Robert J. Matthews on the Necessity for Administrative Help Within the Church:
The Church at this time had strong Jewish ties, culturally, religiously, and geographically. Church growth necessitated administrative adjustments, so seven men were selected to assist the Twelve, primarily in welfare duties. Among these seven are some with Gentile-sounding names such as Stephen, Parmenas, and Nicolas. Nicolas was further identified as a proselyte from Antioch (Acts 6:5), thus affirming that he was a Gentile by lineage who first accepted the Jews' religion and then subsequently was converted to Christ and the Church. Thus at least Nicolas was actually of Gentile lineage, but he had been circumcised and had subscribed to all that pertains to the Jews' religion and the law of Moses. Before becoming a member of the Church, Stephen was probably a "Hellenized Jew," or one who, though Jewish by lineage and religion, had been reared in a Greek environment and spoke Greek.
It is important at this point to clarify a statement in Acts 6:1 that says there was "a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration." The Church in Jerusalem at this time was practicing a form of "united order," or economic system in which members held all things in common (Acts 4:34-37; 5:1). However, there seems to have been a feeling among the "Grecian" widows that they were neglected, that they did not receive as good treatment as other widows. A Grecian was not a Greek, but was a Jew who spoke Greek as a native language, and hence one who had been reared away from Palestine, as in Alexandria, Egypt, or some other place where there were large collections of Jews who spoke Greek.
The importance of this situation in the Church in Jerusalem is that it is evident there were Jews of the outlying countries-Jews by lineage, but from Greek-speaking areas-who had gathered to Jerusalem. These "Grecians," as they were called, thought they detected some prejudice from the more conservative Hebrews or Aramaic-speaking Jews of Palestine. This might be why the seven who were called to oversee the distribution of food were not strictly Jerusalem- oriented Jews but, as we noted in the case of Nicolas and Stephen, had some Gentile and Greek attachment. Proper priesthood order and procedure in the Church is also evident here: The Twelve made the selection of the seven under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and after the men were sustained by the people the Twelve set them apart by the laying on of hands (Acts 6:1-6)
(Robert J. Matthews, Behold the Messiah [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1994], 295.)
Bruce R. McConkie on the Apostles Choosing Seven to Assist Them:
Acts 6:1-6. God's command to his people in every age is: "Organize yourselves." (D. & C. 88:119.) Moses chose seventy men to aid him in judging and regulating Israel. (Num. 11:14-30.) Here the ancient apostles select seven brethren to aid them in administering the affairs of whatever system of United Order was then in operation. The work assigned them fell within the realm of those temporal matters normally handled by the Aaronic Priesthood, thus leaving the apostles free to handle the more difficult matters of their Melchizedek ministry.
Two of these seven gained scriptural recognition for their subsequent valiant ministries. Stephen's preaching won him a martyr's crown. (Acts 6:8-15; 7:1-60.) And Philip won many souls to the Christian faith in the city of Samaria and elsewhere. (Acts 8:5-40.)
Acts 6:2-4. Church leaders must delegate responsibility or perish under a mountain of administrative detail that no mortal man can bear. Here the apostles in effect choose to magnify their callings as ministers of the word rather than attempt to carry on the day to day regulation of the programs of the Church.
Acts 6:3. The apostles made the appointments; the delegation of authority came from them; but nominations came from the church members. In principle this is the same as a bishop recommending a young man to serve as a missionary with the actual call coming from the President of the Church. Those who receive the inspiration from the Spirit to call people to church service can and should receive recommendation and counsel from those in positions to give it. Since all who are called to service in the Church become the servants and representatives of the Lord, they must be "full of the Holy Ghost," and as a consequence be able to receive the inspiration to do their work in the way the Lord wants it done.
Acts 6:6. Those called to positions of presidency and administration are ordained and set apart by the laying on of hands; the ordinance thus performed endows the church member with the needed power and authority to perform the assigned work.
(Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 2: 65.)
Robert J. Matthews on the Seven Men Ordained:
The Office of the Seven
Because seven men were appointed, some have wondered if their office is analogous to that of the seven Presidents of the First Quorum of the Seventy in the Church today. This analogy appears unlikely since the seven were especially appointed to serve tables, whereas the calling of a seventy is to preach the gospel. It is probably only coincidental that this group consisted of seven men. At this point many Bibles contain a heading identifying these seven men as deacons. This heading is an interpretation by the editors and translators and is not part of the biblical text itself. The English word deacon, however, comes from the Greek diakonos, meaning a servant or an assistant. Although these seven men were assistants, their calling should not be equated with the ordained office of deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood.
Assignments in the Church
Luke does not give us an account of the work of these seven men in their assignment to serve tables. He does, however, follow the activities of two of the seven, Stephen and Philip, in preaching the gospel. It might be that Stephen and Philip were called to do missionary work in addition to the welfare assignment. Or they may simply have been reassigned.
In the Church today most calls to service are temporary, and a person is likely to serve in several different callings in the period of a few years. Thus, a man who was once Presiding Bishop might later become a member of the Twelve; an Assistant to the Twelve might later be called to the First Presidency; one serving as a bishop may be called as a stake president. Nothing suggests that the seven men who were called and set apart to assist in the daily ministration of food were to remain in that capacity for the remainder of their lives. Had Stephen and Philip remained in their original callings, we might have heard nothing further of them; it was their preaching activities that caused Luke to provide a detailed account about them.
(Robert J. Matthews, Selected Writings of Robert J. Matthews: Gospel Scholars Series [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1999], 263.)
Robert L. Millet on the Preaching of Stephen:
Stephen is described as "a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 6:5) and "full of faith and power" (Acts 6:8). He performed miracles, and his hearers "were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake." (Acts 6:10.) He was taken before the Sanhedrin and was accused of having said that "Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place [Jerusalem and the temple], and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us." (Acts 6:14.) There was probably some substance in the charge, for Jesus had prophesied earlier of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple (Matt. 24) and had explained that the law of Moses would be fulfilled (Matt. 5:17). Stephen's enemies, however, made it appear that he was speaking "blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. . . . against this holy place, and the law." (Acts 6:11, 13.) His defense before the council was well-conceived. After making a short summary of the history of Israel from Abraham to David, Stephen pointed out that the true prophets had always been rejected by the people and that now the Son of God himself had been rejected by the children of those who had persecuted and killed the prophets. (Acts 7:51-52.) Stephen's words were so cutting that the people "gnashed on him with their teeth." (Acts 7:54.) When he declared that he could see a vision of Jesus on the right hand of God, they stoned him to death. (Acts 7:55-58.)
Under the law of Moses, stoning was the prescribed punishment for blasphemy. (Leviticus 24:11-16; Acts 6:11-13.) Stephen was stoned, not for his preaching, nor even for his scolding of the people, but for saying he had had a vision of the Father and the Son. He was stoned for proclaiming that he had received revelation. Stephen foreshadowed the work of Paul and is the earliest person mentioned in the New Testament to imply that the law of Moses was fulfilled and that its rites and customs should come to an end.
(Robert L. Millet, ed., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 6: Acts to Revelation [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 34.)
Bruce R. McConkie on Stephen Preaching about Israel:
Acts 7:1-36. Stephen's defense before the Sanhedrin is a masterful one. He is charged with speaking "blasphemous words against Moses, and against God," against "this holy place" (the temple), and against "the law." (Vs. 11, 13.) His reply: 'I have spoken the truth. The whole history of Israel points toward the coming of Christ. Moses and all the prophets foretold his mortal ministry and divine Sonship. But you unbelieving scribes and rulers are following in the footsteps of your rebellious fathers who rejected the word of God which came in their day.'
The manner in which Stephen handles his problem illustrates how one dispensation ties into the next, and how the events occurring and the prophesies made in one age lay the foundation for what is to transpire in a subsequent era. Out of Abraham and the patriarchal dispensation, the nation and history of Israel grew; and out of the history of Israel and the prophecies of her holy men, came Jesus and his saving ministry.
A similar approach in offering salvation to men is often made by the Lord's servants in this day. Standing before Christian people, who suppose they believe what transpired in the meridian of time, modern witnesses of Christ recite the events of Jesus' and Paul's ministries, and the historical data relative to the apostasy; then they show how the restoration of the gospel grows naturally out of these, and how if men believe the testimonies of the previous dispensations, they will accept those of the present one.
(Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 2: 70.)
Joseph Fielding Smith Answers a Question on the Nature of Paul's Sin at the Stoning of Stephen:
Question: "In our Sunday School the question of the nature and scope of Paul's sin at the martyrdom of Stephen was discussed. There was a wide divergence of opinion in the class. Some felt that he was justified by the teachings and policies of Jewish law. However some felt that it was in defiance of Roman law which was supreme at the time. Will you please help us to reach a proper conclusion?"
Answer: Paul informs us that he was brought up in strict compliance with Israelitish law. He had been taught by the renowned Gamaliel who was known for his great wisdom and knowledge of Hebrew law. It is well for us to remember as far as we know that Paul took no part in making the decision that condemned Stephen and fortunately took no part in the stoning which cost Stephen his life. That he was in full sympathy with what was done we may well believe and therefore was willing to protect the clothes of those who engaged in the awful tragedy. It is likely true that he sanctioned the action. It is also true that in his misplaced zeal he was determined to bring all believers in Jesus to trial and have them punished perhaps to lose their lives by the violation of what he truly believed to be in full accord with the commandment of the Lord which had been given to Moses in relation to those who forsook the truth and turned to the worship of other gods.
Commandments Given to Ancient Israel Considered
In considering this let us refer to one or two passages in the commandments given to Israel when they entered the land of promise to inherit it.
And the Lord spake to Moses, saying,
Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. . . .
And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death. (Leviticus 24:13-14, 16.)
If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou has not known, thou, nor thy fathers;
Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;
Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hands shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. (Deuteronomy 13:6-9.)
When we stop to consider that Paul was brought up in this atmosphere and that he was a very strict and devout Pharisee, we can understand how, in his ignorance, he was willing to take charge of the clothes of those who stoned Stephen. To him evidently it was a command from the Lord.
Hebrew Law Enforced Against Stephen
While it is true that the Romans were in control and enforced their law, yet they did not always interfere with the Hebrew law and the carrying out of its provisions as understood by the Jews. In fact it is to be remembered that Pilate washed his hands and turned Jesus over to what he considered to be Hebrew law. Moreover let us not lose sight of the fact that Stephen was on trial before a council of the Jews. (Acts 6:12.) The consigning him to death was not necessarily the work of a mob, but the action of the council, and Stephen, as was our Lord, supposedly, turned over to be dealt with according to Hebrew law.
At this condemnation of Stephen, as with Jesus, false witnesses were brought and were sworn who said that Stephen had, spoken" . . . blasphemous words against Moses, and against God," (Acts 6:11.) and when Stephen emphatically declared in their presence that he had seen the heavens opened and the Son of Man or Jesus standing on the right hand of God, it was more than these wicked judges could endure, and they pronounced sentence upon him, and the multitude cried out against him and cast him out of the city and stoned him.
Fortunately Paul took no part in this, only to take charge of the clothes of the guilty murderers. That he was sympathetic with them is true. Following this murderous assault he sought papers so that he could go forth arresting any who professed the name of Jesus and drag them to what he felt was justice. We must concede that in all that he did, Paul felt that he was doing what the Lord had commanded Moses in the law.
Paul Considered His Actions Were Justified
Under all the circumstances he was acting in righteous zeal, as he supposed, to bring to an end an uprising contrary to the commandment given by the Lord to Moses. In this mistaken zeal he went forth and " . . . made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison." (Acts 8:3.)
To carry his labor to a complete conclusion, he sought papers so that he could go forth into other parts of the world, and on his way to Damascus received his great vision of the Son of God, which turned him from his bitterness and mistaken zeal to an equal zeal and determination henceforth to bring souls unto Christ.
Considering all the elements in connection with his life, we must say of Paul, what he did he did honestly in this work of destruction, feeling that he was doing the will of the Eternal Father. It was wrong, and it took a drastic measure to stop him in his mad course and turn him to the defense of the truth. Whatever evil was at his door, he fully paid the price through his greater zeal and perseverance to undo all that he had formerly done and bring souls unto Christ. Eventually it was required of him that he too lay down his life in martyrdom in defense of the Son of God whom previously he had persecuted.
Surely Paul is worthy of our sympathy for the things he did which were wrong, and our love for his life of zeal which was intensified without question because of his evil labors ignorantly performed.
(Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957-1966], 4: 52.)
Robert L. Millet on the Preaching of Philip:
Luke states that at the same time as the death of Stephen there was a great persecution of Christians throughout Judea and Samaria. This scattering actually stimulated missionary activity, for "they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word." (Acts 8:4.)
Philip went to Samaria, where he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, baptized, performed miracles, and brought many to a knowledge of Jesus. "When the apostles which were at Jerusalem [Peter and John] heard that Samaria had received the word of God" (Acts 8:14), they came from Jerusalem and laid hands on those whom Philip had baptized, giving them the Holy Ghost, and then they returned to Jerusalem (Acts 8:15-17, 25). Philip continued his missionary labors—not in Samaria (north of Jerusalem), but in the region of Gaza (south and west of Jerusalem). There he met, taught, and baptized an Ethiopian who "had come to Jerusalem for to worship." (Acts 8:27.) He was returning to his home, which was evidently in Ethiopia. This man was not of Israelite lineage but was a convert to Judaism, a proselyte.
Philip's activities represented a new dimension in the missionary work because the gospel was now being deliberately taken to other people—people who already had the law of Moses. Up to now, non-Jews were taught incidentally as part of the mission to the Jews; but now missionary work was being done overtly among non-Jewish people, fulfilling the second step of missionary work outlined in Acts 1:8.
The mission to the Samaritans, the offspring of Israelites intermarried with other people, was also a new dimension in the missionary outreach, for the Samaritans were a people who were partly of Israel but who were not Jewish. The Samaritans already had the law of Moses and practiced circumcision; thus, their entry into the church did not raise any new questions about the law. It was a half step toward taking the gospel to non-Israelite people.
The distinction between the powers of the Aaronic and the Melchizedek priesthoods is illustrated in Philip's preaching and baptizing at Samaria. But it was Peter and John, not Philip, who conferred the gift of the Holy Ghost. "In the case of Philip when he went down to Samaria, when he was under the spirit of Elias, he baptized both men and women. When Peter and John heard of it, they went down and laid hands upon them, and they received the Holy Ghost. This shows the distinction between the two powers." This same difference was explained by John the Baptist when he restored the Aaronic Priesthood to Joseph Smith. (JS-H 1:70-72.)
(Robert L. Millet, ed., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 6: Acts to Revelation [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 34.)
Bruce R. McConkie on Philip Working Miracles:
Acts 8:5-8. Philip—saintly, valiant, a powerful preacher, a mighty worker of miracles—held only the Aaronic Priesthood! Peter and John must yet come from Jerusalem to Samaria to confer the Holy Ghost upon his baptized converts. (Acts 8:14-17.) And yet Philip, magnifying his calling, casts out devils, commands the lame to leap and the sick to rise from their beds of affliction. Miracles are wrought by the power of faith, and a righteous man need not hold the Melchizedek Priesthood to have power and influence with his Creator. As Joseph Smith said, "If a priest understands his duty, his calling, and ministry, and preaches by the Holy Ghost, his enjoyment is as great as if he were one of the Presidency." (Teachings, p. 112.)
Miracles of themselves do not convert men to the truth. The Jews were witnesses of Jesus' mighty works and yet they chose to remain outside the pale of his saving grace. But miracles may so impress the sincere investigator as to cause him to take the steps that lead to faith.
"Signs flow from faith. They may incidentally have the effect of strengthening the faith of those who are already spiritually inclined, but their chief purpose is not to convert people to the truth, but to reward and bless those already converted. 'Faith cometh not by signs, but signs follow those that believe,' the Lord says. 'Yea, signs come by faith, not by the will of men, nor as they please, but by the will of God. Yet, signs come by faith, unto mighty works, for without faith no man pleaseth God; and with whom God is angry he is not well pleased; wherefore, unto such he showeth no signs, only in wrath unto their condemnation.' (D. & C. 63:9-11.)
"Faith that is based on signs alone is weak and ineffective. It continually demands added and greater signs to keep it alive, and those relying on such visible supernatural guidance soon begin 'to be less and less astonished at a sign or a wonder from heaven' until they are in danger of disbelieving all they have 'heard and seen.' (3 Ne. 2:1.) Thus belief based on supernatural experiences is less to be desired than that which stands on its own feet. 'Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.' (John 20: 29.)" (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., pp. 713-714.)
(Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 2: 81.)
James E. Talmage on Saul's Conversion:
The sudden change of heart by which an ardent persecutor of the saints was so transformed as to become a true disciple, is to the average mind a miracle. Saul of Tarsus was a devoted student and observer of the law, a strict Pharisee. We find no intimation that he ever met or saw Jesus during the Lord's life in the flesh; and his contact with the Christian movement appears to have been brought about through disputation with Stephen. In determining what he would call right and what wrong the young enthusiast was guided too much by mind and too little by heart. His learning, which should have been his servant, was instead his master. He was a leading spirit in the cruel persecution of the first converts to Christianity; yet none can doubt his belief that even in such he was rendering service to Jehovah (compare John 16:2). His unusual energy and superb ability were misdirected. As soon as he realized the error of his course, he turned about, without counting risk, cost, or the certainty of persecution and probable martyrdom. His repentance was as genuine as had been his persecuting zeal. All through his ministry he was tortured by the past (Acts 22:4, 19, 20; 1 Cor. 15:9; 2 Cor. 12:7; Gal. 1:13); yet he found a measure of relief in the knowledge that he had acted in good conscience (Acts 26:9-11). It was "hard for him to kick against the pricks" (revised version "goad," Acts 9:5; 26:14) of tradition, training, and education; yet he hesitated not. He was a chosen instrument for the work of the Lord (Acts 9:15); and promptly he responded to the Master's will. Whatever of error Saul of Tarsus had committed through youthful zeal, Paul the apostle gave his all-his time, talent, and life-to expiate. He was preeminently the Lord's apostle to the Gentiles; and this opening of the doors to others than Jews was the main contention between himself and Stephen. In accordance with the divine and fateful purpose, Paul was called to do the work, in opposition to which he had been a participant in the martyrdom of Stephen. At the Lord's word of direction Paul was ready to preach Christ to the Gentiles; only by a miracle could the Jewish exclusiveness of Peter and the Church generally be overcome (Acts 10; and 11:1-18).
(James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ: A Study of the Messiah and His Mission According to Holy Scriptures Both Ancient and Modern [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 667.)
Sidney B. Sperry on Saul:
Saul and his colleagues had done so well in scattering the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem that he now felt it incumbent upon himself to break up their concentrations elsewhere. The future Apostle did nothing by halves. Like a physician who knows that centers of infection in a patient must be cleared up if a cure is to be effected, Saul felt it necessary to clear out the local branches of hated Christ-followers in distant centers if the threat to his beloved Judaism was to be allayed.
Damascus was deemed to be a "hot" metropolis that demanded immediate attention. His zeal unabated, indeed, "yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, [Saul] went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this Way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem." (Acts 9:1-2) If it be a puzzle to the modern reader how Saul could legally bring back prisoners from a city beyond the borders of Palestine, we may explain that by Roman sufferance every Jewish colony in her Empire was considered subject in religious matters to the local synagogue, which in turn was under the control of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. That a Jew belonged to the Church of Christ, or to some other strange group, would make no difference to the Jerusalem authorities; he would be looked upon merely as a member of a Jewish sect like any Pharisee or Sadducee. A. T. Robertson makes a comment of interest to us in this respect:
The Jew, like the modern Roman Catholic, owed a double allegiance, one to his state, the other to the ecclesiastical or temple authorities at Jerusalem.
The reader may also have been interested in the reference to "this Way" in the passage we quoted from Acts. By it is simply meant the "Gospel" or the "Way of the Lord." The most frequently used word in Scripture for road is "way," and this word or its cognates are often used in describing religions.
Having received the necessary papers giving him the authorization he desired, Saul went on his cruel-yes, murderous-mission to Damascus. He was doubtless attended by the needed servants and officers of the Sanhedrin. We need not pause to speculate on the route he took; the fact is that he was only too willing to walk the one hundred and forty miles separating him from the ancient Syrian capital. The Greek words used in the narration suggest that he walked, not to mention the fact that on coming into the city his companions "led him by the hand." (Acts 9:8) When the author once traversed the distance between Jerusalem and Damascus in a modern car (which was bad enough), he couldn't help but think of Saul's zeal and determination in doing a job he thought was right. The fact that the future Apostle walked is perhaps of little importance in itself, but it does tend to reveal certain aspects of his character and state of mind.
The Turning Point in Saul's Life, A Heavenly Vision
The epigram, so well known to us all, that "man proposes, but God disposes" takes on particular significance when applied to Saul's life. The fiery Cilician and his Pharisaic colleagues had thus far played havoc with the Church and were determined to bring about its complete destruction. Saul had no reason to doubt that his Damascus mission would prove as successful as the one in Jerusalem. But as he drew near to Damascus, having, most likely, a grim satisfaction within himself for what he was about to do to those misguided followers of Jesus, the Almighty determined to have a reckoning with him. And that reckoning was to have tremendous repercussions, not only upon Saul, but upon the world. The story is told in the simple, straightforward and sober manner that we have learned to expect from Luke:
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined [flashed, or gleamed around like lightning] round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks [goads]. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. (Acts 9:3-6)
That this vision was real and no mere "subjective phantasm," to quote David Smith, was the repeated testimony of Saul in later years. When his very Apostleship was challenged by the Judaizers on the grounds that he had never seen Jesus or had never been commissioned by Him, his answer was clear: "Am I not an Apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?" (1 Cor. 9:1) In two places in Acts, Saul personally tells of his experience on the way to Damascus. The first is in 22:6-8 and the second in 26:12-18. All three accounts (including the one in Acts 9:3-6) differ in certain minor respects, as might be expected, and the one in Acts 26 contains certain words to which we call attention. The Lord said to Saul:
But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee. (Acts 26:16; italics ours.)
The Greek word translated "appeared" in this passage seems clearly to indicate that Saul actually saw the risen Christ. The same word is used in Luke 24:34 in connection with our Lord's appearance to Simon, and also in 1 Cor. 15:5-7, where it is translated by the Authorized Version as "He was seen" when referring to His appearance to the Apostles and others.
That some very unusual but objective experience happened to Saul is to be seen in the conduct of his companions at the time. In Acts 9:7-8 (Authorized Version), we are told that they "stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man," and found it necessary, because Saul had been blinded, to lead him "by the hand" into Damascus. In the account in Acts 22:9 we are told that Saul's companions "saw indeed the light, ... but they heard not the voice of him that spake..." The discrepancy in these two accounts was cleared up by the prophet Joseph Smith, who made known by the spirit of revelation that the one in Acts 22 is to be regarded as correct. (See "Inspired" revision of the Bible.)
Unfortunately for the religious welfare of mankind, modern rationalists, in their open opposition to the supernatural, have given wide publicity to their "natural" explanations of Saul's vision and conversion. To Latter-day Saints a brief summary of their views may be of profit and interest if only because of the fact that the prophet Joseph Smith's accounts of his first and subsequent visions have been attacked in much the same manner. The rationalist hypotheses may be reduced to two: (1) Saul was by nature nervous and excitable, subject to attacks of hysteria and epilepsy, and predisposed to visions and ecstasies. The appearance of Christ to him, therefore, on his mission to Damascus, was but the first of those ecstatic experiences which were repeated at intervals thereafter. (2) Saul's conversion, with the extraordinary phenomena that accompanied it, was but the final crisis of a great mental and soul-searching struggle that had shaken him profoundly since the death of Stephen. All during his trip to Damascus Saul was questioning his own motives in persecuting the Church. By day and by night he was harried and haunted with thoughts and feelings of fear, remorse and uncertainty. Finally, when he was near the great Oriental metropolis, Saul's great interior struggle reached its climax. A psychological transformation took place in him which Luke has erroneously materialized.
So much for the critics. But the evidence does not bear out their conclusions. As many believers in Saul's remarkable vision have not been slow to point out, his own words ascribe his conversion absolutely and without question to God's grace and the personal intervention of the Christ.
It pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen [Gentiles]. (Gal. 1:15-16)
Nowhere in the New Testament records is it possible to find any hint of Saul's having a soul-searching struggle while on the way to Damascus. He seems to have been caught unawares when our Lord vouchsafed him his first great vision.
The charge that Saul was subject to attacks of hysteria and epilepsy is difficult to maintain in view of the fact that the men with him at the time of his vision also saw the light and were speechless and afraid. (Acts 9:7; 22:9)
The evidence points to the fact that Saul was miraculously turned from carrying out a plan which he zealously believed to be right. To make him about- face, the Lord delivered a spiritual "jolt" that the proud Pharisee never forgot. The arisen Christ made him out as a persecutor, instead of a good man in God's service. But, quickly and effectually convinced that he was in the service of the wrong master, Saul asked the Lord what he should do. The Master did not berate him, but gave to him a divine commission which the Apostle was to recall in later years before King Agrippa. Part of it we have already quoted above, but a repetition of that part may be pardoned.
But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. (Acts 26:16-18)
Saul now knew his real life's work, and he entered into the Lord's service with the same vigor and zeal that had characterized his career as a Pharisee. Like Alma the Younger and the four sons of King Mosiah of Book of Mormon fame (Mosiah 27:8-37), who years before on the American continent, had had a very similar conversion to his, Saul anxiously embarked upon a course tending not only to undo the damage he had wrought upon the Church, but also to spread its fame and increase its membership throughout the Roman Empire.
(Sidney B. Sperry, Paul's Life and Letters [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955], 15.)