Acts 6:1-15

A Bible Study led by Dr. Larry Reynolds

March 12, 2009

Chapters 3 – 8 in Acts introduce us to a series of events which severely tested the young Christian fellowship.  While each of the attacks on the young church in these chapters involved people—some from outside the fellowship and some from within the fellowship—the real instigator of these attacks was Satan.  This section of Acts quickly moves us from the mountain top of Pentecost and the idyllic post-Pentecost days, to the valley of the great spiritual battle in which God’s people are continuously engaged.  Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:12 that “…our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” 

 

The events in this section of Acts include the following:

·         The arrest of Peter and John after the healing of a lame man in the temple (Acts 3 & 4)

·         The attempt of Ananias and Sapphira to deceive the apostles (Acts 5)

·         The arrest, miraculous release, re-arrest, and release of the apostles (Acts 5)

·         The controversy between the Hellenistic Jews and native Hebrews (Acts 6)

·         The death of Stephen, the first disciple to be martyred and the subsequent persecution of the church led by Saul (Acts 7 & 8)

How the young Christian fellowship responded to these events provides us an excellent model for dealing with the attacks of Satan in our lives.  In this session we are going to focus on the fourth and begin looking at the fifth in this series of attacks.

 

The Controversy Between the Hellenistic Jews and native Hebrews (Acts 6:1-7)

Verse 1a tells us when this controversy occurred.  “Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number…”

“Now at this time…” – The phrase is vague but obviously refers to the days immediately following the flogging of the apostles by the Jewish leaders at the end of Acts 5.  The last part of Acts 5 indicates the apostles did not stop teaching and preaching about Jesus, and God honored their faithfulness.

“…while the disciples were increasing [in number]…” – Like the incident involving Ananias and Sapphira at the beginning of Acts 5, this event took place during a time of spiritual prosperity.  You will notice the words “in number” are in italics in most biblical texts indicating that they are not in the Greek text but are inserted for clarity.  The “increasing” could be referring to growth in depth and commitment as well as to growth in number.  However, the verb translated “were increasing” is one which generally carries the idea of numerical growth, thus the insertion of “in number.”

 

Verse 1b describes the controversy.  “…a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.” 

“…a complaint…” – The word means to mutter or murmur or grumble.  I remember reading somewhere that the word was used to describe the buzzing of bees.  There began to be an undercurrent of murmuring and complaining in the fellowship.

“…on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews…” – All of the members of the early church were Jewish.  But among these Jewish believers, there were two distinct groups.

·         “Hellenistic Jews” – The word “Hellenistic” means influenced by Greek culture.  These were Jews who were not natives of Judea or Galilee.  They were from foreign areas.  While they had maintained their commitment to Judaism, they had also been influenced by other cultures.  Greek was their primary language.  Many of them had been in Jerusalem for Pentecost and stayed after coming to faith in Christ.

·         “native Hebrews” – These were Jews who lived in the Jewish homeland.  Aramaic was their primary language.  They prided themselves in not being influenced by foreign cultures.  They looked upon themselves as more “pure” than their Hellenistic counterparts.

Since all of the apostles were native Hebrews and since there was a natural distrust between the two groups, it is not surprising that the Hellenists would suspect that the apostles would care for their type of Jews first. 

“…their widows…” – Widows were among the most vulnerable people in the ancient culture.  When a woman’s husband died, she was generally left destitute unless she had brothers or grown sons to care for her.  That’s why the Scripture gives special instruction concerning the care of widows (see Deut. 24:19-21; 26:12-13; Isaiah 1:17; James 1:27).

“…were being overlooked…” - Whether or not that was actually happening, we do not know.  If it was happening, there is no indication it was an intentional slight on the part of the apostles.  Maybe their bias toward the Hellenistic Jews blinded them to what was happening.

Christians have inflicted about as many wounds on the fellowship as has persecution from outsiders, by harboring of racial, class, and religious prejudice.  Such prejudice leads to discrimination, and discrimination destroys the unity of believers.  These distinctions should not have entered the church then, and they should not be present now. [T.C. Smith, Broadman Bible Commentary]

 

“…in the daily serving of food…” – The Jews were very careful to care for the needs of the poor and oppressed among their number.  When the Jews became Christians, they continued and perhaps intensified their custom of caring for the needy.  The Jewish system of caring for the poor included two things:

·         Kuppah (basket) – A weekly distribution of food and clothing for poor families.

·         Tamhui (bowl or tray) – A daily distribution of food for those with a pressing need.  It was this distribution which apparently came from the gifts given to the apostles to administer (see Acts 4:35) which was being questioned by the Hellenists.

 

Verses 2-3 describe the proposed solution.

“And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples…” (2a) – Since it was a church-wide problem, the entire congregation participated in the solution.  This is the first use of the word “disciples” in Acts to refer to the followers of Jesus.

“It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” (2b)   The phrase “serve tables” could refer to the dining tables used for the common meals Christians shared or tables where funds were administered to those in need.  The apostles were not minimizing the importance of the daily distribution to those in need, but as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, they had a higher calling.  The verb translated serve is “diakoneo” which simply means to minister or serve.  It is the basic New Testament word used to describe how the early Christians helped others.  Because it is in the same word family as the word for deacon (“diakonos”) and because of the nature of the event, some people see this event as the beginning of deacon ministry.  However, the seven men chosen are not called deacons in this passage.

“But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” (3) – Notice that the apostles specified the number needed and the qualifications required but left the actual selection process up to the congregation.  The qualifications are important:

·         “good reputation” – To deal with this sensitive matter, the congregation had to have confidence in those selected.  They must have demonstrated their ability to handle this task based on previous conduct.  This was not a job for a novice!

·         “full of the Spirit” – Even though they would be dealing with temporal things, they must have spiritual wisdom.  To be “full of the Spirit” means to be controlled by or directed by the Spirit.

·         “full … of wisdom” – The word is “sophia” and it means more than abstract wisdom.  It carries the idea of good, common sense.  What was needed in these men was a practical wisdom that could deal with difficult situations with discreetness and finesse.

“But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry (diakonein) of the word.” (4) – The apostles wisely recognized that they could not do everything.  They focused on the things God called them and equipped them to do.  They continued seeking God’s direction and power in prayer and continued “teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” (Acts 5:42)

 

Verses 5-6 describe the reponse. 

“And the statement found approval with the whole congregation…” (5a) – They recognized the wisdom in the proposed solution to the problem.

“…they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch…” (5b) – The interesting thing about this list is that all of the names are Greek names, meaning they came from the Hellenistic Jews, the group which had made the complaint.  One way to assure the Hellenists that the daily distribution was being fairly made was to put them in charge of the distribution!  The listing of Stephen and Philip first points to their importance, and we read more about them in the next two chapters.  Nothing else is said in the New Testament of the other five.

“…after praying, they laid their hands on them.” (6) – In the Old Testament this was an act of consecrating something to God (see Leviticus 8:14, 18, & 22; Numbers 8:10) and of commissioning a successor (see Numbers 27:18 & Deut. 34:9).  In the New Testament it is an act of blessing (Matthew 19:13), an act of healing (Mark 5:23), a symbol of imparting the Spirit (Acts 8:17; 9:17; 19:6), an act of commissioning for service (Acts 13:3), and a means of imparting and/or confirming a spiritual gift (1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6).

 

Verse 7“And the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.”  This is the fourth of the nine summary passages in Acts describing the state of the church at particular points in time (see Acts 1:14; 2:43-47; 4:32-35; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; and 28:30-31).  

 

The Story of Stephen (Acts 6:8-7:60)

Luke tells the story of Stephen in great detail.  Basically, the story has three movements:

1.      The arrest of Stephen (Acts 6:8-15)

2.      Stephen’s defense (Acts 7:1-53)

3.      The death of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60)

There are several reasons why Luke devotes so much space to the story of Stephen:

·         He was a prominent person in the Jerusalem church

·         He was the first to be martyred for the cause of Christ

·         His death and the persecution of the church that followed was a key event in the spread of the gospel

 

The arrest of Stephen (Acts 6:8-15)

Verse 8 describes Stephen and his work. – “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people.”

“full of grace and power” – Earlier Stephen was described as being “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5).  The word for “grace” is charis and it carries the idea of kindness.  The word for “power”  is dunamis, the same word we saw back in Acts 1:8 where Jesus promised His followers, “…you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…”

“performing great wonders and signs” – While Stephen was initially appointed to help with the daily distribution of food, his ministry quickly expanded to other areas.  He is the first non-apostle we see performing such works in Acts.

 

Verse 9 tells the source of the opposition to Stephen.

“the Synagogue of Freedmen” – The people who made up this synagogue were either former slaves or the sons of former slaves.  Since Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew he took his ministry to fellow Hellenists. 

“Cyrenians and Alexandrians” – From northern Africa.

“Cilicia” – Included the city of Tarsus, the hometown of Saul who was to become Paul.  Since Saul was complicit in Stephen’s death (see Acts 7:58 and 8:1), it is possible he was involved in this synagogue and in the debates with Stephen.

“Asia” – More accurately, the province of Asia Minor.

“rose up and argued with Stephen” – While we are not told the specific nature of the dispute, since Stephen was proclaiming Jesus, the dispute was no doubt about Him.  Because he was accused of speaking against the Temple and the Law, perhaps Stephen was trying to explain to them how Jesus was the perfect sacrifice for sin and the ultimate fulfillment of the Law.

 

Verse 10 indicates that those who challenged Stephen were no match for him.  His practical sense and spiritual power overwhelmed them.

 

Verses 11–14 gives the tactics they used to silence Stephen.

·         Verse 11 – Bribery

·         Verse 12 – Mob psychology – It is interesting that “the scribes” are mentioned.  These were Pharisees.  While the first persecutions were instigated by the Sadducees, this persecution was led by the Pharisees.  While the Sadducees were concerned with the teachings about the resurrection and any disturbance that might catch the attention of the Romans, the Pharisees were concerned with preserving Jewish traditions.

·         Verse 13 – Falsehood – They accused Stephen of teaching that Jesus would destroy the temple and Judaism.  The reality is that Stephen taught Jesus was the fulfillment of all that God promised in the Old Testament.  They twisted the following Christian beliefs:

o   The temple is not the only place to meet God.  People can meet God anywhere (see Matthew 18:20; John 4:21-24; Acts 17:24)

o   The Law and temple services are fulfilled in Christ (see Matthew 5:17).

o   God writes the Law on people’s hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit (see Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10).

o   God’s grace is not exclusively for Jews; it’s for Gentiles too (see Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:39) [The Book of Acts: The Smart Guide to the Bible]

 

Verse 15 describes Stephen’s countenance before the Council.  He stood in the same place Peter and John had stood (Acts 4:7) and that all the apostles had stood (Acts 5:27).  The phrase “his face like the face of an angel” is significant because the Jews associated a glowing face with a person being in God’s presence.

 

Practical application of Acts 6:1-15

1.      Even during (or perhaps, especially during!) the best of times divisiveness can rear its ugly head among God’s people.  Notice the statements in Acts 6:1 – “…while the disciples were increasing … a complaint arose…”  We must constantly be on guard in all of our relationships.

2.      Some of the best things God does in us are done during times of adversity.  The conflict between the Hellenistic Jews and native Hebrews actually strengthened the church (Acts 6:7).  God works in times of adversity (see Romans 8:28-29).  The cross is the best example of this.

3.      Being faithful to God does not necessarily protect one from the attacks of evil people.  As a matter of fact, it increases the likelihood of such attacks!

4.      Satan does not fight fair!  He uses every evil tool at his disposal.  We can expect nothing less from “the father of lies.”