“Chapter 31: Acts 8–12,” New Testament Student Manual (2018)
“Chapter 31,” New Testament Student Manual
After His Resurrection, Jesus Christ commanded His Apostles to teach and baptize people in every nation (see Matthew 28:19–20; Mark 16:15–16). He also foretold that the Apostles’ ministry would begin in Jerusalem, spread throughout Judea and Samaria, and finally go “unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Acts 8–12 describes the beginning of this worldwide expansion of the early Christian Church. Up to this point, the book of Acts recounts the Church’s growth among Jews in Jerusalem and Judea. In Acts 8 we read about Philip, one of the seven leaders called to assist the Twelve (see Acts 6:5), who taught and baptized many Samaritans and a man from Ethiopia (see Acts 8:5–7, 12, 26–40). Acts 9 recounts the conversion of Saul, who would become an Apostle and a powerful missionary to the Gentiles. The Lord also gave Peter, as leader of the Church, a vision directing him to accept Gentiles into the Church (see Acts 10–11). Despite growing opposition, Church leaders pressed forward to take the gospel “unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
After Stephen’s martyrdom, Saul and others in Jerusalem continued to persecute the Church. Saul “made havoc of the church,” forcibly taking men and women from their homes and putting them in prison (Acts 8:3). Because of this persecution, many of the followers of Jesus Christ traveled beyond Judea for safety, where they continued to preach the gospel and accelerate its expansion. A theme throughout the book of Acts is that the work of God will progress despite persecution (see Acts 4:3–4; 12:1–2, 24). In modern times the Prophet Joseph Smith (1805–44) taught: “The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , 142).
Philip was one of the seven men chosen to assist the Apostles in caring for the needy (see Acts 6:1–6). In fulfilling his responsibilities, Philip preached, baptized, cast out unclean spirits, and performed other miracles (see Acts 8). Philip appears to have ministered as a holder of the Aaronic Priesthood—he had the authority to baptize but did not have the authority to give the gift of the Holy Ghost (see D&C 84:107–8). Those whom Philip baptized had to wait for the arrival of Peter and John, holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood, to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Simon, a Samaritan sorcerer who had been baptized by Philip, saw Peter and John exercising priesthood authority and supposed that he could purchase this authority. The fifth article of faith makes clear that priesthood authority cannot be bought but must be received in the way God has ordained: “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) stated that in addition to receiving the priesthood from someone having proper authority, “personal worthiness becomes the standard of eligibility to receive and exercise this sacred power” (“Personal Worthiness to Exercise the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 2002, 52).
When the Church leaders in Jerusalem heard about Philip’s success in teaching the gospel, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. There they laid their hands on the Samaritan converts to bestow the Holy Ghost. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin (1917–2008) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated the requirements for receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost: “The gift of the Holy Ghost, which is the right to receive the Holy Ghost as a constant companion, is obtained only upon condition of faith in Christ, repentance, baptism by immersion, and the laying on of hands by authorized servants endowed with the Melchizedek Priesthood. It is a most precious gift available only to worthy members of the Lord’s Church” (“The Unspeakable Gift,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2003, 26; see also D&C 20:38, 41).
When Philip traveled south of Jerusalem, as instructed by an angel, he met and baptized a man from Ethiopia (see Acts 8:26–39). Since Ethiopia, in present-day Africa, was not part of Judea, the conversion partially fulfilled the prophecy recorded in Acts 1:8 that the gospel would spread beyond Judea and Samaria, and it foreshadowed the dramatic missionary work about to commence among the Gentiles (from Acts 10 onward).
The Spirit prompted Philip to teach this man of Ethiopia that the life and ministry of Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophecy he was reading from Isaiah. The passage quoted in Acts 8:32–33 is found in Isaiah 53:7–8. Philip’s inspired teaching led the man to declare that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and ask for baptism. “And they went down both into the water … ; and he [Philip] baptized him” (Acts 8:38). This man was baptized by immersion, for the ordinance of baptism was performed in the meridian of time just as it is performed in the latter-day Church.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained that like the man of Ethiopia, we all need inspired teaching of the gospel and should all seek to become better gospel teachers:
“For each of us to ‘come unto Christ’ [D&C 20:59], to keep His commandments and follow His example back to the Father is surely the highest and holiest purpose of human existence. To help others do that as well—to teach, persuade, and prayerfully lead them to walk that path of redemption also—surely that must be the second most significant task in our lives. Perhaps that is why President David O. McKay once said, ‘No greater responsibility can rest upon any man [or woman] than to be a teacher of God’s children’ [in Conference Report, Oct. 1916, 57]. We are, in fact, all somewhat like the man of Ethiopia to whom Philip was sent. Like him, we may know enough to reach out for religion. We may invest ourselves in the scriptures. We may even give up our earthly treasures, but without sufficient instruction we may miss the meaning of all this and the requirements that still lie before us. So we cry with this man of great authority, ‘How can [we understand,] except some [teacher] should guide [us]?’” (“A Teacher Come from God,” Ensign, May 1998, 25).
Saul was born in Tarsus, a Greek city in Cilicia (see Acts 21:39). He was a Roman citizen by birth (see Acts 16:37) and spoke a “Hebrew tongue” (probably Aramaic) and Greek (Acts 21:37–40). He was a Jew from the lineage of Benjamin (see Romans 11:1) and a devout Pharisee (see Acts 23:6), who zealously pursued and tormented Jesus Christ’s followers (see Acts 9:1–2). He was later known by his Latin name, Paul.
On one occasion, the Prophet Joseph Smith described Paul’s physical appearance: “He [the Apostle Paul] 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 resembles the roaring of a lion. He was a good orator” (in “Extracts from William Clayton’s Private Book,” p. 4, Journals of L. John Nuttall, 1857–1904, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University; copy in Church History Library). For more on the Apostle Paul, see “Introduction to the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans” in chapter 35.
Damascus was a wealthy city located at a prosperous crossroad 150 miles northeast of Jerusalem. If Christianity were allowed to become entrenched there, it could more easily spread to surrounding areas. Saul was sent to Damascus to thwart Christianity’s progress but while traveling there had a remarkable vision. His experience on the road to Damascus shares several similarities with Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Both Saul and Joseph Smith saw a light from heaven. Both fell to the earth and heard a voice calling them by name. Both saw the Son of God and heard Him speak to them. Both received divine instruction when they inquired what they should do. Both were later persecuted for saying they had seen a vision, and both nevertheless continued to affirm that they had seen a vision (see Acts 9:2–6; 26:19–21; Joseph Smith—History 1:14–19, 24–25). There are some minor differences in the three accounts of Paul’s vision recorded in Acts, just as there are differences in the accounts that Joseph Smith wrote of his First Vision. For more information on these differences, see the commentary for Acts 26:19–21, 24–25.
The vision that marked the beginning of Saul’s conversion was dramatic and had immediate effects. For most individuals, the conversion process is less dramatic but just as meaningful. Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained: “You may ask, Why doesn’t this mighty change happen more quickly with me? You should remember that the remarkable examples of King Benjamin’s people, Alma, and some others in scripture are just that—remarkable and not typical. For most of us, the changes are more gradual and occur over time. Being born again, unlike our physical birth, is more a process than an event” (“Born Again,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2008, 78).
A “prick” refers to a goad, which is a sharp spear or stick used to poke animals to make them move ahead. Rather than move forward, stubborn animals sometimes kick back to retaliate, literally kicking “against the pricks.” Such a reaction only adds distress as the animal incurs more painful prompting from its master. The Savior is making clear that if Saul continues to fight against Him, he will only bring distress upon himself. In Greek literature, “kicking against the pricks” was a well-known metaphor for opposing deity.
President David O. McKay (1873–1970) speculated on Saul’s inner feelings as he traveled the road to Damascus before his vision: “Perhaps during those few days of comparative leisure, [Saul] began to wonder whether what he was doing was right or not. Perhaps the shining face of the dying Stephen and the martyr’s last prayer began to sink more deeply into his soul than it had done before. Little children’s cries for their parents whom Saul had bound began to pierce his soul more keenly, and make him feel miserably unhappy as he looked forward to more experiences of that kind in Damascus. Perhaps he wondered whether the work of the Lord, if he were really engaged in it, would make him feel so restless and bitter. He was soon to learn that only the work of the evil one produces those feelings, and that true service for the Lord, always brings peace and contentment” (Ancient Apostles, 2nd ed. , 148).
President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) spoke of the importance of Saul’s question to the Lord: “A man can ask no more important question in his life than that which Paul asked: ‘… Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?’ A man can take no greater action than to pursue a course that will bring to him the answer to that question and then to carry out that answer” (“Listen to a Prophet’s Voice,” Ensign, Jan. 1973, 57).
Saul’s three days of blindness following his vision can represent his spiritual blindness prior to learning the truth about Jesus Christ; now he had to set aside his past and look to the future, trusting in the Lord and His earthly ministers for guidance. New sight, both physical and spiritual, came to Saul following a blessing received at the hands of Ananias. (See Acts 9:9, 17–18.)
Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles compared the conversions of Saul and Alma the Younger to emphasize the remarkable change that began to occur within Saul during his three days of blindness: “Alma remained in a trance for two days and two nights, during which time he received a marvelous spiritual manifestation and regeneration, was born again, and heard the voice of the Lord. (Mosiah 27:22–31.) Saul, similarly, during his three sightless days commenced the character transformation which in due course would change the history of Christianity. What anguish of soul he must have felt, what fires of conscience, what godly sorrow for sin, as he humbled himself preparatory to submitting to the direction of Ananias” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 2:90).
Ananias was likely the leader of the Church in Damascus, and he may have been one whom Saul had targeted for arrest. This would explain Ananias’s initial reluctance to seek out Saul after the Lord commanded him to do so. Nevertheless, Ananias was obedient to the Lord, and he helped place Saul, a future Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, on the path of faith and forgiveness (see Acts 9:10–15).
Some have wondered why the Lord would appear to an enemy of the Church like Saul and subsequently call him to His ministry. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained that this difficulty is resolved by understanding that the Lord’s plan of salvation encompasses our premortal life: “Saul was foreordained; nothing he had done on earth qualified him for what was ahead; but his native spiritual endowment, nurtured and earned in pre-existence, prepared him for the coming ministry” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 2:91).
Speaking of Saul’s call to the ministry, President Thomas S. Monson (1927–2018) said: “When the Savior was to choose a missionary of zeal and power, He found him not among His advocates but amidst His adversaries. The experience of Damascus’s way changed Saul. Of him the Lord declared, ‘He is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel [Acts 9:15].’ Saul the persecutor became Paul the proselyter” (“Choose You This Day,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2004, 69).
As well as declaring that Saul was chosen for a great work, the Lord also said, “He must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:16). To read about some of the suffering Saul experienced as a minister for the Lord Jesus Christ, see Acts 14:5–6, 19; 16:22–24; 21:30–33; and 2 Corinthians 11:23–27.
We learn in Galatians that after Saul’s conversion he left Damascus and journeyed to Arabia (see Galatians 1:17). It is not recorded why Saul went there, but he may have gone for study and reflection (perhaps between the events recorded in Acts 9:22 and 23), or he may have fled there for safety (see Acts 9:23–25). He sojourned in Arabia for as long as three years. While there, Saul likely deepened his understanding of how Jesus Christ fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies. After his time in Arabia, he returned to Damascus for a short period of time before journeying to Jerusalem to see Peter and other Church leaders (see Galatians 1:17–18; Acts 9:26–27). For further information about Paul’s life and ministry, see the following chart:
About A.D. 1–3
Born in Tarsus of the tribe of Benjamin—a Pharisee and a Roman citizen by birth
About A.D. 19–29
Taught by Gamaliel in Jerusalem
Witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen and persecuted Christians in the Jerusalem area
On the road to Damascus, saw a vision of Jesus Christ, was converted, and preached of Christ in Damascus
Fled Damascus to Arabia
Returned to Damascus and briefly preached the gospel
After three years visited Jerusalem and spoke with Peter and James, the Lord’s brother
Spent 14 years in Syria-Cilicia (part of that time on his mission with Barnabas). Tarsus, Paul’s hometown, was located in Cilicia.
First missionary journey (with Barnabas)
Attended the Jerusalem Conference
Second missionary journey
About A.D. 54–58
Third and final mission
About A.D. 58
Farewell visit to Greece; traveled to Jerusalem to deliver offerings for the poor
Spring A.D. 58
Reported to presiding Brethren in Jerusalem, had misunderstandings at the temple, and was arrested
Spring A.D. 58–60
Imprisoned in Caesarea
Fall A.D. 60–Spring A.D. 61
While under arrest, traveled by sea to Rome. Shipwrecked and spent winter months on the island of Melita (Malta) just south of Sicily.
About A.D. 61–63
Under house arrest in Rome
Possible ministry in Rome and other locations in Italy
Second Imprisonment in Rome
About A.D. 68
Chart based on Thomas A. Wayment, From Persecutor to Apostle (2006), viii–ix and Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (1983), 393–97.
The Saints in Jerusalem were understandably wary when Saul asked to join with them (see Acts 9:26), but Barnabas escorted Saul to meet the Apostles and vouched for him (see Acts 9:26–28). Barnabas was a Jew from the tribe of Levi (see Acts 4:36), whose first recorded service to the Church was the selling of his property in accordance with the Saints’ agreement to have all things in common (see Acts 4:36–37). He spoke Greek (see Bible Dictionary, “Lycaonia”). He was “a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith” (Acts 11:24). Church leaders in Jerusalem sent him to minister in Antioch (in Syria) because a large number of people there had been converted to the gospel. These conversions occurred because Church members who were persecuted in Jerusalem after Stephen’s death fled to Antioch and preached there (see Acts 11:19–22).
Note that Acts includes references to two different Antiochs—Antioch in Syria and Antioch in Pisidia. Both Antiochs lie within present-day Turkey. From Antioch, Barnabas traveled to Tarsus to seek Saul, for Saul had fled there to escape persecution in Jerusalem, and the two men returned to Antioch to teach the gospel. They were chosen to take donations from the Saints in Antioch to members of the Church in Judea, who were suffering during a famine (see Acts 11:22–30). Barnabas later became Saul’s missionary companion during his first mission (see Acts 13–14).
While ministering in Lydda and Joppa, Peter healed Aeneas and Tabitha (also called Dorcas), illustrating the Savior’s statement, “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also” (John 14:12). Peter’s healing of Aeneas (see Acts 9:32–35) is similar to the Savior’s healing of a paralytic man (see Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:18–26). Likewise, the raising of Tabitha (see Acts 9:36–42) parallels the Savior’s raising of Jairus’s daughter (see Mark 5:35–43; Luke 8:49–56). Luke’s care in recording these similar events reflects one of his purposes: to affirm continuity between Jesus Christ and the Church and show a continuation of Jesus Christ’s power and authority in Peter.
Tabitha’s “good works and almsdeeds” likely included the sewing of clothing for the poor (see Acts 9:39). President Thomas S. Monson referred to Tabitha (Dorcas) as an example of a woman who gave the type of loving service latter-day members of the Relief Society so frequently give: “To me the scriptural reference to Tabitha, which describes her as a woman ‘full of good works and almsdeeds,’ defines some of the fundamental responsibilities of Relief Society; namely, the relief of suffering, the caring for the poor, and all which that implies” (“Be Thou an Example,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, 99).
Cornelius was a Roman centurion living in Caesarea. He was a Gentile, who was described as being God-fearing, devout, generous, and prayerful. An angel appeared to Cornelius and instructed him to send for Peter, who was then in Joppa. This vision was the first of several events that would culminate in the gospel being preached to the Gentiles, whereas previously only Jews had been admitted into the Church.
As Cornelius’s messengers were traveling to Joppa, Peter saw a vision in which he was commanded to kill and eat the meat of animals that were forbidden to be eaten under the law of Moses (see Leviticus 11); these animals symbolically represented Gentiles. Peter refused, and the Lord responded, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 10:15). Though Peter did not at first understand the meaning of the vision, he soon came to understand that the time had come for Gentiles to be baptized into the Church without first converting to Judaism. This revelation regarding Gentile converts came to Peter because he was the chief Apostle of the day, and he held priesthood keys for the entire Church (see Matthew 16:18–19). Revelation for the entire Church is always given through proper channels (see D&C 28:2, 6–7; 43:1–7). Elder L. Tom Perry (1922–2015) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of the order by which revelation is received for the Church:
“There is order in the way the Lord reveals His will to mankind. We all have the right to petition the Lord and receive inspiration through His Spirit within the realm of our own stewardship. Parents can receive revelation for their own family, a bishop for his assigned congregation, and on up to the First Presidency for the entire Church. However, we cannot receive revelation for someone else’s stewardship. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared:
“‘It is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or any one, to receive instructions for those in authority, higher than themselves’ [Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 197–98].
“‘Revelations of the mind and will of God to the Church, are to come through the [First] Presidency. This is the order of heaven’ [Teachings: Joseph Smith, 197]” (“We Believe All That God Has Revealed,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2003, 85–86).
Peter’s vision of the unclean animals illustrates the principle that revelation from God often comes incrementally or gradually (see Acts 10:17–34, 44–48). In this instance, Peter did not understand the vision when he first received it (see verse 17). As he pondered its meaning and acted in faith, events transpired that helped him gradually understand its meaning—that Gentiles were now to be accepted into the Church without prior conversion to Judaism.
Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles likened such incremental revelation to the rising of the sun in the morning: “The gradual increase of light radiating from the rising sun is like receiving a message from God ‘line upon line, precept upon precept’ (2 Nephi 28:30). Most frequently, revelation comes in small increments over time and is granted according to our desire, worthiness, and preparation. Such communications from Heavenly Father gradually and gently ‘distil upon [our souls] as the dews from heaven’ (D&C 121:45). This pattern of revelation tends to be more common than rare” (“The Spirit of Revelation,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2011, 88).
The Lord frequently answers prayers through the ministration of other people, and such was the case with Cornelius. Cornelius desired to know God’s will, and he had fasted and prayed for four days (see Acts 10:30). The angel promised Cornelius that Peter would provide him with more information (see Acts 10:6). President Thomas S. Monson described the joy of knowing that the Lord has answered someone else’s prayers through us: “In the performance of our responsibilities, I have learned that when we heed a silent prompting and act upon it without delay, our Heavenly Father will guide our footsteps and bless our lives and the lives of others. I know of no experience more sweet or feeling more precious than to heed a prompting only to discover that the Lord has answered another person’s prayer through you” (“Peace, Be Still,” Ensign, Nov. 2002, 55).
The scriptures teach that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), meaning that every person from Adam to the last person on earth will receive an opportunity to accept the gospel. The principles of salvation are the same for all of God’s children. Nephi declared: “He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33). Before the events described in Acts 10, the gospel was taught predominantly to the Jews. The new revelation and understanding given through Peter opened the doors for the gospel to be taught to all people without consideration of lineage.
A similar pattern followed in 1978, when a revelation received by the First Presidency extended priesthood and temple blessings to “all worthy male members of the Church … without regard for race or color” (Official Declaration 2). This revelation, like the revelation received by Peter, teaches that the gospel has always gone forth according to the Lord’s timetable. Shortly after the 1978 revelation was announced to the world, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught:
“Not only is the gospel to go, on a priority basis and harmonious to a divine timetable, to one nation after another, but the whole history of God’s dealings with men on earth indicates that such has been the case in the past; it has been restricted and limited where many people are concerned. For instance, in the day between Moses and Christ, the gospel went to the house of Israel, almost exclusively. 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. In his own ministration, Jesus preached only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and had so commanded the apostles. (Matthew 10:6.)
“It is true that he made a few minor exceptions because of the faith and devotion of some gentile people. There was one woman who wanted to eat the crumbs that fell from the table of the children, causing him to say, ‘O woman, great is thy faith.’ (Matthew 15:28; see also Mark 7:27–28.) With some minor exceptions, the gospel in that day went exclusively to Israel. The Lord had to give Peter the vision and revelation of the sheet coming down from heaven with the unclean meat on it, following which Cornelius sent the messenger to Peter to learn what he, Cornelius, and his gentile associates should do. The Lord commanded them that the gospel should go to the gentiles, and so it was [see Acts 10:1–35, 44–48]. There was about a quarter of a century, then, in New Testament times, when there were extreme difficulties among the Saints. They were weighing and evaluating, struggling with the problems of whether the gospel was to go only to the house of Israel or whether it now went to all men. Could all men come to him on an equal basis with the seed of Abraham? …
“You know this principle: God ‘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; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him’ (Acts 17:26–27)—meaning that there is an appointed time for successive nations and peoples and races and cultures to be offered the saving truths of the gospel. …
“We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept [see Isaiah 28:9–10; 2 Nephi 28:30; D&C 98:11–12; 128:21]. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more. …
“On this occasion [the revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy males], because of the importuning and the faith, and because the hour and the time had arrived, the Lord in his providences poured out the Holy Ghost upon the First Presidency and the Twelve in a miraculous and marvelous manner, beyond anything that any then present had ever experienced” (“The New Revelation on Priesthood,” in Priesthood , 130–34).
Having understood the meaning of his vision, Peter testified that the knowledge of Jesus Christ’s life and mission should be taught to all people. Peter taught that God had “anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power” (Acts 10:38). The name-title “Christ” literally means “Anointed One.” Peter declared that the Savior “went about doing good.” These few words summarize an important aspect of the life of the Savior and provide an invitation to all those who follow Him to serve as He served.
While speaking to priesthood holders, President Thomas S. Monson taught principles that apply to everyone: “Jesus was the epitome of service. It was said of Him that He ‘went about doing good’ [Acts 10:38]. Do we, my brethren, do likewise? Our opportunities are many, but some are perishable and fleeting. Brethren, what supernal joy you feel when someone recalls counsel you gave, an example you lived, a truth you taught, the influence you had in prompting another to do good” (“In Harm’s Way,” Ensign, May 1998, 48).
Acts 10:44–48 records that the Holy Ghost fell on Cornelius and others before they were baptized. The Bible Dictionary explains that “the Holy Ghost is manifested to men on the earth both as the power of the Holy Ghost and as the gift of the Holy Ghost. The power can come upon one before baptism and is the convincing witness that the gospel is true. By the power of the Holy Ghost a person receives a testimony of Jesus Christ and of His work and the work of His servants upon the earth. The gift can come only after proper and authorized baptism and is conferred by the laying on of hands, as in Acts 8:12–25 and Moro. 2. The gift of the Holy Ghost is the right to have, whenever one is worthy, the companionship of the Holy Ghost” (Bible Dictionary, “Holy Ghost”).
Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught: “The testimony before baptism, speaking by way of analogy, comes as a flash of lightning blazing forth in a dark and stormy night. … The companionship of the Holy Ghost after baptism is as the continuing blaze of the sun at noonday, shedding its rays on the path of life and on all that surrounds it” (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith , 262).
When Cornelius was baptized, it was the first time in the early Church that an uncircumcised Gentile was baptized into the Church. This event added a new dimension to the preaching of the gospel. Allowing Gentile converts to join the Church without prior conversion to Judaism was difficult for many of the members of the Church to accept; it signified a major shift in how the gospel was to be shared with God’s children. When the Lord had made His covenant with Abraham (which was signified by the rite of circumcision), the Lord had called it an “everlasting” covenant (Genesis 17:7). What the early Christians came to understand was the difference between the covenant of Abraham and the rite of circumcision. Although the covenant was everlasting, the ordinance by which one entered the covenant was no longer circumcision, but baptism. After Peter rehearsed to the Saints in Jerusalem all that had occurred in Caesarea, the members of the Church had a change of heart and declared, “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).
The reference to “Christians” in Acts 11:26 is the first recorded use of the term in the Bible. The term means “follower of Christ” and was first used by non-Christians in Antioch to refer to members of the Church. Eventually members of the Church adopted the term to refer to themselves (see Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16).
This period of time witnessed an increasing parting of the ways between the early Church and the Judaism from which it grew. This separation occurred as the Church began doing missionary work among Gentiles, as Jewish and Gentile members fellowshipped with each other, and as Church leaders declared that members did not need to be circumcised (see Acts 15). The use of the term “Christian” was one of the ways in which the Church differentiated itself from Judaism.
James was the brother of John the Beloved and was a member of the original Twelve Apostles. James served in the First Presidency, along with Peter and John, until he suffered martyrdom at the hands of Herod Agrippa I in about A.D. 44 (see Acts 12:1–2). He should not be confused with two other men named James in the New Testament: (1) James, the son of Alphaeus and Mary (see Mark 16:1; Acts 1:13), sometimes known as James the less, who was also a member of the original Quorum of the Twelve, or (2) James, the half-brother of Jesus, who like his other brothers did not accept the divinity of Jesus while the Savior lived (see John 7:1–7). To read more about James, the brother of Jesus, see the commentary for Acts 15:13–29.
James was killed by Herod’s order, but Peter was rescued from prison by an angel sent from God. Some might wonder why the Lord did not save them both. While we do not always know answers to such questions (see Isaiah 55:8–9), we do know that if we are faithful, the Lord’s purposes will be accomplished in our lives. We also know that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, no blessing will be withheld from us in eternity.
John Mark, commonly known as Mark, is probably the author of the Gospel According to St. Mark. He was the son of a woman named Mary, one of the leading women in the early Church in Jerusalem. Believers assembled at her home, and Peter returned there after being freed from prison (see Acts 12:12–17). John Mark was chosen as a companion of Paul and Barnabas as they left on their first missionary journey (see Acts 12:25; 13:5). For further information about John Mark, see “Introduction to the Gospel According to St. Mark” in chapter 11.
Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great. He was generally popular with the Pharisees because he was careful to observe Jewish customs. It may be for this reason—to be popular among the Jews—that he ordered the death of James (see Acts 12:1–2). Agrippa died at the age of 54, in A.D. 44, the same year James was martyred. Luke saw Agrippa’s sudden death as divine retribution, administered by an angel of the Lord.