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Lesson Plan for Acts 10-21

 


INTRODUCTION

A few statements that set the stage for much of what we will read in these chapters:

"We are witnesses to the process of restoration. If you think the Church is fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning. There’s much more to come. Wait until next year, and then the next year. Eat your vitamins, get your rest. It’s going to be exciting!" - President Russell M. Nelson (1)

 "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God." (2)

A part of discipleship is being open to the idea of continuing restoration/revelation, while also being committed to eternal truths that can anchor us. Sometimes those two things can appear to come into conflict and can be a severe test for disciples. In the readings from the past two weeks we have a living prophet, Peter (along with others who attended the Jerusalem Council in Acts chapter 15), change certain things that were very controversial. We will get into that later.

A way to start the lesson to set up our conversation for success is to contrast the statements above with the following statements:

"The gospel of Jesus Christ does not change. Gospel doctrine does not change." - President Dallin H. Oaks (3)

"Gospel doctrines are eternal, do not change, and pertain to the eternal progression and exaltation of Heavenly Father's sons and daughters.  Doctrines such as the nature of the Godhead, the plan of happiness, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ are foundational, fundamental, and comprehensive." - Elder David A. Bednar (4)

QUESTION:

How do we make sense of the idea that things will change in the kingdom with the idea that Gospel Doctrine does not change? How does continuing revelation with the Lord adapting to the circumstances of His children reconcile itself with the idea that doctrine does not change?

A few thoughts that might be helpful:

1. As one scholar, Anthony Sweat, has noted, the use of the term "doctrine" has evolved in our own church history. Specifically, the idea that Gospel Doctrine is eternal and unchanging "is a more recent historical movement... that definition of doctrine is, itself, a new doctrine." (5) In other words, the use of the term "doctrine" in the past by Church leaders also included "doctrine" that meant no more and no less than "a belief or tenet of one's faith." It was a more general use of the term. (6)

2. The adjustment in recent Church History to use the term in a more specific way came directly from President Nelson with some helpful insight from Elder Bednar, as far as I understand. Elder Anthony D. Perkins, the executive director of the Church's Correlation Department, gave this interesting insight that President Nelson gave him: "The word “doctrine” when referring to Church doctrine should not be pluralized. President Nelson has pointed out to us that in the scriptures, every time ‘doctrines’ is plural, it’s the doctrines of men or the doctrines of devils. When it’s the singular, it’s the doctrine of Christ." (7) 

3. Therefore, one of the keys to distinguishing Gospel Doctrine from policies, procedures, and other forms of application is to come to really understand the doctrine of Christ. In the quote above from Elder Bednar, he gives a good brief list of some of the eternal doctrines that are integral to the doctrine of Christ. Why hasn't the term "doctrine" been used as consistently as we might have otherwise hoped in our dispensation? I think the lesson is that the continuing restoration presupposes such evolution and line-upon-line learning, even by prophets.

4. The following diagram is a helpful way to systemically discern things. It uses "baptism" as an example:


The creators of this diagram give 4 helpful questions to ask ourselves to accurately place the teachings of the Church:

1. Is it repeatedly found in the scriptures?

2. Is it proclaimed by the united voice of the current Brethren?

3. Is it consistently taught by current General Authorities and general officers acting in their official capacity?

4. Is it found in recent Church publications or statements? (8)

With this stage set, let's turn to Acts chapter 10 where Peter receives a mysterious revelation from Heaven and supporting evidence from an unexpected source.

PETER, THE WISE BUT SLOW TO UNDERSTAND

Acts chapter 10 begins with a vision a Gentile Roman centurion named Cornelius received. He is instructed to send some of his household servants to find Peter and bring him to Cornelius' house. The next day Peter, while very hungry, has a vision where he sees a large white sheet descending from heaven with "all kinds of four-footed animals and reptiles" (NET). He is commanded to kill and eat the animals. Peter responds by saying "NO! I have never eaten anything ritually unclean". God responds with this profound line, "What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean!" (NET). The vision occurs three different times, perhaps to really drive the point home for Peter.

Once the vision closes the men sent by Cornelius find Peter and call out to him. The Greek suggests Peter doesn't hear them because he is trying to make sense of what he just saw. The Spirit chimes in and tells him to "LOOK!". The Spirit continues by saying Peter needs to go down and accompany the three men, "doubting nothing" (KJV). Interestingly, the word for "doubting" here comes from the Greek diakrinomenos and can mean "to separate, discriminate, or to oppose" (9). One particular translation, therefore, translates this phrase "doubting nothing" more specifically as "Don't be prejudice" (The Kingdom New Testament, N.T. Wright, p. 252).

It is interesting to consider Peter as a fallible man who had biases as a direct influence of his culture. Peter, like most Jews in his day, viewed these Gentiles through the most unpleasant lens; they were "ritually unclean". We should see this through the lens of Peter's day and not make rash judgments, but it is also fair to say that the spirit appears to have told Peter to not let his "prejudices" get in the way.

We might say about Peter what Elder Quentin L. Cook said about Brigham Young. Namely, that some things Peter said and thought "about race fall short of our standards today. Some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time." (10) I don't want to beat up on Peter, but we also have a few clear statements from the Savior that Peter was expected to take the gospel to all nations (see Matthew 28:19). The vision Peter has appears to have served as helping him overcome the cultural barriers he had in his mind to fulfill the Saviors commission.

Peter proceeds to go unto Cornelius.

READ ACTS 10:24-35

"24 And the morrow after they entered into C├Žsarea. And Cornelius waited for them, and had called together his kinsmen and near friends.

25 And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him.

26 But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man.

27 And as he talked with him, he went in, and found many that were come together.

28 And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.

29 Therefore came I unto you without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for: I ask therefore for what intent ye have sent for me?

30 And Cornelius said, Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and, behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing,

31 And said, Cornelius, thy prayer is heard, and thine alms are had in remembrance in the sight of God.

32 Send therefore to Joppa, and call hither Simon, whose surname is Peter; he is lodged in the house of one Simon a tanner by the sea side: who, when he cometh, shall speak unto thee.

33 Immediately therefore I sent to thee; and thou hast well done that thou art come. Now therefore are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God.

34 ¶ Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:

35 But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him."

QUESTION: 

Like the Jews who looked down on those who were not of the seed of Abraham, do you ever catch yourself making unkind or uninformed assumptions about someone different from you? How can we overcome this tendency?

President Russell M. Nelson in his classic talk, "Let God Prevail", said the following:

"Each of us has a divine potential because each is a child of God. Each is equal in His eyes. The implications of this truth are profound. Brothers and sisters, please listen carefully to what I am about to say. God does not love one race more than another. His doctrine on this matter is clear. He invites all to come unto Him, “black and white, bond and free, male and female.” ... Today I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice." (11)

An interesting note is how Elder Bruce R. McConkie relates this experience in Acts chapter 10 to the revelation on the priesthood given to President Spencer W. Kimball in 1978. He says:

"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... The Lord had to give Peter the vision and revelation of the sheet coming down from heaven with the unclean meat on it... [Drawing a parallel to our day,] there are statements in our literature by the early Brethren that we have interpreted to mean that [those with black ancestry] would not receive the priesthood in mortality... All I can say 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 whoever 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 now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the Gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the Gentiles." (12)

THE AFTERMATH AND CONTINUAL STRUGGLE

Acts chapter 11 begins with Peter having to deal with some contention from fellow Jewish Christians. The same word used by the Spirit in chapter 10 to highlight Peter's initial prejudice towards Gentiles is used again in Acts 11:2 by these "circumcised believers". Verse 1 might suggest that some of these men were fellow apostles with Peter. They were now showing some prejudice and hesitancy towards Peter.

Peter goes on to defend his actions to the Jerusalem Church and recounts the experiences he had in chapter 10. This time he recounts a detail we don't really get in the previous chapter. Namely, the holy spirit descended upon the Gentiles in Cornelius' household. Peter, apparently, didn't expect that and it was the evidence he needed that Gentiles could be adopted as the seed of Abraham.

Also in chapter 11, we get the first occurrence of the title "Christians". In the city of Antioch, it appears the Church had to legally register itself and they chose the title Christian. In Greek, the term literally means "little anointed ones" or "little Christs" (13).

The apostle, James the brother of John, is the second Christian martyr behind Stephen in Acts 12. Peter has a miraculous prison escape that is worth reading, but we don't have the time to review it in today's lesson.

Chapter 13 is where we have Barnabas and Saul set apart for the ministry. It doesn't say this is where Saul/Paul was ordained as a member of the twelve apostles. In fact, that information never occurs in the New Testament. Paul calls himself an apostle in many instances, but that "should not be taken to mean that he was [a member of the twelve]" (14). The word apostle in the New Testament is used much looser than we use it today within the Church. Anciently, it appeared to simply mean one who had received a divine commission from Jesus Christ.  There is no modern revelation or Church material that refers to Paul as a member of the twelve. This is interesting to consider given that half of the books within the New Testament were written by Paul. It is another example of how distinguishing between Gospel Doctrine and policies can be helpful.

Paul and Barnabas have great success on their first mission trip, but we are going to fast forward to Acts chapter 15 in which a "large disputation" occurs within the early church.

READ ACTS 15:4-11

"4 And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the church, and of the apostles and elders, and they declared all things that God had done with them.

5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.

6 ¶ And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter.

7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe.

8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;

9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.

10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they."

What is being discussed in the council in Jerusalem is if this large influx of Gentile converts should be required to observe various aspects of the law of Moses. Circumcision is specifically pointed out as a problem, and Peter says it is an unnecessary yoke to place upon the neck of these Gentile converts.

The policy change that takes place later on in the chapter is that Gentiles will not be forced to observe circumcision and the law of Moses, but the Jewish Christians do not have to stop observing various aspects of the law as long as they understood that salvation was in and through Jesus Christ.

Peter's use of the word yoke calls to mind the Savior's words in Matthew 11:28-30. Perhaps Peter is remembering these words in a new light now that the Gentiles are being taught the gospel.

QUESTION:

Circumcision wasn't just a run-of-the-mill policy change. It was a practice that pre-dated the law of Moses going all the way back to Abraham. It was a holy token of one's covenant, national, and familial identity. For the policy changes that are really hard to swallow, how can we remain anchored in Christ? What do we see here on how to deal with disagreement and how Church leaders direct the work of the Church?

Paul was not the biggest fan of this decision. He thought it was still a distraction from Jesus Christ while Peter sees wisdom and order in not scaring off all the Jewish saints by pulling off policy band-aids too quickly. We have an interesting spat between Paul and Peter later that is recounted by Paul in Galatians chapter 2. This was a superheated disagreement that also seemed to plague the rest of the Church as it is constantly referred back to throughout the epistles. 

For example, some scholars suggest this is one of the reasons Paul ventured so far out in his ministry after this. In other words, Paul doesn't really want to be around Peter too much while Peter appears to be critical of Paul's style in 2 Peter 3:15-16 (while also complimenting Paul). With all this in mind, we get an interesting verse in D&C 64:8, which says:

"8 My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened."

Eventually, reconciliation is made, but we do not know when or where.

QUESTION:

Where can we learn to be more wise than our Christian ancestors were and not let controversial policies get in the way? This rift between Gentile and Jewish converts perhaps played a role in the oncoming apostasy.

As a case study, it is interesting to observe what happened to the Nephites who let go of the law of Moses completely cold turkey in 3 Nephi compared to what happened to the ancient saints and Church as it spread.

Acts chapter 15 is full of contention between holy men as we get a heated moment between Paul and Barnabas in verses 36-40. Their disagreement is over Mark, the original author of the Gospel of Mark. Earlier during their first mission trip to the Gentiles, Mark left the mission early which caused Paul to not think highly of Mark. Barnabas is a little more forgiving and wants to take Mark again. This little experience shows us how fiery Paul was, perhaps to a fault at times, and how we probably ought not to be judgemental towards those who return home early from a mission. They might just end up writing one the Gospels of the New Testament. There is a happy ending to this story as it appears Paul and Mark reconcile themselves in Colossians 4:10.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie gives us this remarkable insight:

"It is not the conflict between Paul and Barnabas which concerns us, but the fact that they (being even as we are) rose thereafter to spiritual heights where they saw visions, received revelations, and made their callings and elections sure -- the fact of their disagreement thus bearing witness that we in our weaknesses can also press forward to that unity and perfection which shall assure us of salvation." (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 2:145)

PAUL GOES WEST

Paul goes now on his second mission trip to the Gentiles. In Acts 16 we get Paul and Timothy preaching in the area of modern-day Turkey. They appear to want to make a clockwise trip around that part of the world given the cities they mention. In verses 6 & 7 they are told by the Holy Ghost not to venture further into Asia. They get a vision of a Greek man inviting them to Macedonia, which was anciently and is modernly a part of continental Europe. Paul has entered the Western world.

Some scholars suggest that Paul heeding the promptings of the Spirit here was monumental. If you want evidence that heeding the promptings of the Holy Spirit can have long-term consequences, this is a prime example. Without this mission trip to Greece and Rome, we probably don't have Christianity as strongly rooted in the West as it was. Could it be possible that Joseph Smith doesn't begin the restoration in the Western world without Paul and Timothy heeding promptings from the Holy Ghost here in Acts 16?

Paul ventures to Athens, the capital of philosophy and pagan religion in the ancient world. He runs into Epicureans and Stoics who accuse Paul of being a "foolish showoff" (Wayment translation of "babbler" in Acts 17:18). They arrest Paul and bring him to Areopagus which "was a court designed to try serious cases" (New Testament In Its World, Wright, p. 354). Paul stands up to defend himself and gives an unconventional sermon.

READ ACTS 17:22-29

"22 ¶ Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.

23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

26 And 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;

27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device."

QUESTION:

What can we learn from Paul's teaching? What did he say or not say? How does he consider his audience?

Paul doesn't throw Isaiah or the Psalms at these learned Greeks. He quotes their own poets and philosophers, specifically Cleanthes and Aratus of Soli. (15) The people of Athens were sarcastically known for having more idols of gods in their city than people. They even had a monument for "THE UNKNOWN GOD" just so they didn't leave anyone out. Paul adapts that to his audience in the first full detailed Christian sermon we have given to people in Europe.

Paul returns for a time to Ephesus and Corinth and heals many. We are told people would be healed by simply using Paul's handkerchiefs or aprons in Acts 19:12. We even have a certain Jew trying to perform exorcisms in the name of Jesus and Paul. It doesn't go very well as an evil spirit tells these men he knows of Jesus and Paul but does not recognize their authority. They are attacked and wounded by this evil spirit.

Chapter 21 ends with Paul returning to Jerusalem where he is arrested. He remains so for pretty much the rest of his life. We will pick up on those events next week.

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