During the Lockdown period whilst our buildings remain closed we are forced to undertake worship and Bible studies in a new way. The period from the Resurrection to Pentecost — 6 weeks- is an ideal time to undertake a study of Acts. The leaders of our Bransgore and Highcliffe small groups have each written studies that enable us to journey through the book of "The Acts of the Apostles" on our way to the great outpouring of God's Holy Spirit on and in the early believers at Pentecost. Thank you to Norman Bonnett, Jean Davies, Judith Allebon and Liz Ward who lead small groups in Highcliffe and Bransgore who have very kindly written these for us all to share in.
This may be your first time to consider God's scripture in this way or you may be a seasoned member of a study group, either way, I pray you will gain a richer understanding of the beginnings of the Church (being the believers not the building) and the work of the Holy Spirit after spending some time engaging with these short studies. Be blessed as we study God's Holy scriptures together.
Week 1: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE BELIEVERS; Acts 2: 42-47 by Norman Bonnett.
The passage before us is a favourite of mine because it paints a picture of an ideal church community and is therefore a challenge to us all. Please read the passage and try to make a list of as many characteristics of the church as you can find. I found 10 (some more explicit than others) but how many can you find? Perhaps it would be helpful to list them:
I would like you to ask yourself how many of these characteristics you have noted above can be found in our church or churches that you have belonged to. I have personally belonged to several excellent churches in my travels of life but there were always weaknesses in one direction or another — but then, was I always a perfect member? Did I fit the picture described in these verses? What about you?
We are living in times when we are being instructed or encouraged into a way of life that most of us are finding difficult, but we have somehow found the self-discipline to fall in line for the sake of us all. It has called forth a unity which is so obvious as we go shopping or walking. When I was a teacher, I think I had an ability to get large numbers of children to move in organised and disciplined ways for sports days, concerts and assemblies. Now even Sainsbury's are doing it because we are discovering the importance of unity to a community. Unity shines through this passage from beginning to end. The church worshipped, learnt, shared, and loved giving rise to a sense of oneness in the name of Jesus.
Please re-read the passage and notice how it indicates a church which shared its purpose, giving rise to an effective evangelism that I'm sure we all long for, as my own personal bible study reminded me this very morning, "how wonderful it is to see believers united, not so much within their denomination but in Christ".
I invite you to take time this week to pray around the characteristics found in this passage, asking that the Lord, through His Holy Spirit, will guide us to find unity as each one of us embraces our responsibilities to make a contribution to that unity. Let us also pray for our country, for our wonderful health service and all those who carry responsibilities at this time.
May God richly bless us.
Week 2: SIGNS AND WONDERS OF GOD — God's Spirit-filled apostles heal miraculously, escape imprisonment and speak boldly despite persecution, by Jean Davies.
Acts 5:12-14; 17-39
The passage just prior to today's verses is a very solemn one, relating how God dealt with the deception by a man, Ananias, and his wife, Sapphira. This drastic purging by God of deception from the early church consolidated the believers further in true holiness, resulting in added spiritual power.
Whereas signs and wonders are usually associated with what can be seen and heard, they can also be in the personal experience of the inner man and woman. The verses in our passage display both outward and inward manifestations of God's working in signs and wonders. In Acts 5:12-14 we are told of the miraculous signs and wonders performed by the apostles who, with all the believers in Jesus, would meet to tell and teach the Gospel of Christ. Healings of both physical and spiritual illnesses and diseases were undertaken in this new, God-given power of the Holy Spirit.
If ever the religious leaders of the nation were to protect their power, they would have to subdue this "sect" which was spreading like a virus throughout Jerusalem and beyond. Arrest of the apostles was inevitable — go for the leaders and the rest will scatter! However, God would again work in signs and wonders in their angelic deliverance from the depths of prison to confound the religious authorities and guards (vs17-24). Signs and wonders of a different sort come into play once again when the apostles display obedience and determination to persevere in their Lord's command to "Go and make disciples!". What a wonderful inner transformation from paralysing fear of men to unyielding obedience to God summed up in their courageous statement through Peter (vs 29-32). Despite furious reactions in the Sanhedrin, wise advice from Gamaliel, apostle Paul's former tutor, is another sign that God's plans and purposes cannot be thwarted.
1 Who do you know in need of a miraculous healing, physical or spiritual; and what are you doing about it? V12
2 Why are we not seeing more men and women coming to faith in Christ and wanting to join our fellowships? Vs 12-14
3 Where in your life are you finding it easier to please men rather than obey God, and why? Vs29
4 How can you be sure that your decisions are God's plan and purpose for your life? v39
These signs and wonders of God in the early church which were worked in, through and for the apostles and all believers were not of the apostles themselves, but because they were filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This rapidly growing number of believers in Christ, led by the obedient apostles, were becoming a force to be reckoned with not because of who they were but because of whose they were.
Week 3: SERVANTS TO THE CHURCH, Acts 6: 1-7 by Norman Bonnett.
I have many times challenged a congregation to "remember the Jewish effect". We need to remember that Christianity was born into the country we now call Israel, the home of Judaism.
Some of the ways of the traditional church were influencing the practises of the new church and one of these was the caring for needy folk, in particular widows. There was much work to be done in supplying regular meals to these people and the apostles were not coping with this matter in a lively, growing church.
There were two groups of Jews in the church; those with a Greek and those with a Hebrew background, so it should not be a surprise that tensions arose especially from the inefficient supply of food to some of the widows. The apostles decided therefore that work needed to be shared.
Make two lists, (perhaps on the back of this paper) one headed "pastor" and list the things that it is reasonable to expect that role to fulfil. The second list will be headed "members" and contain those things that they should or could fulfil. If you need some help look up Ephesians 4: 11-16, especially verse 16. Using your hand as an illustration, do you see the relationship between the thumb and the fingers, each needs the other and represents a "whole body" — they need each other, the same may be said about the things on the two lists.
Somewhat understandably, there are those who are drawn by preference or background to the many tasks of: maintenance, music, finance, childcare etc. but is that where the need of the church is? Equally, there are those in our church who are, commendably, the first to jump into situations to help needy people who present themselves at church, however as church we also need to see and support those of our church who are perhaps the quiet needy (spiritually), "the needy in plain sight". How would you personally have responded to the daily serving of food to the widows?
Please pray for all those who contribute in a helpful way to the life of our church, that they may feel called, motivated and Christ-centred in their approach to any task that may require to be done. We must also pray regularly for our pastor that he may have the courage and wisdom as he leads the church in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, particularly in these very challenging days and weeks ahead. Pray too that all members and attenders will realise that their contribution, wherever it may be is valued and is a vital part of the complete ministry of our church, called by Jesus to "make disciples" (Matt 28:19).
May God richly bless us.
Week 4: OBEDIENCE AND DISCIPLESHIP — ACTS 8:26-40
Philip's obedience to the Lord's commands leads to the Ethiopian eunuch's discipleship, by Jean Davies,
Following the martyrdom of Stephen, the young church is scattered by persecution into Judea and Samaria, although a core of apostles remains in Jerusalem. It has been said that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church". The precious seed of the Gospel found good soil in Samaria as Philip went to "a city in Samaria" preaching and teaching; and probably reaping a harvest of souls who had first heard the Gospel of Christ from the Lord Himself (John 4). Philip's life in Jerusalem will have been disrupted but he was still living a fruitful life for Christ. What about us in these days of Coronavirus disruption of our lives?
Read and re-read ACTS 8:26-40
It seems that, as we obey the Lord's commands in our discipleship of Him, we are kept spiritually in tune and in step with Him, and, in this process, He is often over time preparing us for the next step. And this is how it was with Philip. The Lord's instruction to Philip was simply to "go south to the road — the desert road — that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza". The Lord gave a direct instruction; Philip made a direct response of obedience; and what a new direction of discipleship the life of another man, an Ethiopian eunuch, would take!
The Ethiopian eunuch was hungry for God, his heart's desire revealed by the reading of the Scriptures (Old Testament) when he was alone (v30). God has said that if with all our heart we truly seek Him we shall surely find Him (Jeremiah 29:13). Philip's next step of obedience to God is to approach the Ethiopian eunuch's chariot. As the account unfolds, we see Philip accepting the eunuch's invitation to climb aboard where he proceeds to enlighten the man on his reading of Isaiah 53: 7, 8. Baptism quickly follows conversion. Did Philip stay around for accolades or rewards? No, he was quickly and suddenly taken away by the Holy Spirit to continue preaching the Gospel to others; and the Ethiopian eunuch continued his homeward journey "rejoicing".
1 Do you sense the Lord giving you a new instruction or direction for your life at home, church or in your community? How will you confirm it, and will you obey it? (v29)
2 In what ways do you now, or will in future, help to further understanding of the Bible for yourself and/or others? (v30-35)
3 How do you keep in step with the Holy Spirit in your discipleship of Christ? (v40)
4 Maybe you are still seeking God, or maybe wanting a deeper relationship with Him. Where or to whom will you turn to help you in your journey to rejoicing in Him? V39
How precious is each man's soul in God's sight! As He sent Philip to just one man, the Ethiopian eunuch, so He has used other individuals in our own conversions to Christ. In turn, we should be willing to obey His call on us to sow the seeds of His Gospel in the lives of others. How the eunuch's own life unfolded afterwards we are not told, but in that new life in Christ he, in his turn, would be a witness to a whole nation of unreached people.
Week 5: Acts 11 v 19 — 26 THE GROWING CHURCH by Liz Ward
It is one of those 'trick' questions which preachers ask to see if you have been paying attention. All of us know the 'correct' answer but, in our hearts we just yearn to wind them up by saying what we really feel. So, the question — "What is church?". Yes, we know the answer is "The people", but.....we also feel affection for the building, the atmosphere, the sacred space, the images, etc.
It is surely appropriate at this time to re-visit that question — "What is church?". We can't go into the building, it is empty and quiet, no hymns or prayers resounding around the walls.
During the last few months church has come into our homes, come via a printed sheet, an email, a video link or through our TV. We have worshipped with family or alone, although not really alone as we have remotely joined with others in the experience. Hopefully church has also come to us through phone calls and emails as people have kept in touch to offer support and encouragement.
As I write this we are still meant to restrict travel (although the message is a little muddled). The apostles had no such restriction. Barnabas went from Jerusalem to Antioch to see what was happening with those who had fled persecution, a journey of about 758Km. He then travelled to Tarsus to see Saul (11,350 Km) and they went back to Antioch.
I wonder how far our messages/services have travelled from our churches during these last few months. It is reported that many online services have been watched by those who would not normally attend on a Sunday morning, in some cases they have been watched by ten times the regular congregation. Maybe that is just for entertainment, but I very much doubt it. Maybe it is because they don't have to make the effort of getting up and dressed or they can pause it and rewind if they want to. I trust that the reason is that people yearn for messages of hope, they are seeking something bigger and better than they were getting in the hustle and bustle of life before this which focussed on getting 'stuff' and looking after yourself. Deep within them is the desire/need to find a relationship with God and experience the love of Christ, a need which had been smothered by the ethos of society.
Persecution in the early church was obviously a challenge, but it also offered opportunities as people travelled. Lockdown has been a challenge, but it has offered opportunities for the church to consider new ways of reaching people, especially the people who would not otherwise come into our buildings.
1. How have you responded to the new ways to worship?
2. What do you think churches can take from this to continue to do in the future?
3. How can we, as church, and you, as an individual, help to spread the Gospel message?
4. How far are you prepared to 'travel' to ensure that others hear about Jesus?
5. If you have access to The Message read the description of Barnabas in v 22 — 24, what does that teach you?