THE BROADER CONTEXT:
At this time, the church was quite young, but growing rapidly. On the day of Pentecost, three thousand souls were added to the small band of Jesus’ disciples. Many of these were Jews from other countries—Jews of the Diaspora who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost (the Diaspora was Jews dispersed or scattered among the Gentile nations). The new believers have been like seeds scattered to the four winds—bringing Christ to their households and, in many cases, to their communities as well. The Lord added new people to the church “day by day those who were being saved” (2:47 WEB).
The apostles have been engaged in powerful healing and preaching ministries (3:1-26; 5:12-15). Another five thousand people heard and believed (4:4). Jewish authorities, hoping to stifle the new movement, responded by arresting Peter and John and bringing them before the council (the Sanhedrin, the ruling body in Jerusalem). Peter and John were courageous, and refused to stop preaching. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached a powerful sermon to the members of the council (4:8-12). Church leaders prayed for courage to proclaim the Gospel in the face of opposition (4:29).
The concern of our text is the administration of financial support for widows (and, presumably, other needy people). This is clearly a side issue—subordinate to the proclamation of the Gospel. It is nevertheless an important issue, because (1) the church has an obligation to follow Christ’s lead in caring for vulnerable people and (2) the perception of discrimination has the potential to split the church if not dealt with promptly and fairly.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
The last half of chapter five (5:17-42) forms the immediate context, telling of the persecution of Christians by the high priest and other leading Jewish authorities. They arrested Peter and other apostles, but an angel freed them from their cell, saying, “Go stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life” (5:20 WEB). The next morning, the council sent officers to bring the apostles before the council, but the officers found the cell empty. Then someone reported, “Behold, the men whom you put in prison are in the temple, standing and teaching the people” (5:25 WEB). The officers went to get the apostles, but were careful not to use violence, “for they were afraid that the people might stone them” (5:26 WEB).
When the apostles appeared before the council, the high priest said, “Didn’t we strictly command you not to teach in this name? Behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and intend to bring this man’s blood on us” (5:28 WEB). But Peter responded by saying, “We must obey God rather than man” and preaching a short but pointed sermon (5:29ff).
The council members wanted to kill the apostles, but Gamaliel, an honored teacher, counseled caution, lest they “be found even to be fighting against God” (5:39 WEB). So the council had the apostles beaten, and then dismissed them.
Chapter five concludes by saying, “Every day, in the temple and at home, (the apostles) never stopped teaching and preaching Jesus, the Christ” (5:42 WEB).
The place, then, is Jerusalem—the home of the temple and the most conservative Jewish leaders—the priests, scribes, and Pharisees.
ACTS 6:1-4. SELECT SEVEN MEN OF GOOD REPORT
1Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, a complaint arose from the Hellenists against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily service. 2The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables. 3Therefore select from among you, brothers, seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. 4But we will continue steadfastly in prayer and in the ministry of the word.” (WEB)
“Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying” (v. 1a WEB). “In those days” refers to the events of chapter five. See “The Context” above for information about those events as well as the multiplication of the disciples.
Just prior to his ascension, Jesus had told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8 WEB). That process is well underway by the time of our story.
“a complaint arose from the Hellenists (Greek: Hellenistes) against the Hebrews” (v. 1b WEB). Who were the Hellenistes? Hellene means Greek. Scholars tend to agree that these Hellenistes were Greek-speaking Jews who had adopted elements of the Greek culture. In this instance, these Hellenistes were also Christians—although the word Christian won’t appear until Acts 11:26.
At this very early stage, nearly all Christians were Jewish. It won’t be until Acts 9 that Saul hears Christ call him on the road to Damascus—with the result that Saul becomes Paul and turns from a being a persecutor of the church to being the chief apostle to the Gentiles. It won’t be until Acts 10 that Peter sees a vision of a great sheet holding all kinds of animals and hears a voice commanding, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat!” (Acts 10:13 WEB). Acts 9-10, therefore, form the hinge between the very early church that is almost totally Jewish—with Peter being the lead apostle (Acts 1-8) and the slightly later church that is becoming increasingly Gentile—with Paul being the lead apostle (Acts 10ff).
The Hebrews would have been Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians who would not have been assimilated into the Greek culture. (Aramaic is a Semitic language used by Jewish people in New Testament times.)
“because their widows were neglected in the daily service” (Greek: kathemerinos diakonia) (v. 1c WEB). Widows and orphans were vulnerable financially, because most widows inherited no property and had few ways to make money to support themselves. There were many widows, because young girls often married older men. Also, men often faced greater physical risks—in military service or protecting livestock against wild animals.
Torah law included provisions to provide for the needs of widows and other poor people. Landowners were required to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that poor people could glean the fields and obtain enough food for survival (Leviticus 19:9-10). The law also made provision for the next of kin to redeem land sold by a relative (Leviticus 25:25), and required families to support indigent kin (Leviticus 25:35). The prophets emphasized concerned for the poor and condemned ill treatment of widows and orphans (Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:1; Jeremiah 5:28; 7:6; 22:3; Malachi 3:5).
In this case, the church had established a kathemerinos diakonia—a daily distribution—to provide for widows. Providing for them shouldn’t be a problem, because the believers had pooled their resources, so that none were in need (4:34). However, the Greek believers thought that the church was discriminating against their widows in the daily distribution. The text doesn’t tell us whether that was true, but if the charges proved incorrect, I believe that the account in Acts would tell us that.
The Greek word diakonia (service or ministry) is closely related to the word diakonos (deacon or service). Based on the use of the word diakonia (service) as well as the nature of the service to which these seven men were being called, the tradition in which I grew up taught that these verses from Acts 6 recorded the establishment of the office of deacon. However, I have come to doubt that, based on several considerations:
• The word diakonos (deacon) isn’t used in this story—nor is there any mention here of establishing the office of deacon.
• Of the seven men chosen in verse 5, only Stephen and Philip are mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament—and nowhere is either of them called a deacon. Stephen will soon be martyred (6:8 – 7:60). Philip will preach and heal in Samaria—and baptize the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8). Paul will visit his home in Caesarea (Acts 21:8). We know nothing further of the seven men chosen to administer the daily distribution.
• This is the Jerusalem church, but all seven men have Greek names. It is hard to imagine that the Jerusalem church would allow the establishment of the office of deacon without having at least some representation in that group.
“The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables” (v. 2 WEB). The phrase “the twelve” is a synonym for the apostles. That number dropped to eleven when Judas committed suicide, but rose again to twelve when Matthias was chosen to replace Judas (Acts 1:15-26).
The twelve thought it inappropriate to forsake the word of God—which Jesus had commissioned them to speak (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8)—so that they might “serve tables”—administer the distribution of food and other necessities to Jerusalem widows.
There is no indication here that the apostles felt that the administration of the daily distribution was unworthy of their concern, but they had been called to a different form of service—proclamation. They had to be careful lest the administration of the daily distribution crowd out their primary calling—preaching.
Elsewhere, we learn that different people have differing gifts and are called to particular callings. Paul uses the metaphor of the parts of the human body to emphasize the validity of the gifts and callings of individual believers (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). He went on to say:
“Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. God has set some in the assembly: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, and various kinds of languages. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all miracle workers? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with various languages? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the best gifts. Moreover, I show a most excellent way to you. (1 Corinthians 12:27-31 WEB).
So it is important to honor the gifts that God has given us—and to be faithful to the calling to which God has called us. The apostles would not have been doing God’s will if they had allowed themselves to be distracted from their calling of proclamation. Neither would the seven men have been doing God’s will if they rejected the call to administer the distribution of food. Both proclamation and administration were important. Christians need to discern what God is calling them to do. Then they need to do it.
“Therefore select from among you, brothers, seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” (v. 3 WEB). This solution is reminiscent of the story of Moses and Jethro, Moses’ father in law. When Jethro saw that Moses was trying to handle everyone’s problems, he recommended that Moses “represent the people before God” and “teach them the statutes and the laws, and …show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do.” Then he suggested that Moses appoint “rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. Let them judge the people at all times. It shall be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves” (Exodus 18:18-22 WEB). Moses took Jethro’s advice, which made his work manageable.
The apostles stated three criteria to be used in selecting the seven men:
• First, they were to be “men of good report.” Their integrity would be of utmost importance, because they would be handling significant sums of money and would assume responsibility for the welfare of a large number of widows.
• Second, they were to be “full of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit empowers ministry and guides ministers. Without the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, these seven men would likely make serious mistakes.
• Third, they must be “full…of wisdom.” Wisdom is the kind of understanding that makes it possible for people to make good decisions and to avoid bad consequences—and to choose the good and to avoid the evil. “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10a WEB).
“But we will continue steadfastly in prayer and in the ministry of the word” (v. 4 WEB). The priority for the twelve was prayer and the ministry of the word—which is proclamation of the Gospel. That was in keeping with the commission that Jesus had given them (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8).
ACTS 6:5-7. THESE WORDS PLEASED THE WHOLE MULTITUDE
5These words pleased the whole multitude. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch; 6whom they set before the apostles. When they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. 7The word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly. A great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. (WEB)
“These words pleased the whole multitude” (v. 5a WEB). All the believers were pleased—not just the Hellenists, who had felt neglected, but the Hebrews as well. If there had been any rivalry or dissention, they were all glad to hear a proposal that would enable them to rectify the error and to put the matter behind them. This speaks well of their faith and faithfulness. They weren’t committed to winning an argument or defending their actions. They genuinely wanted to do the right thing.
Christians today need to take note of that. In many churches, rival factions seek to undercut each other in an attempt to impose their preferred program or point of view. That is definitely not God’s will. The highest calling to which God has called us is to love one another with agape love (1 Corinthians 13:1ff).
There were three Greek words for love: agape, philos, and eros—agape (pronounced uh-GOP-pay) being dominant. Agape love involves concern for the other person without thought of repayment. The thrust of agape love is giving, not getting. When there is conflict in the church, our first order of business needs to be reminding each other of God’s call to love each other with agape love. Once we begin to focus on doing that, resolving the conflict is likely to get much easier.
“They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch” (v. 5b WEB). As noted above, these are all Greek names. It is a mark of the good spirit of the Hebrew believers that they demanded no representation on this committee.
• Luke (the author of the book of Acts) singles out Stephen for special mention—he is “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” Given that the criteria for the selection of these seven men was that they be “full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom” (v. 3), we can assume that all seven men were “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” This special mention of Stephen’s credentials, then, was almost certainly prompted by the fact that Stephen was soon to be martyred (7:60).
• The Philip mentioned here is not Philip the apostle, who was mentioned frequently elsewhere (Matthew 10:2-4; John 1:43-46; etc.). If it was inappropriate for the apostles to allow themselves to be diverted from their task of proclamation of the word, the multitude of verse 5 would not have appointed Philip the apostle to serve on this committee.
The New Testament mentions this Philip twice again. On the first occasion, Philip proclaims the Messiah in the city of Samaria, exorcizes unclean spirits, and heals many people. He then explains the writings of the prophet Isaiah and proclaims Christ to an Ethiopian eunuch, leading to the eunuch’s baptism (Acts 8). On the second occasion, Paul visits Philip’s home in Caesarea. On that occasion, he is identified as “Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven” (Acts 21:8 WEB).
• As noted above, except for Stephen and Philip, we know nothing further of these seven men. Presumably, they did their administrative job well—otherwise, we would likely have heard more about the problem of the daily distribution.
“whom they set before the apostles” (v. 6a WEB). It was the multitude (v. 5) who chose these seven men and set them before the apostles. The apostles were the highest authority in the church and were easily accessible. If they had not been accessible, the multitude could surely have confirmed their choice without a requirement for apostolic involvement.
“When they had prayed, they laid their hands on them” (v. 6b WEB). In the Old Testament, Moses laid hands on Joshua to commission him (Numbers 27:18-23). In the New Testament, apostles laid hands on people to heal them (Matthew 9:18; Acts 28:8), to impart the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17; 19:6), and to ordain them for a particular work (Acts 6:6; 13:3; 2 Timothy 1:6). In this instance, the laying on of hands indicates both approval and empowerment for the task that the seven have been chosen to do.
“The word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly” (v. 7a WEB). The book of Acts has reported several instances of church growth (see “The Broader Context” above), so this report is in keeping with those.
The fact that the number of disciples has been growing in Jerusalem is significant. For the time being, the Jerusalem church is the leading church—the mother church—and it will keep that role for some time to come.
“A great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (v. 7b WEB). This seems astonishing, given that priests were among Jesus’ most intractable opponents. However, those opponents were, for the most part, priests from the higher reaches of the priestly hierarchy—to include the chief priests. Most likely, the priests who were becoming believers were from the rank and file of the priesthood. The disciples have been preaching in the temple, so these priests could have been convinced by listening to that preaching.
POSTSCRIPT: Immediately after our text, Stephen, one of the seven men chosen to administer the daily service, was arrested on trumped up charges (6:11). When brought before the council, Stephen preached a lengthy and powerful sermon (7:2-53). “They threw him out of the city, and stoned him” (7:58 WEB), and he died as the first Christian martyr. Saul, later to become the apostle Paul, observed the stoning, and “was consenting to (Stephen’s) death. A great persecution arose against the (church) which was in Jerusalem in that day” (8:1 WEB).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised) (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsyvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Kistemaker, Simon J., New Testament Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan