Acts 6:1–15 . . .
“Seven Chosen, Stephen Seized”
So far, as Luke accounts for us the experiences of the early church, there's been no internal strife. But Satan is always working to stir up hard feelings between brothers in Christ, and he found an issue having the potential to tear the church apart. The early church, as a regular practice, provided a daily ministering of food (and probably any other immediate material need) for all wanting widows. The hand-outs were donated by wealthier members of the church. In compliance with the many commands in the Law of Moses to help the poor, the fatherless, and the widow (Deut. 14:28–29; 15:7–11; 24:19–21; 26:12; etc.), charitable giving was widespread in first-century Jewish society, much more so than elsewhere. Religious leaders organized something like a food kitchen for wandering beggars, and they maintained regular distribution of material relief to the poor in Jerusalem.
The ones who received aid primarily included widows and their children. In Bible times, a widow was helpless to support herself. She couldn't take a job. Unless she was a trained craftswoman, she couldn't make anything to sell. So, she was completely dependent on relatives and public charity. Since relatives can sometimes be stingy, and since public charity was a weekly doling, generally sufficient only to sustain normal life until the next doling, it was common for widows to be extremely poor. Therefore, moved by compassion, the church accepted responsibility for the widows in its midst and reached out to help them. Each evening, the church met to share a meal, celebrate the Lord's Supper, and hear the apostles preach. Perhaps at each gathering, the wealthier believers provided poor widows food at the meal, as well as with other provisions to sustain them at least until the next evening.
A Division in the Church (6:1)
But the devil spotted a cultural division in the church that he could turn to his advantage. Some of the early Christians in Jerusalem were Grecians (a.k.a. Hellenistic Jews) and some were Hebrews (i.e., Jews fully Semitic in their cultural background). There was a multitude of immigrants in Jerusalem who came from the Greek-speaking world. Although intensely loyal to their Hebrew traditions, these Grecians were distinct in many ways from Jews whose forbearers in recent centuries had stayed within the Holy Land. One difference was language. The Grecians spoke Greek as their language of choice; if the Hebrews knew Greek, they preferred not to use it. Their language of choice was Hebrew, so long as they belonged to the class of trained rabbis; otherwise, it was Aramaic.
Another difference was that many Grecians were more sophisticated in the ways of the world. The challenge of "making a living among Gentiles" had forced Hebrews not only to learn Greek, but also to adapt in other respects to the surrounding heathen culture. Likely, they were acquainted in some measure with Greek thought and religion; in some degree they'd conformed to Greek habits in dress, dining, and business affairs. As a result, the Hebrews throughout Judea tended to be distrustful or even contemptuous of the Grecians. Within the church, the two groups were probably segregated to some extent during fellowship times. Thus, it wasn't long before both groups became divided by their outspoken animosity. The Greeks started to complain that the daily handout to the poor was neglecting their culture's widows.
The Creation of New Church Officers (vv. 6–7)
Who was supervising the aid that was to be given to poor widows? The official response of the Twelve to the complaint, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables," leaves the impression that they'd previously distanced themselves from the ongoing work of charity. Believers had left proceeds from the sale of land and property at the Twelve's feet (Acts 4:36–37; 5:1–2), but the task of buying necessities for the poor and distributing them apparently fell to others. Perhaps, instead of operating a central relief station where widows could come for needed help, they'd been working in a more haphazard manner. The men closest to the apostles, such as members of the 120 (that we covered on Week 5), used their own observations (or news from the grapevine) to determine who needed help, and they responded accordingly.
But because most of these men were Hebrews, their charitable endeavors had two serious flaws. First, the language barrier between Grecians and Hebrews kept the grapevine from efficiently transmitting information about Greek widows to Hebrew aid-givers. Second, because the Greek widows came from families that in the past had operated successful businesses in the larger world, and that might even have attained a higher level of education, they didn't necessarily look poor to the Hebrews. Judging by their dress and manners, the Hebrews might have assumed that they were still well-to-do.
But widows returning to Judea had become a financial blow to their families. They'd left their means of livelihood in a foreign country; it was difficult to set up a new profitable business in the midst of established competitors. If they planned to live on funds saved for retirement, such funds were diminishing or already gone. As strangers in the land, they had few personal ties on whom to call when they needed help.
For whatever reasons, the apostles didn't argue as to whether there might be legitimate grounds for the complaint. To stop criticism and restore unity, the apostles decided to create new officers in their church in Jerusalem. No formal name was given, but later churches honored the seven men originally chosen by naming them "deacons," a term that's in line with church tradition. Incidentally, the Greek diakonos for "deacon" simply means "servant." Their duty would be to "serve tables." In other words, these men would oversee the ministry and verify that widows had enough to eat. Doubtless they'd also manage the church's other practical affairs. These new officers thereby enabled the apostles to devote themselves instead wholly to spiritual ministries, especially prayer and the ministry of spreading the Word.
The apostles didn't simply appoint men to this new office they'd created. Rather, in recognition that every believer is indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus, the source of all wisdom, they chose the officeholders by a process we'd call democratic. They asked the whole assembly to nominate seven candidates, each satisfying three requirements (v. 3): (1) Since they would handle money, they had to be men having a reputation for integrity; (2) they had to be filled with the Holy Spirit; and (3) they had to be also filled with wisdom, which can be defined as "native intelligence" having a cutting edge honed by a thorough knowledge of Scripture.
Every man in that assembly who was nominated to serve as deacon was a Greek. With the consent of the apostles and all the other Hebrews in the congregation, none of their Hebraic brothers was placed in that new office. The Hebrews didn't demand a majority, nor an equal number or any representation at all. One of the seven, Nicolas of Antioch, wasn't even a Jew; he was a Gentile convert to Judaism before he became a follower of Christ. Clearly, the Hebrews conceded much to preserve unity in the church and shut down destructive criticism that had been inspired by Satan.
The seven deacons chosen by the congregation met with the apostles who prayed and laid their hands on them as a sign of delegated authority. Once the initial dispute had been resolved in a godly manner, God's blessing again rained down upon his church, which grew rapidly and included many priests as its new members.
Boldness Reappears. This Time It’s in Stephen (vv. 8–10)
One of the seven new deacons was a man named Stephen who was outstanding for his wisdom and spirituality. He was so gifted with faith that Luke gives us this admirable description of him: ". . . a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people." As an evangelist, Stephen was among the boldest and most effective within the church.
Stephen didn't wait for unbelievers to come wandering into the assembly before he spoke to them about God. Luke says only that certain men arose to dispute Stephen, but by identifying at least some of the challengers as members of a synagogue, he strongly implies that this very synagogue was one of debate. It seems that his adversaries included men he'd confronted with the truth during excursions into their home territory.
Luke speaks of only one synagogue in v. 9, called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, which was attended primarily by Jews from Alexandria in Egypt and Corene in Libya. These were Jews from North Africa who'd won freedom from slavery or who were descendants of liberated slaves. During past wars, many Jews had been taken captive by Rome, only to be released later as a gesture of good will or in exchange for redemption money. Yet for the sake of both fairness and accuracy, Luke adds that such opposition to Stephen in the community of Greek-speaking Jews wasn't limited to the Freedmen; joining them were Jews from Cilicia and Asia, provinces in southeast and western Asia Minor, respectively.
Refusing to accept Stephen’s message, some of his most vocal enemies "argued" with him. Wherever he proclaimed truth, opponents engaged him in open debates and sought to overturn his arguments but all were unsuccessful. In seeking to outwit a man of exceptional intellect under the Spirit’s control, they had no chance. His success in making them look foolish had a predictable result. They became extremely frustrated and angry, to the point of conspiring against his life. How evident it is that Stephen had indeed made a hearty effort to take up his cross and follow Christ; for he was suffering the same rejection that Christ suffered.
Stephen Seized and Plotted Against (vv. 11–15)
The Freedmen "secretly persuaded some men" (i.e., paid) to give false witness against Stephen. Then they dragged him before the highest Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, and stated serious charges against him. With the support of their hired witnesses, they accused him of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs based on the Law of Moses. But the actual charges against Stephen were false. Scripture says they were brought by false witnesses. The hired testimony implied that Christians were plotting violence with the aim of wresting power from the Jewish leaders and demolishing the Temple, whereas their real aim was only to win converts through peaceful methods.
The lies told about Stephen were merely a rehash of the trumped-up charges brought against Jesus himself. Early in his ministry, Jesus promised that he'd rise from the dead (e.g., "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days" in John 2:19). Also, throughout his ministry his enemies accused him of being a rebel against the Law of Moses (John 9:16), although he clearly taught that he came to fulfill the Law of Moses, not to destroy it (Matthew 5:17).
When Stephen came before the council, his face shone like an angel’s (v. 15), radiating the very presence of God within him. The glow was God’s vindication of Stephen. The Sanhedrin viewed him as a rebel against Moses, but Moses was the only other man in recorded history who, at a sublime chapter in his life, drew so close to God that his face reflected divine glory (Exodus 34:29–35). From Stephen’s angelic radiance, it should have been obvious to his accusers that he wasn't a betrayer of their religious heritage derived from Moses, but was a godly man standing in Moses’ place.
- Q. 1 Who is more important in your church, the lead pastor or the property and grounds keeper?
- Q. 2 What do you think it means that Stephen's "face was like the face of an angel"?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 6.]
† Watch this "Visual Bible" video clip: Acts 5:26–7:22, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
The Choosing of the Seven
6 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Marchiano, Timon, Parmesan, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
8Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. 9Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) — Jews of Corene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilia and Asia — who began to argue with Stephen. 10But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
11Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
12So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
15All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.