Acts: Chapter 6
Let’s begin by reading (Acts 6:1-7).
(Verse 1)(NASB) “Now at this time, as the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint developed on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews”
“Increasing in number” – The MacArthur Study Bible states that this “figure could have reached over 20,000 men and women.”
Who are the “Hellenistic (Grecian) Jews?” (Also see: Acts 9:29, Acts 11:20)
When Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.) was attempting to “conquer the world,” he expected the places he conquered to adopt and love the Greek culture. Many Jews were a part of the lands he conquered, and many did indeed choose to adopt the language, customs, and culture of the Greeks. Those Jews (or anyone) who did so were called “Hellenists” (or “Grecians”), which simply means “to adopt the Greek way of life.” Even though they weren’t “born” Greek, they chose to live as Greeks.
On the other hand, there were also Jews who refused to become Hellenists. They chose to keep the Hebrew customs and culture, as their forefathers did. They continued to speak Hebrew / Aramaic, and strictly follow the Torah. Hellenistic Jews did not feel the need to follow the Hebrew way so strictly. They were not as concerned with “keeping the law,” and following the ways of their forefathers. They were more tolerant and open towards Gentiles as well.
As one might expect, these differences often resulted in conflict between the Hebraic Jews and the Hellenistic Jews. Many years after Hellenism began, we see a few examples of this conflict here, and in (Acts 9:29). However, in (Acts 11:20-21), we see that “a great number (of Hellenists) believed, and turned to the Lord” after hearing the Lord Jesus preached.
It should also be noted, that the beginning and rise of Hellenism occurred during what Christians often call the “Intertestamental Period.” This was the period of time between the events of the Old and New Testament, and is generally considered to be a little over 400 years. They are called the “400 silent years” because there was no prophetic word from God during this time.
However, during this time, as time passed (several generations), many Hellenistic Jews lost their ability to speak or read their native Hebrew language. Partly because of this, King Ptolomy II (after Alexander the Great had died) requested that 70 (possibly 72) Jewish scholars translate the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. The result of this work was called the Septuagint, the oldest translation of the Old Testament in the world. This translation became very popular, and scholars say that a number of New Testament quotes of the Old Testament were actually taken from the Septuagint. (Of course, the Hebraic Jews chose to use the traditional Old Testament written in Hebrew.)
(Verse 1) “because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.”
As stated above, this was one “conflict” between the “Hellenistic Jews” and the Hebraic Jews.” True or not, the Hellenistic Jews believed that their widows were not receiving the same care (probably in the form of food or money) as the widows of the Hebraic Jews were. (Taking care of widows is a primary responsibility of the “church:” 1 Tim 5:3-16.)
(Verse 2) “Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.”
“The 12” apostles (including Matthias: Acts 1:15-26) decided to act on this complaint, but wisely decided that they needed help. As stated in (Verse 4), their primary calling from God was to “give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” This should be the “primary” focus of all church leaders. Wise “church leaders” will empower and delegate other people in the “church” to carry out duties like “caring for the needs of others in the church,” so that they are free to focus on “prayer and ministry of the Word.”
“serve tables” – The Greek word used for “serve” here is “diakoneo,” which comes from the word “diakonos,” which is where we get our word “deacon” from.
Today, deacons perform many different functions in the “church,” which differ from denomination to denomination. Among the duties they may perform are: caring for the spiritual and physical needs of different families in the church, ushering, assisting in distribution of the elements for the Lord’s Supper, taking up and distributing church funds, baptizing new converts, reading scriptures during the church service, taking care of church grounds, helping run church programs, etc… (More on deacons, and the qualifications for a deacon here.)
MacArthur states that: “the word translated “tables” can refer to tables used in monetary matters (cf. Matt. 21:12, Mark 11:15, John 2:15), as well as those used for serving meals.”
(Verse 3)(NKJV) “Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.”
Three qualifications were given by the apostles for these men (“deacons”):
1. They must have a “good reputation.”
2. They must be “full of the Holy Spirit.”
3. They must have “wisdom.” (A spiritual gift: 1 Cor 12:8)
It is also worth noting that the apostles involved others in the “church” (the “whole multitude”) to decide who to nominate.
(Verse 5) “the whole multitude… chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch”
The “whole multitude” (the “church”) chose these 7 men. All of these names are “Greek” names, which seems to indicate that the 7 chosen were “Hellenists.” If this is the case, then they empowered leaders from the group who “complained” (verse 1) to be a solution to the problem.
We know nothing about any of these 7 men except for Stephen and Philip. Let’s look a little deeper at both.
All that we know about Stephen (Gr: “Stephanos” meaning “crown”) is found in this chapter (6) and the next (7). As we have already learned, he was a man “of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” and a “deacon.” In this verse (5), we see that out of the 7 men chosen, Stephen is specifically singled out as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” and in (Acts 6:8), it says he was a man who was “full of faith and power (who) did great wonders among the people.”
In the rest of the verses in Acts Ch. 6-7 (Acts 6:9 – 7:60), we see Stephen delivering a “powerful” sermon before both the Sanhedrin (the “council”) and the Jews. As we read the things he says, we can clearly see that Stephen had an extensive, expert knowledge of Scripture.
At the end of his “sermon,” Stephen’s words so enraged his audience that “they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed (“gnashed,” more on this here: https://jesusalive.cc/gnashing-of-teeth-meaning) at him with their teeth” (Acts 7:54). Then, in (Acts 7:55-56), we get these great two verses on Stephen:
“But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, (56) And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.”
At these words, Stephen was “cast out of the city and stoned” to death. As Stephen was dying, we are told in (Acts 7:59-60) that he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. (60) And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep (died).”
In these words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” we see an echoing of the words of Jesus as He was dying:
(Lk 23:46) “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into they hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.”
(Lk 23:34) “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
Two other traits that Jesus and Stephen share are that they both performed miracles, and were tried before the Sanhedrin. (Stephen was the first person other than the apostles to perform a miracle in Acts.)
Stephen’s death in Acts makes him the 1st “Christian” martyr in the New Testament.
As we continue to Acts Chapter 8, it is clear that after what happened with Stephen, there was an increased persecution of Christians, which led to them “scattering” to other places, but with that came an increased spreading of the Gospel (Acts 8:4)(Acts 11:19). This persecution was led by Saul (Paul), who was present at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58), and “consented to his death” (Acts 8:1)(Acts 22:20). (I answer the question: “How old was Paul (Saul) when Stephen was stoned?“ at https://jesusalive.cc/pauls-age-when-stephen-stoned.)
Today, some denominations remember Stephen on a day called St. Stephens Day (Dec. 26). I am proud to have him as my namesake!
All that we know about Philip is basically found in (Acts Ch. 8). As we just mentioned with Stephen, after his death, with increased persecution, Christians “scattered” to other places. We are told in (Acts 8:4-5) that Philip was one of those who “scattered,” going to Samaria.” In (Acts 8:6-13), we see that while there, Philip performed “miracles,” cast out “unclean spirits,” “healed the paralyzed and lame,” and led many people to the Lord, including a “sorcerer named Simon.”
In (Acts 8:26-38), we are told the well-known story of how Philip led an Ethiopian eunuch to the Lord and baptized him. After this baptism, “the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away,” and sent him to “Azotus, And passing through, he preached in all the cities till he came to Caesarea” (Acts 8:39-40). We see that he is still in Caesarea many years later when Paul visits his house, and stays with him as he passes through Caesarea on his last missionary journey (Acts Ch. 21).
In (Acts 21:8-9), we are told that Philip was an “evangelist,” who “had four virgin daughters who prophesied.”
***Note: It is important to remember that the “Philip” we are speaking of here is different from the “Philip” who was a disciple of Jesus.
My “Liberty Bible Commentary” says this about 2 of the other 7: “A later tradition suggests that Prochorus was an amanuensis (a person employed to write or type what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another – Wikipedia), of John the evangelist and became Bishop of Nicomedia and was subsequently martyred at Antioch. The last man, Nicolas, is mentioned not as a Jew but a proselyte (a Gentile who converted to Judiasm) from Antioch. Some have speculated that he was the founder of the Nicolaitans in Revelation 2:6,15. This, however, cannot be said with great certainty.”
(Verse 6) “Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.”
After the men 7 men were chosen by the “whole multitude (the “church”), they brought them to the apostles, and the apostles “laid hands on them.” “Laying hands” upon a person was done for several reasons in the Bible. Often though, and in this case, it was done to set apart or commission a person for special service for God (see: Num 27:15-23, Deut 34:9, Acts 13:2-3, 1 Tim 4:14, 1 Tim 5:22).
(Verse 7) “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
After the commissioning of the 7, we are told that the “church” grew quickly as the Gospel was spread. This is one of a number of places in Acts where Luke talks about the “growth of the church” (2:41,47, 4:4, 5:14, 9:31, 12:24, 13:49, 16:5, 19:20).
What do you think “a great company of priests were obedient to the faith” means?
Next, let’s read (Acts 6:8-15).
(Verse 9)(NASB) “But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia…”
In nearly every city in the New Testament, there was a “synagogue.” Tradition says that a synagogue would be established in a city whenever at least 10 Jewish men lived there. A synagogue was a place where Jews met on the Sabbath to worship God and receive instruction in the law. Whether these groups were from the same synagogue, or separate ones (MacArthur) is debated. I will use the Zondervan NIV Study Bible to explain who these groups were (“note” is my addition):
The Freedmen: Persons who had been freed from slavery. They came from different Hellenistic areas. (MacArthur adds: “Descendants of Jewish slaves captured by Pompeii (63 B.C.) and taken to Rome. They were later freed and formed a Jewish community there.”)
Cyrenians: The chief city in Libya and north Africa, halfway between Alexandria and Carthage. One of its population groups was Jewish (see 11:19-21). (Note: Simon, who carried the cross of Jesus was from Cyrene: Lk 23:26.)
Alexandrians: Capital of Egypt (North Africa) and second only to Rome in the empire. Two out of five districts in Alexandria were Jewish. (Note: Apollos, a bold and powerful teacher and evangelist was from Alexandria: Acts 18:24-28.)
Cilicia: A Roman province in the southeast corner of Asia Minor adjoining Syria. Tarsus, the birthplace of Paul, was one of its principal towns. Since Saul (Paul) was from Tarsus, this may have been the synagogue he attended, and he may have been among those who argued with Stephen. Paul was present when Stephen was stoned (7:58).
Asia: A Roman province in the western part of Asia Minor. Ephesus, where Paul later ministered for a few years was its capital.
(Verses 9-10)(NASB) “rose up and argued with Stephen. (10) But they were unable to cope with his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.”
The Greek word used for “argued” here is “suzeteo,” which Strong’s defines as: “to search together, “to discuss, dispute.” I believe a good word to describe what is going on here would be “debate.” The men above “debated” Stephen, but because Stephen was “speaking through the Spirit, with wisdom,” they were unable to “stand up against” (“cope with”) him.
(Verses 11,13)(NASB) “Then they secretly induced men (“false witnesses”) to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” (13)(NKJV) (and) “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law.””
Unable to gain victory over Stephen through debate, they resorted to “inducing” men to be false witnesses against Stephen, who would slander him by lying and twisting what he had said. They accused him of “blasphemy,” similar to what happened to Jesus in (Mt 26:59-61)(Mk 14:55-59).
The things they accused Stephen of doing were:
1. Speaking against Moses
2. Speaking against God
3. Speaking against the Holy Place (the Temple)
4. Speaking against the law
In the Old Testament, nearly everything pointed to Jesus. This included the Mosaic law, which was given by Moses (#1.), the Tabernacle / Temple, and the things contained within them (#3.), and “ceremonial laws” (#4.).
All of these things were fulfilled when Jesus came, and as a result, passed away. When Stephen pointed out this Biblical truth, the Sanhedrin, and the Jews, were outraged. They did “not” believe these things would ever pass away, and saying they had was speaking against: Moses, God, the Temple, and the Law.
***Note: Many of the “ceremonial laws” made a distinction between what was clean and unclean (with many of them having practical benefits as well). They were connected with the Old Covenant, and were fulfilled through Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Jesus, we are now under a New Covenant, given to the “church,” and we are made pure, clean, and sanctified through Him. Therefore, ceremonial laws have passed, and no longer need to be kept.
Here is a list of list a few ceremonial laws given to Israel in the Old Testament that no longer apply today:
Men were to be circumcised (Lev 12:3)(Gen 17:10-14).
They could not eat or touch pigs (Lev 11:7-8)(Deut 14:8).
They could not eat the fat or blood of animals (Lev 7:22-27)(Lev 3:17)(Lev 17:10-12).
They could not touch any dead person (Num 19:13,16)(Num 31:19)(Num 5:2).
Women were unclean during their menstrual cycles (Lev 15:19)(Lev 12:2,5).
They could not wear clothing made of linen and wool (not of two different materials as some might say) or sow a field with two kinds of seed (Lev 19:19)(Deut 22:9,11).
Priests could not have a defect (Lev 21:16-23).
(Verse 15) “And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.”
What do you think this looked like?