Notes on Acts 10-15 "The Word of God Grew and Multiplied", CFM lesson for July 15-21
This has been a very full week for our family. We hosted a lot of family and friends over the weekend as our son spoke in Church last Sunday and reported to the MTC on Wednesday. Lots of emotions as we say goodbye to our second missionary. He will overlap our oldest by 6 months.
This week's scripture block was very dense and rich -- missionary work and stories, taking the gospel to the Gentiles, and revelation to individuals and to the Church are just a few of the themes. I hope I can do it justice in the time I have to write.
Cornelius and Peter and the Conversion of Gentiles, Acts 10:1-48
- I love the story of Cornelius and the parallel revelation going on with him and with Peter.
- Wayment notes that the description of Cornelius as "God-fearing" meant he was a Jewish proselyte. While not being circumcised, he would have kept the other parts of the law and believed in the scriptures. "God fearing" was a technical term for those converts. We will see later that Paul addresses both Jews and those that fear God in the synagogues he teaches in.
- The angel that comes to Cornelius addresses him by name. What a beautiful thing that to God we are known and loved by name. Hales Swift points out that the story of Cornelius reminds us that spiritual experiences are open to all people, baptized or not: "It is important to note here that Cornelius had this wonderful spiritual experience before he was ever a member of the Church. Some have mischaracterized the doctrine of the Church as indicating that we think we are the only ones who have spiritual experiences or revelation or visitation by angels, but the doctrine of the Church, found in the scriptures, explicitly contradicts this misrepresentation. We believe that those inside and outside the Church can receive a broad range of spiritual experiences including receiving a witness from the Holy Ghost, or even ministration from angels. The entire missionary program is indeed premised on this."
- Peter was staying at the home of a tanner, which already shows that he is open to those of lesser status. Tanners were considered unclean by very strict Jews and they had to dwell on the outskirts of towns to minimize the impact of the smells of their professions.
- When the messengers are close, Peter is hungry at noon and while the meal is prepared, he falls into a trance and sees a vision of a sheet of all kinds of animals coming down from heaven. God commands him to kill and eat, but he resists, saying essentially that he has always kept the dietary laws of Moses and that some of the animals are not clean according to that law. Three times, he is told, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common." Don't you love how Peter has these consistent patterns of threes? Three times the denial, three times the question, "Lovest thou me?" and three times this vision. The Lord seems to repeat things both for emphasis and to aid memory but also so that we can't deny it was from Him. A vision had once can be thought of as "just a dream." The exact same vision and message three times is hard to dismiss.
- The book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (well worth the read!) points out that without putting ourselves in the culture of the time, this vision doesn't seem that remarkable to us. Why doesn't Peter just eat already? But the eating laws had been ingrained for centuries and set the Jews apart from their neighbors. It would be like putting a sheet of puppies, bats, and cockroaches in front of you and saying, "go ahead and eat." These foods would have not just been forbidden to him but the thought of eating them would have been disgusting. The law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ, but what exactly that meant wasn't known all at once. Traditions and culture are deeply embedded in these good men.
- I love that we are told that Peter "doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean." God could have just said, "Hey Peter, it's time to take the gospel to the Gentiles and there's a man coming named Cornelius. I want you to start with him." Instead, God gives him a vision to ponder over and consider. Later (probably a few years), this vision will still be referenced and is key to the decisions at the Jerusalem conference in regards to what to do about the Gentile converts and circumcision. The vision helped the Church leaders grow line upon line. This was a powerful vision both for Peter and for those he shared it with. Teaching in a vision or idea like this gives multiple layers of meaning and allows Peter to study and work out the meaning for himself. I told my kids it is like the difference between giving a child the answer to a math problem and teaching him how to work it out for himself. If you simply give the answer every time, you create dependency. God doesn't want to make us dependent on Him; He wants to teach us true principles so that we can grow and learn. As Elder Dale G. Renlund said, "Our Heavenly Father’s goal in parenting is not to have His children do what is right; it is to have His children choose to do what is right and ultimately become like Him. If He simply wanted us to be obedient, He would use immediate rewards and punishments to influence our behaviors.
But God is not interested in His children just becoming trained and obedient “pets” who will not chew on His slippers in the celestial living room.3 No, God wants His children to grow up spiritually and join Him in the family business.
God established a plan whereby we can become heirs in His kingdom, a covenant path that leads us to become like Him, have the kind of life He has, and live forever as families in His presence.4
- The Spirit tells Peter that God has sent the messengers from Cornelius. In contrast to his vision, this time he goes without hesitation. He travels to Caesarea. When Cornelius falls at his feet to honor him, Peter humbly tells him that they are both men. Peter goes into his house, telling Cornelius that because of his vision, he will violate the laws that he previously followed. The interesting thing is that the law of Moses itself did not forbid entering into the homes of the uncircumcised. Instead, it was the oral laws built up after Lynn Wilson says, "Peter referred to a custom that was added after the Jews returned from Babylon. The oral laws claimed that a Jew became ritually unclean if he visited the house of a Gentile, or even came “into close contact with one.” She continues about the oral law, "They were developed by rabbis who claimed they were first given to Moses orally, but were not written down until centuries later. Thousands of extra laws grew as a figurative fence or buffer zone around their beloved Law of Moses. In addition to the 613 commandments in the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament), rabbis systematized ten thousand commandments to govern Jewish life. For example, the fourth commandment includes a prohibition against work on the Sabbath. So, rabbis itemized thirty-nine definitions of work, which then grew into hundreds of applications." While Christ was strict to keep the law of Moses in his lifetime, He was often condemned for not living these oral laws, like in the case of telling the man to carry his bed on the Sabbath after his healing.
- The Holy Ghost is poured out upon the Gentiles in Cornelius's house after Peter teaches of Christ and marvels, "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.
- Peter commands them to be baptized. This is huge! These Gentiles don't first have to be circumcised and become Jews to be Christians.
- This week, I re-read this wonderful article by Edward Kimball about that time in modern Church history. I love how it shows the spiritual work and seeking that was required of both President Spencer W. Kimball as well as the members of the Twelve. My favorite quote from it is this, "Years earlier, talking about revelation in general, Spencer had written in a letter to his son [the author of this article]: Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired. I think few people receive revelations while lounging on the couch or while playing cards or while relaxing. I believe most revelations would come when a man is on his tip toes, reaching as high as he can for something which he knows he needs, and then there bursts upon him the answer to his problems."
- The student manual points out, "The new revelation and understanding given through Peter opened the doors for the gospel to be taught to all people without consideration of lineage.
A similar pattern followed in 1978, when a revelation received by the First Presidency extended priesthood and temple blessings to “all worthy male members of the Church … without regard for race or color” (Official Declaration 2). This revelation, like the revelation received by Peter, teaches that the gospel has always gone forth according to the Lord’s timetable. Shortly after the 1978 revelation was announced to the world, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught:
“Not only is the gospel to go, on a priority basis and harmonious to a divine timetable, to one nation after another, but the whole history of God’s dealings with men on earth indicates that such has been the case in the past; it has been restricted and limited where many people are concerned. For instance, in the day between Moses and Christ, the gospel went to the house of Israel, almost exclusively. By the time of Jesus, the legal administrators and prophetic associates that he had were so fully indoctrinated with the concept of having the gospel go only to the house of Israel that they were totally unable to envision the true significance of his proclamation that after the resurrection they should then go to all the world. They did not go to the gentile nations initially. In his own ministration, Jesus preached only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and had so commanded the apostles. (Matthew 10:6.)
“It is true that he made a few minor exceptions because of the faith and devotion of some gentile people. There was one woman who wanted to eat the crumbs that fell from the table of the children, causing him to say, ‘O woman, great is thy faith.’ (Matthew 15:28; see also Mark 7:27–28.) With some minor exceptions, the gospel in that day went exclusively to Israel. The Lord had to give Peter the vision and revelation of the sheet coming down from heaven with the unclean meat on it, following which Cornelius sent the messenger to Peter to learn what he, Cornelius, and his gentile associates should do. The Lord commanded them that the gospel should go to the gentiles, and so it was [see Acts 10:1–35, 44–48]. There was about a quarter of a century, then, in New Testament times, when there were extreme difficulties among the Saints. They were weighing and evaluating, struggling with the problems of whether the gospel was to go only to the house of Israel or whether it now went to all men. Could all men come to him on an equal basis with the seed of Abraham?…
“You know this principle: God ‘hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him’ (Acts 17:26–27)—meaning that there is an appointed time for successive nations and peoples and races and cultures to be offered the saving truths of the gospel. …
“We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept [see Isaiah 28:9–10; 2 Nephi 28:30; D&C 98:11–12; 128:21]. 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. …
“On this occasion [the revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy males], because of the importuning and the faith, and because the hour and the time had arrived, the Lord in his providences poured out the Holy Ghost upon the First Presidency and the Twelve in a miraculous and marvelous manner, beyond anything that any then present had ever experienced” (“The New Revelation on Priesthood,” in Priesthood , 130–34)."
Peter Returns to Jerusalem, Acts 11:1-18
- When Peter goes back to Jerusalem, he has to explain himself to the Jews there, who are shocked by his behavior. Remember how often Christ was condemned for eating with publicans and sinners. Now Peter has done even worse than that -- he's eaten with Gentiles!
- Peter explains his vision and his experiences with the Gentiles being given the Holy Ghost. "What was I, that I could withstand God?" Do we ever try to withstand God and argue with Him about what He asks us to do?
- The Christians scattered abroad had been teaching other Jews to this point, but now they begin to teach Gentiles as well. We see that happen up close and personal in the missionary labors of Paul and Barnabas, but there were many others as well. As a mom to two missionaries, I love the simple words in verse 21, "And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord." I have seen the hand of the Lord go with my daughter to Brazil and now I pray for it to go with my son to Louisiana.
The Church in Antioch, Acts 11:19-30
|Map from the student manual|
- Paul has been teaching in his hometown of Tarsus when Barnabas goes to get him to bring him along to Antioch. They spend a year in this great city. Lynn Wilson says, Antioch at the time was the third largest metropolis of the Roman world. It was 350 miles north of Jerusalem, the imperial Legate of Syria, and the capital city with a population of 800,000 people. The well-to-do city lay on the northern slope of Mt. Silpius, 16 miles from the coast, with a winding river plain, lots of trees, and 15% of its population were Jewish.
- "The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." (verse 26). Christ is the Greek word for Messiah, so it makes sense that it isn't until significant numbers of Greek-speakers join that this word starts to be used as a description. Several commentators point out that before that, the disciples called it the "The Way." But even with the word Christian being introduced here, it is clear that for most of the New Testament times, the word "saints" was used to describe the Church members. Then-Elder Russel M. Nelson points out, "The word Christian appears in only three verses of the King James Version of the Bible. One verse describes the historical fact that “disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26); another quotes a sarcastic nonbeliever, King Agrippa (see Acts 26:28); and the third indicates that one known as “a Christian” must be prepared to suffer (1 Pet. 4:16).
In contrast, the term saint (or saints) appears in thirty-six verses of the Old Testament and in sixty-two verses of the New Testament.
Paul addressed an epistle “to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 1:1.)
To recent converts there he said, “Ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:19; see also Eph. 3:17–19.)
In his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul used the word saint at least once in every chapter!
Despite its use in ninety-eight verses of the Bible, the term saint is still not well understood. Some mistakenly think that it implies beatification or perfection. Not so! A saint is a believer in Christ and knows of His perfect love. The giving saint shares in a true spirit of that love, and the receiving saint accepts in a true spirit of gratitude. A saint serves others, knowing that the more one serves, the greater the opportunity for the Spirit to sanctify and purify."
- Prophets come from Jerusalem to Antioch, and one named Agabus prophecied that there would be a famine. Without waiting for outside confirmation, the disciples gather up funds and send relief to Judea with Paul and Barnabas. I love that kind of faith. Lynn Wilson notes, "The word “prophet” had a broader definition in the New Testament than in the Old Testament or in modern times. In the second half of the New Testament, John calls anyone a prophet who has a testimony of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior (1 John 4:2–3; Revelation 10:19), and Luke calls one who has the gift of prophecy a prophet (Acts 11:28). Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word used for “prophets” such as Isaiah and Jonah means a “foreteller, an inspired speaker.”
- Wayment notes that "historical sources indicate that there was a severe famine around 45-48 CE. Claudius was the Roman Emporer between 41-54 CE."
James is Killed and Peter's Escape from Prison, Acts 12:1-18
|Martyrdom of James|
- In this chapter, James is killed, but Peter is delivered. James had been there from the beginning with his brother John and the other Apostles. I wonder how his death affected them as they go forward. Knowing that God allowed such a good man to be killed, how would that affect their own prayers for deliverance? I'm sure they were more determined to be faithful knowing that their own deaths would eventually be the result.
- Sometimes our prayers are answered and we are delivered from our trials miraculously, like Peter, and sometimes we are allowed to suffer or even die, like James.
- "By the sword" likely meant beheading, according to Wayment.
- Peter was rescued by an angel. Angels are still at work in our lives today. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says, "I testify of angels, both the heavenly and the mortal kind. In doing so I am testifying that God never leaves us alone, never leaves us unaided in the challenges that we face. “[N]or will he, so long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one man [or woman or child] upon the face thereof to be saved.”13 On occasions, global or personal, we may feel we are distanced from God, shut out from heaven, lost, alone in dark and dreary places. Often enough that distress can be of our own making, but even then the Father of us all is watching and assisting. And always there are those angels who come and go all around us, seen and unseen, known and unknown, mortal and immortal.
May we all believe more readily in, and have more gratitude for, the Lord’s promise as contained in one of President Monson’s favorite scriptures: “I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, … my Spirit shall be in your [heart], and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”14 In the process of praying for those angels to attend us, may we all try to be a little more angelic ourselves—with a kind word, a strong arm, a declaration of faith and “the covenant wherewith [we] have covenanted.”15Perhaps then we can be emissaries sent from God when someone, perhaps a Primary child, is crying, “Darkness … afraid … river … alone.”
- In Peter's story of deliverance, there's a bit of an echo from the resurrection story. Rhoda sees Peter at the gate and gets so excited she forgets to open the door. In telling the tale to the other disciples, they don't believe her at first, just as the women at the tomb were disbelieved.
- The house is called Mary's house and she is the mother of John Mark, who is likely the author of the gospel of Mark. He was also a missionary companion to Peter.
|Liberation of Peter|
The Death of Herod, Acts 12:20-25
- Wayment says, "Herod's untimely death is noted by the Jewish historian Josephus. Acts depicts his death as immediate but Josephus relates that it took place several days after the event described here. Both sources agree that he died as a result of accepting divine honors. Josephus records that Herod wore a robe made of silver thread and that when the sun hit it Herod shone like a divine being, which is why the crowd declared him to be a god."
- Josephus describes Agrippa dressing himself in a garment made "wholly of silver" so that it would catch the light and dazzle the crowds. We may not go to that extreme to seek prominence and praise from the crowds, but in what ways do we desire to dazzle and seek personal glory? How can we be more humble?
- Herod's desire for glory is in contrast to both Peter earlier and Paul and Barnabas later, who are very careful to never elevate themselves above the people they are teaching. They give God the glory, whereas Herod wants to take it for himself.
Barnabas and Paul are Set Apart, Acts 13:1-3
- These short verses point out that the Church was led by revelation even then. Paul and Barnabas didn't volunteer for their service, they were called by the voice of the Spirit and set apart by the laying on of hands.
- Elder Ronald Rasband, then of the Presidency of the Seventy, described being a part of the process of extending missionary calls today. He testifies, "At the end of the meeting Elder Eyring bore his witness to me of the love of the Savior, which He has for each missionary assigned to go out into the world and preach the restored gospel. He said that it is by the great love of the Savior that His servants know where these wonderful young men and women, senior missionaries, and senior couple missionaries are to serve. I had a further witness that morning that every missionary called in this Church, and assigned or reassigned to a particular mission, is called by revelation from the Lord God Almighty through one of these, His servants."
- I have now had two experiences with my children receiving mission calls. With one, the rightness and power of the location of the call came powerfully to my heart immediately. With the other, I was surprised by the location and had a bit of a "wait, where?" moment. But in a very powerful way, as I prayed and pondered about it, I had the voice of the Spirit teach me that this call was also by revelation.
Ministry in Cyprus: The First Mission, Acts 13:4-13
- Wayment translates the word describing John Mark in verse 5 is "assistant" and says "Luke uses a word that indicates he was their servant to care for their day-to-day needs." We will see in Acts 13:13 that John Mark left the group suddenly, which gave Paul and Barnabas a reason to argue at the end of chapter 15.
- From verse nine on, Saul is mostly known by his Roman name Paul, which means "small" or "little."
- Paul curses the sorcerer with "blindness for a time." Having experienced his own three days of blindness, perhaps he hoped that the experience would humble the man and help him seek repentance.
Psidian Antioch, Acts 13:14-52
|From Student Manual, Paul's first Missionary Journey|
- This is a different Antioch than the one in Syria where Paul departed from.
- Paul and Barnabas consistently start in each city by teaching in the synagogues.
- In verse 27, Paul points out the irony of the Jews not recognizing Jesus "because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day" They had the scriptures and the prophecies right in front of them and recited them regularly yet did not see or understand their fulfillment. Did they take for granted what they had? Were they unwilling to challenge their preconceived notions? Are we living below our privileges in the same way that they were? The video below is one of my favorites and teaches this principle well in ways even children can understand.
- In that same address to the men of the Church, Elder Uchtdorf says, "The words written in the scriptures and spoken in general conference are for us to “liken them unto [ourselves],”7 not for reading or hearing only.8 Too often we attend meetings and nod our heads; we might even smile knowingly and agree. We jot down some action points, and we may say to ourselves, “That is something I will do.” But somewhere between the hearing, the writing of a reminder on our smartphone, and the actual doing, our “do it” switch gets rotated to the “later” position. Brethren, let’s make sure to set our “do it” switch always to the “now” position!
As you read the scriptures and listen to the words of the prophets with all your heart and mind, the Lord will tell you how to live up to your priesthood privileges. Don’t let a day go by without doing something to act on the promptings of the Spirit.
- Paul describes David as seeing corruption, while Christ did not (v. 36-37). Wayment notes that "corruption refers to the decay of the physical body." Paul is using the scriptures to help them understand Christ's fulfillment.
- At first the gospel message has great success among both Jews and proselytes (the God-fearers) and the Gentiles. In verse 44 we learn that the whole city came together to hear. But it appears that the reception among the Jews was short-lived. Jewish leaders, filled with envy, teach against Paul and Barnabas. In verse 46, Paul and Barnabas tell the Jews that because of their choice to "put it from you and judge yourselves unworthy everlasting life"they will now preach to the Gentiles. How many alternative and hostile voices are there in the world today that also teach against faith and against belief? We need to be prepared to withstand those who would destroy our faith and our budding testimonies.
- Remember Christ's promise that the last will be first and the first will be last? This is fulfilled in one way in that the Jews were preached the gospel first and then it was taken to the Gentiles. In the last days, the gospel will go from the Gentiles to the Jews and to all of the house of Israel. Nephi teaches, "Yea; they shall be remembered again among the house of Israel; they shall be grafted in, being a natural branch of the olive tree, into the true olive tree.
And this is what our father meaneth; and he meaneth that it will not come to pass until after they are scattered by the Gentiles; and he meaneth that it shall come by way of the Gentiles, that the Lord may show his power unto the Gentiles, for the very cause that he shall be rejected of the Jews, or of the house of Israel.
Wherefore, our father hath not spoken of our seed alone, but also of all the house of Israel, pointing to the covenant which should be fulfilled in the latter days; which covenant the Lord made to our father Abraham, saying: In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.
19 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, spake much unto them concerning these things; yea, I spake unto them concerning the restoration of the Jews in the latter days." (1 Nephi 15:16-19)
- This is the gathering of Israel that is going on right now. President Nelson has said of it, "That gathering is the most important thing taking place on earth today. Nothing else compares in magnitude, nothing else compares in importance, nothing else compares in majesty. And if you choose to, if you want to, you can be a big part of it. You can be a big part of something big, something grand, something majestic!
When we speak of the gathering, we are simply saying this fundamental truth: every one of our Heavenly Father’s children, on both sides of the veil, deserves to hear the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. They decide for themselves if they want to know more.
- In his notes on verse 48, Wayment notes that Paul's words in English "imply that only those who had been appointed were able to believe. The Greek verb indicates that the appointment to eternal life occurs after one has demonstrated actions, and therefore is not to be taken as a type of predestination or predetermined action." The JST is consistent with this original meaning and changes the order of the words to say, "and as many as believed were ordained unto eternal life."
Iconium, Acts 14:1-7
- Verse four is the first time Paul and Barnabas are referred to as apostles. The word apostle is also used in verse 14. Wayment says that this verse draws on the general meaning of the term meaning missionaries, though others, believe that the two were members of the Quorum of the Twelve at the time.
- This is one question I've been thinking about. The words for prophets and apostles in Acts seem to be used more generally and loosely than the way we use the terms today. How much of this is Greek versus English and how much of it is differences in understanding or Church organization at different times is hard for me to tell. Joseph Fielding Smith believed that Paul was an ordained apostle and a member of the Twelve. Wayment notes on Acts 15:2 point out that "Luke describes the Jerusalem church as being organized with apostles and elders. The early days of the church were characterized by a small number of leaders that were described as misionaries (apostles), those who oversaw the ordinances and religious needs of the church (elders) and deacons who cared for the physical needs of members."
- Lynn Wilson says of these verses, "This is the first reference where Luke calls these two missionaries “apostles/apostolois.” In Greek, apostolos means: “a delegate, messenger, one sent forth with order.” Yet in the New Testament, Christian apostles are those who: 1. Have seen the resurrected Lord, 2. Received His commissioned to testify of
that witness, and
3. Received an ordination.
Paul and Barnabas were probably called during their recent trip to Jerusalem (Acts 11:30). At that time, we only know of one vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve from James’ martyrdom. Either another apostle died that we are not told about, (nor does it fit the historical record which tracked and detailed each apostle’s death22), or Barnabas and Paul were both commissioned as “apostles / one sent,” with potentially neither, or only one, serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. (This could explain why Luke changed his order from “Barnabas and Paul,” to consistently listing Paul first.) The New Testament may uses apostle for more than just the members of the Twelve. Perhaps some were called apostles and acted as assistants-to-the-Twelve. As both Paul and Barnabas are full-time missionaries, both keep Antioch of Syria as their home base (not Jerusalem), and we never hear that a first presidency is organized. We assume that as the church grew, there were apostles called who were not members of the Twelve. Paul’s and Barnabas’ apostleship is again mentioned in Acts 14:14. Paul also refers to his apostolic authority in nine Epistles.23 A Christian definition of apostle is: one who has seen the resurrected Lord and who has been commissioned to testify of that witness.
- My own opinion is that the word apostle at that time probably had the same kind of definition as we use "General Authority" today. Some were members of the Twelve Apostles and others were appointed to other duties or responsibilities.
Lystra and Derbe, Acts 14:8-20
- It seems that Paul and Barnabas don't understand at first that the people see them as gods. Lynn Wilson says this was likely because of a language barrier -- the apostles would have spoken Greek while the others some local dialect. When they did find out, they tear their clothes and run to stop the people from worshiping them.
- Unlike Herod, who wanted divine honors and courted them even with his bright clothing, Paul and Barnabas are very upset to be known as gods.
- I love that Paul explains that God allowed the nations to walk in their ways in the past, even while sending them signs of His goodness all around them "Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us brain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness." (verse 17). This reminds me of Alma 30:44, "all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and call things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator."
Stoning and a Return Trip to Antioch, Acts 14:19-28
- Back in Acts 9:16, remember Ananias is told by the Lord, ""For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake." This suffering is already starting, as Paul is stoned and left for dead. But, "as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe." Lynn Wilson says, "The text does not go into detail, but the “stood round about,” could refer to the disciples forming a prayer circle, or offering Paul a blessing. Whatever happen, the supposedly-dead Paul was healed by the power of God enough to walk back to town, and over the next days he travel nearly sixty miles to Derbe. The fact that Paul returned to the city suggests that the stoning was mob action, not sanctioned by the legal system."
- Paul preaches in the cities he taught in earlier, "confirming" or "strengthening" the souls of the disciples and teaching that tribulation is part and parcel of discipleship, "that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God." I imagine that he had a lot of street cred if the story of his stoning and revival was told. In the words of Jeffrey R. Holland, "If sometimes the harder you try, the harder it gets, take heart. So it has been with the best people who ever lived."
- I love that the new converts are not left to flounder, but are nurtured and visited and strengthened in person and by letter.
- The chapter concludes with Paul and Barnabas giving a report of their mission in Antioch of Syria, the same place they left from.
The Jerusalem Conference, Acts 15:1-21
- And now we finish up this week's reading with the chapter that Bible scholar Pete Enns has called "Absolutely the Most Important Chapter in the Entire Bible" Though it had been ten years or so since Cornelius was baptized and Peter had his vision, the early Saints were still grappling with how that all should work. A group of "Judaizers" among them that Paul refers to as "false brethren" (Galations 2:4) started to teach all Paul's Gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised. This group belonged to the Pharisees before joining the Church and their traditions were hard to abandon. The Jews had made a lot of sacrifices to be circumcised. During the inter-testament period, the Greek influence was heavy in Israel and the surrounding areas. They believed in the perfection and adoration of the body and saw circumcision as an affront. Public nakedness was common in the baths and various athletic competition and Jews were despised because of their circumcision. There were even surgeries performed on some Hellenized Jews to restore the appearance of foreskin and allow them to be a part of society. So those who kept their circumcision really saw it as a part of their identity and had kept it despite persecution. (See this book for reference). Now they were just going to abandon that sign of their covenantal status with God? Not if they had anything to do about it.
- It's easy for us from our day to minimize how hard this was for them, but I think any time you have greatly sacrificed for a principle or idea, it's hard to abandon it.
- Overcoming cultural traditions is so hard because a lot of the time we don't even realize we carry these traditions without someone pointing it out. Elder Richard G. Scott gave a talk about this and quoted President Hunter, "I suggest that you place the highest priority on your membership in the Church of Jesus Christ. Measure whatever anyone else asks you to do, whether it be from your family, loved ones, your cultural heritage, or traditions you have inherited—measure everything against the teachings of the Savior. Where you find a variance from those teachings, set that matter aside and do not pursue it. It will not bring you happiness"
- With so many differences of opinions, Paul and Barnabas and others went to Jerusalem to bring it before the leadership of the Church. The rest of the chapter details great principles of revelation through councils:
- Verse 16 quotes from Amos 9:11-12. According to Wayment "The word tabernacle refers to David's kingdom, monarchy or house in a general sense."
- The James that is quoted is the brother of Jesus.
- In Galations 2, we learn that Paul had brought along Titus to the council, who was an uncircumcised Greek. This probably reminded the council that these decisions were about real individuals. A pretty shrewd move on Paul's part!
The Decision of the Conference, Acts 15:22-35
- The final decision of the council was confirmed by the Holy Ghost and was that circumcision of Gentiles is not needed but that the Gentiles were to be asked to avoid fornication (all sexual sin), to abstain from meats offered to idols and from eating blood or things strangled. Kosher butchering was done by draining the blood of an animal, not by strangling. From the student manual, "In short, converts were to avoid becoming entangled with the sexual sin and idolatry that were rampant in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Because the law of Moses prohibited the eating of blood (see Leviticus 3:17; 17:10–14; 19:26), James’s counsel to abstain from “things strangled, and from blood” may have been meant to avoid giving offense to Jews and thus hindering missionary work among them. James explained, “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him” (Acts 15:21). In other words, since there were Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world, Gentile converts should avoid offending Jews and dissuading them from embracing the gospel."
- Though the conference had a clear resolution, this conflict would continue to play out. The student manual says, "Despite Church leaders’ unanimous resolution to not require Gentiles to be circumcised prior to baptism, many Church members did not readily understand or accept the decision. Robert J. Matthews taught: “The action of the Jerusalem council involved a significant policy decision. … Peter’s unmistakable experience with Cornelius makes it clear that the Brethren understood that the law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ, but evidently many members of the church did not understand. It was a matter of doctrine, tradition, culture, and emotion. Even though the Brethren had settled the matter doctrinally a decade before, considerable time passed before the matter was settled culturally and emotionally in the minds of some Jewish Christians. Furthermore, at least ten years after the council, many Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were still following the law of Moses. (Acts 21:17–25.)
“The decision of the Jerusalem council was not definitive and did not forthrightly say that the law of Moses should be discontinued. Although it declared that Gentiles did not need circumcision for salvation, it did not say that Jewish members of the church need not circumcise their sons” (“Unto All Nations,” in Studies in Scripture, Volume Six: Acts to Revelation,ed. Robert L. Millet , 39).
In the years following the Jerusalem conference, Paul still found it necessary to combat contrary teachings and attitudes wherever he went (see Romans 2–4; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 5:6; 6:15; Colossians 2:11; 3:11; Bible Dictionary, “Circumcision”).
Paul and Barnabas Go Separate Ways, Acts 15:36-41
- Paul and Barnabas argue about whether they should take Mark with them. Mark was a relative of Barnabas and though Mark had left their mission early for reasons unclear in the text, Barnabas wanted to give him another chance. Paul disagreed, and they ended up each taking new companions and going different ways. Evidently, Paul was later reconciled with John Mark, as noted in 2 Timothy 4:11 and Colossians 4:10.
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Note: I'm indebted to Thomas Wayment for mamy of my section divisions and headings on this post and others. If you haven't checked out his New Testament translation, it is well worth it!