The apostolic work became so intense that the work of providing for the poor and needy had to be delegated to others. Their concern was that to focus too much on the poor was to “leave the word of God and serve tables.” While caring for the poor was important, preaching the gospel was more important as the special witnesses of the resurrected Christ.
So seven holy men were called to a special purpose. These, in fact, would be similar to our bishops today. Later, in fact, the New Testament church would establish the position of bishop, as the Church spread outside of Jerusalem and was established in many Jewish and Gentile communities. Not only did they provide for the poor, but also were responsible for preaching the gospel in their areas of responsibility. For example, it seems that Stephen’s work was primarily in the area of Jerusalem, while Philip would travel to Samaria to perform much of his early labors.
In fact, while they were called to care for the poor, it seems that they spent much of their time preaching the gospel. In this sense, they would also be like the seven presidents of Seventy which we have today. They assist the twelve apostles in all of the work, as needed.
So, what was the proper form to set these men apart in their position?
“Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them” (Acts 6:6).
We shall see as we continue through Luke’s Book of the Acts of the Apostles that the proper practice in performing any ordinance: setting someone apart in a calling, giving the gift of the Holy Ghost, or performing a healing, all required a person with the proper authority laying hands upon the individual.
“...Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8). Stephen had been imbued with the power and authority of God. We are not told what these miracles were, but they obviously caught the attention of the Jewish leaders. He was brought before them, accused of blasphemy. They said Stephen claimed the temple would be destroyed, and Jesus came to change the law of Moses. Amazingly, both of these came to pass. While the temple was not yet destroyed, it would be in 70 AD. Christ replaced the Passover Lamb with the Sacramental bread and cup. In the Sermon on the Mount, he noted key points of the Mosaic Law and then his higher law which would supplant it.
For the Jews, making such changes would be like someone speaking against Mohammed, the Quran, and Allah, while living in Iran or Saudi Arabia. Such blasphemy would merit a fatwah of death. Such was the place in which Stephen found himself. Israel at this time was full of radicals. An ever growing and powerful sect of Judaism was the Zealots. Such would push for war against the Romans, believing that Israel was righteous and able to throw off the yoke placed upon them by Caesar. Among the Zealots were many who claimed to be Messiahs, those who would deliver Israel from Rome. With this zealous impetus for overthrow, came an intense dislike to anything that questioned the Jewish stance that Moses was God’s supreme prophet, the temple would stand forever as God’s sanctuary, and the Law of Moses would be an eternal and unchanging law. To claim that a Messiah Jesus would come and change that law was an insult to Moses, the Law, and to God himself.
When asked by the high priest if the charges were true, Stephen gave the Sanhedrin (Jewish high council) a history lesson, beginning with Abraham. He said that Abraham began in a foreign land, where God came to him and chose him to start a new people in a new land. This promise would not be fulfilled in Abraham’s day, but over time his children would be sent away captive and then rescued when they were large enough to be a people themselves.
Moses was brought forth to rescue the Israel from Egyptian bondage. This same Moses prophesied that a future prophet would come, which the people must listen to and obey, if they wish to be saved. This future prophet is Jesus the true Messiah.
Later, Solomon would build the temple of God. The problem here is that God desires to dwell in the heart, not just in a building. The people focused on the temple sacrifices, and not on the God who created them.
51 Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
52 Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers
The Jewish history showed that the people rejected and killed many of the prophets. Their fathers sought to kill Elijah and Elisha. They slew Isaiah, and cast Jeremiah into prison. Now those present were accused of slaying the Just (Holy or Anointed) One, the Messiah, the Angel of the Lord’s Presence, even Jesus Christ.
Instead of repenting when hearing of this claim that the people were still guilty of murdering the prophets, they “were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth” (Acts 7:54).
Stephen was stoned to death. But as he was stoned, Luke tells us:
55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,
56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
Stephen had his theophany. A theophany is when mortal man meets deity. Often this event occurs in a vision or dream, and in it God is often seen exalted on his throne (see also Isaiah 6:1-6, Genesis 28:12-13, Revelation 4, 1 Nephi 1:8).
In Stephen’s vision, he also saw the Lord Jesus Christ standing on God’s right hand. This shows us what Jesus taught: that the Lord is the way to the Father. It also teaches us that early Christians saw the Father and Son as actual anthropomorphic beings. Stephen didn’t see a nebulous spirit that represented both Father and Son, but saw the two separate beings: the first on the throne and the other beside him. Why God would seek to misrepresent himself to one who would momentarily be dead and again in God’s presence? It does seem that the living God showed his real self and the resurrected Jesus Christ to Stephen.
Saul of Tarsus
We learn that Saul, who would later change his Hebrew name for a Gentile name: Paul, was at the death of Stephen, consenting to it and holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. Was Saul guilty of murder? According to Jewish law, he was not. He was a Pharisee, trained at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), who was a scholar of the law of Moses. He was very zealous and walked closely in his understanding of the Mosaic Law, which required a person to be stoned to death for blasphemy against God.
Saul believed he was doing God a favor by slaying the enemies of the Law of Moses. Here was this new sect of Judaism that was quickly moving away from many of the tenets of faith. In this time, Judaism had become very monotheistic, very unlike how it was previous to the destruction of Solomon’s temple by Babylon. Much of the ancient Middle East and Israel believed in a divine council of Gods, headed up by Elohim. When he created the Table of Nations, Elohim divided the land in the days of Peleg, giving kingdoms to each of his 70 divine sons (Genesis 10:25). Israel was given to Yahweh/Jehovah, the greatest of the sons of Elohim.
But this knowledge was long lost to Israel, who had manipulated the scriptures over the centuries, and changed the temple rites between the First and Second Temples. Solomon’s temple included angels, the Tree of Life, and much symbolism. The Second Temple did away with this, and focused all on Yahweh worship via sacrifice.
According to Old Testament scholar Margaret Barker, the early Christians sought to restore the original temple liturgy and belief, which included Elohim and his divine Son, Yahweh.
The Jews were in apostasy. They rejected Christ, and now began stoning the leaders of the Christian sect of Judaism. This was a long established pattern in the teaching of Judaism. For Saul to convert, it would require an earth-shaking event to cause him to reject his old beliefs, and accept this new faith.
Philip, Peter, Simon and the Gift of the Holy Ghost
Philip, one of the chosen Seven, was sent to Samaria. While there he preached and baptized and healed many from their diseases and infirmities. Here enters Simon Magus, a magician, who would later be known as the first major apostate of the Christian church. Simon performed magic tricks in order to convince the people he was a god, so they would give him tribute.
Simon supposedly also came to believe and was baptized. In a recent lesson, we discussed how Peter had received a testimony, but was not yet converted by the gift of the Holy Ghost. It seems Simon had a testimony or at least a witness of Philips miracles, and believed on what he saw. But he was not truly converted. He was one who sought power to suit his own purposes.
While Philip was able to baptize by water, the apostle Peter was sent to Samaria to give the people the gift of the Holy Ghost. Obviously, Philip did not have the authority to give the Holy Ghost to the new members. This suggests levels of priesthood authority, wherein the Seven could baptize, but did not have the power to give the Holy Ghost.
How did Peter give the Holy Ghost to the people? First, he prayed. “Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost” (Acts 8:17).
18 And when Simon (Magus) saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money,
19 Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.
20 But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.
21 Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.
22 Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.
23 For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.
Here we have two Simons: the one called Peter, and the one called Magus. Peter was the leader of the Christians, chosen of Christ and ordained to the holy apostleship (John 15:16). His was the responsibility to direct the Church via revelation.
Simon Magus was the ultimate usurper and false prophet. According to the early Church historian Eusebius:
“We have understood that Simon was the author of all heresy. From his time down to the present those who have followed his heresy have feigned the sober philosophy of the Christians, which is celebrated among all on account of its purity of life. But they nevertheless have embraced again the superstitions of idols, which they seemed to have renounced; and they fall down before pictures and images of Simon himself and of the above-mentioned Helena who was with him; and they venture to worship them with incense and sacrifices and libations.”
Peter saw that Simon had not become a Christian through faith and repentance, but because he desired the power that the apostles had. And he couldn't have it for money.
Acts 9 - Saul's Conversion
For Saul, persecuting the saints, was serving God. As a Pharisee, he saw any radical Jewish sect (including the Zealots) as a group falling away from the true worship. Yes, there would be a Messiah, one that would deliver them from foreign powers. Yes, there would be a day of resurrection for all the righteous. However, to imagine that both these things would be gathered into one dead man, claimed to be the first of the resurrection, was nonsense. In his thinking, to stem this growing menace early on, would please God and bring an end to another group of apostates.
As noted above, many concepts of Judaism changed over time. The ideas of angels still visiting people or miracles occurring were ridiculous for the Jewish leaders. Such things had been done away with. And yet, Peter, Stephen, Philip and others were performing miracles and seeing angels. Now, Saul would experience both. In seeing Christ, and having Ananias heal him, he would become Christ's greatest tool for conversion: an enemy of Christianity being converted through miracles.
Today, many Christians dislike Mormonism, because of these exact same claims. No wonder there are such persecutions of the Restored Church by those who no longer experience healings, angels and other miracles.
Here we see the reactions of many people to this new sect of Judaism, called Christianity. At this point, it is still a Jewish sect. However, the field was already crowded with Pharisees, Sadduccees, Essenes, and Zealots. For many, it was easier to crush this small sect now than to wait until it grew too big to stop.
Some, such as Saul, would soon come to a huge awakening that would ever change his life. Others, like Simon Magus, saw the miracles and believed there was power to be had and used for personal gain.
We’ve learned that no one can have the authority of the priesthood, unless chosen of Christ and ordained by the proper method, as we have seen with the ordination of Mathias to the apostleship (Acts 1), the performance of miracles by the laying on of hands, and also the Gift of the Holy Ghost by that same method from those with the proper authority. In the early Church, authority was not only important, it was necessary.
Many Christians today see the authority as having changed. They believe in a “priesthood of all believers.” Others, such as in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches believe in a specific priesthood lineage. LDS believe in both lines of personal and church guidance. We have prophets and apostles and others with specific priesthood authority to perform ordinances and guide via revelation the general points of the Lord’s Church. We also believe that the members may be guided by the Holy Ghost to guide and direct them in their personal lives, regardless of whether they hold the actual priesthood authority or not.
The ancient beliefs of Israel had been changed. No longer did they understand the role of the Messiah or even of His temple. Jesus came to restore those concepts and continue them through the apostles and other ordained leaders. Yet from the beginning of the early Christian Church, there have been those like Simon Magus seeking to again twist and contort the beauty of the Lord’s gospel to fit their own agenda.
Table of Nations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sons_of_Noah
Divine Council and division of the nations: http://www.thedivinecouncil.com/DT32BibSac.pdf
Margaret Barker on the Temple and Christians: http://www.thinlyveiled.com/barker.htm
Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History on Simon Magus: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.vii.xiv.html
Dallin Oaks, the two priesthood channels of communication: http://lds.org/general-conference/2010/10/two-lines-of-communication?lang=eng&noLang=true&path=/general-conference/2010/10/two-lines-of-communication