Thoughts on the Book of Acts and the Epistles: Voices of Admonition and Warning


Vanished! The Lord was gone!

Whatever grand perspectives the eleven apostles of Jesus had enjoyed during the past forty days, whatever promises of return their ears held, the fact of Christ’s ascension must have pressed itself deeply into the hearts of that group of humble men as they walked down the rocky slopes of Mount Olivet after the final ascension of the Savior.

The Lord was gone! Behind them was the glorious experience of personal association with the resurrected Master, the Savior of the world, the literal Son of God. Before them lay the ordinary—the all too ordinary sights and sounds and smells of Jerusalem going about its mortal, mundane business.

Treading down those slopes, the eleven disciples must have longed to turn around, to retreat to that sacred hilltop, to leave Jerusalem and its worldliness behind and flee to the transcendent glory they had just beheld in the face of the Savior and the two angels who had proclaimed his return. The dust and thorns of their pathway must have seemed symbolic of their imminent missions: the guiding of a fledgling church, the re-launching of a faltering missionary effort—all of which must have seemed less appealing than the ethereal countenance of the risen Master.

But the stones that bruised their feet as they made their way down from Olivet were reminders that their destiny lay not behind them on the mountaintop but before them in the synagogues of Jerusalem and the streets of Alexandria, Corinth, Ephesus, and, finally, Rome herself. So these chosen men, aware that time was fleeting, came down from the heights, entered Jerusalem, and took up the work of the Lord. The apostolic era had begun.

The record of their accomplishments in the years that followed is fascinating reading. These humble, diverse men were to participate in events that would change the course of Roman, and, eventually, world history. But for us there is special significance in what these men did and said and wrote. We follow a similar pathway from our spiritual Olivets into our worldly Jerusalems; we have the same promise of a divine comforter; we have the same divine authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood; we have the same mission to build the kingdom and spread the gospel; and, as is too readily evident, we have the weaknesses of body and will that those men knew and resisted in themselves and in the very church they were attempting to establish.

If their words of warning sound familiar to us, it is because these apostolic voices of reproof and loving admonition are as fresh and relevant as today’s newspaper. Their voices remind us, as does the newspaper, that mankind changes but little. The world the apostles knew, like ours, made vice a virtue; the vices and virtues that their world knew are as predictable in men and women of our age as the evening paper’s heralding of new riots, automobile accidents, or political exposes. Thus, if the messages of the New Testament seem relevant, it is because our Jerusalem is still before us, beckoning to us in all of its worldliness. The urgent voices that speak clearly, strongly, and insistently from the pages of the apostolic epistles and the book of the Acts of the Apostles will aid us, if we will study and heed them, not only to endure in this world, but prevail and triumph.

As with the voices of all the scriptures, the voices of the men who associated with Christ—who ate and drank and slept beside the Master—harmonize in their warnings and admonitions: Endure. Endure in the truceless, endless battle that rages between the flesh and the spirit, between evil and good, between being in yet not of the world. To this end James reminds us that this world that we treasure so much is fleeting. “It is even a vapour,” he cries, “that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” (James 4:14.) And Peter reminds us that “all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.” Peter adds a note, the truth of which is attested to as we read his writings two millennia later: “But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.” (1 Pet. 1:24–25.)

Because this life is fleeting, the apostles unite in their urgent message that we be anxiously engaged in transforming written commandments into living acts of righteousness. John insists in his second epistle that “we love one another”; and then he defines love: “And this is love, that we walk after his commandments.” (2 Jn. 1:6) James further qualifies his admonition when he insists that “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27.) This is timely advice, to which he adds, after his remarkable treatise on faith and works, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:26.)

And by their works we do know them. The epistles of Peter, James, John, Jude, and Paul enable us to trace, amidst the admonitions, some of the notable actions on the part of the Twelve and other early church leaders. But it is in the book of Acts of the Apostles that we enjoy the indelibly recorded examples of faith and works of righteousness, and of failures to live in harmony with the spirit, that excite our imaginations and our faith centuries later—for righteousness is timeless. A good deed in any age is as fresh today as the moment it was performed—and it continues to afford us an example, a case history, of someone who was successful in the battle of being in the world while keeping himself “unspotted from the world.”

The book of Acts demonstrates that during those forty glorious days in which the Twelve (minus Judas Iscariot) received instruction from the resurrected Christ, the confusion and weakness and doubt that had once beset each of them were vanquished. Though still very much in mortality, these men now understood; they now saw the beginning from the end, as had other prophets before them and as others would after them. On the day of Pentecost, when the assembled saints were “filled with the Holy Ghost,” the Lord launched a grand new era—an era not unlike our own day. Prior to the Latter-day apostolic era, Joseph Smith, too, had his Pentecost in the visitations of the Father and the Son and other beings. And most of us, as well, must have our individual Pentecosts—receiving the word, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, at one point in our lives, but not receiving the fullness of testimony until later. We may be, in spirit, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood,” but we must become such in fact through the righteous works that we perform. The outpouring of the Spirit can transform us as it did Peter, whom no prison could hold, who could raise the dead, cast out devils, heal the lame, and, despite his humble background, stand eye-to-eye with the most powerful and learned men of his nation and contradict their edicts and confound their philosophies.

Through the Spirit unleashed at Pentecost, bearers of the priesthood even today continue to perform miracles. But the greatest miracle, such as that exemplified in the person of Peter, is the courage to proclaim, even at the threat of death, that Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith his restorer, and Harold B. Lee his Prophet; for it is through such testimony, as the early Twelve well knew, that the greatest miracle of all could be performed when a man would heed the charge to, “Repent … and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” (Acts 3:19.)

The book of Acts sings in our ears of the course that each of us who desires to be valiant must take in professing and proclaiming Jesus Christ. “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), insists this clear voice, and speak “the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). Thereby may the miracle be performed: the change takes place in the heart of the listener, a change that will set in motion the forgiveness of sins inherent in the redemption of Christ.

But all are not willing to reject the tangible world for a presently intangible promise of eternal life. The scriptural warnings to such are specific. Too many of us are like King Agrippa. We listen with rapture to the message of our leaders; we marvel at their words; we are stirred. But the world tugs mightily, and, instead of Nephi-like adherence to the word and will of the Lord, we respond, Agrippa-like, with the words, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” Sad words, the almosts of the scriptures—the almosts of Cain, of King Saul, of Laman, of Lemuel, of the rich young disciple, of Pilate, of Judas Iscariot, of Sidney Rigdon, of our down-the-street neighbor, of ourselves? How sad the words: “I almost earned the celestial kingdom”; “I almost sought first the kingdom of God”; “For the most part well done, thou usually good and faithful servant.” Almost.

There are some saddening almosts in Acts. Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, almost told the truth in giving their all to the church; but because they secretly and selfishly withheld for personal gain, and because they blatantly lied about their act, they were struck dead by the Lord—a dramatic example to those of us who feel too strongly—at tithing time, perhaps—the pull of the world.

Another almost is that of Simon, known for his sorcery. Simon apparently was touched by the Holy Ghost, for he accepted Christ and was baptized—almost becoming a saint. But the old man in him triumphed over the new, and Simon, on witnessing the power of the Holy Ghost at work in Peter, offered money for the priesthood. Peter’s response is a fresh warning to all of us tempted by the world: “Thy money perish with thee … thy heart is not right in the sight of God.” (Acts 8:20–21.) The account ends with Simon pleading with Peter to pray away the curses. But of Simon we hear nothing more. He almost triumphed.

In Acts we are also granted some glorious triumphs: the marvelous transformation of Paul from zealous anti-Christ to powerful apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ rings true in our minds again and again as we are reminded how in his life, as in ours, the Lord does in fact move in mysterious ways to perform his wonders. Or the example of Stephen, falsely condemned and stoned for his witness and for his proclamation of having seen, in vision, the Father and the Son. At the moment of his death he magnanimously followed the Savior’s example and forgave his executioners, and, again in emulation of the Lord, cried, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59.) Or the triumph of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, who heeded the Spirit and listened with joy to the words of Peter. Or the burning example of Peter himself, who, on receiving an instructive vision, quickly ignored his own feelings that the gospel should be restricted only to the Jews, and proclaimed, on seeing the willingness of Cornelius and his friends to hear and accept the gospel, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons; But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Acts 10:34–35.)

These New Testament accounts of men and women accepting the new faith, living in strict accordance with its precepts, and even dying for their beliefs are grand exemplars for each of us, strong knives that enable us to slice through the dross of modern life to the core of eternal life—to those things that endure. These accounts speak loudly today, as they did then, of the importance of following James’ admonition to “humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord” (James 4:10), of taking Peter’s advice that we should not concern ourselves with adorning the outward man; rather, we should adorn “the hidden man of the heart … that which is not corruptible,” and thereby achieve “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit which is in the sight of God of great price” (1 Pet. 3:4). And from John the Revelator we hear again the burden of much of the message of the New Testament epistles: that, in the words of the Lord, “as many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.” (Rev. 3:19.)

But it is Paul who finally emerges to dominate the pages of the New Testament. Paul, Jew and Roman, apostle to the gentiles, missionary to the empire, is the man whose voice has at once startled and sustained the Christian world for two thousand years.

The details of his life are sketchy, but in those events we find a pattern that has meaning for all of us. For while we recall Paul the Apostle, we remember as well Saul the Pharisee, educated, sophisticated, pushing aside the urgings of his own conscience in vigorous pursuit of a way of life that all about him applauded—the strictest observance of Judaic orthodoxy, even to the point of persecuting those who seemed to threaten that orthodoxy, especially the Christians, whom he hounded to prison and even to death.

But this way of life was blasted by what happened to him on the road to Damascus. Paul, the proud Pharisee, was knocked to his knees by that shattering query, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” With what fear and guilt must Paul’s response have come, “Who art thou, Lord?” And then the terrible answer, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.”

No man can know what Paul felt, to what depths of humility and dependency he was driven by this sudden revelation of his own wrongdoing. But out of the dust of the Damascus road the Lord raised up a new man. The Savior’s command to Paul had both literal and spiritual significance: “rise and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness. …” (Acts 26:16.)

Years later Paul would find words to suggest what he learned that day about the true love of Christ: “And though I have … prophecy, and understand all mysteries … and though I have all faith … and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2.) The new missionary, homesick and alone; the new bishop, frightened and weak; the new patriarch, weeping as he prays through the night—these know something of the humility and dependency that Paul must have felt that memorable day on the road to Damascus.

But out of such depths comes greatness. Out of that experience came the apostle, known to us now by the lines of his journeys that cross and recross our Bible maps, and by those dozen or so epistles that form the middle third of our New Testament. The maps we may not always remember, but for most of us, those central epistles contain some of our most cherished passages of scripture.

Turning the pages of Romans or Corinthians or Ephesians we see on almost every page those red penciled marks that identify the familiar passages that have served us so well from the pulpit, in the mission field, and in the classroom as evidences of the apostasy, prophecies of the restoration, and proofs of the necessity of apostles and prophets.

But taken together in their context these red-lined verses become more than bits of argumentative evidence or fragments of thought. Read as a whole these books reveal a man, not a plaster saint, but that human being who, in spite of his own “thorn in the flesh,” manifest such remarkable capacity to endure, both physically and spiritually. This is no almost figure. This is that man who is altogether committed to the Savior and his work, the persecutor become the servant. Urgent, indomitable, seldom reserved, often passionate, always spontaneous, reprimanding with vigor, pleading with love, this man sought in every way possible to change lives, to bring people to Christ and keep them there.

But if Paul’s voice reaches out to the church in general, it also touches the individual. For there is in his letters a personal, almost private quality. We know we are not Corinthians nor Ephesians, nor Timothy nor Titus, but reading here we feel that, in spite of the great difference in time, Paul knew us personally. He talks to us not as abstract pronouns but as students, fathers, missionaries, servants, children, brothers, teachers—each with his own peculiar human problems. He knows what we are struggling with. He walks with us on our ground.

And as he speaks to us, the message that he bears begins to come through, and we recognize that the power of these epistles lies finally in the great theme that is at the heart of all he says and does: Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. He is the head of this church. We are his servants. That is Paul’s message.

It is, of course, the message of all the scriptures. But it has special impact here because it comes to us not as a cold axiom. It comes as the statement of the heart, a heart that knows what having a Savior means, a heart that never forgot the significance of that one day on the Damascus road:

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

“And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

“And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:

“After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once. …

“And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

“For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

“But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain. …” (1 Cor. 15:3–6, 8–10.)

Thus Paul’s own splendid voice joins with the other remarkable figures of the apostolic church to call to us to join them in the cause of the Master. To heed their call is to come down from our own comfortable Olivets; it is to find our own pentecostal outpouring and our own road to Damascus. It is to be born again, to become, as did Peter and Paul, new men. It is to begin our own book of Acts—our own record of sacrifice and faith that might some day be summarized with Paul’s conclusion to his own ministry: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” (2 Tim. 4:7–8.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by William Whitaker