41 So they left the council rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42 And every day both in the temple courts and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 5:41-42).1
1 Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. 3 But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch. 6 They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.
8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 All who were sitting in the council looked intently at Stephen and saw his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:1-15).2
The mission of the apostles (and the church) is to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus to lost men and women, beginning in Jerusalem, but extending to the entire inhabited world. This was the final command of our Lord to the apostles:
7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).
If there is one thing that the Sanhedrin has made clear to the apostles, it is that they must stop preaching the good news of salvation through the risen Messiah, Jesus Christ:
And they called them in and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18).
And they summoned the apostles and had them beaten. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and released them (Acts 5:40).
The disciples were not intimidated. They made it clear that they intended to keep on preaching Jesus:
19 But Peter and John replied, “Whether it is right before God to obey you rather than God, you decide, 20 for it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20; see 5:27-32).
Indeed, they rejoiced because they were privileged to suffer for the name of Jesus:
So they left the council rejoicing because they had been considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name (Acts 5:41).
They prayed for greater boldness to proclaim the gospel, and God responded:
29 And now, Lord, pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage, 30 while you extend your hand to heal, and to bring about miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God courageously (Acts 4:29-31).
As a result, the Word has gone forth in power, for they did not cease to preach Jesus:
And every day both in the temple courts and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 5:42).
When we come to chapter 6, we find a different kind of threat to the preaching of the gospel. It is not another instance of persecution, nor another prohibition from the Sanhedrin; it is a crisis within the church, which could distract the apostles from their primary mission. Let us see how this crisis is dealt with, and what lessons there may be here for us.
When I have taught through Acts previously, I dealt with Acts chapter 6 in two lessons.4 I taught Acts 6:1-7, and then dealt with the last half of chapter 6 along with chapter 7 – Stephen’s sermon and resulting stoning. I have chosen to deal with chapter 6 differently this time. We will study all of chapter 6 in this lesson, and then deal with chapter 7 in our next message.
While the chapter and verse divisions of the Bible are not a part of the original text,5 they are very useful to us. In Acts, these chapter divisions would suggest that we consider both sections together: (1) the problem of the neglected widows in verses 1-7; and, (2) the powerful preaching and resulting arrest of Stephen in verses 8-15.
I have come to the conclusion that much of Bible study has to do with “connecting the dots” of Scripture. The “dots” (so to speak) are just far enough apart that the natural man will not see the connection. The believer will see these connections through the ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:9-16). And so it is that I have committed to consider all of Acts chapter 6 in one message, seeking to understand not only the message of each of the two major divisions, but also to grasp the relationship between the two divisions. Let us look to the Spirit of God to make the truths of this text, like all others, clear to our hearts and minds.
1 Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. 3 But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 The proposal pleased the entire group, so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch. 6 They stood these men before the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:1-7).
As we have seen from earlier statements in Acts, the church continued to grow, in spite of opposition and persecution. Here, I believe that Luke calls our attention to the growth of the church because it was part of the problem the apostles must deal with. Church growth was a factor in the friction that was surfacing in the church due to discrepancies in the care of its widows.6 Growth has its benefits, but it also has its pitfalls.
In order to understand the problem that had arisen in the growing church in Jerusalem, we must be aware of the differences between “Greek-speaking Jews” and “native Hebraic Jews” (Acts 6:1). A “native Hebraic Jew” was most likely born and raised in Israel. In Texas, you will see cars with a bumper sticker that reads: “Native Texan.” I’ve seen others that read, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.” “Greek-speaking Jews” were most likely born and raised in one of the Greek-speaking countries outside of Israel.
It was not just a matter of the place of one’s birth, but of one’s native language. “Native Hebraic Jews” would have spoken Aramaic (closely related to Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament). “Greek-speaking Jews” would have spoken Greek and also the native tongue of their country. These would be the languages in which those gathered at Pentecost heard the praises of God:
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!” (Acts 2:5-11)
The apostles (and perhaps others) who spoke in tongues were Galileans, and thus they were “native Hebraic Jews.” Those who had come from various distant locations were “Greek-speaking Jews.” The miracle at Pentecost was that those who were “Greek-speaking Jews” heard “native Hebraic Jews” speaking the praises of God in their own native language – not Greek, but the native tongue of their place of birth.
Beyond one’s place of birth and language, there were other distinctions between these two groups. Most notably, there would be significant cultural differences. They did things differently. No wonder that there were many synagogues in Jerusalem (as we will shortly see in Acts 6:9). These Hellenistic Jews met for teaching and fellowship in synagogues with people of the same place of birth, language, and culture.
The “native Hebraic Jews” may very well have been in the majority. If now, they at least had many advantages over the others. This was their turf. They were the ones who could, and would, speak with greater authority. No doubt, they tended to look down on those “late comers” who could not even speak Aramaic.
The growth of the church was one reason why the number of widows the church cared for was large. But there was another reason. Many “foreign” (i.e. “Hellenistic”) Jews felt that the end times were near, and thus they wanted to spend their last days in or near Jerusalem. This was the place where it would all come to a head. And so many widows seem to have spent most of their resources getting to Jerusalem. They may very well have left their families behind, which means their source of support was left behind.7 With such a growing population (it wasn’t just widows who wanted to relocate to Jerusalem), property in Jerusalem was scarce, and prices were undoubtedly high. The widows may have been forced to find housing outside of Jerusalem proper, perhaps in some of the “suburbs.”
While we are not told the ways in which the Greek-speaking widows were overlooked, it is not difficult to imagine some possibilities. There could have been geographic issues, like distance from Jerusalem proper. Perhaps the feeding tables were set up in Jerusalem proper, but many of the Greek-speaking widows lived too far away (and there were no “Meals on Wheels” available). Perhaps language played a part. What if the announcements as to where and when feedings would occur were written in Aramaic? The Greek-speaking widows would be left in the dark as to where to eat.
The discrepancy in the care of the widows does not seem to be intentional on the part of the native-Hebraic saints. The recent disaster with Hurricane Katrina provides us with an illustration. If I understand it correctly, it seems that shortly after the hurricane struck, the only way for people to apply for help was on-line. Now, how could someone whose home was destroyed apply on-line? The poor would not have had a computer in the first place, and they surely would not know how to use one. Help was available, but it was not equally available to all. Some inadvertently (it would appear) were given preference over others. And there was complaining as a result. No wonder.
There was grumbling8 going on in the church at Jerusalem, and the apostles learned of it. The grumblings were not the grumblings of the Greek-speaking widows; they were the grumblings of the Greek-speaking saints, who took up the cause of their widows. The grumblings were not against the apostles, but against the native-Hebraic Jews, whose widows were faring far better.
We are not given a report of the entire process, but only of its conclusion. The apostles called the believers together to announce the solution they had reached. They first set aside any expectation that the twelve should neglect the teaching of the Word in order to personally correct the neglect of the widows. It would be wrong for them to allow this problem to redirect their priorities. The apostles could, however, correct this inequity by delegation. And so they laid down the requirements for those to whom this task would be given. The men of the church should select seven men,9 who will oversee “this necessary task.”10
The apostles do specify that these seven men must be highly qualified. They must have a good reputation, and they must be “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” The apostles do not specify that these men must be Greek-speaking Jews, and yet the names of all seven are Greek names. One of these men – Nicolas – was a proselyte, a Gentile who had converted to Judaism. The church seemed to recognize that these Greek-speaking widows would best be represented and cared for by Greek-speaking men.
It is noteworthy that Stephen is named first, and that he is further described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). The second person listed is Philip. It is these two men – Stephen and Philip – who will greatly contribute to the advance of the gospel through evangelism. Both are being introduced by Luke, in preparation for further descriptions of their ministries. Stephen will follow immediately (Acts 6:8–7:60); Philip will reappear in Acts chapter 8.
The seven men were placed before the apostles, who laid their hands on them and prayed. The laying on of hands seems to have signified the identification of the apostles with these men and their ministry. In other words, these seven men were acting on behalf of the apostles. This is similar to the laying on of hands in Acts 13:3, where the church at Antioch identified with the ministry of Barnabas and Saul (Paul), when they went out as missionaries. In addition, the laying on of hands in conjunction with prayer may also involve the bestowing of gifts necessary for the task. We find this indicated in 1 Timothy 4:14 and 2 Timothy 1:6.
We should probably note that these seven men are not called “deacons” (diakonos) in this passage, although the same root word for service or ministry (diakonia – noun) is found in verses 1 (“distribution”) and 4 (“ministry”), and the verb (diakoneo) is found once in verse 2 (“to wait on”). I am therefore willing to see the apostles as functioning something like elders, and these seven as functioning as deacons. The deacons enable the elders to more effectively carry out their primary mission by relieving them of other important areas of oversight.
In verse 7, Luke gives a summary report, indicating the impact of the apostles’ decision to appoint these seven leaders.
The word of God continued to spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7).
Three things are indicated here. First, the “word of God continued to spread.” This same expression is found later in Acts 12:24 and Acts 19:20. Luke is not describing church growth here, but rather the ever widening circle in which the gospel is proclaimed. A similar statement is made in Acts 19:
This went on for two years, so that all who lived in the province of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:10).
The Word of God was not restricted, either by the opposition of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish religious leaders, or by the threatening crisis in care for the widows.
Second, the church continued to grow in numbers: “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly, . . . .” (Acts 6:7). Nothing, it seemed, could stop the growth of the church. In the light of Gamaliel’s counsel to his brethren (Acts 5:34-39), this should suggest that God was in this movement. By now, the reader is hardly surprised to read of the church’s continuing growth.
Third, we are told that many of the priests came to faith in Jesus, or rather that they became “obedient to the faith.” I have often pondered why Luke would choose to tell us this here, in this context of caring for the widows. I would note first of all that the expression “chief priests” occurs frequently in the Gospels and in Acts.11 Almost always, the chief priests are spoken of in a negative way. They were leaders in the opposition to Jesus, and in His death. When the simple term “priest” or “priests” is found, it is not nearly as negative.12 My friend remarked after this message that the priests were the “deacons” of the Old Testament system. They were, in one sense, “investigators.” Priests and Levites were sent to check out John the Baptist by “the Jews” (John 1:19). When Jesus healed a leper, He sent them to the priest to be declared clean (see Luke 5:14; 17:14). The priests routinely worked with those things which were the “shadow of things to come, the substance of which was Christ” (Colossians 2:17). The writer to the Hebrews would expand this in much greater detail. The priests would look upon the veil that was torn at the time of our Lord’s death (Matthew 27:51).
The priests would, by virtue of their work, have observed first hand the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders, who talked piously, but whose actions were an entirely different story:
40 They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. These men will receive a more severe punishment” (Mark 12:40; see also Matthew 23:13-30).
Surely James was right when he wrote:
Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:29).
If this is so, then the priests would recognize the faith of the gospel as true religion, and Jesus as the true Messiah.
I am reminded here of the doubts of John the Baptist, the question he asked of Jesus through his disciples, and our Lord’s response in Matthew 11:2-6. In effect, Jesus answered John’s question, “Look, John, at what I am doing, and judge for yourself if this isn’t the work of Messiah.” It wasn’t just what Jesus said, but also what He did, that was so compelling. The apostles were not only proclaiming the words of Jesus; they were practicing the works of Jesus. This was compelling proof for those who had eyes to see. Many of the priests therefore came to faith in Jesus, in part due to the way the church responded to the needs of its widows.
8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 All who were sitting in the council looked intently at Stephen and saw his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:8-15).
I am not surprised to read about Stephen in these verses. After all, Stephen was just introduced in the preceding verses. But what does surprise me is that these later verses (Acts 6:8ff.) make no mention of Stephen’s work as a deacon. His work with the widows may have provided many opportunities for witness, but Luke does not directly link Stephen’s ministry as a deacon to his success as a preacher of the gospel.
To press this matter further, verse 8 seems to introduce Stephen in a whole different light. In verse 6, Stephen was described as a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” In light of the requirements set down by the apostles, he was also well spoken of and was “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). But now Stephen is described more as an apostle than as a deacon.
Earlier in the Book of Acts, Luke has said this of the apostles:
With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on them all (Acts 4:33).
Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico (Acts 5:12).
Now in chapter 6, we are told that Stephen was “full of grace and power” and that he was “performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). Does it not sound as though Stephen has been granted those powers restricted to the apostles earlier in this same book? His preaching ministry, then, appears to arise out of these gifts, and not out of his ministry as a deacon.13
In verses 1-7 of chapter 6, the Greek-speaking Jews were grumbling against their native Hebraic Jewish brethren. Here, certain Greek-speaking Jews are strongly opposing the preaching of a fellow Greek-speaking Jew. The Jews who oppose Stephen are obviously not Christians. Saul (later known as Paul) may very well have been among them.
There is much we would like to know that Luke does not tell us in these last eight verses of Acts chapter 6. For instance, we do not know why the twelve apostles are absent in this account. One reason may be that Stephen is a Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jew, while the twelve are native Hebraic speakers. Stephen’s teaching and preaching may have taken place in the Hellenistic synagogues, which were likely to be found in Jerusalem (or its suburbs), while the apostles preached in the temple courts. The Hellenistic Jewish synagogues appear to be the source of the opposition to Stephen’s preaching, while the native Hebraic Jews (the “establishment” in Jerusalem) are the source of the opposition to Jesus. The establishment seems to have “backed off” from their opposition, taking a “wait and see” approach, thanks to the persuasive argument of Gamaliel. Stephen’s Hellenistic opponents are unwilling to “back off.” As a Hellenistic Jew, Stephen may also have grasped more fully the implications of the gospel. He may have understood that the time for adding many Gentiles to God’s flock had come and that the Jews would be put on the shelf for a time.14 He may also have grasped more clearly that the temple would soon be sacked, along with the city of Jerusalem. His message, therefore, may have been more specific, and thus more disturbing for an unbelieving Jew.
Something else we are not told, that would be of great interest, is exactly what the content of Stephen’s preaching was. In Acts 6:8, we are simply told that Stephen was performing signs and wonders. Nothing is said about the content of his preaching. Surely it must have been similar to the preaching of Peter, as it is recorded in the early chapters of Acts. Stephen’s sermon in the next chapter may give us some taste of what was included in Stephen’s earlier preaching.
At first, these Greek-speaking Jews sought to oppose Stephen by debating with him. That did not work. I suspect that just as the Jewish religious leaders only succeeded in looking foolish by trying to debate with Jesus,15 so Stephen’s opponents only furthered his cause by arguing with him. Our Lord’s words are thus fulfilled in the preaching of Stephen:
12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you, handing you over to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will be a time for you to serve as witnesses. 14 Therefore be resolved not to rehearse ahead of time how to make your defense. 15 For I will give you the words along with the wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:12-15, emphasis mine).
When words prove ineffective and arguments fail, desperate men turn to more desperate measures. They induced some who claimed that they heard Stephen, “speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God,” (Acts 6:11). As I read these words, I am reminded of the story of Ahab and Jezebel, who similarly accused Naboth of “cursing God and the king” because they wanted his property (see 1 Kings 21:1-16). It was a carefully orchestrated conspiracy. The people believed the false testimony and were enraged, as were the elders and the scribes. Only after this did they arrest Stephen and bring him before the Sanhedrin for trial. At this trial, false testimony was given by those who accused Stephen of incessantly speaking “against this holy place”16 and the law. They further testified that they heard Stephen saying that “Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this [holy] place and change the customs that Moses handed down” (Acts 6:13-14).
As is often the case, there was a measure of truth in this accusation. The temple and Jerusalem would be destroyed:
1 Now as Jesus was going out of the temple courts and walking away, his disciples came to show him the temple buildings. 2 And he said to them, “Do you see all these things? I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another. All will be torn down!” (Matthew 24:1-2)
18 So then the Jewish leaders responded, “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” 19 Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (John 2:17-19).
20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. Those who are inside the city must depart. Those who are out in the country must not enter it, 22 because these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing their babies in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led away as captives among all nations. Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:20-24).
28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For this is certain: The days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore children, and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ 31 For if such things are done when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:28-31)
The enemies of the gospel had twisted Jesus’ words when they accused Him and so, too, did the enemies of the gospel who opposed Stephen. Jesus had spoken about the destruction of His body as a destruction of “this temple” (John 2:17-19), but that was not a reference to the actual temple in Jerusalem, but rather a reference to His death and resurrection. Jesus did speak (especially to His disciples) about the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem (for example, Luke 21:20-24), but He did not suggest that it was He who was personally going to do this in the way His adversaries (and now those who opposed Stephen) indicated. They were portraying Stephen as a kind of terrorist, just as they did Jesus.
The second line of attack was to accuse Stephen of teaching that Jesus would set aside the customs handed down to them by Moses. The inauguration of the New Covenant would change a good many things with regard to the Old Testament law. Some things (like the keeping of the Sabbath and the ceremonial food laws) would change. But many of those things that would be set aside were not actually the teachings of Moses, but rather the traditions of the Jews:
1 Then Pharisees and experts in the law came from Jerusalem to Jesus and said, 2 “Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat.” 3 He answered them, “And why do you disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Whoever insults his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 But you say, ‘If someone tells his father or mother, “Whatever help you would have received from me is given to God,” 6 he does not need to honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God on account of your tradition” (Matthew 15:1-6).
This is something Jesus took up in His Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7). He would frequently say, “You have heard that it was said, . . . but I say to you . . .” (see Matthew 5:21-48). By this He meant, “You have heard your religious teachers say . . . (as their application of the law of Moses), but I say to you . . . ‘Here is what the law of Moses really meant; here is how you should understand the law.’” In our Lord’s teaching, His coming was to be understood as fulfillment, more than abolition:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).
The message of the “witnesses for hire” was, “Jesus of Nazareth whom Stephen preaches (with great success and growing numbers of followers), threatens to destroy Jerusalem and the temple, and to cast aside Moses and his teachings.” This was anathema to devout Jews, and they responded accordingly.
What irony we find in verse 15:
All who were sitting in the council looked intently at Stephen and saw his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15).
Without a doubt, Luke intended for us to recall this Old Testament scene:
27 The Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread, and he did not drink water. He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. 29 Now when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand – when he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to approach him. 31 But Moses called to them, so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and Moses spoke to them. 32 After this all the Israelites approached, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:27-32, emphasis mine).
These Hellenistic Jews were accusing Stephen of preaching against Moses, and yet Stephen looked just like Moses, after he had been on the holy mountain speaking with God. His face was aglow. The words Stephen spoke were given to him by the Holy Spirit, and thus they were the very words of God, just like the words Moses spoke (with glowing face) were the words God had given him on the mountain. It will get even better in Acts chapter 7, for there it ends with Stephen sounding just like Jesus, at the time of His death.
In our text, Luke has described two situations. The first (Acts 6:1-7) describes how the apostles dealt with the inequities that existed in the treatment of the widows. The second (Acts 6:8-15) is Luke’s account of the power of God through the ministry of Stephen, and the reaction this brought from his fellow Hellenistic Jews. Let us begin by exploring the implications of these texts for us, and then conclude by considering how these two parts of chapter 6 fit together to teach us an important lesson.
(1) Legitimization. How do we know that the gospel as we have it – the gospel as set down by the apostles – is the real thing? Our text continues to demonstrate the authenticity of the apostles as those who believe in Jesus and who speak for Him, with His authority and power. During His earthly ministry, Jesus performed many signs and wonders:
1 Now Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did he get these ideas? And what is this wisdom that has been given to him? What are these miracles that are done through his hands? (Mark 6:1-2)
36 As he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen: 38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:36-38)
22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know – 23 this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles. 24 But God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power (Acts 2:22-24).
So, too, the apostles performed many signs and wonders (including Stephen):
Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles (Acts 2:43).
Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles. By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico (Acts 5:12).
Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people (Acts 6:8).
You will remember that when John the Baptist had his doubts as to whether or not Jesus was the true Messiah, Jesus encouraged John to consider His works, for they were the work of Messiah:
2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds Christ had done, he sent his disciples to ask a question: 3 “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: 5 The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 6 Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:2-6).
The Apostle James put it this way:
Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27).
When the priests (and many others) beheld the way the church cared for its widows, many concluded, “This is true religion.” No wonder so many of the priests came to faith in Jesus. The words and works of the apostles were likewise the words and works of Jesus. This should have been an indication that both Jesus and His apostles were true servants of God, who spoke for Him with full authority.
The apostles are legitimized by the opposition they receive to their ministry. Just as they did as Jesus did and taught as Jesus taught, so they were opposed in the same way Jesus was. The opposition was intimidated by our Lord’s success and popularity with the people:
47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation” (John 11:47-48).
The Jewish religious leaders were likewise threatened by the success of the apostles, including Stephen:
14 More and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women. 15 Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them. 16 A crowd of people from the towns around Jerusalem also came together, bringing the sick and those troubled by unclean spirits. They were all being healed. 17 Now the high priest rose up, and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy (Acts 5:14-17).
8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God” (Acts 6:8-11).
Our Lord’s opponents initially tried to discredit Jesus by debating with Him (Matthew 21:23ff.), but when they miserably failed (Matthew 22:46), they resorted to false charges (Matthew 26:59ff.), which led to His death. The same thing nearly happened to the apostles (Acts 5), and did happen with Stephen:
8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:8-14).
We will see shortly that Stephen’s death was, in certain regards, like that of our Lord. When we read the Book of Acts it has a familiar feel, as well it should, for men respond to the apostles the same way that they responded to the Lord Jesus.
(2) Cultures clash, but the gospel unites. In the end, the polarization we find between the Greek-speaking Jews and the native Hebraic Jews in Acts 6:1-7 is rooted in the clash of two different cultures. While both groups were Jewish, they were very different in their place of birth, in language, and in culture. The work of Christ at Calvary unites Jews and Gentiles in one body as “one new man” (Ephesians 2:15). Cultural differences provide potential tensions, but the gospel of God’s grace is sufficient. The decision of the apostles and the choice of the seven by the church put to rest a potential problem.
I am delighted to look out into the faces of our congregation and see a wide diversity of race and culture. I believe that true Christian unity, practiced and preserved in the context of diversity, is a distinguishing mark of Christianity. This is one of the ways the world will know we are His (John 13:34-35; 17:21). To maintain unity in diversity, we need to appreciate the value of diversity and also to be sensitive to the way our culture may adversely affect others. We need to be quick to respond biblically to tensions that may be rooted in cultural diversity.
(3) Our text is a lesson in church leadership. I am making the assumption that the twelve are roughly equivalent to elders, and that the seven are essentially deacons. If this is valid, then we should see that deacons oversee areas of responsibility so that the elders can devote themselves to their primary tasks. We might say that the deacons assist the elders by assuming administrative responsibilities that enable the elders to give more attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.
In our church, we believe that the church is to be governed by a plurality of elders. There are many ways to govern. Some elder boards rule with a heavy hand (not unlike some pastors). I believe that our text provides a model for how elders should rule. The elders listened to what was being said, and observed what was going on in the church. They responded quickly to a potentially serious problem. They reached a decision as to how it should be handled. They established priorities and laid out guidelines by which the problem would be solved. Their decision was acceptable to all parties and readily embraced by the church. The church was allowed to select their own leaders, within the boundaries of the qualifications set down by the apostles. The apostles then laid their hands on these men and prayed for them. Here is a healthy relationship between the elders and the flock. It was not congregational rule, but the elders did not fail to listen to the congregation, to respond to their concerns, and to involve them in the solution.
(4) Our text reminds us that the care of widows and the poor is a most important matter. As we have seen already, James tells us that true religion is concerned with the widows and the orphans (James 1:27). Luke has taken considerable effort to show us that the early church was deeply concerned about meeting the needs of those in the flock. Great sacrifices were made in order to care for those in need. You will recall that when the apostles commended Paul, they gave him this one instruction:
7 On the contrary, when they saw that I was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was to the circumcised 8 (for he who empowered Peter for his apostleship to the circumcised also empowered me for my apostleship to the Gentiles) 9 and when James, Cephas, and John, who had a reputation as pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do (Galatians 2:7-10, emphasis mine).
As elders, we have been discussing ways to be more in touch with the needs of our widows and other vulnerable members of our church body. As we mature as a church and so do our members, there will be an increasing number of widows and older single women in our congregation. We need to be thinking of ways that we may minister to their needs. It may be by buying or building housing, or by providing transportation, or food, or fellowship. The way we care for our widows has a great impact on other areas of ministry. The church that cares for its widows (and orphans)17 is one that will stand out as having true religion.
(5) Our text is yet another illustration of the sovereignty of God in Acts. I have to smile as I read our text, because God had a somewhat different plan than the apostles did. The apostles sought to solve a practical problem (conflict because of an inequity in the feeding of the widows) in a spiritual way. They rightly discerned their priorities and set about with the appointment of “deacons” to enable them to carry out their primary tasks (prayer and the ministry of the Word) in the church. They appointed seven men as “deacons” so that they could preach. And then God chose to make two of these seven “deacons” into great preachers. These two men, Stephen and Philip, were the key to the evangelization of the Greek-speaking Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. God modified the plan of the apostles. As good as it was, God had another plan, a better plan. God works in mysterious ways, as we see in our text.
(6) Connecting the dots of Acts chapter 6. We’re back to where we started – my sense that we should study Acts chapter 6 as a unit, because the two halves of this chapter are closely related. Let us now seek to connect the dots of these two texts, and see where it leads us.
The obvious connections are, well, obvious. In verses 1-7, Stephen is introduced as the first of the seven “deacons” who are appointed to oversee the care of the widows. In verses 8-15, Stephen is presented as the powerful preacher who seems to match the apostles in power. In verses 1-7, we find the Greek-speaking Jews murmuring against the native Hebraic Jews because their widows are receiving inferior care. In verses 8-15, we find other Greek-speaking Jews strongly opposing Stephen. When they cannot defeat him with rhetoric, they take more extreme measures – procuring false testimony against him as a blasphemer.
But what other connections do we find between the two halves of Acts chapter 6? Let me suggest that the key is understanding the fundamental unity of truth and obedience, between preaching and practice, in the Christian faith. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus underscored the necessity of hearing and doing:
24 “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!” (Matthew 7:24-27, emphasis mine)
Later in Matthew, Jesus strongly rebukes the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, that is, for their failure to live according to their teaching:
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:1-4, emphasis mine).
The Book of Acts begins with these words:
“I wrote the former account, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1, emphasis mine).
Our Lord’s ministry was not just preaching. Jesus also ministered to the needs of those He encountered. He healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons, and fed the hungry. When John the Baptist expressed doubt as to whether Jesus was the real Messiah, Jesus pointed him to His deeds, and not just to His doctrine, as important as that was (Matthew 11:1-6).
The early chapters of the Book of Acts contain two of the great sermons of the Apostle Peter, and next, one great sermon of Stephen. As critical as these sermons are, we need to see that they were accompanied by service. The apostles performed signs and wonders, and many healings. The words of the apostles were accompanied by their works, and the works of those who believed their teaching. We find in Acts 2 not only a wonderful sermon (Acts 2:14-40), but the account of amazing works – not just signs and wonders, but sacrificial sharing with those in need (Acts 2:42-46). We find the same in chapters 3-5. There is both powerful preaching (Acts 3:11-26), but also powerful deeds (Acts 4:32-37). Words and works.
Now, we come to chapter 6 and the problem of the unfed widows. The apostles recognize that their primary mission is “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2, 4). But they do not minimize the importance of the work of caring for their widows. And for this reason, they appoint seven godly men to oversee this important ministry.
We might wrongly assume this means that the apostles will only pray and preach, but this is not the case. We see the healing ministry of the apostles (particularly Peter) both before chapter 6 (see Acts 5:14-16) and after (see Acts 9:36-43). As my friend put it, the apostles not only “teach,” they “touch” those who are in need.
Now, when we come to the last half of Acts chapter 6, we might suppose that we are going to be reading about widows being fed by “deacons.” We might assume that the apostles have a monopoly on the speaking ministry, and that the “deacons” are restricted to the “serving” ministry. This is not the case at all, and I think this is Luke’s point. Lest we be like the hypocritical Pharisees of Matthew 23, we must not only talk the talk, we must also walk the walk. We all must speak and serve.
Stephen, a man who has been appointed as a “deacon,” is now (Acts 6:8ff.) found to be performing signs and wonders and speaking with such power that his adversaries are unable to refute him. They must resort to underhanded schemes and brute force.
Let me put it this way. The issue in chapters 4 and 5 is this: Will the apostles be muzzled by the threats and persecution of the unbelieving Jewish leaders? The answer to this is a resounding, “No!” The issue in Acts 6:1-7 is this: Will the apostles be muzzled (or silenced) because of the physical needs of the widows? In other words, will the apostles be distracted from their primary ministry of prayer and proclamation of the gospel, by the urgent need of caring for the widows? The answer, once again, is “No!” The question in Acts 6:8-15 is this: Will the proclamation of the gospel by the “deacons” be swallowed up by the task of caring for the widows? The answer is still “No!” Teaching and touching, doctrine and practice, words and works must not be separated.
This is the message that we find in the Book of James:
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that – and tremble with fear. 20 But would you like evidence, you empty fellow, that faith without works is useless? (James 2:14-20)
We seem to think that we can debate men into the kingdom of God. We cannot. Our words must be empowered by the Holy Spirit. But in addition, our lives must reflect the truth of the words we speak. Acts is not just about preaching; it is about preaching buttressed by practice.
All too often, liberal social programs sever their ties to the gospel message and the Word of God. This ministry is so important, and the needs so great, that the preaching of the gospel falls through the cracks. People thus end up with full stomachs, but empty lives. Conservative Christians sometimes take the gospel to the lost, but they don’t address their pressing physical needs. This is not true to the Christian faith, and it is counter-productive for the gospel. We must strive to maintain both preaching and practice.
(7) One last thought. There is a subtle shift taking place in our text (and also in the following chapters). There is a shift from the native Hebraic-speaking apostles to Greek-speaking apostles (Stephen, Philip, Paul, Barnabas, and so on). There is a shift from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and then to the remotest part of the earth. There is a shift from Jewish evangelism to Gentile evangelism. And the change is taking place before our very eyes in our text. I find it interesting to note that the strong opposition of Greek-speaking Jews brings about the death of Stephen, but it does not silence the gospel. It propels the gospel outward, to more distant places, and to those outside of Judaism. The death of Stephen is a pivotal event.
1 I have included the text of Acts 5:41-42 because it is closely tied to chapter 6. Chapter 5 thus ends with the statement that, in spite of the persecution and threats the apostles received at the hands of the Sanhedrin, they were not intimidated, and they were not silenced, nor did the preaching of the Word cease. Chapter 6 will introduce another threat to the preaching of the gospel – another way that the preaching of the Word might be hindered.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
3 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson11 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 15, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
6 Thus, the title for this message: Growth Pains.
7 See 1 Timothy 5:3-8.
8 I prefer the term “grumbling” to “a complaint,” even though this is the way many translations render the term. This is the term used to refer to the grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness (e.g. Exodus 16:7, 8, 9, 12). Thus, the KJV reads, “. . . there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews . . . .” Above all, I prefer the rendering of the NLT: “But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.”
9 The oversight of the care of the widows is given to seven men. These men are to be selected by the men (brothers) of the church. One might think that caring for the widows would be women’s work, but not the choice of the seven, nor the work of oversight, given to the seven.
10 The NET Bible rightly emphasizes the fact that this is not an insignificant matter; it is a very real and important need. It deserves the best efforts of highly qualified men.
11 Matthew = 18 times; Mark = 14 times; Luke = 12 times; John = 10 times; Acts = 11 times.
12 Only Acts 4:1-3 speaks somewhat negatively of the priests, for here it speaks of the priests, along with the captain of the temple guard, arresting the apostles for preaching in the temple area.
13 I am not suggesting that his preaching had nothing to do with his ministry as a deacon. I am only pointing out that Luke does not stress the relationship between Stephen’s role as a deacon (or prototype deacon), but rather the relationship between his endowment of great power, like the twelve apostles possessed.
14 As Paul, another Hellenistic Jew, will spell out in Romans 11.
15 See Matthew 22:46.
16 I wonder if the expression, “this holy place,” is broad enough to include both the temple and Jerusalem. Jesus warned that both would be destroyed, and Stephen may well have reflected this in his preaching.
17 We have just recently entered into this phase of ministry. Some of our members are adopting orphans. We have established a relationship with some Russian Christians who seek to minister to the many Russian orphans. This is a wonderful opportunity to practice what our Lord taught us to do.