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 murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists: In the Book of Acts, Satan’s attacks on the church have come on many different fronts. He has attempted many forms of direct opposition and intimidation, and he has tried to corrupt the church from within. These strategies have been unsuccessful. Now Satan hopes to “divide and conquer” by raising one group in the church against another.
b. The Hebrews were those Jews who were more inclined to embrace Jewish culture and were mostly from Judea. The Hellenists were those Jews who were more inclined to embrace Greek culture and were mostly from the Diaspora (all over the Roman Empire).
i. For the most part, 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.
c. Because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution: Apparently, some of the Hellenistic Jews believed that the widows among the Hebrew Jews were receiving 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 Hellenists were right in their hearts, and the Hebrews were right in their facts. These are the perfect conditions for a church-splitting conflict!
d. 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).
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 explain that they should remain faithful to their central calling, which was prayer and to the ministry of the word. It would be wrong for them to spend their time administrating the practical needs of the widows.
i. They were wise in delegating these responsibilities. God has not called 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 some tasks “beneath” him.
iii. This didn’t mean that the apostles considered the work of cleaning up the widow’s dinner table as beneath them. 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. 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 qualifications described by the apostles describe the character of the men to be chosen (of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom). The apostles are far more concerned with the internal quality of the men than their outward appearance or image.
i. Seven men: Why did they choose seven? It may have been so that one could oversee the needs of the widows a different day of the week.
d. The idea behind full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom is that these men should be both spiritually minded and practically minded. This can be a hard combination to find!
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 will be chosen to serve tables. It was simple, practical service that they are appointed to; yet they must be well qualified for this as well, 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.
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 was confirming the wisdom of the apostles through agreement among the people. The apostles were being 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. The seven men all have Greek names, indicating that they are probably Hellenists themselves; the people (and the apostles) show great sensitivity to the offended Hellenists by appointing Hellenists to take care of the widows’ distribution.
c. 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. Why did they lay hands on them if all they were doing was providing for the practical needs of these widows? Do you really have to be “spiritual” to do this kind of practical service? But 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 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 makes 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. 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. 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.
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. God did great wonders and signs through the apostles, but also through others like Stephen, one of the servants chosen to help the widows. Stephen was used of God because he was full of faith and power.
b. Disputing with Stephen: Stephen debated with Jews from the Synagogue of the Freedmen, empowered by the Holy Spirit, he shows greater wisdom (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 stirred up the people: The opponents of Stephen could do nothing 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. 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.
ii. 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); then they loved the apostles (Acts 2:47; 5:26) but now 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.
iii. How did Luke know what the opponents of Stephen secretly induced men to say? Possibly, it was because a man named Saul of Tarsus was among the opponents, because 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. The accusers brought their charges: 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. Significantly, many of the same false accusations were leveled against Jesus (Matthew 26:59-61). You are in a good place when people are treating you like they treated Jesus!
c. Why would they make such accusations? Because Stephen was clearly teaching that Jesus was greater than Moses; that Jesus was God; that Jesus was greater than the temple; that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law; and that Jesus was greater than their religious customs and traditions.
i. Of course, Stephen would never teach against Moses and God, but his glorification of Jesus would be twisted. Stephen would never speak blasphemous words against this holy place (the temple), but he would not make it an idol as many Jews in that day did. Stephen had his words twisted, and a false accusation was brought against him.
ii. “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).
d. 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 purely unwarranted speculation. The demonstrated boldness of the apostles is undeniable proof that they withheld no truth from fear that it might be too controversial.
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. 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)
b. 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.
©2001 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission.