We have all had the opportunity recently to watch a problem handled very badly. From one perspective, the problem was a serious one—the Dallas Cowboys were in a slump. Team morale seemed to be at an all-time low. The morale of the fans was no better. Ticket sales and attendance at the games were equally as bad. Team management and coaching were being questioned. The team was up for sale. And then a buyer from another state came along. He came with quick, guaranteed solutions, or so he assured us in a hastily-called press conference. The team’s only coach was summarily and unceremoniously sacked, and another coach was already waiting in the wings. This coach, we were assured, was better than five first-round draft choices. Many Cowboy fans were not so sure. And when the new coach arrived, he spent much of his time apologizing for the man who hired him.
There were many things the press and fans did not like. The buyer was a newcomer to football ownership. He was also a foreigner to Texans. And he was making all the decisions. He tried to put our minds at ease by telling us he would continue to exercise “hands-on leadership,” seemingly not being left out of any decision, even the calling of plays (we feared). While the new coach was born in Texas, he was new to the Cowboys. In time, we who are fans will cool down, but it appears, at this time, that all the wrong moves were made.
This man’s method of solving the “Dallas Cowboys’ problem” serves as an instructive backdrop for our text in which the apostles’ method of solving an even more serious problem arose in the church. On the surface, it appeared to be a simple problem involving some of the widows in the church. But because these widows were all a part of the same group, it became an occasion for the “Hellenistic Jews” to grumble against those who made up the other dominant group, the “native Hebrews.” The outcome could have been disastrous, but the apostles, supported by the church, brought about a decisive remedy which resulted in even greater growth for the church.
While our text is not a large one, it is a vitally important one. The problem which the Jerusalem church faced was unique, and it will certainly not be one which we face in our church. Nevertheless, the cause of the problem is one we have already experienced. And, we will find, neither is the nature of the problem unique. The problem which arose between the “Hellenistic Jews” and the “native Hebrews” originated because of the growth of the church—and the resulting failure of the church to minister to a particular segment of its congregation. We, as a church, have already experienced similar failures, and we have experienced some legitimate criticism in my opinion. A careful study of this text and an understanding of the principles and process by which this problem was solved could save us a great deal of heartache and division. And the lessons to be learned are not merely those which apply to church leaders, so let us all listen and learn what the Spirit of God is saying to us in this passage.
Now at this time while the disciples80 were increasing in number, a complaint81 arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews,82 because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving83 of food.
It may be difficult at first to understand how a problem such as this could have arisen in the church at Jerusalem. Our text does not tell us how the problem arose, and thus it must not be that vital to understand. Nevertheless, let us consider how such a problem might arise so that we can see how easy it is for things to “fall through the crack,” even in a church which is growing, which is “Spirit-filled,” and in which people love one another.
Suppose you were a devout Jew who had been born in some Gentile nation. You would worship in a synagogue with others of like faith if you lived in a city which had a sizable Jewish population. You could not, however, worship at the temple. You knew that God’s covenants and promises were to be fulfilled in the land of Israel and that the Messiah would sit upon His throne in Jerusalem. Your life’s dream would be to relocate and to live in Israel, to worship in the temple, and to await the kingdom of God.
Years of hard work, sacrifice, and savings had made it possible to go. You and scores of other “Hellenistic Jews,” arrive in the land of promise. Your dream would be to live in the holy city of Jerusalem, so it is there you first go in search of property. Finding a long line at the real estate office, you learn that all of the others who have immigrated to Israel desire to live in or near Jerusalem as well. All the property in and near the holy city is owned by the “native Hebrews,” and they have no desire to sell, regardless of the price. The best you can do is to buy property (or at least a house) somewhere in the suburbs of Jerusalem, a number of miles from the city.84 A visit to the holy city of Jerusalem would thus require a rather substantial “hike.”
If you were a “Hellenistic widow,” things would likely be even worse. The widows who were “overlooked” must not have had any immediate family, and neither did they have any financial resources. One can hardly expect such people to be living in the heart of the city of Jerusalem. They were very likely living in the suburbs, a good distance from the city. The “native Hebrew widows” would have a much better chance of living “close in,” in the holy city itself. After all, they were there first. And even if the price of land greatly increased, the Law would give them some measure of protection against losing their property.85
So the day of Pentecost came, and the church was born. Many of those saved were “Hellenistic Jews,” and the rest were “native Hebrews.” As time went on, more and more were added to the church. The saints immediately began to share their goods with those in need. I understand the texts in Acts to indicate that both “native Hebrews” and “Hellenistic Jews” gave, just as both received charity from their brethren. Eventually, the needs of the widows became so great that some system for feeding the widows came into existence (either by design or by a kind of “evolution”). In any case, Acts 6:1 seems to indicate there was a system in operation intended to provide daily rations for the needy widows.
I would imagine that some central location was secured in the city of Jerusalem, where the daily portions of food were either prepared or brought. Here the widows came for their provisions, either eating them at that place along with other widows, or taking their food home to eat there. Perhaps hundreds of widows were thus provided for in a reasonably efficient way. Who could complain when so many were being helped?
But such a system would favor the “native Hebrew widows,” who lived in or near Jerusalem, while it would not benefit the “Hellenistic widows,” who lived a distance away. If you were an elderly widow, miles removed from Jerusalem, would you attempt a walk of several miles each day for a free meal? I doubt it. And so, I suspect, it began to dawn on the “Hellenistic Jews” that, while many of the “native Hebrew widows” were being cared for (with the help of their funds), their own widows were receiving no help at all. The longer this went on and the more these “Hellenistic Jews” thought of it, the more angry they became. And this led to a growing bitterness on the part of the one group toward the other. The unity and joy which these saints once shared in common, in giving toward the needs of others, began to weaken. Something needed to be done—quickly and decisively.
Again I hasten to remind you that my “scenario” is purely hypothetical, but it does provide an illustration of how the problem in the Jerusalem church could have arisen, without malice or intent on the part of the “native Hebrews” and yet in a way that systematically overlooked the needs of a large group of widows who were “Hellenistic Jews.”
What I have suggested is a mixture of fact and fiction, a suggestion of how the problem in the church could have come to be. Our text does provide us with a great deal of information that is factual. Let us now turn to those things Luke has told us about the problem which arose in the church so that we can base our interpretation and application on fact and not on fiction. Some of the important facts or inferences which we must keep in mind are:
(1) The Jerusalem church consisted of two major groups: the “native Hebrews” and the “Hellenistic Jews.” The “native Hebrews” were those who were born and raised in the land of Israel. They took great pride in this. As a rule, they would have spoken Aramaic (probably not Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament was written) and perhaps some Greek (as a commercial language). The “Hellenistic Jews” would be those Jews whose ancestors had been dispersed from the land in Israel’s captivities (primarily Babylonian). These Jews were drawn back to Israel by their Jewish faith and their expectation of the coming of Messiah and the establishment of His kingdom, in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises made to the patriarchs, and the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets. They would likely not have spoken Aramaic but would have spoken as their native tongue the language of the nation from which they had come. It is my understanding that both “native Hebrews” and “Hellenistic Jews” were present at Pentecost:
1 And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
5 Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and marveled, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 “And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? 9 “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” 12 And they continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others were mocking and say, “They are full of sweet wine” (Acts 2:1-13).
It is also my understanding that those identified in chapter 2 as “devout men from every nation” were, by and large, Hellenistic Jews. I would also suspect that those “others” (2:13), who mocked and who concluded that the apostles were drunk, were mainly “native Hebrews,” who did not come from these “foreign lands” and thus did not understand the foreign languages spoken by the apostles, but who heard it only as drunken babbling.
One can very well imagine that while these two groups shared their Jewish lineage and faith in common, as well as the rituals of temple worship, they had many differences which kept them apart. Not sharing the same native tongue, they probably attended different synagogues and had separate teaching services. There was a strong potential for snobbery on the part of the “native Hebrews” and for friction between the two groups.
(2) There is evidence here of a long-standing friction and animosity between these two groups of Jews, the “native Hebrews” and the “Hellenistic Jews.” The discrepancy in the way the widows of these two groups were cared for was, as it were, the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” When relationships between two people or two groups are strained, it does not take much to create an incident.
(3) Initially, however, in its early days the church in Jerusalem was characterized by its unity and oneness in soul and spirit and thus in its generosity to others in need. When Pentecost came and the church was born, it should go without saying that there were men and women converted from both groups. Initially, there was a wonderful spirit of unity and harmony in the church as can be seen from Luke’s repeated references to the “oneness of heart and mind” of all the saints:
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart (Acts 2:44-46).
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them (Acts 4:32).
And at the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico (Acts 5:12).
(4) The church in Jerusalem had already organized a program for feeding the needy. This program may have “evolved,” but there had to be some kind of organized program, which Luke referred to as the “daily distribution” (the added explanation, “of food,” is not found in the original text, but the text clearly implies this is the meaning, and thus the translators of the NASB supplied this explanation.) This program was very likely not to be limited to the feeding of widows alone, however. It was probably a program to feed all of the hungry in the church (and perhaps some outside the church).
(5) In spite of the good work this “feeding program” had accomplished, there was one group of people who were not being cared for in the same manner as the other. The Hellenistic widows were, as a group, being neglected. The text does not say that every Hellenistic widow was overlooked, but many of them were—enough so that it appeared to be discriminating against the Hellenistic widows.
(6)The neglect of these Hellenistic widows was apparently not deliberate but merely an oversight. The good news about this oversight or neglect of the Hellenistic widows is that it seems to have been unintentional. Administratively we might say this one group, for one reason or another, “fell through a crack” in the church’s program. The “sin” was not one of commission (a deliberate act), but one of omission (an accidental, unintentional act). There is no indication these widows were purposely neglected. It was a de facto discrimination.
(7) The neglect of the Hellenistic widows seems to have been the result of the rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem. The expression, “while the disciples were increasing in number,” precedes the statement that a complaint arose due to the discrepancy in the care of the two groups of widows. This suggests rather strongly that the growth of the church (and thus the number of widows) was one of the precipitating factors. If the church had not grown so large, the problem may never have occurred. Indeed, the problem did not exist earlier when the church was smaller.
(8) The grumbling of the Hellenistic community is directed against the “native Hebrew” community. The bitterness is not directed toward the other widows nor toward those who may have been in charge (alone), but toward the entire community of “native Hebrews.” This is evidence of a strong “class” feeling, the tip of the iceberg of a long-standing dispute or friction. It has a “cold war” feeling.
(9) We are not told that the widows grumbled but that those in the broader Hellenistic Jewish community grumbled. It is possible, of course, that the grumbling began with the widows, but this is never stated. In my opinion, the widows would not have done so but would have suffered silently. That is the way it usually works with the needy and the powerless. This is why God gave the Israelites (in the Old Testament, e.g. Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 24:19-22) and Christians (in the New Testament, e.g., James 1:27) the responsibility of caring for the widows and the orphans.
(10) We are not told that the “native Hebrew” portion of the church grumbled against the “Hellenistic Jews.” It was a one-way grievance, and understandably so, if the “native Hebrew widows” were being well-cared-for. What would the “native Hebrews” have to complain about?
(11) The grievance of the “Hellenistic Jews” was based on the fact that what they (or their widows) received back was not up to par with what they gave. They seemed to get back less than they gave. This would be especially distressing if their needs were greater than those of the “native Hebrews.” The mindset here is that of a “taxpayer” in America. We hope to get back from the Federal Government in services or benefits at least as much as we paid in. We do not want what we have paid in to go to someone else.
(12) The grumbling of the “Hellenistic Jews” was not unfounded, but neither was it the proper response. The translation of the term, “complaint” (6:1) of the NASB would be better rendered “grumbling.” Every reference to grumbling in the Bible is looked upon as sin.86 While there was an evil, and men should rightly be distressed over its existence, the response of the “Hellenistic Jews” was not a proper one.
(13) It is implied that the widows who are in view, both the “native Hebrews” and the “Hellenistic Jews,” are believing widows, those who are a part of the church. I do not mean to say that the needs of unbelieving widows were ignored, but rather to suggest that the principle concern of the church was to care for its own. This, I believe, has been implied all along (cf. Acts 2:41-47; 4:32, 34-35).87
(14) The apostles promptly and decisively took action, implying that there was basis for the grievance, and that it was a problem the church needed to solve, a matter in which they needed to exercise leadership.
(15) There is an implied assumption that the apostles should personally take care of the problem. The apostles were financially supported in their ministry as 1 Corinthians 9 makes clear. It would not be surprising for the congregation at Jerusalem to look to the “paid staff” to solve the problem since “they had to work for a living.”
(16) The problem which faced the apostles was one that could potentially turn them from doing what they were commanded to do, to preach the gospel. The response of the apostles was to point out the danger which this problem posed. They did not focus on the disunity which resulted but on the distraction which it presented to them in carrying out their primary task.
(17) The apostles gathered all the church together, which therefore included all sides of the issue.
(18) The apostles called for the men of the church to solve the problem. The men were instructed to select seven men. It was women who were neglected. It was a problem which may have aggravated the women more than the men. Did the women of the church take the lead in the grumbling? It would seem that if women could lead in any task, it might be here. The apostles called for men to take the lead and to solve the problem.
(19) This is not the final apostolic word on the care of widows. James chapter 1 speaks strongly of the Christian’s responsibility to care for widows, and 1 Timothy chapter 5 speaks clearly about who should be cared for and by whom.
2 And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. 3 But select from among you,88 brethren, seven men89 of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,90 whom we may put in charge of91 this task.92 4 “But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.”
The apostles’ response to the problem which had surfaced was, from every indication, a good one. The continued growth of the church, as described in verse 7, is an apparent evidence of the wisdom of the decision which was reached. Let ut pause to consider the response of the apostles, making some observations based on Luke’s report.
(1) The apostles led the church. If leadership was ever needed in the church at Jerusalem, it was now. And leadership is precisely what the apostles provided.
(2) The apostles led as a group. In the past Peter has often spoken for the twelve, but not here. I believe Luke wants to emphasize that this was a problem facing the whole church, and it was a problem dealt with by the twelve, together.
(3) The apostles led by involving the whole church in solving the problem. The whole church was called together, appraised of the problem, and given a significant role to play in the solution. The apostles gave clear instructions as to what they required (for example, seven men were to be chosen, and their qualifications were spelled out), but they also appear to have given freedom in other areas (for example, who was to be chosen and how the choice was to be made).
(4) The apostles led with wisdom and skill.
It is not only important to observe what the apostles did in response to this problem in the church but to discern why they acted as they did. The actions of the apostles were based upon principles, principles which it would be good for us to review.
(1) The care of widows was the responsibility of the church.93
(2) The ministry of the church should not discriminate against any group or individual. If it was right for the church to feed its widows, it was wrong for the church to fail to feed a certain group of widows, even if that failure was not deliberate. De facto discrimination was understood to be wrong and was seen to be in need of correction.
(3) The primary responsibility of the apostles was the ministry of the Word of God and prayer. While the widows were in great need of food and the discrimination against this one group needed to be corrected, the disciples must not be distracted from their principle calling—proclaiming the Word of God and prayer. It is most interesting to observe here that this problem in the church could easily have produced the same result as the threats of the Sanhedrin—the cessation of the preaching of the gospel by the apostles. The apostles would not allow this problem in the church to deter them from their God-given task any more than they would allow the threats of their opponents to do so.
(4) The apostles must choose to “neglect” some things in order to “devote” themselves to others.
(5) The choice as to what the apostles should “devote” themselves to should be based on their priorities, and these priorities should be based upon their God-given task.
(6) That which the apostles chose to personally neglect as their personal ministry, they must see to having done by exercising oversight through administration and delegation.
(7) The task required men of high caliber, spiritual men who possessed practical wisdom.
(8) This was a problem affecting the whole church, and thus the whole church needed to be involved in the solution of the problem.
(9) The apostles had faith in the Holy Spirit to guide and empower men other than themselves.
Before we press on, let us give some thought to the implications of this text and to the actions taken by the apostles and the church.
(1) The greater the size of the church, the more structure is required to facilitate its ministry. Added size requires additional structure. The problem which arose in the church seems to have been a by-product of church growth. As the church got larger, things could not be handled spontaneously or informally. When a church is small, many of its tasks can be handled with little or no structure. But as a church grows, more structure and programming may very well be needed. Church growth thus requires an increase in structure. Church growth consequently requires constant evaluation and change in the way things are done. How often we resist change with the words, “But we’ve always done it that way!” Growth requires change in the way the church goes about its ministry.
(2) The leaders of the church are ultimately responsible for what the church does or does not do. While there is no indication that the apostles94 were directly responsible for the failure in the feeding of the Hellenistic widows, they assumed responsibility and took charge of the matter in order to rectify this wrong. Church leadership is ultimately responsible for what goes on in the church, so long as it is in their power to deal with it.
(3) The leaders of the church are not obliged to personally do all that for which they are responsible. The apostles were “overseers.” Their job was not to do everything in the church which needed to be done. Their actions and their words in our text underscore their conviction that while they were responsible to see that the widows were all fed (fairly and equitably), they were not responsible to do the feeding themselves. The responsibility of church leaders is often administrative—that is, they are responsible to see to it that the tasks of the church are carried out. They are not responsible to do all the ministry in the church. The expectation of many church members—today, as in the days of the apostles—seems to be that the leaders should be doing what needs to be done but is not being done.
(4) Church leaders, like all others, must chose to do some things to the neglect others. The apostles’ words reveal their understanding of the fact that if they were to take on the task of “waiting tables” they would neglect the “ministry of the word.” Reversed, they knew that in order to minister the Word, they must refrain from waiting on tables. How often we feel guilty for that which needs doing but which we do not take upon ourselves to do. Life is such that there are far more things which need doing than we can ever do ourselves. Leadership is seeing to it that the important and vital things we do not do personally will get done. Delegation is required at this point, and administration sees to this delegation.
(5) In order to know what to do and what to avoid, we must have a clear sense of our calling, from which our priorities are the outflow. The apostles were convinced that their primary calling was to proclaim the Word of God, with its related requirement of prayer. Knowing what they were called to do gave the apostles a clear grasp of what they could not do. Our priorities should govern what we do as well as what we abstain from doing, and these priorities flow out of our particular calling and purpose. Just as the apostles would not allow the threats of the Sanhedrin to keep them from proclaiming the gospel, so they would not allow the feeding of the widows to turn them from their task. But they did take administrative measures to see to it that the widows were cared for.
(6) Levels of leadership or ministry are needed in the church to assure that all vital tasks are carried out, without the neglect of tasks of the highest priority. It is my opinion that the apostles were acting with respect to their “job” responsibilities. The apostles were supported financially. Ministry was their job (1 Corinthians 9:1-18), but not just any ministry. Their task was to “proclaim the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14), as later on teaching elders were paid to “work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17-18). If it would have taken an excessive amount of time for twelve men to “wait tables,” one can safely assume that a great deal of time was required of the seven who were put in charge of this task. In my opinion, these men were very likely paid by the church to administrate the feeding of the widows.
While these seven men were not called “deacons,” their function in the church and in relationship to the apostles was very similar. The apostles had certain priorities as apostles, and taking on the care of the widows would have resulted in the neglect of their primary tasks of the ministry of the Word and prayer. These seven deacon-like men were brought into a leadership position to carry out this ministry but in a way that did not burden the apostles.
The same relationship and function exists in our church today with the elders and the deacons of this body. The elders have a general responsibility for the overall health and functioning of the church and of its members. In this sense, they are responsible for all that takes place in the ministry of the church. But in order to focus their attention on their priority ministries (including the ministry of the Word and prayer), they must appoint deacons and others to be put in charge of many of the ministries of the church. The role of the deacons, then, is to exercise oversight in those areas delegated to them by the elders, enabling the elders to focus their attention and efforts on those ministries which are a priority for them. As I presently understand 1 Timothy chapter 5, not all elders would be gifted as teachers and devoting their full time to this ministry, but some of them would. Thus, the function of all the elders in a church might not be identical to the function of the apostles.
In addition to the need for deacons and other leadership personnel, I believe that our text supports, in principle, the need for what is known today as “church staff”—people who are paid to minister in and for the church. I am inclined to believe that these seven men were paid to minister full-time. Assuming this to be true, these men might not only be thought of as “deacons” (or their prototypes), but also as “church staff.” Church staff becomes necessary as the size of a church increases and as the demands upon those who minister the Word increase as well. I think that I am expressing the view of our elders when I say that we, as elders, are willing to add to the “church staff” when the ministries they perform are vital, when the task they will perform requires the full or undivided attention of people, when the task needs to be done during the daytime (as the feeding of the widows would require), when the addition of staff frees up others to minister more effectively, and when the overall ministry of the church is enhanced, rather than usurped.
(7) The ministry of the Word and prayer were not to be the “private priority” of the apostles alone but are to be a priority for every saint. The Word of God and prayer were not simply the priority of the apostles. These were a high priority for the entire church:
And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).
Other texts in Acts could be understood to imply the same (cf. 4:12).
Luke is quick to tell his readers that two of the seven men who were put in charge of the feeding of the widows (so that the apostles could devote95 themselves to the ministry of the Word) were powerful preachers of the Word themselves. Thus, at least two of the seven had preaching the Word as a high priority of their own. Giving attention to the Word of God and to prayer should be a high priority in the life of every saint. The only difference between the saints is that a few are to devote themselves to this as their job, while all others are to devote themselves to it as a high calling, but not as their occupation. The difference is that between one’s avocation and another’s vocation.
What is it that keeps us from the Word of God and prayer? I would wish it were a cause so important and so noble as the feeding of widows. Unfortunately, it often is something far less noble, such as watching television, or indulging in some fleshly pleasure, or perhaps even in the upkeep of our body, as good as that might be (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Such “good” pursuits are worthwhile, until and unless they become a priority in our life which cause us to neglect the Word of God and prayer.
(8) The ministry of the Word and prayer were a priority to the apostles because the proclamation of the gospel was a priority. I mention this here for an important reason. Here, the priority of the advancement of the gospel required the apostles to refrain from working and to devote themselves to the “ministry of the word and prayer.” The priority of the apostles was the advancement of the gospel, not just preaching the gospel. Thus, they ceased working to support themselves so that they could devote themselves to preaching and prayer. The advancement of the gospel was Paul’s priority too, and it required the opposite of him. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul made it clear that while he and Barnabas had the right to be supported as apostles, they declined to do so, working with their own hands, supporting themselves, because this was the best way for the gospel to be advanced (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:15-23). This can be seen from other texts as well (cf. Acts 20:33-35; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-10). How sad it is today that so few think of advancing the gospel by refraining from being supported, while so many wish to be supported to preach the gospel. If the advance of the gospel is our priority, we will determine whether we support ourselves or whether we are supported on the basis of what most adorns and advances the gospel.
(9) The equality and unity which the gospel demands, and the Holy Spirit produces, is not complete until leadership is shared by the various parts of the body of Christ. This inference may not be as clear or as universally accepted, but I believe that it is valid. Before significant evangelization takes place outside Jerusalem, leadership in the church in Jerusalem is expanded to include those who were likely excluded previously. Equality is not really present until it is reflected in leadership.
5 And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.96 6 And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.97 7 And the word of God kept on spreading;98 and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.99
The proposal of the apostles found favor with the entire congregation, and so the church set about its delegated task of selecting the seven men. While there is no indication that the apostles suggested or required that some of these men be Hellenistic Jews, it would appear from their names that they all were Hellenistic Jews, with the exception of Nicolas, who was a proselyte. When these men were brought before the apostles, they prayed and laid their hands on them. I believe this was to indicate that they were acting in the authority of the apostles. The inference is that the problem was solved and that the rift which was threatening the church was healed.
What Luke does tell us is that the church continued to grow. The proximity of this “progress report” to the matter of the feeding of the widows would suggest that growth continued in the church at Jerusalem because the problem was properly handled. If the threats of the Sanhedrin could not deter the apostles from preaching the gospel, neither could the problems in the church. The apostles persisted in preaching, and the Holy Spirit persisted in converting men and women and adding them to the church.
Luke gives us a very interesting detail concerning the added growth of the church. He informs us in verse 7 that “a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” At this point in my understanding of Acts, I am not certain what to make of this statement, although I am convinced it is not an idle word. Luke’s words are always well chosen. It is possible, in the light of the next portion of Acts, that Luke is demonstrating that one era is drawing to a close. Initially the Pharisees adamantly opposed the Lord, but they have been silenced, to some degree, by His resurrection. The Sanhedrin too has aggressively opposed the Lord and His apostles, but they have now backed off, taking the advice of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-40). Finally, many of the priests have actually come to faith in Christ as their Messiah. The religious system of Israel has changed its stance considerably. But now, at a time when the “old guard” has backed off, a new source of opposition is about to emerge—the Hellenistic Jews. The first appearance of these opponents will be in Acts 6:9, where those from the “Synagogue of the Freedman” will oppose Stephen, and will spearhead his stoning. Not only will we find the torch being passed to the Hellenistic Jews (beginning with Stephen and Philip, with Saul close behind) to proclaim the gospel, but the torch will also be passed from the “native Hebrews” to the “Hellenistic Jews” in carrying on the opposition to the gospel.
This brings us to a very significant, and final, observation concerning the outcome of this apostolic action of the feeding of the widows. While the apostles appointed seven men to be in charge of the feeding of the widows so that they could preach, the Spirit of God sovereignly selected and empowered two of these seven to become workers of signs and to be powerful preachers themselves. It should not be overlooked that the action of the apostles was taken so they could continue to preach, but the outcome of their action was that Stephen and Philip became great preachers, whose ministry reached beyond Jerusalem and Judaism. Stephen’s preaching resulted not only in his death, but in the scattering of the church abroad, and the gospel as well (Acts 8:1). It also impacted and involved a Hellenistic Jew named Saul, who was to become God’s instrument to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 8:1; 9:1ff.). And the scattering of the church from Jerusalem also served to launch the ministry of Philip, who proclaimed the gospel in Samaria (Acts 8:4-40).
I love the way the Spirit of God sovereignly works in and through the church. This incident in Acts 6 reminds me of the previous incident in Acts 1, where the apostles acted (again, with the consent of those gathered) to appoint the twelfth apostle. God nowhere condemned this action, but the Book of Acts will reveal that God had other “apostles” to add. This certainly included Paul, but it may also be understood to include Stephen and Philip. All of these men performed “signs and wonders”100 and preached the gospel with great power.
The plans and purposes of God are always greater than our anticipation or understanding of them. Thus, the apostles acted in such a way as to enable them to be able to preach the gospel. In this, I believe, they acted wisely. But God was still free to raise up two of the seven they selected for ministering food to the task of ministering the Word. The apostles did not plan for this. They did not appoint these two to this task. They did not give them the power to work signs and wonders. They did not “disciple” these men, with the hope that they would take over a part of their task—of preaching the gospel. All of this was the sovereign purpose and work of the Holy Spirit. Men could not take credit for Stephen and Philip, or for the expansion of the gospel beyond Jerusalem, as a result of their ministries. The sovereign God was, once again, evident in the expansion of the gospel to Gentiles, as well as to Jews. What a mighty God we serve! Let us, like the apostles, seek to act in a way that is wise and pleasing to God. And let us, like the apostles, look for God to work in ways that we would never have anticipated, asked for, or acted upon.
As we seek to conclude this message, let me simply recap some areas of application, as stated or implied by our text.
First, there is a very literal application of our text in its stress on the need to care for believing widows. We have been talking about the neglect of a certain group of widows from a historic point of view, but let us not think only in terms of the past. I fear that the widows are a group who have always been neglected, and in some cases abused (cf. Matthew 23:14). Is it not possible for widows to be neglected by us, in our church, today?
The danger of widows, or at least a certain group of them, being overlooked by the church today is even greater now than it was then, in my opinion. Let me explain why. There was but one church in Jerusalem, which encompassed all members, regardless of race, culture, class, or economic level. There was but one church in Jerusalem, but in the city of Dallas, for example, there are virtually hundreds of churches, many of which are evangelical. The division of the church into many churches in one city has masked the problem of “overlooked people” even more today than in those days. The saints in Jerusalem saw the discrepancies in the care of the two groups of widows, because both groups were present as a part of the church. Today, the church in the city of Dallas is divided into geographical (North Dallas, Garland, South Dallas, etc.), racial and cultural (black, white, hispanic, Asian, etc.), socio-economic (middle, upper, lower class), and denominational segments, so that the whole church is never assembled in one place at one time (nor could it). The result is that poor black Christian widows in South Dallas may be doing without food, and yet we white Christians in North Dallas may never even see it or become aware of it. It is my personal opinion that the chance of widows being overlooked in our day is much greater than in the days of the first church in Jerusalem. Here is a text which we need to take very literally, to begin with, and very seriously in its implications.
Beyond our responsibility to feed the widows, let’s assume that there are well-fed believing widows in rest and retirement homes. They are not probably not mobile enough to find their own way to church. They will miss out on worshipping together with us, on worship and communion. And all too often, just as they cannot come to us, we do not go to them. I dare say that we are guilty of neglecting some of the widows today, and we may not even have gotten as far as to recognize it. We may not even have a group of people in our congregation who are, like the Hellenistic Jews, upset about it.
And if we let our concern for widows be expanded to the widows in our city, let us not restrict our vision or compassion to those within our own borders. Some of the greatest needs are those which are to be found in the Third World. In the developing argument of the Book of Acts, the vision of the church for the poor will become evident in Acts 11. We must, therefore, have a concern and a compassion for all widows, especially believing widows, wherever they might live.
There are a number of lessons to be learned from this text in Acts as it relates to its context and to the developing argument of the book as a whole. There is a very obvious transition taking place in chapter 6, a transition from Jerusalem to Samaria, and from “native Hebrews” to “Hellenistic Jews.” The torch of leadership is in the process of being passed. Leadership in the proclamation of the gospel is being passed from the twelve apostles (who will remain in Jerusalem, Acts 8:1), to all the rest, and especially the Hellenistic believers (such as Stephen and Philip, and later, Paul), who will be scattered abroad, preaching the gospel to “Hellenistic Jews” and also to Gentiles (cf. Acts 8:1-4; 8:5-25; 11:19-21). The torch is leadership is also being passed from the religious leaders in Jerusalem to the “Hellenistic Jews.” The stoning of Stephen is initiated by “Hellenistic Jews” from the “Synagogue of the Freedmen.” Others, like Paul, who take up the torch of opposition, are Hellenistic Jews. Thus, we find we are at a point of transition in Acts. We are on our way from Jerusalem to Rome and from the evangelization of the Jews (primarily) to Gentiles (primarily).
Another prominent theme to which this text in Acts contributes is that of the “progress of the gospel.” If the opposition of the Jewish leaders could not keep the apostles from preaching and ministering in the name of Jesus, neither could the problems within the church and the expectation that they personally solve them. The problem of the neglect of some widows, which was the result of the growth of the church, was also the cause of greater growth, by the way in which the church dealt with it. The gospel marches on, in spite of opposition and difficulty, indeed, because of it.
There are many other applications of this text to our lives which are apparent by implication, based upon the principles taught or assumed in our text. We learn from this text that as a church grows, its problems increase, and its structure must change. While the leaders of the church are responsible for seeing to it that problems are handled in a godly way, they are not responsible to personally solve them. Elders (like apostles) must see to it that many problems are handed by dealing with them administratively—by defining the problem, determining biblical principles and priorities, and communicating guidelines and standards for its correction. The elders must see their priority as that of the “ministry of the word and prayer.” Leaders, like deacons, are God’s means for freeing up the elders to focus on their principle tasks.
One of the greatest lessons in this text, in addition to others in Acts, is that of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Men have been given certain tasks and responsibilities by our Lord, who is the head of the church. He has given us His Spirit, who will enable us to perform these tasks. If we fail, it is not because He has failed to provide all that we need. If we fail, His work will go on and His purposes will be accomplished, for He can achieve His purposes through man’s disobedience and failure as easily as through his “successes.” And if we appear to succeed, and to carry out His will, God is not limited to our victories, any more than He is hindered by our failures. When the apostles chose Matthias as the last apostle, God had other apostles (like Paul) in mind, which He added in His way and in His time. When the apostles appointed these seven men to administrate the feeding of widows (and perhaps others), so that they could preach the gospel, God was free and able to take two of these seven and make great preachers of them. God works, in spite of our failures and successes, as well as by means of them.
We are obliged and responsible to undertake every task as unto Him, to do our task according to His principles and His power. If we fail, we will be accountable to Him for our failure, though His work will go on. And if we appear to succeed, it will have been by His grace. It will have been His work. It should be viewed as for the sake of His glory and praise. And even though we should appear to have handled the matter in the best possible way (as the problem of the widows was handled in our text), God may accomplish much more than we would ever have expected and in ways we would never have predicted nor planned. Man is responsible, but the sovereignty of God assures us that His purposes and plans will be achieved, in spite of us, through us, and by means of others than ourselves. What a God we serve!
80 “The name disciples occurs here for the first time in Acts. The Greek mathetes literally means ‘learner’ (from the second aorist stem math of manthano, ‘learn’). It is the most common designation in the Gospels for the followers of Jesus, occurring 74 times in Matthew, 45 in Mark, 38 in Luke, and 81 in John. Outside the Gospels it is found only in Acts, where it appears 28 times, making a total of 266 times in the New Testament. It is always translated ‘disciples.’ It is ‘perhaps the most characteristic name for the Christians in Acts.’ Other names in Acts are ‘the saved’ (2:47), ‘saints’ (9:13, 32, 41; 26:10), ‘brethren’ (e.g., 1:15), ‘believers’ (10:45), ‘Nazarenes’ (24:5).” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 85.
81 There is considerable discussion in the commentaries over the precise makeup of each of these groups. The description which is given above is an attempt to focus on the main features of the groups, and to show how friction could easily arise between the two.
82 The term used for “Hebrews” is found only here and 2 Corinthians 11:22 and Philippians 3:5. In each case, at least the last two, there is an aura of superiority attached or implied. The bitterness and grumbling against the “native Hebrews” would have included, as a matter of course, the apostles. Notice that they did not react negatively or defensively to this, as they could have done.
“The terms Hebrews and Hellenists (9:29; 11:20 mg.) are obviously to be defined as contrasts. After much discussion there is a growing consensus that the Hebrews were Jews who spoke a Semitic language but also knew some Greek. It can be safely assumed that nearly every Jew knew at least a little Greek, since it was the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean world. The Semitic language which they spoke was probably Aramaic rather than Hebrew itself. But contrast, the Hellenists were Jews who spoke Greek and knew little or no Aramaic. These groups would tend to worship as Jews in their own languages, and this practice would carry over when they became Christians. The former group would be principally of Palestinian origin, while the latter would be principally Jews of the Dispersion who had come to settle in Jerusalem. The latter group were more open to syncretistic influences than the former, but it should be emphasized that they had a strong sense of their Jewishness; Hellenistic Jews were strongly attached to the temple. The complaint which the Hellenists made concerned the lack of attention to their widows in the provision made by the church for the poor; it has been noted that many widows came from the Dispersion to end their days in Jerusalem. They would not be able to work to keep themselves, and, if they had exhausted or given away their capital, they could be in real want.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), pp. 125-126.
“The Grecians were Hellenists, or Jews who had imbibed the Greek culture, including language, of the countries in which they were born in the dispersion. They were considered inferior by the Hebrews, or Palestinian Jews, who were in a majority in the church.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), pp. 86-87
83 The “daily distribution of food” was not necessarily restricted to widows.
84 This does not seem to be altogether hypothetical. Not only does this seem to fit the facts as we perceive them, but to fit in with the inferences of Scripture. For example, Simon of Cyrene (a Hellenistic Jew?), on whom the cross of our Lord was placed, was said to be “coming in from the country” (Luke 23:26). Did he, like many others, find that he was forced to live some distance from Jerusalem, and to make a trek to this city? So, also, we find the two “disciples” to whom our Lord appeared, on their way to a village, named Emmaus, about seven miles distant from Jerusalem (Luke 24:13). I suspect that many who wanted to live as close as possible to Jerusalem found it necessary to live a number of miles distant.
85 It is this fact which makes the indictment of our Lord against the scribes and Pharisees even more forceful, for they were taking advantage of these widows, and gaining possession of their houses, while they were duty bound to protect them (cf. Matthew 23:14).
86 The references to grumbling in the NIV are: Exodus 15:24; 16:2, 7-9, 12; 17:3; Numbers 14:2, 27, 29, 36; 16:11, 41; 17:5, 10; Deuteronomy 1:27; Joshua 9:18; Psalm 106:25; Matthew 20:11; John 6:41, 43, 61; 1 Corinthians 10:10; James 5:9; 1 Peter 4:9; Jude 1:16.
87 The priority of meeting the needs of believers is stated in Galatians 6:10, in a general way. In 1 Timothy 5:3-16 the widows who were to be permanently cared for by the church had to be elderly, godly, and without other means of support. Thus, it is only believing widows to whom Paul is referring in this text.
88 We are not told the precise process by which this decision was reached by the apostles. It seems that there was no one “correct” process, one “formula” for determining the “will of God” here, as elsewhere. It would seem, however, that the “will of God for the church” is evident when the decision is consistent with biblical principles and practices, unanimous with the leaders of the church, and which is found acceptable by the congregation.
89 There is a masculine element here, which should probably not be overlooked. It was the men “brothers” (v. 3) who were instructed to choose the seven, and it was men who were to be chosen. Here, one might think, would be a legitimate place for feminine leadership, but it was, in fact, prohibited.
90 The apostles did not require or even recommend that the men who were “put in charge” of this ministry be Hellenistic. The fact that they were (or seem to be) must be credited to the church who chose them. I take it that there was a broadmindedness evidenced by the church in this.
“Full of the Spirit and wisdom.” There are several ways to take this. One could understand that being full of the Spirit was to have wisdom. I am inclined to see that one could be full of the Spirit and yet not wise. There are many people who may be, at the moment, “spiritual,” but who do not have the maturity and wisdom of years behind them. There was the need for spiritual sensitivity and practical wisdom (as Solomon possessed and practiced, for example, cf. 1 Kings 3).
91 The 7 men are not said to be given the task of waiting tables. The apostles not only declined to personally “wait on tables” (verse 2), but they did not delegate this task to the seven men, either. They were rather “put in charge of” this matter. The is a difference between doing a job and seeing to it that a job is done. It may well be that the whole church needed to be involved in this, and that the administration of it was to assure that it was well done.
92 I must admit that I am not sure whether “this task” was the overall responsibility for the “daily distribution of food” or whether it was the daily distribution of food to the Hellenistic widows.
93 We know from 1 Timothy chapter 5 that only certain widows qualified for permanent care by the church. There were age and character qualifications, in addition to the fact that these widows were “widows indeed,” without a family to care for them (cf. 1 Timothy 5:3-16). It is interesting to note that the church’s responsibility to its widows is dealt with in the same chapter as the church’s responsibility to its teaching elders (5:17-20).
94 The apostles are the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Elders do not appear in Acts until 11:30, followed by 15:4. It would seem that the apostles functioned, for all intents and purposes, as the first elders of the church, just as the seven men functioned as deacons.
96 “All seven appear to have been Hellenists (this conclusion does not rest merely on the fact that they all have Greek names); indeed, they were probably the recognized leaders of the Hellenists in the church.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 121.
The last of the seven was not a Jew by birth, but a Gentile proselyte.
“Prochorus is pictured in Byzantine art as the scribe to whom John dictated his Gospel.” Carter and Earle, p. 88.
97 “The rite indicated a conferring of authority, and the accompanying prayer was for the power of the Spirit to fill the recipients (cf. Dt. 34:9). A similar rite was used in the appointment of rabbis, but there is some uncertainty whether this goes back to the first century. Se further 8:17; 9:17; 13:3; 19:6.” Marshall, p. 127.
98 Marshall (p. 127) refers to the phrase, “the word of God increased,” as “a favorite phrase (12:24; 19:20).”
99 “The priests were presumably those attached to the temple in Jerusalem, of whom there was a great number (estimated at 18,000 priests and Levites; they were on duty for a fortnight each year according to a rota; Lk. 1:8).” Marshall, pp. 127-128.
“Josephus claims that there were 20,000 priests in his day (Against Apion, II 8). So mention of a great company of the priests is not preposterous, as some have held.” Carter and Earle, p. 89.
100 We are told that Stephen performed “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). We are only told that Philip performed “signs” (Acts 8:6). Up to this point, these are the only two men to do so, other than the 12.