Saturday, July 30, 2011

New Testament Lesson #31 "And So Were the Churches Established in the Faith"

Acts 15:36-18:22; 1 and 2 Thessalonians

CLASS PREPARATION FOR "JIGSAW LEARNING"

"Jigsaw learning" is when individuals or small groups discover some small part of the subject, and then all share with each other, "putting together the puzzle pieces" of the complete topic.  If you would like to use this type of learning for this lesson, hand out one of the following scripture references to each of the students in your class as they enter the room and ask them to spend 3-5 minutes reading and discovering things about Paul for sharing later in the lesson.
  • What can we learn from the Apostle Paul's teaching style? (Acts 17:16-34)
  • What can we learn from the Apostle Paul's missionary travels? (Acts 16:4-15)
  • What can we learn from Paul's imprisonment in Macedonia? (Acts 16:16-40)
PAUL THE APOSTLE

"The Latin adjective paulus means "little" or "small" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 66), but though small in size, Paul is a big, big figure in Christianity.

The importance of Paul to the New Testament cannot be overstated.  "We know more about [Paul's] life than that of any other New Testament personality.  Of the New Testament's 260 chapters, 118 were written either by Paul or about him, more chapters than were written by or about anyone else, save Jesus only.  In fact, the 100 chapters of Paul's recorded epistles and the 18 chapters of Acts that detail his activities compose a little more than 45 percent of the chapters of the New Testament.  Moreover, 123 of the 404 pages of the New Testament, just less than one-third of the entire work, express Paul's written witness of the Savior; another 31 pages recount events of his ministry" (Middleton, p. 110-111).

"Paul's exemplary life and preeminent writings mark the path toward eternal life.  Considered together, Paul's life and his writings paint a stunningly complete picture of what it means to be an 'example of the believers' and a special witness of Christ" (Middleton, p. 110).

PAUL'S APPEARANCE

Joseph Smith must have observed Paul for some time personally in vision, although he never gave the details of the occasions, because he offered this "Description of Paul--He is about five feet high; very dark hair, dark complexion, dark skin; large Roman nose, sharp face; small black eyes, penetrating as eternity; round shoulders; a whining voice, except when elevated and then it almost resembled the roaring of a lion.  he was a good orator, active and diligent, always employing himself in doing good to his fellow man" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 180).

PAUL'S PREPARATION

"Paul was uniquely prepared to take Christianity to the world.  He was a Roman citizen of a Benjamite family, perhaps of some prominence, and a native of Tarsus, a distinguished Greek city, whose residents had been given Roman citizenship by Mark Anthony.  He was also, as he wrote, a Hebrew of the Hebrews.  Thus Paul is both the Hellenistic [Greek] Paul and the Hebraic Saul.  Upon his becoming a disciple of Christ, Paul's Pharisaic family would have considered him apostate and possibly disowned him.  No detail of his preparatory life was accidental; all circumstances were part of God's foreordained plan for Paul" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 71-72).

PAUL'S CHURCH POSITION

"[Acts 14:4] contains the first mention of Barnabas and Paul as apostles.  Although Paul's relationship to the Twelve has been debated in literature on the New Testament, President Joseph Fielding Smith maintains that 'Paul was an ordained apostle, and without question he took the place of one of the other brethren in that Council' (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:153)" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 69).

Acts 18:21 seems a very likely spot for his ordination to the apostleship:  He had an important appointment in Jerusalem, and his next epistles (1 Cor.) bears the salutation, "Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God..." (1 Cor. 1).
Paul did not have the privilege of being an eyewitness of Jesus Christ during Christ's earthly ministry, but he was definitely an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ.  Knowing only the resurrected Lord gives him a different perspective than the others had.  "At least four different times he saw the Lord or was visited by him.  On the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared and spoke to Paul in person; He then presented him a mission call (Acts 9:3-6, 17, 27; 26:13-18; Gal. 1:12; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8).  From the book of Acts we learn that the Savior appeared to Paul once in Corinth (Acts 18:1, 9) and twice in Jerusalem (Acts 22:14, 17-21; 23:11)." (Can't find my reference on this--I'll fill it in when I find it.  It is one of the sources already quoted here, but I can't find the page.)

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM PAUL?

Now ask your class members what they learned about Paul as they read.  You can do this one of several ways: 
  1. In a large, crowded class, simply ask for volunteers
  2. In a small class, go around the semi-circle of students in turn
  3. In a medium-sized and active class (or one that needs to be enlivened), divide the class into groups of four or so, all with the same scripture.  They can briefly discuss what they each discovered.  One person then, as the spokesman, shares what the group learned.  Designate the spokesman yourself by saying it is the person with the next birthday, or the person with the largest graduating class, or the person with the longest hair, or something like that so the usual people don't automatically take charge.  They only need share one item, so it shouldn't be too hard.
As class members share, supplement what they discovered with the following information:

PAUL'S TEACHING STYLE

"Athens was a quiet university town, still talking philosophy and religion.  It was the world center of idol worship; some claim it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 85).

The Athenians were so superstitious about their idols as to have made an altar to the UNKNOWN GOD, just to be sure they hadn't offended any god by leaving him out.  Paul took this openmindedness about an unknown god, and used it as a wonderful opener to teach them about the real God, who was indeed "unknown" to them.

"[In Acts 17:28] we see Paul's wise teaching method: to quote from a work familiar to his audience, a passage highly regarded by them, and then show its relationship to, and fulfillment in, the gospel of Jesus Christ" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 86).

President Gordon B. Hinckley said, in a television interview, "We recognize the good in all people. We recognize the good in all churches, in their efforts to improve mankind and to teach principles that lead to good, stable, productive living. To people everywhere we simply say, ‘You bring with you all the good that you have, and let us add to it. That is the principle on which we work’” (interview with Philippines Television, 30 April 1996), quoted in the June 1997 Liahona magazine.  This is precisely what Paul did.  He recognized the true beliefs, however basic, in the people he was teaching, creating a point of mutual understanding, and then added further light to their knowledge base.

"We can all become better teachers, speakers, and writers by learning some of the arts of rhetoric [the study of persuasive speaking].  Even though the Spirit ultimately changes a person's heart, knowing how to analyze an audience and adapt language to the needs of that audience can create an environment in which the Spirit can be felt...When we follow a divine model for persuasion--gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, without hypocrisy or guile--then we grow closer to God: we emulate him and, in the process, worship him.  Following that divine model gives us the freedom to place the art of rhetoric within the context of the gospel of Christ..." (Hatch, p. 76).

PAUL'S MISSIONARY TRAVELS

Acts 16 shows clearly that Paul's itinerary in his travels was set by the Spirit's guidance, by visions, and by prayers of those seeking truth.

"The apostle Paul journeyed by ship and by foot at least 13,400 airline miles [21,565 km.] during his years of missionary labors, a figure that would increase enormously could we measure all the circuitous routes that he actually traveled.  He was an indomitable laborer for the cause of Christ...He was on fire, and his desire to save souls energized him" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 73-74).  Ogden and Skinner offer the following mileages:
  1. Acts 9--Jerusalem to Damascus to the Desert: minimum 690 miles or 1,110 km.
  2. Acts 11--Tarsus to Antioch: 90 miles or 145 km.
  3. Acts 11--Antioch to Jerusalem to Antioch: 560 miles or 901 km.
  4. Acts 13-14--First missionary journey: 1,400 miles or 2,253 km.
  5. Acts 15--Antioch to Jerusalem to Antioch: 560 miles or 901 km.
  6. Acts 15-18--Second missionary journey: 2,800 miles or 4,506 km.
  7. Acts 18-21--Third missionary journey: 2,700 miles or 4,345 km.
  8. Acts 27-28--Journey to Rome: 2,250 miles or 3,621 km.
  9. Various travels mentioned in the epistles after his two-year imprisonment in Rome: minimum 2,350 miles or 3,782 km.
"The New Testament record provides us a farly comprehensive list of Paul's missionary companions: Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke, Erastus, Gaius, Aristarchus, Sopater, Secundus, Tychicus, Trophimus, Priscilla and Aquila, Epaphras, Demas, Jesus Justus, Epaphroditus, and Sosthenes" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 237).

PAUL'S FIRST IMPRISONMENT

In Acts 16:16-40, we find the awesome story of Paul's imprisonment.  He shouldn't have been imprisoned to start with, since the charges against him were false, but also since he was a Roman citizen.  Imagine Paul's compassion: on being miraculously freed from prison by an earthquake, yet not escaping.  He knew the jailer would be routinely killed as a punishment if he did.  Undoubtedly, he was once again following the Spirit and not logic.  Because he did this, the jailer and his entire household were converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

PAUL'S WRITINGS

"In the writings of Paul, we find more passages about Jesus' resurrection than about any other subject" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 232).  Paul wrote extensively about the Atonement of Jesus Christ and its power to save.  He also addressed such important LDS subjects as the three degrees of glory (1 Cor. 15:40-47), the teaching power of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 2:10-16), the purpose and continuity of the family unit (1 Cor. 11:11), and baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29).  "Perhaps the most beautiful and detailed treatise on faith in the canon of scripture is Hebrews 11...Paul was also a man of hope, who realized the word's true meaning.  He made 52 of the New Testament's 59 references to hope, including the only New Testament reference to Christ as the 'hope of Israel'...Paul wrote the earliest and arguably the most complete treatment of charity found in the scriptures...Perhaps to a greater degree than any other biblical writer, Paul extolled the many aspects of the divine nature...Paul himself worked on developing these divine attributes, receiving grace for grace, he became a partaker of the divine nature and qualified himself for sacred spiritual experiences which, although available to all, are obtained by few of the children of men...The Prophet Joseph Smith revealed [that]...Abel 'was sent down from heaven unto Paul to minister consoling words, and to commit unto him a knowledge of the mysteries of godliness' (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 169)" (Middleton, p. 121-123).

"Paul began every letter he wrote with the same foundation teaching: the Father and the Son are two separate beings" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 230)  You may want to read these aloud as a class--it's so instructional!  Here are the references:
  • Rom. 1:7
  • 1 Cor. 1:3
  • 2 Cor. 1:2-3
  • Gal. 1:1-3
  • Eph. 1:2-3
  • Philip. 1:2
  • Col. 1:2-3
  • 1 Thess. 1:1-3
  • 2 Thess. 1:1-2
  • 1 Tim. 1:2
  • 2 Tim. 1:2
  • Titus 1:4
  • Phil. 1:3
  • Heb. 1:1-2
"In addition to details about Jesus' mortal life and the purposes of his coming into mortality, Paul taught about the Savior's current exalted status and our potential to become like him...The apostle also spoke of the Lord's glorious return to earth at the end of the world" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 233).

LETTERS TO THE THESSALONIANS

Acts 18:17 is the point at which the epistles to the Thessalonians were written. 

"1 Thessalonians [is] the oldest book in the New Testament [written] to the church in Thessalonica, a port located on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea.  This city was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and was devoted to the imperial cult of Rome, but culturally it remained a Greek city governed by Greek Law.  Its location...ensured commercial prosperity...

"The letter is pastoral, warm in tone, and affectionate throughout...Aware of the Thessalonians' Greek culture, Paul draws on language from Greek philosophy to discuss issues treated by many Greek writers: marriage, community life, engagement in civil life.

"Because the Thessalonian converts were not Jewish, paul does not refer explicitly (except in 2:14-16) to Judaism, to problems affecting Jewish Christians (e.g., the Mosaic law), or to any Old Testamnet person, institution, or event (e.g., Abraham, Moses, the temple, or sacrifice.)  He also does not quote the Old Testament, though it often lies behind his language or thought, for Paul's Jewish heritage shaped him decisively.

"1 Thessalonians gives us our earliest insight into Paul's missionary activity and continuing concern for his congregations.  It reveals problems early Christians faced living in Greek society..."  (Edgar M. Krentz, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, writing for The Harper-Collins Study Bible,   p. 2218-2219)

If I couldn't live in my own wonderful ward, I would want to live in the Thessalonian ward.  The words of Paul to them are so complimentary, so sweet and encouraging, it is clear they were truly saints striving for Zion.  As Paul said of them, they were filled with works of faith, labours of love, and the patience of hope in Jesus Christ to the point of being confident that they were the elect of God (1 Thess. 1:3-4).  They had gained their testimonies through the Holy Ghost and had joined the Church amidst much affliction, which they bore with "joy of the Holy Ghost" which made them great examples to other new congregations, making the missionaries' work easy (1 Thess. 1:5-8).

Anyone who wonders about whether serving a mission might be worthwhile should read 1 Thessalonians.  Paul's great love for and joy in the converts is expressed continually:  "So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own soulds, because ye were dear unto us" (1 Thess. 2:8).  "For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming?  For ye are our glory and joy" (1 Thess. 2:19-20).  Imagine experiencing the joy of bringing the gospel to people such as the Thessalonians!

The main theme of 1 Thessalonians is the Second Coming.  After receiving the epistle, the Saints were confused about whether it would happen right away, so 2 Thessalonians was written to inform them that there would be a falling away first.  (Be sure to note JST footnotes when reading Thessalonians.)

Paul gave beautiful counsel to these good saints which we could all use to make our own characters more holy and our congregations more loving: 

"And we beseech you, brethren, to know [stay close to] them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord [in other words, your local leadership] and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work's sake. And be at peace among yourselves.

"Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded [disheartened], support the weak, be patient toward all men.  See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves and all men.

"Rejoice evermore.  Pray without ceasing.  In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. 

"Quench not the Spirit.  Despise not prophesyings.  Prove [examine] all things [and then] hold fast that which is good.  Abstain from all appearance of evil.

"And the very God of peace [will] sanctify you wholly."  (1 Thess. 5:12-23)

CONCLUSION

"One of the most inspiring characteristics of human personality is having the ability to hold persistent, steadfast, constant, and unwavering devotion to a great purpose without complaint or relief.

"Think if you will of Paul the Apostle, as he sits in his prison cell in Rome awaiting his execution.  He is an old man.  For over 35 years he has turned neither to the right nor to the left, but said, 'This one thing I do.'  He had no sidelines, he made no excuses, and he indulged in no wasteful startings and stoppings; instead he always had that sure and steady quality of always being there, of always going forward, of always keeping in focus the one great aim and purpose of his life"  (Sterling W. Sill, "Dedication," Church News, 22 April 1967, quoted in Ogden/Skinner, p. 226-227).


At the end of his life, Paul was able to confidently say, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:  Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day"--but listen to this part we often leave off!--"and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing" (Tim. 4:7-8).
Our lives may be very different from Paul's in details, but he reminded us that all of us have that same possibility of complete confidence in a "crown of righteousness."  We must simply follow Paul's example of:
  1. Always being there
  2. Always going forward
  3. Always keeping in focus the one great aim and purpose in life
Elder Bruce R. McConkie affirmed this in a redundant and pointed statement (sometimes this is what it takes to get through our Latter-day Saint heads):  "As members of the Church, if we chart a course leading to eternal life; if we begin the processes of spiritual rebirth, and are going in the right direction; if we chart a course of sanctifying our souls, and degree by degree are going in that direction; and if we chart a course of becoming perfect, and, step by step and phase by phase, are perfecting our souls by overcoming the world, then it is absolutely guaranteed--there is no question whatever about it--we shall gain eternal life.  Even though we have spiritual rebirth ahead of us, perfection ahead of us, the full degree of sanctification ahead of us, if we chart a course and follow it to the best of our ability in this life, then when we go out of this life we'll continue in exactly that same course.  We'll no longer be subject to the passions and the appetites of the flesh.  We will have passed successfully the tests of this mortal probation and in due course we'll get the fullness of our Father's kingdom--and that means eternal life in his everlasting presence."  (Bruce R. McConkie, "Jesus Christ and Him Crucified," BYU Devotional Speeches of the Year, Sept. 5, 1976, quoted in Robert L. Millet, Within Reach, p. 14) 

I suggest you copy out and print up Elder McConkie's statement for your class members to read over and over again.

SOURCES:

D. Kelly Ogden, Andrew C. Skinner, New Testament Apostles Testify of Christ: A Guide for Acts through Revelation
Michael W. Middleton, "Paul Among the Prophets: Obtaining a Crown," The Apostle Paul: His Life and His Testimony--Sidney B. Sperry Symposium on the New Testament
Gary Layne Hatch, "Paul Among the Rhetoricans: A Model for Proclaiming Christ," The Apostle Paul: His Life and His Testimony--Sidney B. Sperry Symposium on the New Testament

Saturday, July 23, 2011

New Testament Lesson #30 "God is No Respecter of Persons"

Acts 10-14; 15:1-35


GENTILES ARE WELCOMED INTO THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH


All through his ministry, Jesus specifically forbade his disciples from preaching the gospel to Gentiles: "Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not" (Matt. 10:5).  But there were hints that the Gentiles would one day be included.  Matthew took effort to make this apparent in his gospel, from the very beginning, in the second chapter, where he tells of the faith of the wise men from the east: their study of the scriptures, their understanding of Christ and his importance, their warning in a dream that saved the life of the baby Jesus.  Their righteousness and perceptiveness stands in contrast to that of the common Jews who had no room in the inn, and the Jewish king, Herod, who wanted the infant Christ killed.


Throughout Jesus' three-year ministry there are a handful of stories of Gentiles who were faithful enough to receive miracles at the hand of Christ.  And there are parables Christ told, in which the Gentiles are allowed to take the place of the Jews--such as the parable of the marriage of the king's son.  These should have prepared the disciples for the idea that the gospel would not be the Jews' private property for long.


Then, at the very end of Matthew, the closing verses are Christ's injunction to the disciples, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19).  The word "nations" in this scripture is translated from a Greek word "ethnos," which in the Greek Old Testament is used to specifically designate a pagan or Gentile people (Streathern, p. 189). 


So it should have been pretty clear to the disciples that the directive to teach the gospel only to the Jews had been expanded so that the blessings of the gospel could be made available to everyone in the world.  Indeed, Peter, John and Philip all followed this commission quite quickly, as in Chapter 8 of Acts we find all three of them teaching the gospel in the cities of the Samaritans, and Philip also teaching the gospel to the Ethiopian.


But there was something about this change in policy that was not well understood by the disciples, and definitely not understood by many of the Jewish Christians.  The second part of the injunction to preach to the Gentiles says, "...teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you..." (Matt. 28:20).  Did that include the Law of Moses?  Did you have to convert to Judaism first, and then convert to Christianity?


This was the question that was answered definitively by the vision given to Peter in Acts 10.  A centurian named Cornelius, well-prepared to accept the gospel, had a vision at the ninth hour of the day, which would be 3:00 in the afternoon.  Why is the time significant?  It was the time of the afternoon prayer.  Revelations come in answer to prayer.  In addition, Cornelius had been fasting (Acts 10:30).  He saw, "an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius.  And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God.  And now send to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter: He lodgeth with one Simon a Tanner, whose house is by the sea side: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do" (Acts 10:3-6).  He sent two servants and one of his soldiers who was also religiously minded to Joppa right away, 34 miles south of Caesarea, or about 11 hours walking distance (Ogden/Skinner, p. 55).


They were nearing the city about the sixth hour (noon), which was another regular hour of prayer.  Peter at that time was praying on the housetop, "And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.  And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.  But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.  And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.  This was done thrice; and the vessel was received up again into heaven" (Acts 10:11-116).


As an important part of the Mosaic Law (the Law of Moses), the people had been given severe dietary restrictions relating to the animals they could consume.  (See Deut. 14:3-20.)  Basically, they were forbidden from eating birds and animals that were carnivores or scavengers, and they were forbidden from eating animals that ate their own feces.  So the term "unclean" is pretty literal here (JustBible.net).


"The 'great sheet knit at the four corners' probably resembled a large prayer shawl of the kind worn by Jewish men during their religious devotions.  Nonkosher animals wrapped in a holy prayer shawl would have made a doubly significant impression on Peter" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 57).


It's not so surprising, then, that Peter asked the Lord, Really?  It was a mega cultural shock.


Why is it that important messages from Heaven so often come in three repetitions?  Well, maybe because three in Hebrew (and in so many other ways in life) represents the Godhead.  It becomes quite clear on the third time that it is truly a directive given through the Holy Spirit and not just a wandering of the mind.


"While Peter thought on the vision, the Spirit said unto him, Behold three men seek thee.  Arise therefore, and get thee down, and go with them, doubting nothing: for I have sent them" (Acts 10:19--21).  And Peter needed that clear command, because the three men asked him to come to Caesarea to teach Cornelius the gospel.  "Caesarea [was] the Roman capital of Judaea.  It had a temple of Zeus and a temple of Augustus, both built by Herod the Great.  It would have been repulsive for Peter to go there; he resided instead in Jewish Joppa" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 55).


And this act of faith was rewarded:  Cornelius had a large number of people assembled to hear the word of God from Peter.  When Cornelius related his vision, "Then Peter opened his mouth [once again, Step One of missionary work], and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:34-35).  Peter taught them about Jesus Christ, and their acceptance of the truth was so immediate that, "While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word.  And they of the circumcision  which believed [in other words, Jews who believed in Christ and had been baptized as Christians] were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost.  For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God" (Acts 10:44-46).  "The manner in which the word circumcised is used throughout the book of Acts and the epistles is generally as a one-word representation for the entire law of Moses" (Matthews, p. 103).   Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy  Ghost as well as we?  And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts 10:46-48).  (This would have just been the power of the Holy Ghost that Peter and the others witnessed unto the Gentiles' conversion, not the Gift of the Holy Ghost, since they weren't yet baptized.)


It was not at all easy for the majority of the church to accept this idea, though.  Here is where the problem lay:  The Jews thought that becoming a Jew (entering into the circumcision) was the first step toward becoming a Christian.  "Note this important fact: even though individuals of gentile lineage now came into the Church, they had all previously converted to Judaism, which meant complying with the practice of circumcision, eating kosher food, offering sacrifice, and honoring the Sabbath day in proper Jewish style.  Although Greek, Galatian, or Roman in lineage, they were Jews in religion" (Matthews, p. 99-100).  Wouldn't someone who wanted to follow Christ, first have to be circumcised and have a restricted diet, and follow the hundreds of other obligations and traditions the Jews had attached to the Law of Moses?


THE NEW LAW


The answer given by the vision was no.  James verified it as a second witness in Acts 15:19-20.  The rule for the new converts was that they should avoid eating things that had to do with pagan worship and they should remain sexually pure.  "The covenant is eternal, but this sign of the covenant is now discontinued: 'The law of circumcision is done away in me' (Moro.8:8)" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 74).  Jesus announced that the Law of Moses was fulfilled.


It took a long time for this "change in policy" to be generally accepted, though, and there was some schism in the church because of it.  Hundreds of years of tradition don't disappear that quickly.  But it was "not simply a topic about tradition or custom but a fundamental doctrinal issue regarding the atonement of Jesus Christ" (Matthews, p. 103).  The people needed to know that Jesus Christ's Atonement could save them without the Law of Moses.


 LATTER-DAY PARALLEL


Those of us old enough to remember the great Revelation on the Priesthood given to President Kimball on June 1, 1978 can relate.  It had been generally understood by the church membership and taught by some of the leaders that people of African descent would never hold the Priesthood on this earth (even though Joseph Smith ordained at least one man to the Priesthood.  See a previous post for more on the absolutely fascinating and little-known history of the black members of the Church.)  One of those who consistently taught and wrote this belief was Elder Bruce R. McConkie, often thought of as the definitive authority on any gospel subject.  But when the word of the Lord came in answer to President Kimball's pleadings, and was witnessed also to the apostles, he accepted it whole-heartedly.  This is what he wrote after the revelation was given:


"We have revelations that tell us that the gospel is to go to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people before the second coming of the Son of Man.  And we have revelations which recite that when the Lord comes he will find those who speak every tongue and are members of every nation and kindred, who will be kings and priests, who will live and reign on earth with him a thousand years.  That means, as you know, that people from all nations will have the blessings of the house of the Lord [the temple] before the Second Coming.


"We have read these passages and their associated passages for many years.  We have seen what the words say and have said to ourselves, 'Yes, it says that, but we must read out of it the taking of the gospel and the blessings of the temple to the Negro people, because they are denied certain things.'  There are statements in our literature by the early brethren, wchih we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality.  I have said the same things, and [now] people write me letters and say, 'You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?' And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet.  Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation.  We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.


"We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept.  We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past.  They don't matter any more.


"It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978."  (Bruce R. McConkie, "The New Revelation on Priesthood, p. 130-132, quoted in Ogden/Skinner, p. 59.  Also quoted on Wikipedia.)


The great thing about Christ's church is that each person need only pray for a personal witness to a major change such as this to receive verification from the Lord on the subject.  What a great system!  And when we get that witness, we need to pedal as hard as we can to adjust ourselves to completely accept the change, as did Peter and as did Elder McConkie.


(Here is a link to the Revelation on the Priesthood in the July 1978 Ensign, from which you may want to quote.  Here is a link to the story of the faith of those waiting for this revelation: "African Converts Without Baptism"  in a BYU devotional address given by Dale LeBaron. This may be a good opportunity to have class members share their experiences regarding major shifts in the church--how they felt, how they adjusted their perspective, how others around them reacted, etc.)


Eternal life is completely fair in that Jesus Christ's gospel is open to everyone!  "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:28-29).  "He inviteth them allt o come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all ar alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile" (2 Ne. 26:33).


But, on the other hand, earth life is completely unfair:

DEATH OF JAMES/RESCUE OF PETER

Now in one chapter, we have completely opposing outcomes to the faith of two of the apostles.

"Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.  And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.  And because he saw it pleased the [leaders of the] Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also" (Acts 12:1-3)

"This James is a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, brother of John.  He was killed during Passover in Jerusalem in AD 44, making him, as far as we know, the first apostle-martyr.  The death of James was a pivotal event, for it demonstrated the weakening position and increasing unpopularity of the Christians among the Jews of Jerusalem,  This change seems to have resulted from the Church's extending fellowship to the Gentiles" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 61-63). 

FYI:  The James that is mentioned from this time forward in the account (such as in verse 17) is "the brother of Jesus, widely esteemed in Jerusalem as a strictly observant Jew, [appearing] as principal leader of the church of Jerusalem" (Bruce R. McConkie, New Testament History, p. 261, quoted in Ogden/Skinner, p. 63).

Peter, on the other hand, was imprisoned, prayed for constantly by the body of the Church, and rescued most miraculously by an angel of the Lord while he was sleeping chained between two soldiers, with guards also at the door.  They, apparently, walked through the doors, through two wards of the prison, through the outer gate and down the street with no one noticing.  Peter thought he was dreaming at first.  It was the most awesome jailbreak ever!

The angel left him to reunite with the church members on his own.  Coming to Mary's house, who was the mother of John Mark, he pretty much freaked everybody out.  They thought he was a ghost.  But what a joyous reunion, once they actually let him in the door!

Still, do you think James' mother thought, Why wasn't my son rescued?

ABOUT THOSE HAPPY ENDINGS...

We have the same sorts of juxtapositions in the lives of Latter-day Saints today.  (And everyone else's lives as well.)  One person is healed, another dies at a young age.  And there are others who live to old age without any major health issues. 
Joshua Dennis was miraculously rescued after being lost for days in a cave on a Scouting trip.  David Rayborn was struck and killed by lightning at Scout camp.  But most Scouts come and go from camp in perfect safety.  Elizabeth Smart was rescued months after being abducted from her bedroom and lived to serve a mission.  Trisha Autry was kidnapped and brutally murdered in her own hometown, one of the safest communities in the country.  And of course, there are others who sleep safely in their own beds every night of their lives. 

Life is terribly unfair, and we can never expect it to be otherwise. 

BUT!  Paul, the great apostle who suffered so much for Christ, wrote, "All things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28) and I think he really meant that.  (Next week we will discuss Paul in depth.) 


(This may be a good time for class discussion and testimonies regarding miracles they have witnessed or experienced, and faith they have exercised or observed during times when "miracles" did not happen as desired.)


 

We don't have much control over whether we have the traditional "happy ending" in this life (long life, good health, personal safety, missionary success, romantic love, etc.), but through our faith and the power of the Atonement, we do have a great deal of control over whether find peace in this life and total control over whether we ultimately have a happy ending in the eternities.  If we don't receive the miracle we want, we are compensated with great blessings through our trials, and ultimately, if we use our "good" or "ill" fortune to strengthen our faith, to gain understanding, and to serve others, the world is a better place and we are blessed people.  If we exercise faith in the Atonement, what happens to us in earth life can never prevent us from achieving eternal life.  (See a previous post for more on this.)  It will all come out fair in the final counting.

SOURCES:
  • Gaye Strathearn, "The Jewish and Gentile Missions: Paul's Role in the Transition," The Apostle Paul: His Life and His Testimony--Sidney B. Sperry Symposium on the New Testament
  • D. Kelly Ogden & Andrew C. Skinner, New Testament Apostles Testify of Christ
  • JustBible.net (http://www.justbible.net/acts10-cornelius.htm)
  • Robert J. Matthews, "The Jerusalem Council," The Apostle Paul: His Life and His Testimony--Sidney B. Sperry Symposium on the New Testament

Sunday, July 17, 2011

New Testament Lesson #29 "The Number of the Disciples Was Multiplied"

Acts 6-9

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 first mentioned by the Prophet Joseph Smith one Sunday afternoon to Brigham and Joseph Young, whose voices raised together in song were pleasing to the Prophet. He listened to them for a while, then told Brigham to call a meeting of the Church for the following Saturday when he would organize the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; and said he: 'Brigham, you are to be one of them.' Turning to Joseph Young, he said: 'And you are to be a president of the seventy.'

"At that time, no one had any idea of what a seventy was or how an organization of them was to be effected. They knew only the references in the Bible where the Lord sent out 'other seventy' who had returned rejoicing (see Luke 10:1–17), and where an organization of seventy men was organized under Moses (see Ex. 24:1, 9; Num. 11:16). It was indeed a startling thing for them to learn that there were to be seventy men with a missionary calling, that their presidents should be seven in number. They were to assist the Twelve in preaching the gospel and in regulating the Church in all the world. (See D&C 107:25, 34.)

"On February 28, 1835, seven presidents were chosen to preside over the quorum. In order of their choosing, they were: Hazen Aldrich, Joseph Young, Levi Ward Hancock, Leonard Rich, Zebedee Coltrin, Lyman Royal Sherman, and Sylvester Smith....

"The Prophet also organized 2 1/2 more quorums of seventy, making a total of 3 1/2 quorums. They were presided over by the presidents of the First Quorum....

"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).

"[An] aspect that many readers seem to miss is concerned with Paul’s preparation to represent the Lord. There is a nine-to-ten-year period from Paul’s conversion until the time of his so-called first missionary journey. Obviously, it was as necessary for Paul to mature and season in the gospel, grow and develop, as it is for the rest of us. Even so, considering the fervent zeal of this famous convert, we can assume that Saul was very involved in missionary efforts from the time of his conversion, wherever he was. But the first detailed reference to a mission is in Acts 13, when he is called to accompany Barnabas to Cyprus and some Asia Minor cities. For the first part of the journey, Luke implies that Barnabas is the leader, and Saul continues to use his Jewish name. However, when the missionary company meets the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus, Saul seems to take the lead in preaching to him and in pronouncing a curse of blindness upon the interfering Jewish magician, Elymas. Including the incident with Paulus, several events signal a change in leadership. Paul was a Roman citizen; the missionaries were entering a predominantly gentile phase of their journey; and John Mark returned to Jerusalem (he may not yet have been prepared to proselyte among the gentile nations). Paul may simply have been the one best equipped to lead the group during that phase of their travels. From this time onward, Luke never refers to Saul by his Jewish name, but instead calls him Paul (probably his Roman cognomen) and refers to the group as “Paul and his company.” (Acts 13:13.)  (C. Wilfred Griggs, "Paul: The Long Road from Damascus," Ensign, Sept. 1975).

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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On a Personal Note...Requesting Prayers

If any of you readers wouldn't mind praying for my son Nathaniel Hyrum Jensen and the rest of the U.S. Army Blackhawk Brigade, it would be greatly appreciated.  If you think about adding him to your temple prayer rolls, that would be even better.  He will be flying from his home in Germany to Afghanistan within the next few days for a year deployment. 

Hyrum and his wife, Chloe

He's already been shot once (in training in Bulgaria a year ago), had four surgeries, and was left with a 14-inch scar and a limp.  He narrowly missed being hit by a 50-caliber machine gun misfire this week while working in his office.  (An SUV was destroyed in the parking lot, several cars damaged, and a bullet lodged in the outer wall of the building.)  This same boy fell off a 30-foot cliff in Canyonlands as a 5-year-old, somersaulted in the air, landed on his feet in the sand, and did not break a bone, lose consciousness or require stitches.  (I have a photograph of him standing beside the cliff to prove the height.)  I won't even mention the teenage years...

We are thinking we should have named him after Wilford Woodruff instead of after Hyrum Smith, since he seems to narrowly escape death on a regular basis.  Here's hoping that trend continues for another year.

Friday, July 8, 2011

New Testament Lesson #28 "We Are Witnesses"

Acts 1-5

THE WITNESSES OF LUKE

The book of Acts was written by Luke as a sequel to his Gospel.  He began both with an introduction and dedication to someone named Theophilus. "The former treatise have I made [speaking of the Gospel of Luke], O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen" (Acts 1:1-2).  Who is Theophilus?  "Following a literary custom of his day, Luke gives his work a formal dedication.  Theophilus, literally 'lover of God,' may refer to a [particular] historical person or to anyone who loves God" (Harper-Collins Study Bible, p. 2057).

Understanding that Luke and Acts are connected books makes each of them a stronger witness.  "Because the Gospels were grouped together in the [Bible], Acts stands separate from luke.  Yet readers of Acts will be helped if they bear in mind its many connections with the Third Gospel.  Among the most important...themes is the fulfillment of God's promises in the ministry of Jesus and the life of the church.  From the annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:35) to the mission of the church (Acts 1:8) to Paul's journey to Rome (Acts 27:24), Luke underscores the absolute reliability of God's word.  Another overriding theme is the work of the Holy Spirit, which plays a prominent role in Jesus' ministry (Luke 4:1), in the empowering of the church (Acts 2:1-13), and in guiding the church's witness (15:28; 16:6-7).  A third connection between the two volumes is that important figures in Acts duplicate aspects of Jesus' life, [such] as when Peter raises the dead (Acts 9:36-43; Luke 7:11-17) or when Paul's final journey to Jerusalem and Rome echoes that of Jesus to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21; Luke 9:51-52)" (Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Associate Professor of New Testament, Princeton Theological Seminary, writing for the Harper-Collins Study Bible, p. 2057.)

Women Witnesses
Richard Neitzel Holzapfel notes that women as witnesses is a theme carried over from the Gospel of Luke.  Once again, only a woman was witness to two great events:  The birth of Christ (Luke 2:1-19) and the birth of the Christian church (Acts 1:1-14).

Temple the Focal Point
He also points out that the temple is a point of focus in both books.  When Jesus was just a child, his parents came up to Jerusalem for the Passover and lost Jesus, thinking he was with relatives in the same traveling company.  It was three days before they found him in the temple teaching the priests the things he had already learned at such a young age from God (Luke 2:46, JST footnote).  The temple mount was 40 acres, 4 times the size of Salt Lake City's Temple Square.  There would have been approximately 180,000 people on the temple mount during Passover, although it can actually hold twice that number.  And yet, little Jesus said to his parents, in essence, "Why did you have such a hard time finding me?  You should have known I would have been at the temple!"  (See Luke 2:41-50.) 

The temple is at the beginning of Luke's account of Jesus' life, and the temple is at the end:  Each day at the 9th hour (3:00 p.m.), the Jews would pray with their hands over their heads.  At the end of his Gospel, Luke notes that as Christ hung on the cross, "there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour.  And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst.  And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost" (Luke 23:44-46). So as the Jews were praying with their hands over their heads at the temple at Passover, Jesus died on the cross, with his hands over his head, and God the Father heard Christ's prayer, opened the veil between heaven and earth, and allowed Christ, the great and new High Priest to enter his presence so that all others who desired might do the same. 

The final words of Luke's first book are that after Christ's ascension, the disciples "were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.  Amen" (Luke 24:53). 

Working of Miracles
The first healing done by the apostles that is recorded by Luke in his second book, was at the Feast of Pentecost, when "Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour" (Acts 3:1), when there would have been a large number of people at the temple praying, and performed a public healing of a man well-known to have been lame from birth.  It was just like the miraculous healings performed by Christ:  it was a bold and irrefutable witness that they had power from Christ.  Upon seeing the man begging, Peter answered, "Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk" (Acts 3:6). 

(Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, "Temple Worship and Symbolism in the New Testament," CES Scripture Symposium held in Logan, Utah January 25, 2003, taken from my personal notes, 8:161). 

Importance of Preaching the Gospel to all the World
The Gospel of Luke ends with Christ's injunction that "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  And ye are witness of these things.  And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high" (Luke 24:47-49). 

The first words of the book of Acts are reminders of that promise and the commandment that they should be witnesses of Christ in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and into the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:3-8). 

The Witness of Angels
As two angels witnessed to the women at the tomb, "Why seek ye the living among the dead?", two angels witnessed to the apostles, "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?  this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:10-11).

THE JOY OF THE ATONEMENT PREACHED TO THOSE WHO CRUCIFIED CHRIST

The first place the Apostles were commanded to preach the gospel was in Jerusalem, so that is where they started.  (That would seem to be obvious, but we are not always so obedient.  Think of Jonah, for instance.) 

There was a huge crowd of "devout men, out of every nation under heaven" who had gathered to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost.  ("Devout" doesn't necesarily mean "believers in Christ"--the Pharisees were the most devout of all.)  These were Jews whose ancestors had previously been scattered to other nations as Israel had been conquered, so they spoke many different languages.  And Jerusalem was the place where Christ had recently been unjustly tried, convicted, and condemned during the last great gathering, the Passover.  It would not seem to be a fertile ground for missionary work.

But Peter and the apostles were now filled with power through the Gift of the Holy Ghost (John 20:22) and the Melchizedek Priesthood and were no longer afraid of the people or the leaders.  Their testimonies had been strengthened; they did not hesitate to risk their lives to obey their Lord and Savior.  As the small group of believers assembled for Pentecost, they appeared to be on fire. There was also a great sound as the rushing of a mighty wind. 

The word spread that there was a spectacle to see, and people gathered, and were shocked to hear the gospel being preached by Galileans, and yet being heard by each man in his own language.  By obeying the  command to first preach in Jerusalem, the Apostles were aided by a great manifestation of the gift of tongues, by which the gospel then could be spread throughout the many surrounding nations as the listening Jews returned home with the message.

Peter boldly proclaimed to them, "Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death; because it was not possible that he should be holden of it" (Acts 2:22-24).  Peter did not mince words!  Peter then referred to the writings of the great King David, whose place of burial was well-known, and told them that Christ had been the Messiah and Savior who was to come through David, and he no longer remained in the sepulchre, but was resurrected.  "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ"  (Acts 2:36).

Imagine hearing this and having the awful realization dawn that it was true!

"Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?

It was too late to reverse the decision of the court!  It was too late to stop the crucifixion!  It was too late to become a disciple of Christ rather than an enemy!  It was too late to switch sides!

Or was it?

No.  It wasn't, and it isn't.  It is never, ever too late.

"Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.  For the promise is unto you, and to your children, to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call" (Acts 2:38-39).

The Lord called his own condemnors and promised them the remission of sins and the Gift of the Holy Ghost?  Right after they crucified him?  Why?

"[The Lord] doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his life that he may draw all men unto him.  Wherefore he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation.  Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me?  Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he sayeth: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey without money and without price...Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation?  Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men, and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance" (2 Ne. 26:24-25,27).

Because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, which he wrought in the Garden of Gethsemane before being crucified, even those who crucified him were freely offered not only resurrection, but the remission of their sins.  In fact, the apostles were commanded to preach it to them.

Any of us who may feel that our sins are beyond the power of the Atonement, or that we would not be able to qualify to inherit Christ's kingdom because of what we have done or who we are need only read this chapter in Acts to realize that the Atonement will work for us as well.  A great example of trust in Christ and the power of his Atonement to cleanse, to heal, and to sanctify any sinner is shown in the lives of those who, after calling for his crucifixion, then turned to him in repentance.  A great example also of the diligence Christ expects of his disciples to "feed my sheep" no matter who they are or what they have done is shown in the bold preaching of Peter and the apostles.

"Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41).  (See also Acts 3:12-26 for a similar speech.)

Why did these people now recognize the truth when they did not accept the Savior when he was there himself?  "Here is the happy success and issue of this [preaching].  The Spirit wrought with the word, and wrought wonders by it.  These same persons that had many of them been eye-witnesses of the death of Christ, and the prodigies that attended it, and were not wrought upon by them, were yet wrought upon by the preaching of the word, for it is this that is the power of God unto salvation.  They received the word; and then only the word does us good, when we do receive it, embrace it, and bid it welcome" (Matthew Henry's Commentary--The New Testament, Acts, p. 13).

ESTABLISHMENT OF THE CHURCH

Although most of the leadership of the Jews still did not believe, the early Christian church was solidly established in Jerusalem with a base membership of those disciples who had followed Christ during his ministry, and these who had received the word at Pentecost.  Their story is almost as amazing as that of the conversion of the entire Nephite nation which was happening in the Americas at exactly the same time (3 Ne. 11-26). 

In just a few verses here, Luke details why and how the Church worked so well.  Look for the elements of success.  (The blue comments come from Matthew Henry, p 13-14.)
  • And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine..."They were diligent and constant in their attendance upon the preaching of the word."
  • And [the apostles'] fellowship...  "They kept up the communion of saints."
  • And in breaking of bread...  "They frequently joined in the ordinance of the Lord's supper.  They continued in the breaking of bread, in celebrating that memorial of their Master's death, as those that were not ashamed to own their relation to, and their dependance upon, Christ and him crucified."
  • And in prayers.  "They continued in prayers.  After the Spirit was poured out, as well as before, while they were waiting for him, they continued instant in prayer; for prayer will never be superseded till it comes to be swallowed up in everlasting praise [in the next life]."
  • And fear [great reverence for God] came upon every soul...  The despising of the Savior while he was among them changed to a state of awe.
  • And many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.  Miracles did not cease when Christ left the earth, nor will they as long as his Church is here. 
  • And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.  "This was to destroy, not property...but selfishness."
  • And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple...  "They kept close to holy ordinances, and abounded in all instances of piety and devotion."  "They met in the temple...for joint-fellowship with God is the best fellowship we can have with one another." 
  • And breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people.  "They abounded in thanksgiving; were continually praising God.  This should have a part in every prayer, and not be crowded into a corner.  Those that have received the gift of the Holy Ghost will be much in praise."
...And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:41-47).


PARALLELS IN THE LATTER-DAY CHURCH

We can see many parallels between their church and our church, and also the church Christ established among the Nephites.  (You may want to ask the class to identify parallels, and then write them on a chart on the blackboard as they think of them.  They may come up with different ones than I have.)

PARALLELS IN THE ESTABLISHMENT OF
CHRIST’S CHURCH
IN DIFFERENT ERAS AND LOCATIONS
Event/Situation
New Testament Church
Nephite Church
Restored Church
Spectacular descent of the Holy Ghost; prophecy of Joel 2:28 proclaimed fulfilled
Acts 2:1-4
sound of rushing wind, cloven tongues of fire, speaking in tongues;
Acts 2:17 Joel's prophecy repeated by Peter
3 Ne. 19:9-14
circle of fire, presence of angels
D&C 109:36-37
sound of rushing wind, appearance of fire, speaking in tongues
Joel's prophecy repeated by Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith
Huge groups join the church
Acts 2:41; 4:4
3,000 men; 5,000 men
4 Ne. 1:2
the entire nation
missions to England, Canada
All things held in common
Acts 4:32
3 Ne. 26:19
4 Ne. 1:2-3
D&C 42
Transfiguration; Keys of Kingdom given
Matt. 17:1-13
Bible Dictionary p. 786
3 Ne. 28:12-15
D&C 110:11-16
April 3, 1836
Apostles imprisoned but prisons could not hold them
Acts 12 freed by angel
Acts 16 freed by earthquake; jailer converted
3 Ne. 18:19
Many times; Joseph Smith did convert a jailer; sometimes they did escape or were allowed to
Visited by resurrected Christ
Acts 1:3
3 Ne. 11:8 and on
D&C 110 in the Kirtland Temple
Sacrament instituted
Luke 22:17-20
3 Ne. 18
D&C 20
Twelve Apostles called
Acts 1:13, 21-26 filling position left by Judas Iscariot
3 Ne. 12:1
D&C 18:26
Voice of God identifying Christ
Matt. 17:5
3 Ne. 11:6-7
Joseph Smith-History 1:17
Healing miracles performed by apostles
Acts 3:1-7
4 Ne. 1:5
History of the Church records many
Eventual persecution of church members
All apostles ended up being martyrs
4 Ne. 1:34
That is the reason the church is based in Salt Lake City—they had to flee the U.S. because of persecution

Joyous differences in the Latter-day Church
An apostacy prophecied
Yes
Yes
No!  The church will never again leave the earth
A restoration prophecied
Acts 3:19-21
3 Ne. 20-22
JS-H 1:40 this restoration is final


THE IMPORTANCE OF THE REST OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
We all love to read the Gospels over and over, and but sometimes we don't realize the tremendous value of the Acts and the Epistles and the Book of Revelation.

"Sadly, the second half of the New Testament is sometimes neglected by Latter-day Saints.  That is unfortunate because the times in which those books of the New Testament were written were not so different from our own.  The information in those books and the lessons we can learn from them could become a towering source of peace and power in coping with life's challenges in our own times.  These books speak of the former-day Saints having to endure persecution; sexual temptations and perversions of every kind, including prostitution, adultery, fornication, and homosexuality; recurring and vexing welfare problems; famine and economic uncertainties; sorrow and suffering; trials and tribulations; the allure of reason over revelation; false teachers; and apostasy" (D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner, New Testament Apostles Testify of Christ, p. 1-2).

It will be exciting to study "the rest of the story" during the remainder of the year in Sunday School.

LATTER-DAY APOSTLES GAME

With whatever time you have left, you can play this game.
Ask the class to identify the 12 apostles of the early Church.  You can let them look them up, if needed, in Acts 1:13 & 26.  Write them on the board.  Then ask them if they can name our present-day apostles.  As they do, write them on the board.  Remember, there will be 15, not 12, with the First Presidency.  You can then play a game of knowledge of our apostles.  Divide the class into two teams.  Show a picture of one of the apostles.  One team member is asked to name the apostle.  He/she has the option to try or to pass.  If the answer is right, the next team member must tell us something about the apostle.  (His professional life, his family life, hobbies, his most recent conference address topic, his personality, details of his church service.)  This team keeps the turn until they can tell three things about the apostle.  If they make a mistake, the opposing team gets to finish their turn, and then start a new one.  You can keep score on the board, if it seems appropriate.

This will work pretty well with a large class of adults who are well-established in the church.  If you have a small class of youth, you may want to ask for only one thing about each apostle.  If you have a small group of new members or children, you may want to post all the apostles' pictures at once, put information about the apostles on slips of paper in a bowl and have team members draw one out and guess which apostle it is.  Tell them the correct answer, post the strip by the apostle's picture, and don't keep score.

Sources you can use for information about the apostles:

The Church News Church Leaders Page

Grandpa Bill's General Authority Pages

Mormon Times

CONCLUSION

As Christ was setting up his church in Jerusalem, he admonished Peter to "Feed my sheep."  This commandment applies to us today as well as it did to Peter.  We are both the shepherds and the sheep, and we must perform each role well.  It is our job to help and lift each other in whatever our stewardships may be in the kingdom.  It is also our job to listen to and obey those who are shepherds over us, particularly the apostles.  We are so blessed in our day; we do not have to leave our jobs and follow the apostles through the countryside, straining to hear over the multitude, and having to rely upon our own memories.  We should not treat the words of the prophets and apostles today casually because of the easiness of hearing them.  We must be earnest in hearing, and then we can turn around and "feed" the other "sheep."

For a great article on feeding the sheep, by Russell M. Nelson, click here.