ACTS CHAPTER 6.
The Choosing of the First Deacons. Acts 6, 1-8.
The matter laid before the congregation: V.1. And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. V.2. Then the Twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them and said, It is not reason that we should leave the Word of God and serve tables. V.3. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. V.4. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word. Luke, having given an account of the second persecution which struck the apostles, returns once more to his history of the progress of the Christian Church. He introduces a new recital, a new paragraph, or section. It was in those days when the number of the disciples was multiplying, was growing very rapidly. that an internal danger arose in the very midst of the congregation. “The facility with which impure elements could become associated in the Church with the pure was proportioned to its numerical increase. And when the provision which was made for the poor became more and more ample, this circumstance itself may have attracted many needy persons.”20) The disturbing, disquieting matter in this case was that an open murmuring and grumbling of dissatisfaction arose in the congregation. Two kinds of Jews were represented in the Church at Jerusalem, the Jews, or Hebrews proper, that had been born in Judea and had grown up in the midst of the old Jewish customs, and Grecian Jews, or Hellenists, Jews of foreign birth and Greek education, speaking the common Greek dialect and more or less acquainted with Greek habits of life. In general, the Hebrews and the Grecian Jews were united in the work of the congregation in full harmony, chap. 2, 46; 4, 32. External distinctions, of wealth, social position, language, habits of living, etc., should never influence the harmonious activity of the Church in a disagreeable manner. But here a peculiar difficulty had arisen. Communism had in no way been introduced, but a very full provision had been made for the needy by the liberality of the wealthier members. The funds thus obtained were in charge of the apostles, chap. 4, 35, who distributed them to the poor and to the widows. Under the circumstances: the rapid growth of the congregation, the increasing number of those that were dependent upon the bounty of the congregation, the fact that the Grecian Jews were not so well known in person to the apostles, an oversight was easily possible. One or more widows that felt themselves entitled to this service had been overlooked when the apostles made their daily rounds. And immediately the devil, the spirit of dissension and strife, inspired the thought that this was an intentional slight. Similar complaints and charges are sometimes made in our days also, and with as little ground. As long as fallible human beings are trying to serve other human beings that are just as fallible, mistakes are liable to happen, which should be adjusted without uncharitable grumbling. Whatever ground there may have been for dissatisfaction, the apostles, on their part, did not want the suspicion of partiality to rest upon them. They therefore called a meeting of the entire congregation and laid the matter before all the disciples. It certainly was not the right, the proper thing for them to abandon, to give up the Word of God, both in public preaching and in individual instruction, in order to serve at tables, to attend to a ministry which might well be done by others. Their chief, their principal work was the care of souls, the preaching of the Gospel. They proposed to the assembly, therefore, that they, as brethren, should look about for seven men. The qualifications of these men are stated by the apostles as being chiefly three. They must have a good reputation both within and without the Church, as men of integrity and blameless life; they must be filled with the Holy Ghost, who imparts to them the mercy of Christ and the power to lead a holy life; they must be filled with wisdom, with practical wisdom, with good common sense that enables men to manage complicated business affairs to the full satisfaction of all concerned. These men should be officially appointed to take care of the present need, to have charge of this business of the congregation. Note that the business side of a Christian congregation was emphasized in the first stated meeting of the first body that bore that title. “In that case this story is useful and good that we consider the example of the apostles well and learn what kind of men are to be used for that office, for which St. Stephen permitted himself to be used.... To have a good report is that one has kept himself honest and without reproach in all things, that one has not, as the world now commonly does, either been shamefully avaricious or squandered money and goods.... Then also the Holy Ghost belongs here. For to have the Holy Ghost is nothing but being a Christian, to love the Word of God, to hear it gladly, to arrange one’s life accordingly, and to maintain a good conscience. All these are the work and fruit of the Holy Ghost. But now it may well be that a person have both a good report and the Holy Ghost, and still not be fit for such office; therefore they say: Such people should also be wise, full of ability and practice.... For this office needs practical heads, if otherwise it shall be exercised with use and propriety. Lazy, unwilling, careless, unfit people cannot be used for this office.”21) These qualifications should be kept in mind also in our days, whenever officers of the church are to be elected; there is too much thoughtless, haphazard choosing, with consequent dissatisfaction and harm to the congregation. While the men that were thus to be appointed should have charge of this special service, the supplying of those things which were necessary for the bodily sustenance of the poor and the widows, the apostles themselves wanted to devote all their time and energy to prayer and the ministry of the Word; in these matters they wanted to persevere to the exclusion of everything else. The Christian preachers of all times have the office of the ministry of the Word. That is the most important service in the kingdom of God; upon it depends the salvation of souls. It is by no means a small and insignificant matter to proclaim the Word. of God before the whole congregation, and also to apply it in the individual cases. And, in addition to that, this ministry is a ministry of prayer. The responsibility of every soul in the congregation rests upon the pastor, and he will bring the needs of each and all before the heavenly Father in daily prayer and intercession. Services in the congregation that interfere with this chief business should be entrusted to other men, to whom the Lord has given the necessary qualifications.
The election: V.5. And the saying pleased the whole multitude; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, v.6. whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. V.7. And the Word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. V.8. And Stephen, Full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. In laying their proposition before the congregation, the apostles, although the inspired teachers of the Church, made no arbitrary demands; there is no evidence of hierarchical aspirations. The congregation was to decide as to its course in this matter. But the wisdom of the solution was so obvious that the congregation did not hesitate to act upon it: The word was pleasant before them all. And so they proceeded to elect, choose, seven men that had the attributes named by the apostles: Stephen, of whom it is emphatically stated that he was full of faith, not faithfulness, but belief in the Savior, from which all virtues flow; Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, the last named being a Jewish proselyte hailing from Antioch. It is notable that all the names are Greek names, and although the argument is not conclusive, it is very probable that the generosity of the congregation prompted them to select only Grecian Jews and Greeks for the office. Selfishness and jealousy were to be absolutely unknown in their midst. It is altogether in accordance with the Word and will of God if Christian congregations elect all their own officers and have charge of all their own affairs. And wherever there is danger of disruption, it is far better to yield in indifferent matters and to let charity alone rule. The newly elected deacons were then set before the apostles, who prayed over them with laying on of hands. This was a fine, significant ceremony, by which they were inducted into office, and is properly in use in the Christian Church to this day, but not by divine command.
By the appointment of these seven officers to have charge of the daily ministrations, the apostles gained much time for their important duties, for preaching and teaching and praying, with the result that their work was far more effective than before. The Word of God grew in power, in influence; the number of disciples in Jerusalem was greatly increased; and even a large number of priests were obedient to the faith, accepted the teaching of the faith in Jesus as their Savior. These priests, as the chief servants of the old forms, must have belonged to the most violent opponents of the Church, and their conversion signified a great victory of Christ in the midst of His enemies. It is especially notable that the wonderful change is ascribed to the Word of God, which effectually works wherever it is proclaimed. One of the most zealous exponents of the Word at this time was Stephen, one of the seven deacons that had been elected by the congregation. It is emphasized once more that he was full of faith and power. His faith in Jesus the Redeemer was soundly established. And out of this grew favor with God and man, virtue and power. “Power here means activity or act; as though he would say: He had such a great faith, therefore he also did much and was mighty in deed. For where there is the right faith, there the deed will also follow; and the greater the faith, the more active it is in doing.”22) But it was a special manifestation of the Spirit’s power which enabled Stephen to perform miracles and great signs among the people. God does His work in His own way, after His own methods, and He had need of Stephen at this time.
The Testimony of Stephen. Acts 6, 9-15.
V.9. Then there arose certain of the synagog, which is called the synagog of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia, and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. V.10. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake. V.11. Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God. V.12. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the Council, v.13. and set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the Law; v.14. for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us. V.15. And all that sat in the Council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel. The activity which Stephen displayed in the interest of his Lord was not confined to the congregation. The zeal of every true Christian will show itself in true missionary effort, in the attempt by testimony and by apology to gain believers for Christ. Stephen soon attracted the attention and excited the jealousy and enmity of the unbelieving Jews. Among the great number of synagogs in Jerusalem (rabbinic writers state that there were 480) there were also such as were formed by Jews from certain countries in the Diaspora, since they would naturally be attracted to one another by language and customs. There was one whose membership consisted of Roman freedmen, former captive Jews that were brought to Rome by Pompey; another was made up of Jews hailing from Cyrene in Africa, a third of such as had lived in Alexandria; a fourth had members exclusively from Cilicia, a fifth such as hailed from the province of Asia on the Aegean Sea. All these synagogs sent representatives, probably to the Temple, where the public meetings of the congregation were held, to debate with Stephen in disputatious questioning. It is more than likely that among these men there was also Saul of Tarsus in Cilicia, a Pharisee of the Pharisees in orthodoxy and zeal. But whatever methods of argumentation these able debaters used, they were of no avail in this case; they were unable to withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which Stephen spoke. For it was the Holy Spirit Himself who was present and spoke in and through this disciple, Luke 21, 15. The proofs which Stephen adduced in this battle of intellects were of such a nature that they could not be questioned by the opponents. They were routed all along the line and were obliged to retire in confusion.
This defeat in a field in which they had supposed themselves undisputed masters rankled in the minds of these enemies of Christ. And, open warfare having failed, they resorted to slander and violence. They deliberately suborned men, hired them to repeat certain statements under oath which were directed against Stephen. The latter had probably stated that the true believers are no longer under the Law and warned the unbelieving Jews of the judgment which was to strike the Holy City and the Temple. These words could easily be made to represent a blasphemy against the teaching of Moses in the sense of the Jews and against God. With this construction placed upon the statements of Stephen, it was an easy matter to stir up, to excite and move deeply, the fanatical Jews, the common people as well as the elders and the scribes. It was a part of the cunning design to gain the people first, since the Sanhedrin would more readily take action if they felt that the people were on their side in this matter, and no longer favored the apostles and their followers. Having thus prepared the way, they came upon Stephen suddenly, surprised him while he was still unaware of any hostile intention on their part, took him by force, and brought him before the Sanhedrin for trial. Whether the Council was in regular session or had convened in anticipation of this arrest, is immaterial. No sooner was Stephen arraigned than they brought forth their lying witnesses, who had been carefully drilled in the part they were to play. And the perjurers followed orders very strictly, testifying that they had heard the prisoner say that Jesus of Nazareth would utterly destroy this place, and would completely change the customs that had been transmitted to them by Moses. Note: The enemies of Jesus had evidently learned something from the trial of Christ and from subsequent experience. The Pharisees had definite charges framed against Stephen, and they produced witnesses that had been carefully drilled in their role. It was an intensely dramatic, impressive moment when the charges had been fully presented and all the testimony of the witnesses had been heard. The eyes of all the members of the Council were firmly fixed upon Stephen, expecting, of course, that he would answer upon the charges in one way or the other. And here God gave visible evidence that He supported His servant and would be with him to the end. Fur the judges saw Stephen’s face as though it had been the face of an angel. This is not a description of extraordinary physical beauty, but of a supernatural brightness, like that on the face of Moses after he had spoken with God. Such a heavenly brilliance was fitting on the face of one to whom the glory of the Lord had been revealed. Note: Like Stephen, every Christian preacher that testifies fearlessly concerning Christ and His Word, may easily become involved in debate with the enemies of Christ. And when the unbelievers have been conquered by facts from the Word of God, they try to take revenge by threatening and blaspheming, and, if possible, they try to suppress the truth with violence. Many a witness for Christ has thus been branded as a blasphemer, a traitor, and a rebel in both spiritual and temporal courts.
Summary. To remedy an urgent need, the congregation at Jerusalem, at the suggestion of the apostles, elects seven deacons to minister to the poor and the widows, one of whom, Stephen, testifies for Christ and is arraigned before the Sanhedrin.