In this lesson, the Apostles who direct the Church call a number of disciples to assist them in directing the affairs of the Church. Two of these disciples, Stephen and Phillip, are confronted with challenging and difficult situations in their ministry.
Introduction to Acts
Acts picks up the story where Luke and the other Testimonies end, and is, in fact a testimony of Christ in and of itself. It is more than a simple recitation of historical information, for it is a presentation of facts so arranged as to tell a dramatic and moving story. It makes use of particular events in the early Church that effectively illustrate how the outreach of the Church (which was at first almost exclusively offered to none but Jews) was extended to include active missionary work among the Gentiles.
The book of Acts is a brief account of about thirty years of missionary effort following the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. Far from containing the complete record, Acts is focused on a limited geographical area in the countries along the northern and western shores of the Mediterranean. Although our knowledge of the outreach of the Church begins with Acts, it is enriched in both history and doctrine by the epistles penned by the early leaders, especially Peter and Paul.
Of major significance is the special council held in Jerusalem about the year A.D. 49 or 50, as a result of doctrinal and cultural problems that arose when the gospel of Jesus Christ was taught directly to people of Gentile lineage. The decision of the council is a model of tact and restraint, and was effective in allowing the expansion of the Church to go forward among the Gentiles without the encumbrance of the law of Moses.
In order to better understand the readings for this lesson, it is helpful to see the larger context of the first several chapters of the Book of Acts as it leads up to the Jerusalem council. Acts is a short account of the missionary plan of the Church, first to the Jews in Judea, then to the Samaritans, and finally to the Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean world. It covers not more than thirty years. Chapters 1-14, are dealing with the Church from Jesus’ ascension to the extension of the missionary effort among the Samaritans and then to the Gentiles. These activities precipitated the problems leading to a special council in Jerusalem. Following is a summation of significant events in this lessons readings:
Events Leading up to the Jerusalem Council
Chapters 1-5 deal with the ministry of the Twelve in and around Judea, among the Jews. The Twelve vigorously testified of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead, and the Church grew rapidly with Jewish converts. Persecution came from the Jewish leaders, because they objected to the success of the Apostles in teaching of the resurrection of Christ. They said the Twelve “have filled Jerusalem” with the doctrine of Christ (Acts 5:28).
The Church at this time had strong Jewish ties, culturally, religiously, and geographically. Church growth necessitated administrative adjustments, so seven men were selected to assist the Twelve, primarily in welfare duties. Among these seven are some with Gentile-sounding names such as Stephen, Parmenas, and Nicolas. Nicolas was further identified as a proselyte from Antioch (Acts 6:5), thus affirming that he was a Gentile by lineage who first accepted the Jews’ religion and then subsequently was converted to Christ and the Church. Thus, at least Nicolas was actually of Gentile lineage, but he had been circumcised and had subscribed to all that pertains to the Jews’ religion and the law of Moses. Before becoming a member of the Church, Stephen was probably a “Hellenized Jew,” or one who, though Jewish by lineage and religion, had been reared in a Greek environment and spoke Greek.
It is important at this point to clarify a statement in Acts 6:1 that says there was “a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” The Church in Jerusalem at this time was practicing a form of “united order,” or economic system in which members held all things in common (Acts 4:34-37; 5:1). However, there seems to have been a feeling among the “Grecian” widows that they were neglected, that they did not receive as good treatment as other widows. A Grecian was not a Greek, but was a Jew who spoke Greek as a native language, and hence one who had been reared away from Palestine, as in Alexandria, Egypt, or some other place where there were large collections of Jews who spoke Greek.
The importance of this situation in the Church in Jerusalem is that it is evident there were Jews of the outlying countries – Jews by lineage, but from Greek-speaking areas – who had gathered to Jerusalem. These “Grecians,” as they were called, thought they detected some prejudice from the more conservative Hebrews or Aramaic-speaking Jews of Palestine. This might be why the seven who were called to oversee the distribution of food were not strictly Jerusalem-oriented Jews but, as we noted in the case of Nicolas and Stephen, had some Gentile and Greek attachment. Proper priesthood order and procedure in the Church is also evident here: The Twelve made the selection of the seven under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and after the men were sustained by the people the Twelve set them apart by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:1-6).
It is also to be noted in Acts 6:6 that the Church grew rapidly in Jerusalem, and “a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” This means that many of the priests under the Aaronic order, direct descendants of Aaron, joined the Church.
Acts 7. Stephen, one of the seven, was accused by the Jews of having taught that Jesus would destroy Jerusalem and the temple and “change the customs which Moses delivered” to Israel (Acts 6:14-15). He was subsequently brought before the Sanhedrin and permitted to speak. When he declared that he could see in vision the heavens open, and Jesus “standing on the right hand of God,” he was accused of blasphemy and stoned to death. Saul (later known as Paul) witnessed his death. The record says that “devout men” came and buried Stephen (Acts 8:2). “Devout men” are usually regarded by New Testament scholars as Greeks who were favorable to Judaism but not actual proselytes. Being buried by them suggests something of Stephen’s Hellenistic background. Stephen is the earliest in the New Testament record who is reported to have said that Jesus would change the Mosaic customs.
Because there were seven men appointed, some have wondered if their office is analogous to that of the seven Presidents of the Seventy in the Church today. This is possible, but appears unlikely, since they were especially appointed to “serve tables,” whereas the calling of a Seventy is to administer and travel and teach the gospel. We learn from Luke 10:1, 17 that Jesus had appointed “seventy” in his day. Any Presidents of the Seventy would likely be from among them. It is probably only coincidental that this group consisted of exactly seven men. That they may be of the Seventy is possible; that they were the seven Presidents is less likely, but we just do not know.
Furthermore, many Bibles contain a heading at the top of the page at this point identifying these seven men as “deacons.” This interpretation has been made by the editors and translators because these seven are identified as servants or assistants to the Apostles. The English word deacon comes from the Greek diakona, meaning a servant or an assistant. Although these seven men were surely in that general category, their calling ought not to be equated with the ordained office of deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today.
Actually, Luke does not give us an account of the work of these seven men in their assignment “to serve tables.” He does, however, follow the activities of two of the seven – Stephen and Philip – not in serving tables (a welfare-type assignment), but in preaching the gospel to nonmembers. It might be that Stephen and Philip were called to do missionary work in addition to the welfare assignment. Or they simply may have been reassigned.
The procedure of the Church today may provide an example of such changes in assignment. We understand that most calls to service are temporary in nature, and a person is likely to serve in several different callings over the period of a few years. Thus a man who once was Presiding Bishop is now a member of the Council of the Twelve; one who was a Seventy is now Presiding Bishop; one serving as a ward bishop may later be called as a stake president; and so forth. Nothing suggests that the seven men who were called and set apart to assist in the daily ministration of food were to remain in that capacity and in no other for the remainder of their lives. In fact, it appears that Stephen and Philip were soon engaged in a different capacity. Had they remained only in the original calling we might have heard nothing further of them, since Luke provides a detailed account of only their preaching activities.
Acts 8. Philip, one of the seven, baptized many men and women in Samaria. This was a new extension for the Church, whose members up to this point had not done formal missionary work there. Peter and John came from Jerusalem to lay their hands on the new converts and confer the Holy Ghost. The Church was thus officially established among the Samaritans, but this is only a half-step away from teaching the Jews, because even though the Samaritans were genealogically of Israel mixed with other nations (and thus technically were not Jews), they practiced the law of Moses – hence were circumcised, ate kosher food, offered sacrifice, and so on. In this respect they were ritually similar to the Jews, and the conversion of Samaritans did not challenge allegiance to the law of Moses. Acts chapter 8 also presents the first principles of the gospel (faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism for the remission of sins, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost) more completely in one setting than in any other section of the Bible (Acts 8:5-25).
Acts 9. Saul, a vigorous persecutor of the Saints, was converted to Jesus Christ by a personal visit in which he saw, heard, and conversed with the resurrected Lord. After that he was baptized and proclaimed his testimony of Christ in the synagogues of Damascus. For Saul to become a follower of Jesus Christ was a major change in his own life and startled many both within and without the Church; but his conversion did not mark a doctrinal or cultural change in the Church, because it did not raise a question as to the law of Moses, since he was already circumcised, ate kosher food, and so on.
The Lord’s timetable is clearly seen unfolding in these early chapters of Acts. Saul (Paul) was going to be greatly needed in the Church missionary system in a short time, so the Lord got him converted at this time in order that he would be ready for service when the need arose. When the events in chapters 10 and 11 occurred, Saul was maturing in the gospel and being prepared. Furthermore, somewhat earlier, Barnabas in Jerusalem had introduced him to the Apostles (Acts 9:27). Hence they knew of Saul and he knew them.
It is not likely that, at the start, many were aware of what the expansion of missionary work would bring by way of doctrinal and cultural problems, but probably some of the leaders of the Church sensed the situation very early. With the advent of the Holy Ghost after Christ’s ascension, the leaders would have the necessary inspiration to guide the fledgling growing Church through challenging and difficult times.