Session 16: the Early Church Bible Study in Plain English

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1 Session 16: the Early Church Bible Study in Plain English By Bill Huebsch Session Sixteen: The Early Church Acts of the Apostles and early Paul The Gospel, continued. Even though it was not the first book written after the death of Jesus, The Acts of the Apostles does provide a good picture of life in the early community. Here we see the community gathering together after the death of Jesus and his stunning post-resurrection appearances. Acts opens with the story of the Ascension of Jesus and the selection of a replacement for Judas in the group of twelve. But what was the major event in the early life of the Church which Acts tells about? Read Acts 2:1-13 for the story. Tell each other this story in your own words. How did what happened in this story change history? Other early decisions. Acts also tells of other early aspects of life in the Christian community. It gives us the speeches of Peter and Stephen. It describes the shared life of the first converts. It tells of the first challenges to the faith that came from the religious establishment of the day. It explains how and why the first deacons were chosen. And it tells the gruesome tale of the stoning of Stephen. At whose feet did the killers of Stephen lay their cloaks? Read Acts 7:58 for the answer. Then scan forward in the text to 8:3 to see what this guy was up to! Why is he important to this story? The Bible Study in Plain English Version The Pastoral Center Page 1

2 At first, those who followed Jesus were not called Christians. That name was applied to them later. In the first decades of the young church, those who followed Jesus were simply referred to as belonging to the Way. Troublemakers. Followers of Jesus were considered trouble. They believed in strange things and bonded together so tightly that they were a threat. Saul asked the high priest to authorize him to eliminate those in Damascus who followed the Way. The high priest agreed. So Saul went trucking off to Damascus, a city northeast of the Sea of Galilee in modern Syria. His plan there was to arrest any followers of the Way he could find, and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. As happens in such sweeps for troublemakers, the arrests would end in death sentences. W hat happened to Saul on the road that day? Read Acts 9:3-6 to find out. W rite out a few points about his story and be prepared to share with your group what insights it brings you about meeting Jesus. Speechless. When Saul stood up, he realized he was completely blind. The people traveling with him were, of course, speechless! But they did as told and led Saul by the hand into Damascus. For three days, Saul sat in darkness. The words Why are you persecuting me? kept coming back to him. Then God sent a man named Ananias to Saul. What did Ananias tell Saul? Read Acts 9:17 to find out. Scales. Ananias laid his hands on Saul and something like scales fell from Saul s eyes. Saul could see Ananias, and the vendors in the busy street outside- -and he could see the truth. This Jesus was not just another preacher, not a troublemaker, not dead and gone. He was sent by God, as he had The Bible Study in Plain English Version The Pastoral Center Page 2

3 claimed. And his Spirit lived on in his followers. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, Paul turned his heart to Christ. Paul had experienced conversion. What happened next for Saul? Read Acts 9:19-22 to find out. How have you experience this same kind of conversion yourself? When do you experience it? How does conversion fit into your daily life? Eventually, Saul was called by another name. Saul was his Jewish name but now for forevermore, he would be known as Paul, a Roman name. The first use of the name Paul occurs in Acts 13:9. Paul s first journey. For his part, Paul came away from his conversion experience on the way to Damascus convinced he should preach Jesus Christ to all the nations. The story of Paul s first journey is told in Acts 13:3 to 14:28. Paul s home base was Antioch. He went from there to a town called Paphos on the Island of Cyprus. This was the home of Barnabas. W ho traveled with Paul on this first journey? Read Acts 13:2 to find out. W rite the names of Paul s two companions in the writing space below. Another Antioch. From there they went to Perga, on the coast of the mainland. And from there to another town called Antioch. (The region was known as Pisidia.) It was here where Paul first preached to the Gentiles, who welcomed the word of the Lord. When Paul preached in Antioch in Pisidia, what did he say? Read Acts 13:16-25 aloud in your group. Could you speak of faith like this? What would you say to a similar group if you were the one called on to do so? The Bible Study in Plain English Version The Pastoral Center Page 3

4 Others, too. Many of the new converts were not Jews. They were Gentiles, a word used to designate all non-jews. And since they were not born in the Jewish faith, the males were not circumcised, and neither the women nor the men followed the law of Moses. Some leaders thought that circumcision and the law of Moses should be maintained, even for new followers of the Way - while others did not. This created the occasion for Peter, Paul, and the others to hold the first council of the Church, in Jerusalem, about the year 50. What was the outcome of their discussion and prayer at that council? Read Acts 15:1-29 for the amazing answer. To the ends of the earth! It was Paul s mission to preach the Gospel to all. His travels took him to many parts of the world in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea. He undertook several missionary journeys during his career. He endured all sorts of pain and difficulty and, in the end, died as a martyr in Rome under the rule of Nero. At one point, Paul summarizes his own career for us. Read Acts 26:1-23. Scan the book of Acts from chapter 16 onward. Tell Paul s story in your own words. You ve got mail. During this time, Paul wrote many letters to the early Christian communities scattered about the area. He wrote to correct their bad behavior and to encourage their good behavior. Many of Paul s letters are contained in the Christian Scriptures. Other Christian leaders also wrote letters to support and encourage each other. Some of these are also contained in the Christian Scriptures. Paul s letters usually started with a Christian greeting. W hat was it? Read 1 Corinthians 1:3 to find out. W rite the greeting in the space. Use it when you write to others. The Bible Study in Plain English Version The Pastoral Center Page 4

5 There are 21 letters from the early community which are contained in the Christian Scriptures. Not all of them written by Paul, of course. We should note that many, many other letters were written by early Christians during this period but were not included in the collection of books and letters which came to be known as the Bible. These 21 were included because it seemed to the leaders that they were closely connected to the original disciples, and were inspired writings. Return to the introduction pages of this Bible Study now and review those 21 letters, who wrote them, and to whom they were written. For many years, it was thought that thirteen of the letters in the Christian Scriptures were actually written by Paul. But modern scholarship is reaching the conclusion that only nine of those are truly from Paul, and the others written by followers of Paul. It was common in the first century for associates or disciples of a leading figure to write in the person s name, often borrowing their ideas and turns of phrase. It was not considered fraudulent, but a way to honor that person and continue his or her work. Likewise, the letters bearing the names of James, Peter, and John were probably composed in similar fashion. What is your reaction? How does it affect your faith to know that the Christian Scriptures were written by a variety of people, not always the one whose name appears on it? Three weeks in Macedonia. Acts, chapter 17, tells us that Paul spent three weeks in Thessalonica, the capital of what was then Macedonia. (Today that area is in northern Greece.) Quite a few Gentiles joined the church during Paul s visit there. He left town under pressure from the non-christians who did not like his growing influence, but he sent Timothy back to check on things later and received news that the church in Thessalonica was indeed thriving. The First Letter to the Thessalonians is filled with Paul s thanks, encouragement and advice for this young church. The Bible Study in Plain English Version The Pastoral Center Page 5

6 Paul ends this letter with a lovely exhortation and blessing. Read 1 Thessalonians 5: Copy the blessing in verses into the space. To be circumscribed or not to be. Paul is angry. The Council in Jerusalem had just settled this matter: Gentiles who follow the Way do not have to be circumcised. Everyone agreed. But now Jewish-born followers of the Way are telling new converts otherwise and Paul does not like it. He writes The Letter to the Galatians to tell them to lay off! What is the argument Paul makes? Read Galatians 3:23-28 for the answer. What does this teaching mean to you today? Paul teaches that in Jesus Christ, religious background, social position, and gender do not matter. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. In your view, how is this teaching lived out in today s church and society? How do you personally live by this teaching? The Letter to the Galatians. This letter is the first complete statement of Gentile Christian theology. Paul begins by asserting that his whole ministry and everything he teaches flows directly from Christ in his powerful conversion experience. Defending his authority, Paul recounts his visit to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to gain approval for Gentile Christians not to be bound by the Jewish prescriptions. What question, did Paul ask in Galatians 3:2 to indicate that the emphasis of Paul s theology is the Cross? The Bible Study in Plain English Version The Pastoral Center Page 6

7 Christian life is not just a new way of thinking. You are fully reshaped and formed anew by the self-giving love of Jesus on the cross. Your whole being is changed. Loving service and good works are now your job, too. This is all free. Grace is free and it cannot be earned. Life in the Spirit makes us truly free. How do you experience this freedom? What does turning your heart to Christ provide in your life? Conclude your study. Take a moment to tell each other what new insights into faith you gained in this study. Then conclude with a brief prayer of thanksgiving. The Bible Study in Plain English Version The Pastoral Center Page 7

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