot hold mistakes against those who repent of their actions. It is not for us to judge whether they have done “enough.” God withholds grace from no one. Who are we to do otherwise?
Acts 10 is one of my favorite chapters in all of scripture!
In it we meet Cornelius – an Italian officer in the Roman Army. He feared God, respected Jewish people and culture even though he was not one.
His response to seeing an angle of God, “what is it Lord?” What a remarkable, faithful response.
Then we turn to Peter, who receives a vision of his own. It is worth noting that God often speaks to several people about a matter. It serves as a way to provide confirmation. Also, God will never speak against His nature. This is a key check towards people who claim to get a vision from God. Always make sure it does not contradict what is said in God’s Word. (The same check can be used for Sunday morning sermons. 😉 )
Peter (again!) pushes back. We saw last week that he can be over-eager and people-pleasing. But God is patient and stays with him. Peter walked with Christ, saw all He did, was now a leader in the Church. But God still needed to break him from his attachment to the Law. In saying that Peter could eat anything God had made, God was telling him to grasp a bigger vision.
The idea that God could or would use the Gentiles (non-Jewish persons) was new to Peter. God was expanding his heart and mind. While perplexed, Peter was obedient and invited Cornelius into his home and treated him like a welcomed guest. This went against every norm, custom and expectation in Jewish culture but not against the Word of God.
Acts 10 is really about the conversion of Peter. It is about leading him to the place he could share this truth: Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
No Partiality with God
There is no favoritism with God. In His house, at His table, we all have equal standing. There is not a hierarchy based on race or nationality before God. We cannot treat someone better because of the color of their skin, where they were born, or how much money or influence they have. And we definitely cannot defend our prejudices with the Word.
The Bible repeatedly tells us the hierarchy of the kingdom is based on servanthood and humility. The lowly shall be lifted high and the proud laid low. The abused shall be exalted and those in power who did nothing called to account.
Cornelius and Peter treated each other with respect. Peter refused to allow Cornelius to treat him like a god. He also refused to treat Cornelius like a dog (which many at the time would have). By entering Cornelius’s home, something forbidden by Jewish culture, Peter was saying God’s family is more important than religious, cultural, or racial identity.
While Peter was sharing the good news, the Holy Spirit came upon those in attendance.
“Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.”
God does not hoard His Spirit for only one race, nationality, or people group.
One more note. Cornelius found Peter in Joppa – the city God sent Jonah to (you can read Jonah for that story). Jonah refused to go because he felt the people there were beyond God’s grace. He ran away, full of prejudice and hate. Even when he got there, his words dripped with arrogance and nationalism. He was angry at God for not destroying the town, sulking that God showed mercy and people came to believe in Him.
Peter re-examined his traditions and prejudices through God’s Word and shared His love for the lost.
Some are like Jonah and try to say some are more important to God or others are beyond His love.
Some are like Peter and are open to having their prejudices challenged and changed for the sake of unity in God’s Church.
We covered a lot today and I’d love to hear what you thought. Join the discussion on Facebook.
Lord, show me my prejudice. Who am I blind to? Who do I think is second tier? Lord, show me where I hold beliefs that enable to me justify the mistreatment of others or who I have a blind eye too. Lord, thank you that there is no favoritism in Your eyes. Thank you there is nothing I can do to garner favor or to lose standing. You love all equally. You created a big, beautiful, diverse family to show the depth of Your love. Help me to love those who have made and to seek Your best for all.
What in these passages struck you most? What is your reaction to the lesson of Cornelius and Peter? Where do you need to repent of favoritism? Where do you need to be bolder in sharing your faith? What holds you back from allowing God to speak through you as He did with Peter, Stephen and others?
Keep Up with the Reading:
- March 4 – 10: Acts 11 – 14 (March 10 no reading)
- March 11 – 17: Acts 15 – 19
- March 18 – 24: Acts 20 – 23 (March 24 no reading)
- March 25 – 31: Acts 24-28
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