Sabbath School Lesson for June 24-30, 2017
To call the book of Galatians the backbone of the Protestant Reformation seems appropriate when you consider the importance it played in the religious awakening of Martin Luther five centuries ago. It might surprise some to know that the statement that grabbed Luther’s heart, “The just shall live by faith” (Galatians 3:11), was actually quoted from Habakkuk 2:4, in the Old Testament.
This letter of Paul, thought to be the earliest one he wrote, was also instrumental in identifying the fallacy of the teaching of Judaizers in the early church. Legalism has always plagued God’s church though. Unfortunately, it takes away significantly from the message that salvation is a free gift from God.
Our own Adventist denomination, with its unique message of the importance of keeping ALL the commandments of God, has undergone several stages of legalism in its history. Back as early as the 1880s and 90s, E.J. Waggoner and A.T. Jones notoriously helped Adventists identify the truth of righteousness by faith, found solidly in the book of Galatians we are about to study. But, we have grappled with legalism intermittently ever since, with most of us trying to keep our faith intact, and our focus on the Lawgiver, not the Law.
This is our challenge this quarter, as we endeavor to take yet another look at this valuable concept of salvation by faith alone. Works have their place; but they follow faith, they don’t precede it, or even exist side by side with it. Actions preferably follow, not dictate, where our heart is.
You will notice many similarities in Galatians and the book of Romans. They cover the same basic concepts and themes. But many find in Galatians a simpler, more succinct style of communication that seems to carry a more personal tone that speaks softly and eloquently to the hearts of Christians.
Memory Text: “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.’ “ Acts 11:18 NKJV
Understanding this verse in Acts will be aided by knowing about Saul of Tarsus, who later became Paul, apostle to the Gentiles. This week, we explore the background of this amazing missionary and the volatile forces that impeded his success, as well as the heavenly agencies that miraculously grew the church from a handful of humble followers to a mighty Christian movement.
Sunday: Persecutor of Christians
Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul) was present at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Paul later admits that he was there to hold the coats of those participating in the execution, and seems to feel long-lasting guilt over his passive involvement in this unjust death of one of the first Christian deacons.
The charges brought against Stephen mirror Jesus’ trial just a few years before. False witnesses were used to testify that Stephen had spoken against the Jewish law and customs, even going so far as to predict the temple’s destruction. In addition, Stephen claimed that Jesus was the longed-for Messiah, which most Jews vehemently denied.
Stephen was given time to speak before his death, and his moving speech must have touched the heart of Saul in ways that no one would have recognized, based on Saul’s subsequent zeal to eliminate as many Christians as he could from the nation of Israel.
Discussion Questions: Read Acts 6:9-15, Matthew 26:59-61, and John 8:44. How were these trials similar? How is Satan involved in any miscarriage of justice?
Read Acts 8:1-4. Why were the first believers being scattered? How did God’s church benefit from these persecutions?
Read Philippians 3:3-6. Can we be absolutely sure about something that is absolutely wrong? How can we be firm in our convictions and yet open to God’s leading us other places?
Monday: Saul’s Conversion
Most of us don’t realize what a persecuting force Saul of Tarsus was prior to his conversion. His ruthless style of identifying and either jailing or executing the followers of Jesus made him feared in Christian circles everywhere in the Roman Empire.
It seems hard for us to believe that God would try to reach such a cruel opponent and turn him into a friend of his worst enemies. But God’s statement to Saul that he had been “kicking against the goads” indicates to us that God’s Spirit had indeed been attempting to soften the heart of this persecutor for quite some time. It may have even begun the day he heard Stephen’s impassioned sermon just before the beloved deacon was unjustly stoned to death.
The dramatic circumstances of Paul’s conversion convey to us the fact that Paul didn’t just turn around on his own (which is the usual meaning of conversion), but that he WAS turned around by God. This is actually the case for all of us, but it isn’t always as recognizable as it was in the case of Paul, who was struck by blindness on his way to persecute more of God’s people.
Keep in mind that Saul was a religious man, not an atheist, when God upturned his direction in life and turned him into one of the greatest missionaries of all time.
Discussion Questions: Read Acts 7:55-8:3. Why did Saul seem to become even more zealous in his persecutions after the stoning of Stephen? What about Stephen’s speech and actions may have touched Saul?
Read Acts 26:14. Why was he kicking at the goads, as Jesus put it? Why did God have to goad him so much? What made Saul so resistant?
Read Acts 9:1-18, 22:4, 8, and 26:14, 15. Paul also gives two accounts of his conversion: one to a Jerusalem mob (in chapter 22) and one to Agrippa (in chapter 26). How and why do all three of these accounts verify that it was Jesus, God Himself, who came to Paul (then Saul) in such an unusual way?
Tuesday: Saul in Damascus
We now find Saul, after his blinding experience on the road to Damascus, still unable to see physically, but profoundly searching his own heart to understand the spiritual blindness that Jesus had pointed out to him so clearly.
With fear and confusion, Ananias, a Christian believer in Damascus, responds to a vision in which God instructs him to go to a certain house there and heal a man from blindness, Saul of Tarsus.
Imagine the torn feelings of Ananias, who was being prompted to find Saul and heal this feared persecutor. There was no doubt in Ananias’ mind who Saul of Tarsus was. How could he be expected to trust a man so ruthless? It would be like asking a noted Jewish doctor to treat and heal a despicable man like Hitler, who persecuted so many Jews in the last century. Not only was fear present, but possibly anger and resentment.
The Jewish Christians a few years later had a hard time trusting Paul when he came to Jerusalem. How difficult it must have been for Ananias to have trusted him just a few days after his conversion. God was certainly with him, as he approached this future missionary to the Gentiles.
Here was Paul, who was not only asked to stop persecuting Christians, but to increase their numbers by preaching to Gentiles wherever he went.
Discussion Questions: Read Acts 26:12, 17, 18. How did Saul’s commission from the priests differ from Paul’s commission, received from God? What motivated his actions, before and after his conversion?
Read Acts 22:2, 3 and 26:16-18. Why was Paul especially suited for this new purpose God was giving him?
Read 1 Samuel 16:7 and Matthew 7:1. Why should we be careful not to judge the spirituality of someone else’s life? In what way is it even hard to judge our own experience and know our own heart?
Wednesday: The Gospel Goes to the Gentiles
Just as Jerusalem was the “capital” of the Jewish faith, Antioch soon became the center for Christian Gentiles. Located about 300 miles north of Jerusalem in Syria, and close to the Mediterranean Sea, Antioch was a metropolitan hub, with a significant diverse population of approximately five hundred thousand. It was considered the third most significant city in the Empire, with only Rome and Alexandria superseding it in importance.
We are told in Acts 11:26 that Jesus believers were first called Christians in Antioch, indicating that the numbers of Christians there were large enough to require organization and a name. Antioch did indeed become a strong missionary base for Paul and his associate pastors in their attempts to bring the gospel to the Gentile world.
This ethnic and cultural diversity was definitely a benefit for spreading the gospel to the world. Even the workers in the movement were from different backgrounds: Paul was from Cilicia (north of Antioch), Barnabas from the island of Cyprus, Lucius from Cyrene, and Simeon possibly from Africa as well.
Discussion Questions: Read Acts 11:19-21. Why do you think Antioch was chosen as a gathering place for Gentile Christians, and why did they first find themselves there?
Read Acts 11:22-26, Mark 6:7, and Matthew 18:20. Why did Barnabas seem like a good companion for Paul? Why were they sent out together?
Read 2 Corinthians 11:22-28. How must Paul have felt, to experience the same persecutions he had caused others before his conversion? Why are his assertions not to be taken as prideful bragging? What was his true purpose for relating them to fellow believers?
Thursday: Conflict Within the Church
Peter’s testimony of the vision with the sheet coming down with all kinds of animals became widely known and accepted by Jewish Christians. But when it was discovered that this practice of converting Gentiles was turning out to be more widespread than just the baptism of Cornelius, many Jewish believers became uncomfortable with the prospect of Gentiles not being circumcised or obeying all the law of Moses.
Paul’s efforts to actively reach out to Gentiles, wherever he found them, brought outspoken protests from many Christian Jews. The conflict grew, until a Council was convened in Jerusalem around 50 A.D., in order to decide the outcome of this dispute.
It was decided by the Jerusalem Council that circumcision and most of the law of Moses would not be required by new believers. The only things prohibited would be eating meat containing blood from animals not properly slain or offered to idols, fornication, and idolatry. See Acts 15:28, 29.
Discussion Questions: Read Acts 15:1-5. Why do you think these Gentile conversions brought joy to some and heated dispute from others? Why do you suppose it was the Pharisees who appeared to be most offended by Gentiles coming into the church?
Read Acts 15:28, 29. Why do you think each of these requirements (abstaining from anything offered to idols, blood, things strangled, sexual fornication, and idolatry) were necessary practices to retain for the Gentiles? What was so important about the blood?
Read Acts 21:20, 21, and 28. Seven years after the Council, Paul still battled opposition by many Jews when he came to Jerusalem for his final visit. What was it about the gospel that Paul taught that was so despised that it almost cost him his life there?
Our lesson introduced us to the author of Galatians, Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, a city north of Antioch and also close to the Mediterranean Sea.
- Sunday–Saul, the persecutor
- Monday–Saul, the convert
- Tuesday–Saul, the blind man in Damascus
- Wednesday–Paul, apostle to the Gentiles
- Thursday–Paul, defender of the gospel
The fact that your conversion story isn’t as dramatic as Paul’s may be, in itself, a greater manifestation of God’s grace working in your life. We don’t have to experience firsthand the things Paul did to know that God is still unfolding His plan for our life. How has God’s grace permeated your life story?
What can you do to share that grace with others this week?
- Can you express forgiveness, rather than anger, for challenging people or situations you face?
- Acceptance, rather than avoidance, of that undesirable co-worker, neighbor, or family member?
- Gratitude, rather than resentment, for the plush, comfortable lifestyle of others around you?
Next Week: Paul’s Authority and Gospel
To read the Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly or see more resources for its study, go to https://www.absg.adventist.org/
All Outlook blogposts by Teresa Thompson, are at http://outlookmag.org/author/teresathompson/