Lesson 31: “And So Were the Churches Established in the Faith”
Acts 15:36 – 18
1 and II Thessalonians
1 Corinthians 2
Purpose: To help class members learn from Paul’s teachings about how to share the gospel and how to live as Saints.
Preparation: Secure a map of Greece to display, and learn the location of the cities mentioned in the lesson.
1. Paul, Silas, and Timothy preach throughout Macedonia and Greece
2. Paul preaches on Mars’ Hill to the Athenian philosophers
3. Paul writes letters of counsel to the Saints in Thessalonica
Since most of our lessons for the rest of this year will be drawn from the epistles – the letters – written by Paul or other apostles to various branches of the Church, rather than sermons or histories (like the gospels) or revelations (like Revelation), it may be useful to talk for a moment about what sending and receiving a letter in Paul’s day meant.
Most of us have become so accustomed to sending and receiving email that the custom of only a few years ago of writing a personal letter on paper now seems quaint and cumbersome. First, you assembled your materials. Then you clicked your ballpoint pen, or filled your fountain pen, and wrote your letter by hand. You folded it, put it in an envelope, addressed the envelope, stuck on a postage stamp, and dropped it in the mailbox. You knew it would take two days to go across country or five days to go by airmail to Europe, much longer if it went by boat to some other part of the world, and even if it were an important letter calling for a quick answer, you knew you wouldn’t hear back for days, even weeks.
Two thousand years ago, of course, methods for writing letters were even more cumbersome. Although people wrote on all kinds of materials – clay, broken pottery, animal skins – the most common material in Paul’s day was papyrus. Sheets of papyrus – the word eventually became our word “paper” – were thin strips of material cut by hand from the pith of a reedy plant. Strips were laid down lengthwise, then crosswise in a second layer, and pressed together and laid to dry in the sun – a sheet of paper was therefore an expensive investment of time and was not used lightly or let go to waste.
A typical page was about 9-1/2 inches by 11-1/2 inches – about the size of our most common 8-1/2 by 11 sheets of paper today. Such a page would typically hold about 200 words.
Writing implements were sharpened sticks – quill pens were invented long after Paul’s day. The sharpened stick would be dampened, then scratched in a cake of ink made from some recipe of soot and tree gum; the dampened point would dissolve a little of the ink and allow marks to be made on the page. The process would have to be repeated every few letters. There were no erasers, although if you tried hard enough, you could wash away errors with water, trying not to wash away the words you wanted to keep. Because of that difficulty, it was much more common to simply blot out your mistakes and write the correct words after your ugly blotch.
Although most people who were literate at all – including someone as highly educated as Paul was – could write as well as read, most people had little opportunity to practice writing with the tools available. It was very common to employ a scribe who did have practice writing, and who wouldn’t have to blot out a lot of words, or waste expensive papyrus and time, to write your letters for you. Sometimes a person would dictate the actual words of the letter to his scribe, who would scrawl them out quickly in a block of wax that could be smoothed over and reused; the scribe would then copy the letter carefully onto papyrus using his rough draft as a guide. At other times, a letter writer would just explain to the scribe what he wanted to say, and leave the scribe to find the exact words to use.
Let’s see what Paul did when he wrote his letters contained in the New Testament.
22 I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord.
So who was Tertius? an unknown apostle who wrote a letter that somehow over time has had Paul’s name attached to it? No, he was a scribe who wrote the words Paul asked him to send – perhaps dictated, perhaps only outlined by Paul. This is the only time his name appears in the New Testament, and we know no more about him than what we can deduce from this verse: He was evidently a Christian, based on his salutation “in the Lord,” and he may have known some of the Saints in Rome, else his name in a greeting would have meant little to them.
Now let’s look at 1 Corinthians 16:21
21 The salutation of me Paul with mine own hand
and II Thessalonians 3:17
17 The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write.
From these, and other examples which we could pull out, we understand that Paul usually added a few words at the end of letters in his own handwriting. That he explicitly states that those brief salutations are in his own hand also suggests that the rest of the letter had not been written in his hand, but by the hand of a clerk or scribe.
As you do your reading for future classes, try to notice clues like this that suggest who actually put pen to paper in writing the epistles, and whether or not Paul or another apostle wrote any part of it with his own hand – a small thing, perhaps, but one that will train you to notice the details in scripture, and to feel more connected to the humanity of these Former-day Saints. If you notice such a clue, but I forget to ask about it in class, go ahead and raise your hand and tell us what you find.
Actually writing the physical letter was only the first step in communicating with a distant church. The Roman Empire had no postal system for private citizens, although the government and military officials had a system for conveying orders and reports. Private citizens, like Paul, had to entrust their letters to servants or trusted associates, who had to physically travel to the place where the letter was intended to go. These were not only couriers – their job wasn’t completed by handing over the letter at the door of the person to whom it was addressed. Typically, Paul’s couriers were also charged with the responsibility of seeing that the letters were read aloud to the assembled churches in those distant cities, with explaining any ambiguous points or carrying additional messages that hadn’t been written down, and with learning the response if some return message was to be sent back to Paul. Sometimes the courier would then take the same letter and carry it on to another branch of the church and repeat the process there. In some cases, apparently, the local churches made the effort to copy the letter so that they would be able to refer to it as necessary – it is the multiple copies of some of Paul’s letters, and copies of those copies, that is responsible for their survival and our having them today.
Let’s take a minute to look at the couriers that Paul entrusted with the important task of carrying his letters and having them read to the congregations:
1 I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Centhrea;
2 That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.
21 But that ye also may know my affairs, and how I do, Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, shall make known to you all things:
22 Whom I have sent unto you for the same purpose, that ye might know our affairs, and that he might comfort your hearts.
25 Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants.
26 For he longed after you all, and was full of heaviness, because that ye had heard that he had been sick,
27 For indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow.
28 I sent him therefore the more carefully, that, when ye see him again, ye may rejoice, and that I may be the less sorrowful.
And we could identify other examples. I point these details out in part so that we can appreciate the epistles of the New Testament even more, understanding the difficulty in producing them in the first place – Paul knew the Word of God was valuable, and worth all the difficulty of sharing it with the Churches of his day, and we ought to recognize that value, and not take it for granted. And, too, I like to hear the names and know even a little bit of the stories of brothers and sisters in the Church. When we study the history of the Church in our own dispensation, we’re quick to recognize and applaud the contributions of pioneers, of people who gave shelter to our missionaries in far away places, and of members who were valiant in their testimonies. It can be just as inspiring to realize that our brothers and sisters 2,000 years ago were making the same sacrifices and being just as true to their testimonies of the Savior. We’re all in this together. Phoebe, and Tychicus, and Epaphroditus are Saints who would understand our efforts to serve in the Church.
1. Paul, Silas, and Timothy preach throughout Macedonia and Greece
The chapters from Acts that you were asked to read for today report Paul’s second missionary journal after his conversion to the Gospel. He, along with his companions Silas and Timothy, preached throughout the modern area of Greece
[Point out on map, and write names on board:]
After moving on, Paul wrote letters to some of the churches he had established in these cities – he may have written to all of them, in letters which have not survived. Which epistles in the New Testament did he write to which of these cities? [It may be obvious to most, but some class members may never have associated the names of Biblical books with the cities to which they were sent.]
In these chapters of Acts – which were evidently written by the same man who wrote the gospel of Luke – we get glimpses of how the missionaries were received in these places.
14 And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.
15 And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, if ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us.
As long as we’ve mentioned today the joy of getting to know a little about our fellow Saints in Paul’s day, what can you gather from this short description about Lydia’s life? What were her circumstances?
What was it about Lydia that allowed her to be converted to the Gospel?
In our culture, we often speak of someone having an open mind, intending that as a compliment. How are an open heart and an open mind similar? different? When you think about your own life and your response to the Gospel, what incidents or attitudes can you recall that suggest you have an open heart, and/or an open mind?
When Lydia’s heart was converted, how was that manifested by her actions?
How should our own actions manifest our open hearts and/or open minds?
2. Paul preaches on Mars’ Hill to the Athenian philosophers
Paul went on to Athens, the center of the world in his day. We have nothing like it in our day – even if we thought of it as the combination New York City – London – Paris – Tokyo of the ancient world, we still wouldn’t even come close to the significance of Athens, because in our day all significant cities are centers of education. In the ancient world, all culture was centered in Athens, even though Rome had taken over militarily and governmentally.
Paul quickly came to the attention of the Athenians, who demanded that he come speak to them on Mars’ Hill, where they could all hear this strange new Christian doctrine he taught. Let’s read how the scripture described the life of Athens:
21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
What parallels do you see to our day?
When we hear a new thing today, do we embrace it? or do we hurry on to hear the next new thing? What are some examples of each kind of behavior?
Why are we so eager to hear something new?
It’s easy to smile, even ridicule, this appetite for hearing something new – usually looking at people “in the world,” rather than among ourselves. Brothers and sisters, I want to talk to you, though, about a related tendency that I think is a problem – a problem for people in the [blank] Ward, perhaps more than for almost any other ward in the Church. We are just as eager as any other people to hear and talk about something sensational, something novel, something else that other people do not know. Instead of inventing something new, though, we tend to turn to things that are very old.
Most of us in this room have been members of the Church our entire lives. We can remember simpler times, when the Church was much smaller, more intimate, and more casual. We can remember the years when apostles sometimes spoke at General Conference without prepared talks that had been given to the translators ahead of time, and that had been timed and rehearsed to fit the broadcast schedule of television – do you remember, for instance, when LeGrand Richards would get wound up in some story, then abruptly stop and ask why that red light on the podium was flashing?
We also remember the days before our magazines and lesson manuals were carefully correlated to present a unified understanding of the Gospel. We are old enough to remember when every ward seemed to have a very old member who would stand every month and bear testimony to her latest encounter with the Three Nephites, or something else just as sensational.
And we all have books in our homes, books we bought ourselves 50 years ago, or that we inherited from parents and grandparents from much longer ago than that. The internet has also made it possible to read books and magazines and sermons from the 19th century.
these can all be wonderful things. As a historian, I love the flavor of the old materials – they are spontaneous, and earthy, reflect a more innocent time.
But these old materials, and the stories we have passed along from generation to generation, and which we in this ward are especially familiar with because they have been around us our whole lives, can also reflect a great deal that not doctrinal, and that has never been doctrinal. In the years after Joseph Smith’s lifetime, in the 1850s and 1860s especially, people felt free to speculate about aspects of the gospel and about heaven in ways that were never revealed. Speakers and writers of that day – even apostles standing at the podium and thinking out loud – felt free to start with something that was revealed, and speculate about what it meant, applying their human reasoning and expectations, carrying the revelations farther than there was ever any intent for them to go. And some of that pattern of human reasoning and speculation has extended to the present day.
And we in this ward have heard them all, and continue to find them in our old books and through sensational forwarded email. I’ve heard them taught in Sunday School within the past two years, and some of them have been mentioned to me in the hallways of this building within the past two months.
I’m going to list some of them for you now, but please keep two things in mind:
1. I am not faulting anybody for knowing them or repeating them – we’ve all heard them, and if you’re one of those who have mentioned them to me, I am not putting you down in the slightest. I’m merely making an observation prior to making an important point in just a moment.
2. The things I am about to list are for illustrations only. You have heard all or most of them; you may believe some of them. However, we are not going to debate any of them today, even if you firmly believe them and think I’m an apostate for saying they are not scriptural, not doctrinal. If you are bothered by any of them, mention it to me after class. I won’t debate them with you today, but I may be able to take a few minutes in a future class period to explain why they are not doctrinal.
Let me also say that although some of these items have been specifically labeled by modern prophets as being false, or history can demonstrate how the ideas arose as human speculation rather than revelation. Some of the speculations may be true, or may be false – my point in listing them is only to state that they are speculation rather than demonstrable revelation.
Okay, deep breath: These are the speculations – the human reasoning unsupported by clear revelation – that I have heard mentioned and even taught, with the same Athenian appetite for telling and hearing some new (or old, but sensational) thing:
Jesus Christ was married during mortality
Jesus Christ was married polygamously during mortality
Jesus Christ was married to Mary, and/or Martha, and or Mary Magdalene
The Book of Mormon prophet Moroni dedicated the site of the present Manti Temple during mortality
Airplane pilots who notice that the lights on the Los Angeles Temple’s statue of Moroni have burned out radio the temple in panic because they cannot find Los Angeles International Airport without taking bearings off the lighted statue
Adam and Eve had some kind of “spirit fluid” rather than blood in their veins while they lived in the Garden of Eden
It is contrary to the will of God that we explore space, and it was wrong of us to send men to the moon
The Lord told us that he, Jesus Christ, was born on April 6th
The reason why black men could not hold the priesthood for so many years is because they were neutral in the war in heaven
Black men and women are descendants of the murderer Cain
Now remember, we are not going to debate these statements. I ask only that you accept for the time being my claim that they are not scriptural and have never been presented by presidents of the Church as revelations from God, that we have come to hear and know of them through channels other than the prophets of God. If you dispute one or more of these examples, strike them from the list temporarily, but we won’t argue about them no matter how strongly you feel – because I feel just as strongly on the other side, and have done the research to back up my claims.
Some of the examples are trivial and don’t really matter either way. Some of the examples, however, have power to cause great pain to some members of the Church today.
How can we know when an old story is doctrinal and the word of God, and how can we tell if it is a speculation or even an old lie brought into the Church from outside?
Can you recall an instance in the recent past when General Authorities have gone to great lengths to refute a story that has circulated among the Saints?
Why do we like to repeat these things amongst ourselves?
Can it ever be a problem to repeat these stories if they are not true?
I don’t mean to discourage all forms of imagination and speculation – we have done a little of that today, as we looked at the few verses about Lydia and thought about what her life was like. We have to do that to some extent in order to “liken the scriptures unto ourselves.” Paul made it clear, though, what he – and what we – are called to teach and how we are to teach it within the Church:
1 Corinthians 2:4-5, 10-13:
4 And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power:
5 That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
10 But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.
11 [JST] For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, except he has the Spirit of God.
12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of god.
13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
And doing that, I will close our lesson today with my testimony: [testimony]