The objective of this lesson: to focus on the importance of spiritual growth as a disciple.
A congregation that belongs to God should be a context for healing and growing. By "context," a geographical place should not be in our thoughts. Nor should a building be in our minds. When we think of a "congregation," we should think of a people, of men and women who put their faith in a Jesus Christ and God his Father.
There is no definition of "congregation" given in the New Testament. The focus of "congregation" is always on people, never on a sacred geographical area or a holy building.
Congregations of disciples or Christians in the New Testament were not focused on a geographical place or a building. That was a unique characteristic of the first congregations. These people were not tied to a geographical setting (such as Mount Zion) or to a building (such as a temple). They were a community of people who appreciated God's gift of Jesus Christ. Their trust of what God did for them in Jesus caused them to belong to each other. They acted in their treatment of each other with God's values. They were His people, so they treated all who were His people with affection and respect. That proved to be a huge challenge!
Stress that a "congregation" of disciples or Christians was a community of people who placed their trust in Jesus Christ and had a devoted care for each other.
Read Acts 2:44-47. Those who believed in Jesus and responded to him in repentance and baptism were together and shared. Even when it required selling possessions to care for those of the community of believers in need, they sold possessions. They ate their meals together and were genuinely happy.
Stress their sense of togetherness and their sharing. These disciples behaved as God wanted Israel to act.
Read Acts 4:32-37. The congregation (multitude) of believers was of one heart and soul. They took care of each other, even those in need. They did so to the extent that there were no needy in the community of believers. Acts 5:1-10 demonstrated that it was a serious matter to try to exploit the Jerusalem congregation's good will by being selfish and deceiving.
Stress they were NOT some sort of mystical people who had no one who sought to take advantage of the situation. Existing as this kind of community involved difficulty for them.
Did they face problems? Surely! Acts 6:1-7 gives the details of a congregational problem. However, they resolved their problems like disciples who loved each other. The reality of their problems did not affect the effectiveness of their community of faith.
Acts 5:1-11 illustrates a family who tried to take advantage of the congregation's sense of community. Acts 6:1-7 illustrates a congregational problem the disciples had even when all the disciples shared basically the same spiritual background.
Did they need to grow and mature as disciples? Certainly! To this point, all converts were either Jewish or proselytes (gentile converts to Judaism--see Acts 2:10). Though the community of faith was large, it was all Jewish or converts to Judaism.
Because human beings are what they are combined with the evil that actively exists in our physical world, disciples will not produce and sustain congregations that care for each other without problems. There always will be those who wish to exploit situations or who do not understand or who disagree. The fact that problems exist in congregations proves little but that flaws exist in humanity because of evil. How disciples handle the problems that arise in congregations is a significant commentary on Christ being in those disciples.
The real stress on this community of believers in Jesus Christ did not come until faith in Christ spread beyond the Jewish/proselyte community. Though the resurrected Jesus and God's Spirit made it evident that the good news of Jesus was international in Acts 10:34, 35, it is quite evident that the Jewish congregation did not understand what that meant in Acts 15:6-21.
It is a huge challenge to produce a sense of enduring community when we all are in basic agreement. It is a severe challenge when we as disciples are in basic disagreement. Producing a sense of community in a congregation when there are conflicting cultural views is enormously difficult.
In Rome, Jewish Christians had their ways of determining purity and spiritual cleanliness, and gentile Christians had a different way of determining spiritual purity and cleanliness. Paul said for them to leave each other alone (Romans 14:1-12) and be ready to explain their reasons for their actions to God after their death (Romans 14:12, 22).
The city of Rome had congregations in which there were conflicting cultural views between Jewish disciples and gentile disciples. The basic disagreement was severe. Paul urged them not to reject disciples God accepted. He also reminded them they would have opportunity to explain to God why they (personally) decided to do what they did. There is enormous emphasis on God's desire to save those who are basic disagreement with "us."
Growth toward maturity and continued growth after maturity will always be a part of being God's person. Consider Peter in Acts 10:9-23. It took a divine vision that occurred three times, a reassurance from the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:19, 20), and confirmation from the gentile messengers who looked for Peter (Acts 10:22), before he was convinced he should go to the gentile Cornelius. Even though Peter was an apostle, even with all those signs, Peter told Cornelius and the group Cornelius assembled that he did not know why he was there. Listen to Acts 10:28, 29: "And he said to them, 'You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me.'"
Peter in the incident with Cornelius is a wonderful example of growth after Jesus' ministry, after Jesus' death and resurrection, and after the establishment of congregations. Though an apostle, Peter had some things to learn. His learning cost him enough to make him afraid on occasion (read Acts 11:1-3 and Galatians 2:11-14).
Peter did not grow into an understanding of why the Lord sent him until Acts 10:34, 35: "Opening his mouth, Peter said: 'I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.'"
It took a lot to cause Peter to change his views! Peter's change of views--though prompted by the Lord Himself--was not popular with Jewish disciples (see Acts 15:1).
Did Peter the apostle grow? Surely! Did he understand something he previously opposed? Certainly! Did his new understanding cause him to act in ways others would misunderstand? Absolutely! Even for an apostle, there was continued growth and maturing. If such growth and maturing did not occur, God's will would not be done.
Growth is a part of being a disciple of Jesus no matter how long you have been a disciple or what role you serve in as a disciple.
A perspective worthy of consideration is this: most of the epistles (the bulk of the New Testament) were written to encourage specific Christians in specific locales to grow. Consider the fruit of the Spirit and their context in Galatians 5:16-24. 2 Peter 1:5-11 told those Christians that the values mentioned must exist and increase if they were to be fruitful "in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 8). Ephesians 2:19-22; 4:14,15; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; and 2 Peter 3:17,18 urge growth. 1 Peter 2:2 urges them to develop as newborn babes who long for the pure milk of the word.
All these scriptures or situations stress the need for growth.
Conversion to Christ accepts the responsibility to grow in Christ.
There is no such thing as a conversion which does not include responsibility.
For Thought and Discussion
Congregations that belong to God should be places to heal and grow.
The discussion should include two understandings: (1) a congregation is a community of believers; (2) these people are not focused on a holy area or a building.
The real stress came when having faith in Jesus spread beyond Jews and proselytes.
The discussion should include: (a) The enormous effort the Lord had to make to get Peter to change his views; (b) Peter's lack of understanding even after he arrived at Cornelius' house; (c) Peter's change of views was not popular with Jewish disciples.
Though Peter was an obvious leader in the Jerusalem congregation prior to Acts 10 (see Acts 5:15), he is never mentioned in a leadership role in Jerusalem after Acts 10. In Acts 15 he is only a witness--James announces the decision.
Most of the New Testament epistles encourage disciples (Christians) to grow.
The discussion should note the contrast between the works of the flesh (what they had been prior to conversion) and the fruit of the Spirit (what they should be as disciples [Christians]).
The discussion should note the conditions that would result from NOT growing in the values that were previously mentioned. Note also the conditions that would be the result of growth in those values.
The responsibility to grow is accepted.
Link to Student Guide Lesson 5
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