A LIVING, GROWING CHURCH
Christ's church is a living church--guided by revelation to meet the changing needs of its members within their cultures and eras. The history of the use of Seventies through thousands of years is one of the best examples of this.
"And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration" (Acts 6:1)
The term "Grecians," alternatively translated as "Hellenists" "probably refers to Jewish Christians from the Diaspora [Jews who had been scattered out from Israel by conquering nations] whose native language was Greek and who spoke little or no Aramaic; Hebrews, by contrast, would be Christians from among those Jews who spoke only or primarily Aramaic. Conflict could arise from their social and cultural differences and spill over into the daily distribution of food. In a culture that allowed women little economic independence, widows, especially those of immigrants, would be among the most disadvantaged portion of the population" (Harper-Collins Study Bible).
"The division between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking (or culturally Greek and culturally Hebrew) Jews dates from the conquest of Israel by Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. He and his successors introduced the Greek language and Greek culture into the lands they ruled. While Hellenistic (Greek) influence produced such [good] fruits as the Septuagint, Philo of Alexandria and Josephus, 'Hebraists' considered the 'Hellenists' to have developed an adulterated Judaism which had assimilated elements of the pagan cultures around them--although the Judaism of the Hebrew-speakers had not avoided these influences either" (David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 239).
The solution to the problem was to call "seven men of honest report" (Acts 6:3) to see to the physical and spiritual needs of the people. They distributed food, and they performed missionary labors. "All of the seven have Greek names, consistent with their identification with the Hellenists" (Harper-Collins). All seven were Greek-speakers and could therefore communicate both in language and culture with the Greek widows. Their modern-day counterparts would probably be the Presidents of the Seventy.
The number, organization, responsibilities, and purposes of the Seventies has been one of the most dynamic of church positions--meaning it has been in a state of change almost constantly. They have been called when needed, where needed, and for what was needed at the time, including in these latter days.
"The seventy were known as seekers of knowledge as well as preachers of the gospel. One reading the diaries of these men realizes that they took seriously the office of seventy. Their missionary labors were phenomenal...
"During the period of exodus from Nauvoo, the seventies quorum was left in charge of and supervised temple ceremonies. Joseph Young, the senior president, supervised this work and presided in the temple.
"In research from Nauvoo’s seventies’ records, Brother William G. Hartley, assistant Church historian, notes that: 'more than one-third of the Mormon Battalion consisted of seventies drawn from more than thirty separate quorums. They reformed into one ‘mass’ quorum in Los Angeles on April 18, 1847, electing their own seven presidents under the direction of Levi W. Hancock...'
"About one-half of the men in the pioneering company which led out in 1847 were seventies. One would expect the seventies to lead out, for they were mostly young men in their late twenties and early thirties when they were ordained in 1845...
"Of the 2,200 seventies ordained between 1835 and 1855, between one-third and one-half were foreign born, England alone providing no less than 500." (S. Dilworth Young, "The Seventies: A Historical Perspective," Ensign, July 1976)
GREAT EXAMPLES FROM THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH
JOYOUSLY SEEKING AND SHARING THE GOSPEL: Philip and the Ethiopian
The preaching of the gospel followed the order which Christ had laid out in Acts 1. The gospel was first preached in Jerusalem at Pentacost to the pilgrims who had come for the festival. They then took it home with them to the neighboring areas. After preaching the gospel in Jerusalem, the disciples carried it to her "black-sheep sibling" Samaria (Acts 8) where it was well-received and many joined the Saints.
And then one investigator appeared from quite far out of the range of the missionary labors so far:
"And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip [one of the seven], saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. And he arose and went: and behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias (Isaiah) the prophet" (Acts 8:26-28).
"The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, who is from a region vastly removed from Jerusalem, signals the fulfillment of the promise to all those who are 'far away' (Acts 2:39)...Ethiopian, in Luke's world, referred to anyone with dark skin, particularly to persons from territories south of Egypt. Various ancient writers depict Ethiopians as handsome people who come from the ends of the known world. As a eunuch, he could not be a Jew or a proselyte to Judaism, and thus his conversion foreshadows that of Cornelius, which formally opens the Christian mission to Gentiles. Candace is the title traditionally given to the Queen of Meroe (a Nubian realm along the upper Nile), making the eunuch's position one of considerable power. That he has been to Jerusalem to worship indicates his interest in Israel's religion, as does his reading of Isaiah. Gentiles could worship in the temple enclosure, although they were restricted to the outer court. Reading was a customary activity during travel; here it sets the stage for Philip's approach. The prompting of the Spirit suggests that God stands behind this overture. The passage quoted is Isa. 53:7-8" (Harper-Collins).
"Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him" (Acts 8:29-31).
Of course, most of us have the same reaction when we read Isaiah! But the Ethiopian's comment was a true reflection of the use of the scripture in his day. "No ancient sacred books were intended to be read without a teacher: hence the Ethiopian comment in the Acts says to St. Philip 'How can I understand unless someone tells me?'" (C.S. Lewis, The C.S. Lewis Bible, p. 1238). Not being a Jew, he had no synagogue to study with.
So the man read to Philip the verses that concerned him at the moment, which were prophesies about Christ. "Then Philip opened his mouth" (a most important step in missionary work) "and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing" (Acts 8:35-39). It may be that Philip immediately vanished from the man's sight and was transported to his next area of labor (keep in mind that they were traveling in the chariot all the time that Philip was teaching him, and may have gotten quite a ways away), or it may be Luke's way of saying that the Spirit prompted Philip to go preach in another area, and the eunuch was left on his own to continue to learn and grow as a new convert.
"Later church tradition holds that the eunuch became the first Christian missionary to Africa" (Harper-Collins).
CHANGING DIRECTION: Saul of Tarsus and Ananias of Damascus
Saul was a young leader of the Jewish church, with orders from the Sanhedrin to persecute those "defecting" to Christianity. He carried out his duties faithfully, sincerely, and violently--an early example of the fulfilling of the prophecy to the disciples that "the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service" (John 16:2).
"And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem, and as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" (Acts 9:1-5).
"Pricks" is alternatively translated as "goads." This phrase, "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks," was a proverb used by both Greek and Latin writers. (For my reference, click here.) It basically refered to a pointy stick that was used to prod work animals to move in a certain direction. If they kicked against it, it only inflicted more pain upon them. The proverb was a tool for teaching not to resist powerful authority.
Saul's next question reveals his marvelous heart: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" (Acts 9:6). He was told that he must go to Damascus with the exact opposite aim from what he had planned--rather than persecute the Saints, he was to join them. Rather than bind Ananias (and others) and send him to Jerusalem, he was to submit to him and receive healing in the name of Christ from the blindness that had struck him when discovering he was serving the wrong master.
At the same time, "There was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias, and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord" (Acts 9:10). Ananias' answer was a statement very similar to Saul's. "I am here" meant "I am ready to serve; what would you have me do?" He also was told to do the exact opposite from what he had planned--rather than hiding from the infamous Saul, he was to seek him out, heal him, baptize him, and give him the Gift of the Holy Ghost
Saul became one of the greatest missionaries ever, and his epistles continue to preach the gospel 2,000 years after he wrote them, to peoples on every continent, even places of which he'd never heard in his lifetime. But even though he made a 180-degree paradigm and allegiance shift on the spot, he still had much to learn before he became that great missionary. He stayed and learned from the disciples in Damascus, and then "straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God" (Acts 9:19-20).
One more oft-overlooked lesson to learn from Saul--and one which many of us struggle to learn--is forgiveness of oneself. How could Saul have succeeded in doing the Lord's work if he had continued to be wracked in guilt? We all will spend some time suffering in one hell or another, as did Saul and his Book of Mormon counterpart, Alma the Younger, for our sins, weaknesses, and mistakes. It is necessary. We learn from the experience how to avoid misery in the future, and how to help others avoid it, and how to help them be freed from it when it comes. But while suffering the misery of remorse, we are severely limited in our ability to bless others. Although it is temporarily necessary, it is a self-centered existence--centered in our suffering. Once we have passed through "our Gethsemane," we must allow Christ to free us by forgiving ourselves completely (while still remembering the lesson learned), so we can focus on freeing others.
GIVING EVERYTHING: Stephen and Tabitha
We are quite familiar with the story of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7). He was the first of the Seven to be chosen, "a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 6:5). His performance of "great wonders and miracles among the people" (Acts 6:8) led to his persecution, trial, and death by stoning at the hands of Jews, an act which was illegal under Roman rule, just as was the trial, conviction and execution of Christ. (See a previous post.) He did not desist in teaching the gospel, even at threat of death. He saw a vision of the Father and the Son. As Jesus Christ called upon his Father as he died, so Stephen "[called] upon God, [saying] Lord Jesus receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" (Acts 7:59-60). He was truly a disciple of Christ who gave all.
Another great example of a disciple of Christ (the only instance in the New Testament in which the feminine form of the word "disciple" is used, according to Harper-Collins) is found in the story of Tabitha. Tabitha "was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did. And it came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and died: whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber" (Acts 9:35-37). They sent for Peter, who went into the room, "and all the widows stood by him weeping, and [showing] the coats and garments which [Tabitha] made while she was with them." Tabitha had given her life in service to others. But unlike Stephen, her work was not finished and she was allowed to return to continue her discipleship. "Peter put them all [out of the room] and kneeled down, and prayed: and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes; and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive. And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord" (Acts 9:40-42). By raising the dead just as Christ had done, Peter showed the people that he had the power of God.
Stephen's testimony resulted in his death as a martyr; Tabitha's testimony resulted in being raised from the dead. Stephen served in a public way, as the first "President of the Seventy," working miracles and wonders. Tabitha served in a homely way, working with her hands to clothe the needy.
Each of us, likewise, has our own mission to perform, our own ways in which we can best exemplify Christ. It may be a miraculously extended life. It may be an early death. It may be in travels and leadership and public speaking. It may be in staying home and filling the needs among our neighbors. It may be in calling down the powers of Heaven through Priesthood blessings. It may be in nurturing children. It may be in changing our perspective, lifestyle and friends completely. It may be in keeping perspective, and serving lifelong friends. If we live "full of faith and the Holy Ghost" as did Stephen; and "full of good works and almsdeeds" as did Tabitha; if we ask, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" as did Saul and Ananias, and if we follow the direction of the Spirit as did Philip, no matter how our lives turn out, we will have filled our missions as disciples of Christ.