SOURCE FOR QUESTIONS
Acts 8:1 through 12:25
KEY VERSE FOR MEMORIZATION
“As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.” (Acts 8:3-4)
Jesus’ final words to His followers declared that after the Holy Ghost came upon them, they would be His witnesses unto the uttermost part of the earth (see Acts 1:8). In today’s text, that promise began to be fulfilled beyond Jerusalem. Chapters 8-12 of Acts relate that as the persecution in Jerusalem grew, believers dispersed throughout Judaea and Samaria, and everywhere they went they preached the Word.
Chapter 8 describes the ministry of Philip, a Greek-speaking Jew and one of those who had been chosen to serve with Stephen (see Acts 6:5). He went to Samaria and preached Christ there. The people gladly received his message. Later, the Apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to observe this new ministry to the Samaritans, people who were part Jew and part Gentile. They found a solid body of believers, and the Samaritans subsequently received the Holy Ghost.
Though his ministry in Samaria had been fruitful, Philip was directed by God to leave that location and go to a lonely desert road in Gaza. There he saw a chamberlain to the Queen of Ethiopia riding along in his chariot. The Ethiopian was thirsting for understanding of the Scriptures, and when Philip joined him in his chariot and told him of Jesus, the man believed and subsequently was baptized in water.
The story of Saul’s conversion takes up most of chapter 9. Saul was well-known for his extreme hatred and persecution of the followers of Jesus, and his dramatic conversion on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus stirred the Jewish community. The radical change in this former persecutor demonstrated the transforming power of the Gospel, which Saul immediately began to witness to and would later preach. However, there was a waiting and growing time for Saul before he began his ministry. He spent about three years in the desert of Arabia (see Galatians 1:17-18), and then resided for a time in Tarsus, his home city.
At the end of chapter 9, the focus of the narrative in Acts shifts back to Peter. Two incidents in his ministry are described: the healing of Aeneas the paralytic, and the raising back to life of the deceased Dorcas (Tabitha).
Chapter 10 records how the divinely arranged meeting between Peter and Cornelius began to open the door for Gentiles to be a part of the community of believers. The Law was ingrained in the Jewish people. Strong feelings prevailed about things considered unclean, which included people who were Gentiles. That concept needed to be changed in order to reach the Gentiles for Christ. Peter’s vision on the rooftop in Joppa helped him understand that Christ’s death had abolished the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. Then, with perfect timing, Peter received the God-directed summons to Cornelius’ house. Cornelius was a Roman centurion who was a devout man, though not a member of the Jewish community. Peter journeyed to Caesarea where Cornelius lived, and while he was delivering his message of salvation through Jesus, Cornelius and the others in his household embraced it, and the Holy Ghost was poured out upon them.
Chapter 11 describes the opposition to Peter’s actions by the church leaders in Jerusalem. They were offended that Peter had visited Gentiles and had eaten with them, but Peter recounted his vision and the events that followed. Clearly, the Gospel was for all and after their initial astonishment, the Jerusalem saints began to rejoice in the salvation of these new converts.
The conclusion of chapter 11 describes the formation of the church in Antioch. Some of the Jews who had been scattered by persecution had settled in this city of Syria, located about three hundred miles from Jerusalem. As a vital commercial hub, Antioch became a major center for Christian missionary outreach. Barnabas was sent by the Jerusalem church to oversee the church there. The rapid growth of the congregation spurred him to travel to Tarsus to bring back Saul, who had been saved about ten years earlier, to help with the work. It was at Antioch that the name “Christians” was first applied to the followers of Christ.
The persecution in Jerusalem continued, as evidenced by the events described in chapter 12. Herod Agrippa beheaded James, making him the first Apostle to be martyred. (For information on the various Herods, see the chart at the end of the book.) Because this action pleased the Jews, Herod arrested Peter as well. However, the night before the Apostle’s trial, the chains that shackled him between two guards fell off and an angel led him out of prison. Peter made his way to the home of John Mark’s mother, where the saints had gathered to pray for him.
SUGGESTED RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS
- After Simon saw the Holy Ghost being poured out through the laying on of hands by Peter and John, he attempted to pay money to obtain the same power. According to Acts 8:20-23, how did Peter respond?
Peter was offended by the request and rebuked Simon, saying, “Thy money perish with thee . . .” He challenged Simon to repent, as the sorcerer’s request clearly had been based on a desire for monetary gain or favor with the people.
- According to Acts 8:5-8, Philip’s ministry to the people of Samaria had been blessed by God. Many afflicted individuals had been healed, and there was great joy in the city. Yet, God instructed this successful evangelist to go to a lonely road in the middle of a desert to witness to one man (verse 26). What spiritual lessons can we learn from this incident?
Several answers could be suggested to this question. Some may include the following.
• It is vital to obey God, even when we do not understand. He has a purpose in everything He directs us to do.
• One soul is of great value to God.
• We may come across seekers for God in unlikely places. God sometimes opens doors for witnessing that we never imagined.
• The spiritual flame kindled in one soul has great potential. The testimony of the eunuch carried the Gospel into a new region.
• Explaining who Jesus is and what He has done for us is the essence of the Gospel.
- From the perspective of the early disciples, Saul of Tarsus was an unlikely candidate for the Gospel. Based on Acts 9:1-2, 13-14, how would you describe Saul prior to the events that occurred as he traveled to Damascus? What happened that changed him?
In response to the first question, your students will likely describe Saul as a fiercely zealous and religiously committed persecutor of the followers of Jesus. His whole being was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter,” and he was consumed with his purpose to stamp out the new sect. (Be aware that some of your group’s summary of Paul’s pre-conversion nature may be drawn from his testimonies that appear in Acts 22:3-5 and Acts 26:9-12).
Discussion of the second question will give you an opportunity to review Saul’s amazing conversion. Ask your class to point out some things we can learn about the experience of salvation that are made evident by Saul’s conversion experience. Thoughts brought out may include the following.
• Only God can see the heart. We have no idea how He is dealing with the sinners around us, or those for whom we have been praying. We cannot evaluate how near someone is to salvation by outward actions or appearance.
• Sinners must become aware of their sin and rebellion against God, even the sins which were done in ignorance.
• Conversion requires that we submit fully to God and are willing to obey Him.
• Salvation is something God does. Our part is only a response to His drawing us to Himself.
• God seeks for sinners, even when they are not looking for Him.
Your group might be interested to learn that before the conversion of the noted evangelist Charles Finney, his friends had about as much hope for his conversion as the Early Church saints had for Saul’s. Prayer was requested for Finney’s salvation at a prayer meeting. The leader responded that there was no use praying for him because he had gone too far away from God and would never be interested. Yet, only a few days later, Charles Finney was wonderfully converted! Make the point that we should never be discouraged when those we pray for do not seem to be affected. There is also no one who is too sinful to receive God’s mercy.
- In chapter 10, verses 1-8 describe a vision of the devout centurion, Cornelius, in which he was instructed by God to send to Joppa for Peter — a man he had never met. He obeyed, sending two of his household servants and a devout soldier to the location God designated. Shortly before their arrival, Peter was praying on the rooftop, and God sent him a vision as well. What did Peter see in his vision, and what was the lesson he was to learn? Acts 10:11-16
Peter saw a sheet full of animals both clean and unclean. The Law prohibited Jewish people from eating unclean animals (see Leviticus 11), but Peter was commanded to kill and eat. The lesson he was to learn was that God made no difference between Jew and Gentile, and that he was not to regard the Gentiles as inferior people whom God would not redeem. In addition, the distinction between clean and unclean meats was a major emphasis of the Mosaic Law; by its abolishment, one of the great barriers of separation between Jews and Gentiles was done away with.
- The Apostles and believers in Jerusalem heard that Peter had visited Cornelius’ house. Acts 11:2-3 describes their reaction — they “contended” with him and condemned his actions, saying in effect, “You are supposed to be a faithful Jew, so why did you associate with and even eat with Gentiles?” How did Peter respond to their criticism? Why was the eventual understanding they reached so critical to the spreading of the Gospel? Acts 11:4,18
Peter responded by relating what had happened at Cornelius’ house, and the events were conclusive proof that God had poured out His Spirit upon Gentiles. The leaders in Jerusalem at first reacted with stunned silence, but then glorified God because they realized He was working among the Gentiles also.
In response to the second question, your group should conclude that this understanding was critical because a great impediment to evangelization in the Gentile world of that day was the assumption that salvation was for Jews alone. The fact that God would also call Gentiles into His Church was a new realization to the Jewish believers, although this was in accord with the Scriptures. They had both the words of the Lord himself (see Acts 1:8) and the Old Testament promise that Gentiles would come to the Lord through the Messiah (in passages such as Isaiah 49:6). Point out that Acts 11 demonstrates that the hearts of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were receptive and willing to be guided by God, which is a critical factor in successful evangelism.
Ask your class: What are the implications of this great truth in our day? Your group should conclude that the good news of Christ is for everyone. We must never permit differences of race, culture, economic class, religious background, education, or any other factor to be an impediment to unity within the church, or to hinder us from reaching out to non-believers. The world will be blessed as we accept God’s divine plan and look beyond any diversities, working together to proclaim the Gospel to all.
- Barnabas first appears in Scripture in Acts 4:36, where we learn that his name (perhaps a nickname) meant “Son of consolation.” His first recorded action was when he sold land that belonged to him and “brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37). He is also mentioned in Acts 9:26-31 and Acts 11:22-26, 30. After reviewing these texts, how would you describe this Christian worker?
Your students’ comments about Barnabas should bring out some of the following thoughts.
Acts 4:36-37 – He was generous and concerned about the needs of others.
Acts 9:26-31 – He was courageous in vouching for Paul before the church elders.
Acts 11:22 – He evidently was well thought of by the Jerusalem church, since they chose him to go and help in Antioch.
Acts 11:23 – He was an able preacher who ministered joyfully and with encouragement, and one who was faithful to fulfill his spiritual duties.
Acts 11:24 – He was a good man who was full of the Holy Ghost and faith.
Acts 11:25 – He must have been a humble man, since he sought out Saul and asked for assistance, even though he had been converted and was a respected worker in the church before Saul was converted.
Acts 11:30 – He was trustworthy; the church could depend on him to deliver collected funds to Jerusalem.
Conclude your discussion of this question by establishing that Barnabas clearly was a good pattern for what a Christian worker should be.
- According to Acts 12:1-2, the Apostle James was beheaded by King Herod, making him the first of the twelve Apostles to be martyred. Subsequent verses in the same chapter relate how the Apostle Peter was spared — in fact, he experienced a dramatic deliverance from prison through the intervention of an angel! (See Acts 12:5-10.) Why do you think God delivered in one instance but not the other?
No doubt the Early Church members had the same question. Class discussion should lead to the understanding that God has a perfect, unique purpose for each life. He sees the big picture, operates in accordance with His divine plan, and knows precisely the timing for each piece of His plan to fit together. We will not always understand why God allows what He allows. We may not always understand why we have to suffer when others seem to have easier lives. However, we can and must trust that every circumstance works together for eternal good.
- Peter’s imprisonment inspired the believers to pray “without ceasing” on his behalf. However, when Peter miraculously appeared at their door, the saints found it hard to believe (see Acts 12:13-16). Why do you think they were so disbelieving of Rhoda’s report? What conclusion can we reach from this event about how God answers prayer?
We do not have a direct answer in Scripture regarding precisely why those who were praying for Peter’s deliverance were so astonished when that happened. However, it is important to understand that these early believers had just learned about the death of James by the hand of Herod. They likely were dismayed and even fearful that they would be next. As they prayed for him, they may have thought the most favorable outcome would be Peter’s release after his trial before Herod the next day; perhaps some of their prayers were specifically toward that end. Most likely they never even considered that angelic intervention would bring about the Apostle’s release.
In response to the second question, your students should conclude that God’s ways are not our ways. We may formulate in our minds what we think are the best resolutions to our problems, but God’s solution may well be something we never imagined. Let us learn not to limit God! We may not always understand why He does not answer a prayer in the way we expect, but we can be absolutely confident that He always does answer in the most perfect way for His glory.
The New Testament church had a call to evangelize the world for Christ. Starting in Judea, then into Samaria, and then to regions beyond, the saints began to move into new areas, sowing the seed as they went. Our commission is the same today, as we carry on the work of the early disciples until Jesus comes.