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Cover image via Gospel Media Library.
As Acts 6 begins, the Lord’s apostles recognize that with increased membership and growth, the Church needs additional support and leadership. Just as we, in the latter-day Church adapt to progress and circumstances, so did the early Church.
I love this truth that Ogden and Skinner mention in their guide to the book of Acts: “To resist change and to insist on tradition for the sake of tradition is to be an enemy to continuous revelation.” (pg. 44 Verse by Verse, Acts through Revelation, Ogden & Skinner).
Just this week I was studying the church handbook for guidance in my calling and I found this counsel, which I will paraphrase: “Be wary of traditions that might not meet current needs.” This is so important to remember in our own Church service. Revelation is constant. It is ever flowing. Like a river of light, just over our heads. All we have to do is reach into it, ask for access to it, and be open enough to receive its light in whatever context we are leading. And this most importantly includes, inspiration for our families.
In Acts 6:5, the Apostles call seven new administrators to help with the temporal affairs of the Church, because the Grecians (Greek-speaking Jewish Christians), it says in verse 1, were “murmuring that their widows were being neglected.”
This is an excellent example of how inspiration can work from both the bottom up and the top down. The Apostles asked for inspired recommendations which they then confirmed through their own inspiration, and among them, were two powerful teachers and preachers. Stephen and Phillip.
Acts 6:5 tells us that all the men chosen were “full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,” but we know little about most of them beyond Stephen and Phillip, who would particularly distinguish themselves as miracle workers and valiant defenders of Christ’s gospel. In verse 8, we learn that Stephen was “full of faith and power, and did great wonders and miracles among the people.”
With the help of these seven new leaders, the word of God increased, the “number of disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly,” and many were obedient to the faith.
Verses to Post or Memorize
Below are some verses from which you could choose a few to post around the house, or memorize as a family. I really like the ones about resisting the Holy Ghost, kicking against the pricks, and wondering if our hearts are right in the sight of God. Don’t those phrases sum up so much of family life and the challenges we face there?
“And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.” (Acts 6:8)
“Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 7:51)
“But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus, standing on the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55)
“Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.” (Acts 8:20)
Is your heart “right in the sight of God?” (Acts 8:21)
“Understandest thou what thou readest? And [the eunuch] said, How can I, except some man should guide me?” (Acts 8: 30-31)
“I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts 8:37)
“I am Jesus whom thou persecutest; it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” (Acts 9:5)
“Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6)
“He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel.” (Acts 9:15)
“Receive thy sight and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 9:17)
Stephen Preaches and is Transfigured
Stephen was the first, of whom we have record, to preach that the Law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ and ought not to be continued in the Church. His name, which actually means crown in the Greek, is meaningful in that while he was preaching to the Sanhedrin, he was transfigured before them and temporarily “crowned” with the glory of God.
“And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” (Acts 6: 15)
The Sanhedrin accused Stephen of blasphemy, for teaching that “Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.” Was that blasphemy? Or truth? They even brought in “false witnesses” (as they did in the case of Jesus – Matthew 26: 59).
Stephen recounts the history of Israel and illuminates Moses as a prototype for Christ, then testifies of the apostasy of Israel and calls the Jewish leadership “stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears.” Then he makes this stinging rebuke: “ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.”
Questions to Discuss: What do you think it means to resist the Holy Ghost? Where does this lead? What happens to us when we resist the Spirit?
This might be a good time to discuss how we recognize and feel the Holy Ghost. Consider reading from John 14 about the Spirit of Truth, and Galatians 5 about the fruits of the Spirit.
I love this talk given by Elder Richard G. Scott, who was a master at understanding and nurturing communication from the Holy Spirit:
I adored Elder Scott. Not only did he offer us patterns, modes and means for receiving revelation, he warned us of behaviors that would drive out the Spirit, or keep us from receiving answers, promptings, and guidance. He taught,
“There are some practical principles that enhance revelation. First, yielding to emotions such as anger or hurt or defensiveness will drive away the Holy Ghost. Those emotions must be eliminated, or our chance for receiving revelation is slight.”
And this about recognizing promptings:
“Two indicators that a feeling or prompting comes from God are that it produces peace in your heart and a quiet, warm feeling… For spirituality to grow stronger and more available, it must be planted in a righteous environment. Haughtiness, pride, and conceit are like stony ground that will never produce spiritual fruit. Humility is a fertile soil where spirituality grows and produces the fruit of inspiration to know what to do. It gives access to divine power to accomplish what must be done. An individual motivated by a desire for praise or recognition will not qualify to be taught by the Spirit. An individual who is arrogant or who lets his or her emotions influence decisions will not be powerfully led by the Spirit.”
The whole talk is so valuable. If you do nothing but watch this talk at some point during the week, these truths will make for a powerful family discussion.
The Martyrdom of Stephen
Stephen is known as the first martyr after Jesus’ resurrection. In Acts we read that the Sanhedrin were “cut to the heart” by his words and they “gnashed on him with their teeth” in anger. This anger led to their murderous decision to stone Stephen.
Stephen, however, did not shrink. In Acts 7:55 we read that he was full of the Holy Ghost and rather than looking around him in fear, “looked up steadfastly into heaven.” With his gaze and heart inclined towards the divine, he “saw the glory of God, and Jesus.” And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” (Acts 7: 55-56)
Then, at the word of the Council of the Sanhedrin, Stephen was stoned. This meant that large rocks were thrown at him. These rocks broke his body and literally crushed the life out of Stephen. Yet, even as they stoned him, he called upon God and cried, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” (Acts 7: 60). This act of forgiveness is reminiscent of words spoken by Jesus himself at the time of his crucifixion. Then Stephen asked Jesus to “receive his spirit.”
Notice the Father and the Son above Stephen’s head, the enormous rock one man is about to thrash down. And can you find Saul? He who held the raiment?
Truly, Stephen was one of Christ’s most devoted disciples.
We are well-acquainted with Paul and his ministry, but I think we (at least I) have been less appreciative of Stephen. Here was a man whose words were eloquent and indisputable. Who preached Jesus and His roles with fire and great faith. He moved through the harangue of a Jewish council with grace and a peaceable walk. And I think we forget, or at least underestimate, the effect his speech and behavior must have had on Paul.
Paul was not just present at the stoning of Stephen, but would have heard Stephen’s sermon, would have seen Stephen’s face transfigured.
Paul (who was Saul then) would have been a young man, under the age of 40, but it seems Saul was given the responsibility of overseeing the official stoning of Stephen. It must have been Saul’s synagogue that condemned Stephen. Luke included this interesting detail: that the “clothing” of the men who stoned Stephen was laid at Saul’s feet. A symbol at that time of Saul’s formal association with this idea or action.
The following video portrays the stoning of Stephen, a hard tale to tell on screen. It’s not my favorite, and of course, it’s difficult to watch. But it’s a good lead-in to discussing Saul’s conversion since Saul is the last man you see in the video. (Acts 22: 20).
Video: The Martyrdom of Stephen
I have come to love Stephen so much more through this week’s study.
I like this thought from Robert J. Matthews, “It is as if Paul picked up the baton from Stephen’s broken and battered body and extended Stephen’s preliminary overture into a fully orchestrated symphony.”
Questions to Discuss: What other individuals can you think of who have been martyrs for the truth? What do we learn from Stephen’s faith and sacrifice?
Conversion of Saul who became Paul
Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee who was born a Roman citizen, but to Jewish parents who sent him to Jerusalem to be trained by one of the greatest teachers of Jewish law, Gamaliel. This educated upbringing was part of God’s plan for Paul, for it allowed him a masterful understanding of Jewish law and practices, while his Roman citizenship gave him inroads to Gentile nations where he would primarily preach the gospel. He spoke both Greek and Hebrew. His Hebrew name was Saul, but the Graeco-Roman equivalent was Paul.
It is disturbing, to say the least, when we read of the diverse ways Saul persecuted so many Christians. He delivered countless men and women into prison. Many of them were put to death because he “gave his voice against them.” Paul said of himself that he did, “many things that were contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” (Acts 26: 9-10)
At the time of his first vision, he was on his way to Damascus to stamp out Christianity. The city of Damascus sat at a prosperous crossroads and was therefore, an important center of civilization. He knew if Christianity succeeded there, it would spread far and wide. And quickly.
Damascus was about 150 miles northeast of Jerusalem. As Saul journeyed there, he was suddenly stopped by a light that shone round about him from heaven. He fell to the earth and heard a voice ask, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
Notice how Saul responded. He asked an important question, “Who art thou, Lord?” And he received an important answer: “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” (Acts 9:5). A “prick” was a sharp stick used for pricking the hides of animals to make them move. Often, animals would balk or kick back and that would make the pain worse because the stick would sink even further into the animal’s flesh. Saul was kicking against God’s foreordained plan, against the special purposes the Lord had for him. It may be that Paul had experienced some doubt before this divine interaction — some nagging questions about the correctness of his course.
Questions to Discuss: Have you experienced this feeling? Of kicking against the pricks of the Spirit? What have been the consequences? How do we develop more humility to hear the pricks or promptings of the Spirit?
Paul gives us a beautiful demonstration of obedience in his response to the Lord. He asks, “What wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6)
Question to Discuss: How does obedience help us make course corrections in our lives?
Saul was blinded by the brilliance of the light, which is Christ. But he did as the Lord advised. He went into the city and waited for instruction. That time period, of three days, in which he was without sight and went without food or drink are similar to Alma’s experience in the Book of Mormon (see Alma 36).
Then Ananias, who was apparently the leader of the Saints in Damascus, was asked to visit Saul and restore his sight. While faithful, Ananias, however, was not without questions. He had heard “how much evil [Saul] had done to the saints at Jerusalem” (Acts 9:13).
But Ananias did as the Lord bid. I love the moment when he greets Saul. He could have come to Saul with great anger and contempt. But he came with faith and love. His first words to Saul were, “Brother Saul.” He addressed him as a fellow Saint, a brother in the faith. Then he continued, “The Lord, even Jesus, who appeared to thee in the way… hath sent me that thou mightest receive thy sight.”
This is such a beautiful, synergistic exchange of conversion, a miraculous healing, and true brotherly love as Saul’s sight is restored and he is baptized by Ananias.
Questions to Discuss: What do we learn from Ananias’ example? How did he react to Saul’s past, present, and future? What kind of power could come into our lives by asking each morning in prayer, “What wilt thou have me to do?”
Paul went on to traverse the ends of the Roman empire preaching the gospel. He loved the members of the church tremendously, wrote them powerful letters of encouragement and instruction. He was beaten, whipped, stoned, suffered shipwreck, and in the end, was marched 132 miles to Rome where he would be killed.
The prophet Joseph Smith felt a special kinship with the Apostle Paul. He mentions this in his own history, when he states that he “felt much like Paul.” Both began their service to the Lord through a life-changing vision. Both were true to the vision they received and acted with unrelenting courage to fulfill their missions, even at the cost of great persecution and trouble. Both sealed their testimonies with their blood as witnesses to the gospel of their Lord and Savior.
Joseph gave us a physical description of the Apostle Paul. Some say Joseph may have been sighting an apocryphal source, but I think it is more likely that he spoke from personal experience.
“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” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 180).
These two famous pieces of art are by Rembrandt and depict Paul in prison. In most artwork, especially early Catholic art, Paul is often depicted with a sword for two reasons. First, it is in reference to the “armor of God” Paul wrote about in his epistle to the Ephesians. A few verses later, he describes “the sword of the Spirit” as “the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). Second, there is along-standing tradition of painting martyrs with their instruments of death. Since Paul was a Roman citizen, he was not eligible for crucifixion. Instead, he was decapitated with a sword just outside the walls of Rome.
The Lord knew Paul. He had been foreordained for this specific time and purpose. His special abilities and knowledge were culled and used for the Lord’s work.
Questions to Discuss: Have we also been foreordained for a special work? If so, what work? We must all write our own “book of Acts.” What will be written in yours?
This video of Saul’s conversion is quite touching. I especially love the relationship between Ananias and Saul — the tender feeling of brotherhood they immediately share, despite Paul’s awful past deeds.
For further study about Paul’s conversion, you could study Acts 22: 1-16 and Acts 26: 9-18.
Full of Good Works
The last few verse of Acts 9 (32-43) tell the stories of two true disciples. Aeneas and Tabitha. Peter, when passing through Lydda, found Aeneas, who had been sick of the palsy for eight years. Peter immediately healed him.
Then there was Tabitha, of Joppa, who was described as a “woman full of good works and almsdeeds.” In Aramaic, her name was Tabitha, or in Greek, Dorcas, which meant “gazelle.” Tabitha had become sick and died.
It is apparent in verse 39, that she must have made or sewn coats and clothing for many people in need, especially members of the church, for there were many widows weeping for her. Those who loved her washed her and placed her in an upper chamber after her death. When they heard about Peter’s coming, they sent for him. Peter came and asked everyone to leave the chamber. He knelt down and prayed, then called on Tabitha to arise. She opened her eyes and took Peter’s hand. She had been raised from the dead.
As we progress through the rest of the New Testament, miracles will continue. And so will the preaching of Christ Jesus. We will see the challenges and temptations the primitive church faced, as well as the answers offered to overcome those difficulties. We will learn how to be better disciples, and how to fill our thoughts and actions with a more pure love. These sacred texts of the second half of the New Testament are often neglected, but they are incredible dissertations written to build our faith in God, our Heavenly Father, and in his literal son, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, of whom these Apostles testified in both life, and death.
Doer of the Word Challenge
Here are a few things you could do as individuals or families to put into practice the principles taught in this week’s lesson.
- Notice how the Holy Ghost speaks to you or prompts you during the day, then record those promptings, and act on them. Elder Scott recommended that we always write down a prompting so it will not easily slip away. You could even start a special journal dedicated to how you hear the voice of the Lord in your life.
- Get a copy of this fabulous book by Nancy Murphy – Whisperings of the Spirit. It is one of the best works I’ve read on communicating with the Holy Spirit.
- Consider other martyrs for truth. Study Doctrine and Covenants 135, which details the martyrdom of the prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum at Carthage, Illinois. June 27, 1844. This section is a document written by eye-witness, John Taylor, who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. I also love Michael Wilcox’ book, Fire in the Bones, which discusses early Christian martyrs, who carved a path of preparation for the restoration of the gospel.
- Conversions are typically not as fast or dramatic as Paul’s. Consider where you are on your path of conversion. Write about it in your journal. Or write down your story of conversion. Share it with someone. You could also ask a close family member or friend to share with you their story of conversion.
- Choose one way you will be more obedient this week. Write it down where you can see it and be reminded. Then have the courage to discipline yourself and follow through.
- Experiment with praying each morning to do the Lord’s will. Ask him specifically, as Saul did, “What wilt thou have me to do?” See if you can identify how God uses you as His instrument.
- Create a Book of Acts that contains the good works or stories of your family, parents, grandparents, or other ancestors. Use this book to share faith-building stories with the younger children in your family.
- Make a list of “Good Works” that could be done this week. Find a service to do as a family.