Long-winded Paul

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There is a story in the New Testament that is morbidly funny. I don’t want to make light of a tragic event but everything worked out in the end so maybe there is justification in seeing the humor of the situation.

The Apostle Paul was a tireless champion of the cross. He preached Christ in whatever situation he was in and selflessly spread Christ’s gospel. He fulfilled his calling as an apostle – a special witness of Christ. Paul was a powerful preacher. As an aside, I’ve always been interested in physical descriptions of historical figures, particularly from scriptural history. Joseph Smith described Paul’s physical appearance like this: “He 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 resembled the roaring of a lion” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 180; see also Paul: Untiring Witness of Christ). This compact man was a lion of the Lord. He was also long-winded.

“And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. And there were many lights in the upper chamber, where they were gathered together. And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead. And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him. When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed. And they brought the young man alive, and were not a little comforted.” (Acts 20:7-12).

Sometime on Sunday the disciples of Christ held a sacrament (communion) meeting. Needing to get an early start on a journey the next day their church meeting was kept short. Actually, no it wasn’t. Paul preached “and continued his speech until midnight.” Lamps were lit as Paul continued to talk. One of those at the long meeting was a young man named Eutychus. He, understandably, dozed off while Paul taught long into the night. Unfortunately, Eutychus was sitting on a window ledge on one of the upper floors. The loss of muscle tone with sleep and the combined effects of height and gravity resulted in the premature demise of poor Eutychus. It might even be said that Paul bored this man to death. So Paul rushed down and raised Eutychus from the dead. Many might have taken this as a sign to cease preaching but Paul went back up, broke bread (sacrament) and “talked a long while, even till break of day.” Paul wasn’t one to let a little thing like death and bringing someone back to life get in the way of a good sermon.

There are many reasons why Paul preached for so long. One of the most important is that Paul was a visiting church authority who had a lot of instructing to do. He had just a short time in Alexandria Troas (where this story takes place) before he had to continue on his journey. Paul had one short week and likely only one sacrament meeting to teach and organize the church in that city. So he taught, day and night, without ceasing and without tiring. Paul was an unflinching and unfailing witness of Christ. There is a reason Christ appeared to the man who was then called Saul on the way to Damascus. Just as Saul was zealous in his defense of the Law of Moses and in attacking Christianity, he became zealous in defending Christ once converted. Yes, Paul was long-winded but he was a powerful witness of Christ and one of the most important and influential leaders of the early Church of Jesus Christ.

Being Chosen People

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In our egalitarian society in the United States we tend to shy away from things that hint of inequality. As a nation fighting for independence from England, we fought for freedom from aristocracy. The United States was founded on the principle that “all men are created equal [by God].” However, “equal” did not necessarily mean the same thing as how many use it today – it was mainly commentary against the idea that the “common man” is entitled by God to have the same right of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that aristocracy or royalty have. Unlike during the French Revolution, the idea of equality was not one where the weak debase the strong, it was the idea that the weak (i.e., common) can become strong.

Because of our general aversion to aristocracy many people have difficulty with the concept of “chosenness” or being a chosen people or nation. That sounds too much like royalty and surely leads to oppression. How can people be equal if some people are chosen? The seeming contradiction lies in misunderstanding of both equality (which I will not discuss further) and chosenness (which I will discuss).

The Apostle Paul gave a discourse to Jews in Rome about what being a chosen people really means.

“Behold, thou art called a Jew [God’s Chosen People], and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, And knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; And art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.” (Romans 2:17-20).

The Jews were and are the Chosen People of God. They were given His law by covenant and as such are really Covenant People. Being chosen by God comes in the form of covenants with God. Covenants are two-way agreements, meaning that great responsibility rests upon those with whom God has covenanted to uphold their covenants. Paul continues with his sermon to those who are “guide[s] of the blind” and “light[s] [to] them…in darkness”.

“Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written. For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” (Romans 2:21-29).

Being circumcised, being one of God’s covenant people, does not mean anything if the laws and covenants are not kept. Hypocrisy is much worse than ignorance.

The Apostle Paul then continues on in a beautiful exposition on the necessity of the grace of Christ that at first almost seems to contradict the idea that works (our actions) are important, but such a reading of Paul’s words is errant and ignores much of what Paul had just finished teaching and goes on to teach. Without deviating more from the topic of this post, I’ll come back to the topic.

“And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.” (Romans 4:11-12).

Abraham first had faith and then received circumcision – a sign of the covenant he and the Lord made with each other. The children of Israel, of which the Jews were a part, were the children of this covenant and circumcision was a sign of this covenant. However, just because the Jews were covenant – chosen – people did not make them part of an exclusive club. Abraham can be a father to all who have faith [in Christ] and “walk in the steps of [the] faith of our father Abraham.” All who are willing to exhibit that faith in Christ can become chosen, they can partake in God’s covenants.

Simply being chosen is not enough. Being chosen does not make you better than another or more blessed than another if you do not also keep the laws of God. Further, all who desire to walk in the light of Christ can become chosen. Chosenness is a call to covenant, service, and responsibility. Equality comes from raising up, not tearing down.

The Necessity of Priesthood Authority

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As Paul – a tentmaker turned persecutor of Christians turned disciple of Christ – traveled and taught on his way from Greece to Jerusalem, he stopped in the city of Ephesus. Ephesus was part of Greece at the time and was located near present-day Selçuk, Turkey. He spent two years in this area teaching the people about Jesus and performing miracles.

During this time there was a chief priest among the Jews in Ephesus named Sceva. Seven sons of his worked as exorcists, trying to cast out evil spirits in the name of Jesus Christ. I’m sure they tried casting out spirits in whatever way they could think of but they knew the success Paul and other believers had so they thought they would try to cast out spirits in the name of Christ. It’s also possible that they were charging for their priestcrafts. With that context, here’s the short story of the sons of Sceva.

“Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth. And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so. And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.” (Acts 19:13-17; emphasis added).

Not that priestcraft or violence are humorous but the story is almost funny. One man injures seven who were trying to cure him and they end up fleeing from him naked and hurt. Ignoring the possible motives of the sons of Sceva (they were likely “curing” people through trickery to try and make money and now had a new, popular, and actually effective method to try – doing so in the name of Christ), what this story shows is the importance of authority.

Many of the evil spirits that were cast out of individuals in the scriptures were not necessarily spirits; they were, rather, unknown medical conditions at the time. However, there are clearly instances when individuals were possessed by evil spirits and had the spirits cast out through the power of God. Some of these are relevant here because the evil spirits or those possessed by them testified of Christ and His power (see Matthew 8:28-33; Mark 1:34; Mark 3:11-12). Jesus always commanded those possessed to remain silent because what good comes from the testimony of an evil spirit?

The sons of Sceva were faced by a similar testimony but one that ridiculed their ineffectiveness. The spirit said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?” These men did not perform the act with real faith in Christ; they also lacked authority (i.e., priesthood). Now if they had been acting in good faith (but still without authority) and honest faith in Christ, they might have been successful or at least commended for their efforts by Paul as another was under similar circumstances by the Savior (see Luke 9:49-50). However, the sons of Sceva were not only ineffectual without faith and priesthood authority, they were humiliated. Much good did come from their actions though. Many saw the power and authority Paul had in contrast with these sons of Sceva and believed his teachings: “And many that believed came, and confessed, and shewed their deeds.” (Acts 19:18).

Thus, authority is important. This authority to cast out devils in the name of Christ is called the priesthood. It is conferred by the laying on of hands by those in authority, those who have been given authority to do so by Christ. Jesus had this authority, He gave it to His apostles. They gave it to certain other men, Paul included (Paul was called as one of the apostles). This authority was no longer found on the earth after the death of the apostles due to general apostasy throughout the church. This authority and power was restored to the earth to the Prophet Joseph Smith (see for example, Joseph Smith – History 1:66-75) and is directed today by the Prophet, Thomas S. Monson.