“Ye Shall be Witnesses Unto Me.” #BCCSundaySchool2019

Readings: Acts 1-5

This week we have finished the gospels and are moving into Acts. The transition here is from the story of Jesus to the story of the church and the apostles. Sometimes we talk of Jesus having organized his church during his ministry, but that’s not really accurate, at least not according to the gospels. He makes a reference to having “ordained” his apostles, but he doesn’t do (m)any of the other things we associate with ecclesiology in the modern church.

He doesn’t organize wards or stakes. Unless you count the last supper as an instance of the sacrament, he doesn’t really perform ordinances (other than maybe the equivocal reference to having ordained the apostles, and, maybe when he “breathes on” them and tells them “receive ye the holy ghost”). And if you do count the last supper, he doesn’t do it until the very end of his ministry. He doesn’t seem to organize regular weekly meetings with hymns and preaching. He doesn’t seem to create any kind of organization at all. His mortal ministry is almost entirely as an itinerant preacher of repentance and a sometimes cryptic prophet. The work of organizing the movement of people he left behind when he ascended to heaven was something he left to the apostles. And it’s not something they did all at once, it’s something that developed over time, partly from revelations, partly from policy decisions, or even just chance, and partly from traditions that developed. The beginning of that development is the story that Acts tells.

Something I’ve been especially struck by reading through these first few chapter of acts this time is how strikingly the experiences of the apostles and primitive saints parallels the experience of Joseph Smith and the early latter-day saints. We like to focus on what makes us unique among Christians, and in doing so, I think we sometimes overlook the degree to which those early revelations were closely modeled on things happening in Acts. The better the understand the story told in Acts, the better we can understand our own history and our own church.

Chapter 1: The Promise of the Endowment of Power

Acts is narratively funny because it opens with a bit of anti-climax. The big charismatic event, the resurrection, has just happened, and now the disciples are kind of asking “what next?” So Acts opens with the apostles meeting with and receiving instruction from the resurrected Jesus before he ascends to heaven and is basically gone from then on. After giving them “infallible proofs” of his resurrection, his post-resurrection teachings cover three things: (1) “things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,” on which see Michael’s post today for some great discussion, (2) an instruction to go to Jerusalem and wait until they received the Holy Ghost and “power,” and (3) a prophecy that after they do receive this promised power, the apostles will be his witnesses to “the uttermost part of the earth.”

Jesus doesn’t use the word “endowment” here in Acts, but the gospels have him using the closely related word “endued” when he gives his apostles the instruction to wait until they receive the Holy Ghost and are “endued with power.” This is a big, big deal. It’s the foundation on which the rest of the story of Acts is built. Without the Holy Ghost and the pentecostal endowment, the disciples, per Jesus’s express instructions, could not become his witnesses and do all the rest of the stuff they do in Acts.

This is a close parallel to the church in 1830. After years of effort, the Book of Mormon had finally been obtained, translated, and published. The big, charismatic, dispensation-opening event had finally been completed. Now, Joseph Smith and his small group of followers were sort of left asking “what’s next?” The answer to that question came in a bunch of early revelations, but those revelations focus on the same three things as Jesus’s post-resurrection teachings to the disciples in Acts 1.

One focus of those revelations was “things pertaining to the Kingdom”: In particular, Oliver Cowdery was instructed to “build up my kingdom” and referred to the Book of Mormon for details on how to do so (D&C 18:2-5). But the next focus of those early revelations was to go to Ohio where God’s law would be revealed and the church would be “endowed with power” (D&C 38:32). And the promise of the endowment also came with a prophecy that after being endowed with power, the church would “go forth among all the nations” (D&C 38:33).

After returning to Jerusalem, the disciples do what Jesus said and they wait, united in prayer, for the Holy Ghost and the endowment of power (v. 14). While waiting, they decide to replace Judas as one of the twelve. Peter sets certain criteria: the new apostle has to be one of those that followed Jesus from his baptism until his ascension (vv. 21-22). They narrow it down to two (v. 23). Then they pray for revelation (v.v. 24-25). And finally, they use lots to make the final selection (v. 23).

  • What can the process of selecting Judas’ replacement teach us about revelation?

Chapter 2: The Pentecostal Endowment and beginning of the church.

When Pentecost comes (50 days–a week of weeks–after Passover), the promise of the Holy Ghost and of an endowment of power is fulfilled with a charismatic spiritual manifestation including the “sound from heaven as of a mighty rushing wind,” “cloven tongues of fire” sitting on the apostles heads, and the gift of tongues (vv. 2-4). In this case, the gift of tongues was xenoglossia–the ability to speak in foreign tongues previously unknown to the disciples, and with that gift the apostles preached the gospel (the message of the resurrection of Jesus, faith, repentance, baptism, and the promise of the gift of the holy ghost–see v. 38).

Again, the parallels to the early restoration are striking. In the early church, the fulfillment of the promise of the endowment of power was fulfilled initially when the office of high priest was revealed in Kirtland, and then more fully with the Pentecostal manifestations that happened with the dedication of the Kirtland temple.

And in his preaching here, Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy about the last days (vv. 17-21). This is one of the most commonly quoted old testament scriptures in the early revelations–sons and daughters prophesying, old men dreaming dreams, wonders in heaven, signs in the earth of blood, fire, and vapor of smoke, the sun turning to darkness, the moon turning to blood, and the promise that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. It really doesn’t get much more restoration than that. We may miss this sometimes, because we are basically biblically illiterate compared with previous generations, but the early saints would very much have seen themselves as living out the pattern of establishing the church that they were familiar with from these early chapters of Acts.

  • According to the John 20:22, Jesus had already said “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” to the disciples before. Why did they not receive it until Pentecost? Can this tell us something about our own confirmation? Do we receive the Holy Ghost completely when we are confirmed or do we have to “continue in prayer and supplication”?

  • How is this “endowment of power” different from the modern temple endowment? How is it similar? What can that tell us about the relationship between the ordinance of confirmation and the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the temple endowment? What might it tell us about the eternal or changeable nature of the specific mechanics of the endowment?

Anyway, Peter’s preaching is massively successful and three thousand people are baptized and join the disciples. But joining the church (by which I mean joining the company of baptized believers–there still wasn’t really an institution like we think of today) didn’t just mean coming to meetings. It was a radical change in their way of life: the church sold all their belongings, gave the proceeds to the needy, and jointly possessed what was left to live on (vv. 44-46).

Given the close parallels between Acts and the narrative of the early church noted above, it should not be too surprising at this point to note that many of the Kirtland-era revelations also focused on the principle of consecration (see e.g. D&C 42:37-39). But I think we sometimes misunderstand consecration as just a more intense version of sacrifice: if you sacrifice you give up something and if you consecrate you give up everything. That’s fine, I guess, as far as it goes, but it misses that the salient point of consecration in these revelations is that it is instituted in order to care for the poor (see D&C 42:30, 31, 37, 39). Not surprisingly, even though Acts doesn’t use the word consecration, it describes the same thing (v. 45).

Chapter 3-5: the Chief Priests just don’t know what to do with the Christians.

The rest of the reading for this week describes an odd sort of situation where the chief priests really don’t like having Peter and the church around, but they also don’t really know what do with them either. So there’s this kind of recurring pattern of arresting them and then letting them go.

First Peter and John go into the temple and heal a man who cannot walk (3:1-11), and Peter makes another bold and fiery speech at the temple (3:12-26) about Jesus and about repentance, resulting in about another five thousand converts (4:4). This gets them arrested by the Temple guard and dragged before the council of chief priests, who demand to know by what authority they healed the man (4:1-7). Peter makes another fairly defiant speech boldly proclaiming that they did so in Jesus’ name (4:8-12). This puts the priests in a tough spot because they don’t like this challenge to their authority, but they also can’t deny that they had performed a “notable miracle” that had already become public knowledge (4:13-16). So they decide to inflict no punishment, but to “straitly threaten” Peter and John to speak no more of Jesus (4:17-18). That doesn’t go over to well with Peter, who basically says, “look, we’ll obey God, not you” (4:19-20). So they threaten them some more and let them go (4:21).

So Peter and John go back to the church the church prays together that the apostles will have the strength not to give in to the threats of the council (4:29). The next part seems like deja vu: While praying they receive another Pentecost-like manifestation and receive the Holy Ghost again (4:31). And then the latter part of chapter 4 repeats the consecration and common possession described above, but it seems to have really kicked into high gear: the church sold their belongings, gave the proceeds to the apostles, and at the apostles’ direction “distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (4:32-35).

  • If the church had already received the Holy Ghost, why did the Holy Ghost fall on them again? What does this teach us about the gift of the Holy Ghost?

  • We don’t practice common ownership in the church, anymore, but we still frequently discuss the principles of consecration and stewardship. What principles can we derive from the church’s practice in Acts of selling all their belongings and giving the proceeds to the needy of the church? How can we apply those principles today without waiting for the church to institute common ownership again?

And that brings us to Chapter 5, where we find Ananias and Sapphira. Their story is short and kind of uninteresting, really. They sell their belongings like the rest of the church, but keep part of the price for themselves and lie about it. Peter calls them out, and they drop dead. The end.

  • Moral of the story: don’t lie.

The apostles keep healing people in the streets and causing a commotion, so the council again has them arrested and thrown in jail (5:17-18). But “the angel of the Lord” opens the prison later that night and tells them to leave and go preach in the temple (5:19-20). So the council sends the temple guard to arrest them again, but because they are so popular now with the common folk, the guards simply ask them to come instead of arresting them by force (5:26). So they go before the council and have almost the same conversation as before. Chief Priests: “Didn’t we tell you to stop preaching in Jesus’ name?” Apostles: “We’ll obey God, not you.” Peter: [Gives fiery speech about Jesus] (5:32). But this time, the council think they should kill them (5:33). They’re saved by Gamaliel who de-escalates the situation by saying, basically “look, these movements come along every so often and they always die out. If this is just another false messiah movement it will die out too. But if there’s something to it, we can’t stop it, and if we try to, we might find ourselves fighting against God” (5:34-39). So instead of killing them, they beat the apostles, tell them not to talk about Jesus anymore, and let them go (5:40). This of course does nothing to stop them (5:41-42).

  • Gamaliel has a refreshingly open mind. Can we apply his attitude ourselves? How can we remain open to the possibility of prophesy, miracles and other spiritual gifts without being deceived by false gifts?

From the archives:

Prayer for the day of pentecost.
More here about the law of consecration.

More here about the relationship between the temple endowment and the day of pentecost.

More here about the gift of tongues.

Comments

  1. The formatting is not displaying correctly on my iPad or phone. Can you please review? I really enjoy these articles. (Feel free to delete this comment)

  2. I’m having the same problem viewing on my laptop.

  3. Thanks for pointing out the similarities between both early churches. Given how God reveals that His house is a house of order, why does He let church leaders wander around for a bit with little guidance?
    It’s great that the early church was consecrating their goods. I wonder what the motivation was. Did Peter receive a revelation that they should do that? Giving away all of your stuff doesn’t feel like something which happens spontaneously.

  4. Sorry guys. Formatting should ne fixed now.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    We LDS regularly misunderstand the word “endowment” as it relates to our temple worship. We think of that term like a university endowment, so perhaps with a connotation along the lines of “a gift.” But that’s wrong. The word is actually from the “endued with power” usage you mention, from the Greek verb enduO meaning “dressed, clothed upon.” So the apostles were “clothed upon with power.”

  6. Great comment, Kevin. And that misunderstanding, I think, obscures the fact that the Kirtland endowment is directly modeled, at least in part, on the Pentecostal endowment. In fact, that clothing aspect is something that’s explicitly referenced in the Kirtland derogatory prayer: “let these, thine anointed ones, be clothed with salvation” (D&C 109:80). That we misunderstand this is maybe a little ironic given that the endowment developed into a ritual that symbolizes being spiritually clothed upon in physical, literal ways.

  7. biblical illiterate says:

    As a biblically illiterate church member, I just want to say thank you for this thought-provoking post, Jared! I appreciate that the questions you shared interrupt the easily thought-preventing standard answers commonly given about confirmation and the Holy Ghost.

  8. sidebottom says:

    In my last reading of Luke I was struck by the significance of the calling of the Seventy as a proto-organizational event overseen by Jesus himself. It’s not couched in our current priesthood ordinance parlance, but it’s clearly laying the groundwork for a self-perpetuating organization where the followers of Christ perform the works of Christ in His stead.

    Again, certainly not the hyperorganization we see today but there’s more there than the OP recognizes.

  9. Interesting thought, sidebottom. I’ve always seen the 70 in the New Testament as an evangelizing corps, not an administrative body.

  10. Sam Brunson says:

    I love questions of communitarianism, both with the early Church and with modern churches. Like, Joseph wasn’t the first to notice Acts 2: the Hutterites have been doing communitarianism consistently for hundreds of years, and we weren’t even the only 19th-century church to experiment with it. (Shakers and the Oneida community leap to mind, and the Israelite House of David in the early 20th century is maybe the most awesome of communitarian religions, what with its baseball team, its amusement park, and its concert and jazz bands).

    But I was reading a book about early Christianity (which, unfortunately, is in a different place than I am, and I can’t remember its title off the top of my head), and it provided an interesting twist on the idea of a divinely-mandated communitarianism: the early Church expected the imminent return of Jesus. So they weren’t necessarily developing and economic system meant to be sustainable: it only had to last until He returned, which meant the wealthy Christians could afford to subsidize the poorer Christians in the interim. But Jesus didn’t come back, which was the thing they weren’t prepared for.

  11. Great point, Sam. I’ve had similar thoughts. It’s not that these movements failed to last, it’s that they were never designed to last in the first place.

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