Sabbath School Lesson for July 8-14, 2017
There are many reasons why churches divide and become hotbeds of disunity. But the most grievous cause that must get our attention is the one that involves our understanding of the gospel of salvation.
This is why Paul chose to be so proactive in confronting those who were jeopardizing his work with the Gentiles. He could not sit back and wait for the situation to heal itself. It required quick, sharp intervention, the kind Paul had proved himself to be rather good at.
Most often, pastors must deal with the misguided actions of their congregation. But the fact that leaders of the work, one even an apostle, were involved with erroneous behavior was another reason Paul must be outspokenly confrontational in this situation.
We must forgive Paul at this time for his in-your-face interaction with Peter over his obvious hypocrisy, which amounted to his socially distancing himself from Gentiles, only when his Jewish friends appeared on the scene.
Memory Text: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Philippians 2:2 ESV
This complete joy and unity was exactly what Paul was striving for in Galatia. He was familiar and comfortable with diversity–had grown up and was living in cities with diverse populations. He was no doubt also aware though of the prejudices and potential problems such diversity could foster in these places.
Paul’s longing for unity mirrored that of Jesus, who prayed so heartily for His disciples’ unity. If anything should unite the brethren it should be Paul’s message from Jesus that salvation was free to all who accept it. No strings attached.
For Peter and others to agree to this complete unity, and then turn around and behave in offensive ways that countered it, could not be ignored by Paul, who felt a special love for the Gentiles he served.
Sunday: The Importance of Unity
Paul had some stout words for the Corinthians in his first letter to them:
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment…Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” 1 Corinthians 1:10, 12, 13 NKJV
This seems to be a warning against sectarianism, in which churches splinter off to follow a distinctive teaching or leader. Multiple denominations are bad enough, but then there are divisions or sects as well that exist within them. It all must be very disheartening to a God who wants to see His people united, but not at the expense of doctrinal purity.
Paul must keep both unity of the church and protection of the gospel in mind, as he tackles the complicated issues that threaten his work.
Discussion Questions: Read Galatians 2:1, 2 and Acts 15:2. Evidently, the Council in Jerusalem took place fourteen years after Paul’s first visit there. How does this example of church administration inform us about how problems should be handled in the church today?
Read 1 Corinthians 1:10-13. What does it mean by the words “that you all speak the same thing”? On what points of doctrine should there be definite unity, without compromise?
Why do contentions exist among God’s people, even today? What really motivates these divisions? And how do you feel they should be addressed?
Monday: Circumcision and the False Brothers
To understand the background of the dispute that the church was facing in Paul’s day we must study the significance of circumcision. What did the practice originally mean, why was it so adamantly defended or rejected, and how was this division affecting the gospel message and the future of the church?
- Circumcision was originally a sign of Abraham’s covenant with God, and was given after Ishmael had been born to Hagar, Sarah’s servant. It sealed God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations–and this would happen through his only lawful wife, Sarah. It was a reminder to Abraham that our best-laid plans must never override God’s will for our lives.
- Therefore God meant that circumcision was to indicate our dependence on God, that nothing we can do matches what He can accomplish.
- Since circumcision was intended for all male members of Abraham’s household and his descendants, it unfortunately, over time, had became a symbol of national identity and religious pride. There were some who even regarded it as a passport to heaven.
- Therefore the true meaning of the practice had become so marred that instead of promoting humility and dependence on God, it fostered pride and dependence on self.
- Paul doesn’t seem to object to circumcision itself, but only that false teachers were presenting it to the Gentiles as necessary for their salvation, as the only way they could be fully assimilated into their new faith communities.
Discussion Questions: Read Genesis 17:1-9 and Galatians 2:1-5. Why do you think Titus (a Greek Christian who had been working with Paul) hadn’t been circumcised? Why do you think some of the new Gentile converts were opposed to the practice, and why did Paul side with them?
Read Galatians 3:26, 27. Instead of circumcision (a sign of promise for the sons of Abraham), what does Paul consider a sign of promise for all Christians (for the sons of God)?
Read Galatians 5:1-6. What’s the difference in keeping the law in order to be justified, and keeping the law because you are justified? Which one proves to be a yoke of bondage? Is the law the problem, or how we keep it?
Tuesday: Unity in Diversity
So what is this freedom or liberty that Paul speaks of so frequently? He uses the word “freedom” more than any other New Testament writer. We could say it was…
- freedom in Christ to serve God, which leads to life (Romans 8:11)
- freedom from our desires and sinful natures, which leads to death (Romans 8:1, 2)
Both freedoms require total surrender to God and His truth. Jesus said both:
“…the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32 NKJV,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life…” John 14:6 NKJV
Therefore, Christ plays an integral part in our liberty. He’s the Landowner, who buys us only to set us free. No wonder we love to serve and obey Him!
Paul was fiercely defensive when it came to preserving this special truth of our only means of salvation. Yes, he wanted to see the church united, but not at the expense of gospel truth, which is so closely identified with Christ.
Discussion Questions: Read Galatians 2:6-10. What was the difference between Paul’s and Peter’s preaching (v. 7)? How did they preach differently to their different audiences? What kind of diversity may be apparent then, even in a united church?
Read Ephesians 3:6, Romans 12:5, and 1 Corinthians 12:13, 25. Why does unity have to be more than just loving and showing concern for each other in the church family? How does having the Spirit of Christ and His truth equip us to achieve this special kind of unity that the world will recognize?
Some Christians are said to be “lumpers”–those who prefer everyone to be “lumped” together by seeking peace, disregarding differences, no matter what they are. And then, some are said to be “splitters”–those who tend to confront the church over small or large matters of concern, which may lead to division. What category do you think Paul often found himself? Why must the Holy Spirit be called on for discernment in knowing which way to lean, in order to protect church unity?
Wednesday: Confrontation in Antioch
“Then he [Peter] said to them, ‘You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.’ “ Acts 10:28 NKJV
Just as God had used miraculous means to turn Paul around from his persecuting Christians, He sent a vision to Peter about how he must learn to accept Gentiles into the family of God. Peter’s baptism of Cornelius’ household, followed by their receiving the Holy Spirit, just like the disciples had at Pentecost, must have been a tremendous eye-opener for Peter.
But Peter, like all of us, was only human, which caused him, at least in this instance, to fall back on his old patterns of behavior. Paul observed his distancing himself from Gentiles, only when his friends from Jerusalem were present.
This action must have hurt Paul every bit as much as it hurt his Gentile friends, whom he had become as close as brothers. It was something Paul could not let go unnoticed. Even Barnabas had begun to develop similar hypocritical tendencies, due to Peter’s inept example.
Paul must confront his friend Peter. But in a way that would retain their friendship, and thus the church’s unity–no small task, as all of us have no doubt experienced in our interactions with friends.
Discussion Questions: Read Galatians 2:11-13. Why are culturally-driven traditions so hard to erase from our way of life? Can this help us be more understanding of refugees and other foreigners, trying to assimilate into our population–especially those fleeing from war-torn areas or poverty-stricken countries, those dealing with emotional/mental trauma of any kind, on top of it all?
How does one explain God’s directives in the Old Testament for the Israelites to separate themselves from surrounding nations, but at the same time show kindness and courtesy to strangers who came to their doors? How does one be “separate” and “hospitable” at the same time?
How would Peter’s hypocrisy have threatened the unity of the church, if left unchecked? Why is peer pressure (as with Barnabas) so strong a factor in this behavior spreading to others in the church?
Thursday: Paul’s Concern
Perhaps a reminder of Peter’s bold interactions as a disciple, when he worked in ministry with Jesus before the crucifixion, would help us understand why Paul, also an outspoken individual, approached Peter so vehemently over this matter.
It seems like such a loud clash between these two ardent Christian leaders. We are taken somewhat by surprise by their encounter over Peter’s hypocritical and hurtful actions. But perhaps it was the best way Paul knew to address the issue and preserve the unity of the Christian church. In any event, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit guided Paul into approaching Peter this way.
Paul’s concern was not perceived by him as merely a matter of fellowship and dining practices. The truth of the gospel was at stake, and Paul could not allow these petty offenses to jeopardize the gospel he loved so dearly.
Discussion Questions: Read Galatians 2:14, Acts 10:28, and 1 Timothy 5:20. Why do we not hear what Peter’s reply was to Paul’s rebuke in this account of the event? What could he have possibly said that wasn’t recorded? Do you think Paul’s rebuke was effective then, at least in correcting Peter’s behavior?
Read Galatians 3:28, 29 and Colossians 3:11. Why does Christ make all the difference in our call to unity?
What other ways, besides circumcision, has the church attempted to create first and second-class believers? What are some subtle ways we attempt to make people conform to our way of thinking or acting? When does this pressure to conform become harmful to the church’s unity, and what can we do to prevent it?
Traditions are not bad, in and of themselves, unless they seriously interfere with the operation and unity of the church or misrepresent gospel truth. The issue of circumcision had become particularly divisive in Paul’s day, as Jewish and Greek Christians in Galatia attempted to remain united to serve God in spreading the gospel.
Although the issue had been decided at the Jerusalem Council, Peter found himself falling into his old behavior of separating himself from Gentiles, but only when Jews were present. A culturally-driven tradition that Paul found especially offensive nearly split the churches where Paul ministered.
Paul took action to correct his fellow apostle openly, and Peter seemed to have responded favorably.
- Sunday–why unity is important
- Monday–why circumcision was not required
- Tuesday–how unity is still possible when there is diversity
- Wednesday–how Peter’s actions amounted to hypocrisy
- Thursday–how all people are equal in God’s sight
Peter, an esteemed apostle of Christ, found himself practicing such hypocrisy that Paul needed to rebuke him. This must cause us to consider two things:
- How being successful at anything does not exclude one from exhibiting bad behavior–we are never above failure
- How careful we must be in placing our faith in human leaders, even religious ones–they are, after all, only human
In addition, we must remember that we are all capable of being disciples of disunity when we put too much importance on trivial things that causes others to stumble or reduces in any way the message of the gospel.
Next Week: Justification by Faith Alone
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/