Acts 6 - The Appointment of Deacons and the Arrest of Stephen

 

A. The appointment of deacons.

 

1. (1) A dispute about the distribution of assistance to widows.

 

Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.

 

a. There arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists: To this point in the Book of Acts, Satan’s attacks on the church came on many different fronts. He attempted many forms of direct opposition and intimidation, and he tried to corrupt the church from within. These strategies were all unsuccessful in stopping or slowing the work of the church. Now Satan hoped to “divide and conquer” by raising one group of Christians against another.

 

i. We can say that with Acts 5 and 6, the good old days were over for the earliest Christians. They now had to deal with internal corruption, and now disputes and potential divisions. How they dealt with those things made all the difference.

 

ii. When the number of disciples was multiplying indicates that the work of God’s kingdom through the early Christian community was still highly successful, and they dealt with the problems well.

 

iii. The mention of growth again reminds us that the early church was organized. They knew how many were saved; they met together at specific places and specific times. Money and goods were collected and distributed to those in need. Sin was confronted and dealt with. All these indicate at least some level of organization.

 

b. Against the Hebrews by the Hellenists: The Hebrews were those Jews more inclined to embrace Jewish culture and were mostly from Judea. The Hellenists were those Jews more inclined to embrace Greek culture and mostly were from the Diaspora (from all over the Roman Empire).

 

i. To oversimplify, Hebrews tended to regard Hellenists as unspiritual compromisers with Greek culture, and Hellenists regarded Hebrews as holier-than-thou traditionalists. There was already a natural suspicion between the two groups, and Satan tried to take advantage of that standing suspicion.

 

ii. It’s important to remember that though the titles Hebrews and Hellenists are used, these were Christians, followers of Jesus. They were all from a Jewish background, but they had all embraced Jesus as their Messiah.

 

c. The daily distribution: The early church took its responsibility to help support widows seriously because they often had no other support; but they also expected these widows to serve the church faithfully (1 Timothy 5:3-16).

 

i. There is the hint here of a growing division between the religious leaders and the early followers of Jesus. The care of widows and orphans was an important part of Jewish life, and normally the temple authorities organized the distribution to the needy. Yet it seems that the Christian widows were not cared for by the Jewish leaders; probably because they didn’t like the fact that the apostles kept preaching Jesus when they were told to stop.

 

d. Because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution: Apparently, some of the Christians from a Hellenistic background believed that the widows among the Hebrew Christians received better care.

 

i. “It is not suggested that the oversight was deliberate . . . more probably the cause was poor administration or supervision.” (Stott)

 

ii. “In a congregation of that size, it was inevitable that someone’s needs would be overlooked.” (MacArthur)

 

iii. Satan loves to use an unintentional wrong to begin a conflict. The Hebrews were right in their hearts, and the Hellenists were right in their facts. These were perfect conditions for a church-splitting conflict.

 

2. (2-4) The apostles arrange for deacons to be nominated.

 

Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

 

a. It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables: The apostles explained that they should remain faithful to their central calling, which was prayer and to the ministry of the word. It was wrong for them to spend their time administrating the practical needs of the widows.

 

i. Some believe that this is evidence of a superior attitude among the twelve; that they considered themselves above such work. This was probably not so, and they were wise in delegating these responsibilities. God did not call these apostles to be everything for the church. God has and will raise up others to serve in other ways.

 

ii. A pastor should not have his time consumed in tasks that are essentially serving tables. Yet there is something wrong with a pastor who considers such work beneath him.

 

iii. This didn’t concern the actual serving of food and cleaning of dining tables for these widows. This speaks of handling the practical administration of the financial and practical details relevant to caring for the widows. “A ‘table’ at that time meant a place where a money changer did his collecting or exchanging of money. The deacons were elected to oversee the distribution of monies and provisions to the needy among the fellowship.” (Ogilvie)

 

b. We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word: The fact that the apostles busied themselves with prayer and the ministry of the word shows how energetically they did those things and how consuming it is to preach and pray rightly.

 

i. The ministry is a lot of work, even apart from administrative headaches. A young man said to Donald Grey Barnhouse, “I’d give the world to be able to teach the Bible like you.” Looking him straight in the eye, Dr. Barnhouse replied: “Good, because that’s exactly what it will cost you.”

 

ii. We will give ourselves continually to prayer: They gave themselves to more than the ministry of the word. “Therefore, pastors must not think that they have so done their duty that they need to do no more when they have daily spent some time in teaching.” (Calvin)

 

c. Seek out from among you: The apostles (the twelve) spoke to the general group of believers (the multitude of the disciples) and pursued the solution with a lot of communication and input from among the people. They even asked those – probably especially those who felt wronged – to suggest men of good character to do this work.

 

i. This was a wonderful way to solve the problem. They didn’t throw the complainers out. They didn’t divide into two congregations. They didn’t shun the unhappy people. They didn’t form a committee and discuss the problem to death.

 

ii. No doubt, someone suggested that the apostles themselves give more direct attention to the distribution of help to the widows. Instead, they delegated and brought more people into doing work of ministry. Meeting unmet needs is a great way to bring more people into ministry.

 

d. Of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom: The qualifications described by the apostles focused the character of the men to be chosen. The apostles were far more concerned with the internal quality of the men than their outward appearance or image.

 

i. The idea behind full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom is that these men were to be both spiritually minded and practically minded. This can be a hard combination to find.

 

ii. Seven men: Possibly they chose seven so that one could oversee the needs of the widows a different day of the week.

 

e. Whom we may appoint: The final decision rested with the apostles. They asked the congregation to nominate the men (seek out from among you), but the decision really rested with the apostles. This was not an exercise of congregational government, though the apostles wisely wanted and valued the input from the congregation.

 

f. Whom we may appoint over this business: Seven men were to be chosen to serve tables. It was simple, practical service that they are appointed to; yet they must be well qualified in a spiritual sense, especially because of the danger of division.

 

i. Therefore, the men need to be of good reputation. They had to be men the church family felt confident in.

 

ii. “The apostles were not trying to protect their own rights. They were not even protecting their own point of view. They simply wanted to solve the problem.” (Boice)

 

3. (5-7) The selection of deacons.

 

And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

 

a. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: We can’t say this was a good decision only because the people liked it. Yet, God confirmed the wisdom of the apostles through agreement among the people. The apostles were led of the Lord, not popular opinion. Yet, because they were all in basic agreement, they agreed on how the Lord was leading the apostles.

 

b. Stephen…Philip, Prochorus…: The seven men all had Greek names, indicating that they were probably Hellenists themselves. The people (and the apostles) showed great sensitivity to the offended Hellenists by appointing Hellenists to take care of the widows’ distribution.

 

i. “I would imagine there were more Aramaic-speaking Christians in the church than there were Greek-speaking Christians, but the church as a whole said, Let’s elect Greek-speaking leaders.” (Boice)

 

c. Whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them: In this case, the people nominated the men, and the apostles approved them by laying hands on them, after praying for God’s guidance and approval.

 

i. It was important to lay hands on them even if their service was mainly for the practical needs of the widows. Practical service is spiritual service. The same Greek word is used for both distribution (Acts 6:1) and ministry (Acts 6:4). The idea behind the word in both places is service, whether in practical ways or spiritual ways.

 

ii. People should count it a privilege to serve the Lord in these basic, practical ways, instead of seeing it as an “unspiritual” burden. Apart from the cross, Jesus showed the ultimate measure of love by simply washing His disciples’ feet (John 13:1-5).

 

iii. Nowhere in this chapter of Acts are these men called deacons, but most consider they were the first to fulfill the office of deacon as described in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. The word deacon simply means “servant,” and these men were certainly servants. They could claim the same promise for faithful service that Paul specifically made to deacons in 1 Timothy 3:13: For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

 

d. Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem: Considering all that could have gone wrong when Satan tried to attack through division, everyone involved deserves much credit.

 

i. Those with the complaint, the Hellenists, did the right thing: They made the need known, instead of complaining and whining, and they trusted the solution of the apostles.

 

ii. Those of the other party, the Hebrews, did the right thing: They recognized that the Hellenists had a legitimate need and they trusted the solution of the apostles.

 

iii. The seven chosen men did the right thing: They accepted the call to unglamorous service.

 

iv. The apostles did the right thing: They responded to the need without distracting themselves from their central task.

 

e. And the word of God spread: Because this situation was handled with wisdom and sensitivity to those who were offended, a potentially divisive issue was defused, and the gospel continued to go forth. Even a great many of the priests came to faith in Jesus.

 

i. “The church gave Holy Ghost deacons and got converted priests…The disciples chose Holy Ghost deacons, and got Holy Ghost martyrs and evangelists.”

 

ii. “Men were chosen to serve tables – to do common things; but they were found doing uncommon things – working signs and wonders among the people.”

 

iii. Satan’s strategy failed. He tried to divide the church, and it did not work. But Satan’s second strategy also failed. The apostles were not distracted from the focus of ministry God had for them – to focus on the word of God and on prayer.

 

B. Stephen’s witness and arrest.

 

1. (8-10) Stephen’s witness for God.

 

And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.

 

a. Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people: God did great wonders and signs through the apostles; but also through others like Stephen, one of the servants chosen to help the widows. God used Stephen because he was full of faith and power.

 

i. There is a small textual dispute as to whether Luke’s original text said that Stephen was full of faith and power or full of grace and power. The meaning is substantially the same, because to live in faith is walk in God’s grace.

 

b. Disputing with Stephen: Stephen debated with Jews from the Synagogue of the Freedmen. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, he showed greater wisdom than his opponents (they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke).

 

i. There is no indication that Stephen – in himself – was smarter, better educated, or a better debater than these Jews. We should attribute his upper hand in the debate to the Spirit by which he spoke.

 

ii. Those from Cilicia: “The mention of Cilicia suggests this may have been Paul’s synagogue before he was converted. He came from Tarsus in Cilicia.” (Lovett)

 

2. (11-14) The opposing Jews, defeated in debate, induce false accusations against Stephen.

 

Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”

 

a. They secretly induced men to say: The opponents of Stephen could not win a fair fight, so they used lies and secret strategies to shape popular opinion against Stephen.

 

i. Normally, Luke would not know what the opponents of Stephen secretly induced men to say. Possibly he knew it because a man named Saul of Tarsus was among the opponents. Some of them were from Paul’s home region of Cilicia. Saul (who became known as Paul the apostle) may have told Luke about this incident.

 

b. They stirred up the people: The opponents of Stephen could do nothing against the followers of Jesus until they got popular opinion on their side. Previously, persecution against the apostles had been limited because popular opinion was with them (Acts 2:47, 5:26).

 

i. Popular opinion can be easily shaped. The same crowds that praised Jesus (Luke 19:35-40) soon called for His crucifixion (Luke 23:18-23). The crowds that loved the apostles (Acts 2:47, 5:26) cry out against Stephen. This is why we should never let popular opinion shape the vision or focus of the church, but let it rest on God’s eternal Word.

 

c. We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God…this man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law… Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change customs: These were the accusations against Stephen. Significantly, many of the same false accusations were leveled against Jesus (Matthew 26:59-61). It is a good thing to be accused of the same things Jesus was accused of.

 

i. They accused him of these things because Stephen clearly taught that:

 

Š      Jesus was greater than Moses (blasphemous words against Moses)

Š      Jesus was God (blasphemous words against…God)

Š      Jesus was greater than the temple (blasphemous words against this holy place)

Š      Jesus was the fulfillment of the law (blasphemous words against …the law)

Š      Jesus was greater than their religious customs and traditions (Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change customs)

 

ii. Of course, Stephen never taught against Moses and God, but his glorification of Jesus was twisted. Stephen never spoke blasphemous words against this holy place (the temple), but he would not make it an idol as many Jewish people in that day did. Stephen had his words twisted, and false accusations were brought against him.

 

iii. “Whatever form of words Stephen used which gave rise to the accusation that he said Jesus would destroy the temple, he certainly grasped and expounded the inner meaning of Jesus’ own words.” (Bruce).

 

iv. Several commentators imply or directly state that the thrust of Stephen’s message - that Jesus supersedes the temple and its localized worship - was a doctrine that the apostles themselves must have shied away from proclaiming. This is unwarranted speculation. The demonstrated boldness of the apostles is undeniable proof that they withheld no truth from fear that it might be too controversial – or dangerous.

 

3. (15) Stephen’s countenance when accused.

 

And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.

 

a. All who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him: Stephen was on trial before the highest religious court he could face; examined by honored, educated, and powerful men. He had been falsely accused and seemed to have lost popular support.

 

b. His face as the face of an angel: Stephen’s face did not have that mild, soft, angelic look that we see in so many paintings; nor was it a look of stern judgment and wrath. Instead, his face reflected the perfect peace and confidence of one that knows and trusts his God. His face had the same reflected glory that Moses had as he beheld God intimately.

 

i. “The description is of a person who is close to God and reflects some of His glory as a result of being in his presence (Exodus 34:29ff).” (Marshall)

 

c. The face of an angel also means that Stephen was at perfect peace. His face was not filled with fear or terror, because he knew his life was in God’s hands and that Jesus never forsakes His people.

 

© 2012 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission