Acts 6

Persecution of the Christian for Christ’s sake is an honour from God (Phil. 1:29), as grace makes it a blessing to the church and a testimony to the world. The real danger is from within, and this yet more when the confidence of love yields at all largely to an evil eye and a discontented tongue. And so it was now. After God had so signally judged the deception of Ananias and Sapphira, fleshly and selfish complaint broke out among the Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews apparently against those of Jerusalem and Judea. It was not the Jews of pure descent jealous of those from elsewhere who profited by the self-sacrificing love which sold houses and lands that none might want. Still less was it the germ of those Judaizing divisions which were to be a source of not only deep, wide, and long-lasting disquiet, but of the utmost danger in denying the grace and corrupting the truth of which the church and the Christian are the responsible depositories.

‘Now in those days when the disciples were multiplying, there arose a murmuring of the Hellenists against the Hebrews that [or, because] their widows were overlooked in the daily ministration’ (ver. 1).

The murmuring came from those who had more or less of foreign admixture: whereas ill-feeling usually and naturally characterized those who boasted of associations wholly Israelitish. It was the Greek-speaking Jews who murmured against the Hebrews. That the mistake and indeed wrong was with the complainers seems clear, if from nothing else, from the grace evinced by all those who were the object of their murmuring, as the sequel shows. It is habitually the wrong-doer who denounces men better than himself. ‘Their widows’, they alleged, were being overlooked in the daily supply of wants. We are not told that so it really was, but so they complained. The poor ‘widows’ are ever remembered of God. The mouth of murmurers should be stopped, if the allegation were false.

‘And the twelve, having called the multitude of the disciples unto [them] said, It is not seemly that we, leaving the word of God, should serve tables. Look out then, brethren, from among you seven men of good report, full of [the] Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint over this business; but we for our part will give ourselves closely to prayer and the ministry of the word’ (vers. 2-4).

Up to this time the administration was in the hands of the apostles, as we see in Acts 4:35, though probably they may have employed many brethren in the actual distribution to each needy individual. But that there were already officers whose province it was, is not only without, but against the evidence of Scripture. I am aware that Mosheim tries to prove such a class of functionaries from ‘the young men’ ( οἱ νεώτεροι) in Acts 5:6 which he will have rather fancifully to be the counterpart of the ‘elder’ ( οἱ πρεσβύτεροι) who do not appear till the end of Acts 11, KÂhnÂl and Olshausen accepting his thought. But the usage of Scripture nowhere countenances any such official ‘younger men’, as it does often in the use of ‘elders’. On the contrary in the same context, on their return from burying Ananias, they are called ‘the young men’, ( οἱ νεανίσκοι) which cannot be conceived to have such a force and therefore ought to refute it for the previous and corresponding term. They were simply the younger brethren, on whom would naturally devolve any prompt call for a laborious and sorrowful duty of a physical nature. Compare 1 Tim. 5:1, 2, Titus 2:6; and 1 Peter 5:5. That not the Hellenists but the Hebrews had deacons already is the unfounded idea of the same writer, whose history would have small value as to later times if not far better than his use of the inspired source. It would be hard to say where Mosheim is right in his review of the apostolic church.

The fit moment was come for the apostles to be relieved from outer [temporal] work and thus free for what was spiritual. They direct therefore the establishment of responsible men for the daily ministrations in Jerusalem. This service was diaconal, yet peculiar (as Chrysostom long ago remarked) because of the actual circumstances there. Hence it may be that the term ‘deacons’ is not here or elsewhere given to ‘the seven’, but this number of theirs even more than ‘the twelve’ becomes a sort of distinctive badge. As the money came from the disciples in general, on them do the apostles call to look out from among them brethren in whom they could happily confide; yet the apostles, acting for the Lord in order, established them over the business. It was not seemly or proper (for ἀρεστὸν admits of a wider sense than the very narrow one of ‘pleasing’, or ‘our pleasure’) that they should forsake the word of God, and serve tables. To this their continuance in that work would otherwise have come. Loving wisdom thus turns ungrateful complaints for good. That it is in this a principle of moment is rendered evident. Where the Lord gives, He chooses, as for all ministry in the word; where the assembly gives, they choose, as in this case.

We see the same thing in 2 Cor. 8:18, 19, where a brother was chosen by the assemblies as fellow-traveller with Paul and Titus, thus providing for things honest not only before the Lord but also before men. This is the meaning of the phrase ‘messengers of churches’. They were selected by the assemblies which sent help to the poor saints elsewhere, as the apostle would not take charge of the collection otherwise. Compare also 1 Cor 16:3, 4. In the case of ‘elders’ we find the apostles choosing, and not the disciples (Acts 14:23), and so Titus is told to do (Titus 1:5).

The three principles are quite distinct: (1) the Lord choosing and sending those whom He gives as gifts to the church, (2) the apostle, or an apostolic man by express commission, choosing or establishing elders; and (3) the assembly choosing the administrators of its funds, whom the apostles set solemnly over this business.

That ‘the seven’ were deacons (in the traditional sense of a brief noviciate or apprenticeship to the priesthood) is as unscriptural as that they had previously been of the ‘seventy’ whom the Lord sent out ‘two and two’ with a final message through Judea. Their work was not to preach and baptize but the dispensing of help to the temporal need of every day. Philip no doubt did preach, but he, we are expressly told, was ‘an evangelist’. It was therefore in virtue of this gift, not of that appointment to care for the poor in Jerusalem, that we find him, in the dispersion of the assembly, preaching in Samaria and beyond (Acts 8). Just as evidently had Stephen the gift of a teacher if not of a prophet, which he exercised in a most solemn testimony before the council. But neither the multitude chose, nor yet did the apostles appoint, a single man to preach or teach. Evangelists and teachers were given by Christ the Head; and so they are still. The church is neither the source nor the channel of ministry: which is the exercise of a gift flowing from Christ at the right hand of God. So it was at the beginning, and so it remains de jure till He comes again.

Here it was but a local charge, however important and honourable, to which, as the multitude chose, the apostles appointed. The distinction is as plain as it is complete, but men are apt to view matters of the kind through the medium of habit and prejudice. Their duty was to carry out the distribution of the means for relieving the wants of the Christian community; which would leave the apostles free for the service of the word of God. Their number was doubtless suitable to the requirements of their work. Their qualifications were that they should have a good report, and be full of the Spirit and wisdom. To make their establishment more or other is as common as it is baseless. It would be unaccountable, if men had not objects foreign to Christ, and so to God’s word.

‘But we,’ say the apostles emphatically, ‘will give ourselves closely to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ This is much to be weighed. For that service of the word prayer should take the first place. So it was with the apostles, but not so with the Corinthian saints, who forgot not only that power is to be subordinated to order (1 Cor. 14) but that life according to Christ has to be exercised now in holy and constant self-denial, as the prime duty of him who names the Lord (1 Cor. 9). Prayer is the outgoing and expression of dependence, and is so much the more requisite, that the ministry of the word be not in the will or resources of man, but in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, yet in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that the faith of the saints stand not in men’s wisdom but in God’s power. In the order of the soul’s blessing from God the word takes precedence, as we may see in comparing the end of Luke 10 with the beginning of Luke 11, where we have the moral sequence of these two means of grace. Receiving from God goes before drawing near to our Father. But for the due ministry of the word prayer is the great pre-requisite that flesh may afford no occasion to the enemy, and the individual may be a vessel to honour, sanctified, meet for the Master’s use, prepared unto every good work.

‘And the saying pleased [lit. before] all the multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of [the] Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and having prayed they laid their hands on them’ (vers. 5, 6).

The grace shown by the apostles had a remarkable answer to it in the multitude, for that all the names are Greek indicates a Hellenistic connection. Persons seem to have been chosen without exception from the ranks of the Greek-speaking believers, the very class which had murmured against the Hebrews. Was not this grace enough to make the suspicious ashamed? There was no human provision of a balance or of a fair representation, as habits of business or the spirit of a law-court would suggest. God was looked to in faith, and the most marked conciliation prevailed. The supposition that there had been already Hebrew caretakers, and that Hellenists were now added to look after Hellenistic interests, is ;to miss and mar this beautiful account of divine love in full activity, by supposing the infusion of a mere worldly prudence.

It is also to be observed that ‘the seven’ when chosen were presented to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them in token of fellowship with their appointment. Imposition of hands was an ancient sign of blessing, Gen. 48:14, especially of official recognition, Num. 27:23, or of commendation to God’s grace, Acts 13:3, Acts 14:26 (Acts 15:40). The impartation of the Spirit by that act in Acts 8:17; Acts 19:6, or again in 1 Tim. 4:14, 2 Tim. 1:6, is distinct, as will be shown in their places. Probably in the establishment of elders there may have been a similar laying on of hands, as some have gathered from 1 Tim. 5:22. But as Scripture is silent as to the fact, it would seem in order to guard believers from that fatal routine of superstitious form which has overlaid Christendom to the dishonour of the Lord and the hurt of rule. Even if apostolic hands were laid on presbyters, we are not told it; but where the duty was of an outward character, and godly men were chosen by the multitude, the apostles (we are expressly told) did lay hands on them. Not the multitude, but, as we have seen, the apostles chose elders for the disciples (Acts 14:23), and Scripture does not tell us of their laying hands on them, even if the fact were so. How infirm is the ground-work of ecclesiastical pride! How perfect is the word of God both in what it says and in its reticence!

The measure taken by the apostles in appointing servants for the exterior duties of the assembly, leaving themselves free for prayer and the ministry of the word, was owned by the signal blessing of God. Administration of money is a delicate and difficult task, especially if it be undertaken by such as serve in the word. In a low condition it gives influence of the basest kind to those who otherwise could have little or none. But here we are in presence of the Holy Ghost working in energy, holiness, and love, and in raising souls above the fleshly feelings that threatened danger to the church. None would be more struck by the unselfish wisdom of the apostles than the sacerdotal class, ordinarily apt to be greedy of power and influence, if not of worse still.

‘And the word of God increased, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied exceedingly; and a great crowd of the priests26 were obedient to the faith’ (ver. 7).

It looked most promising surely, when the word of God grew as an object of faith and a distinct power among men, when the disciples so greatly multiplied in the city of solemnities itself, when the very priests were now flocking in, unwonted sight as this was, what could most think but that the scattered and peeled nation were at length learning divine wisdom? Would they not soon repent and be converted for the blotting out of their sins, so that seasons of refreshing might come from the presence of the Lord and He might send the Christ Who had been fore-appointed for them, Jesus? Appearances gave a colour, if not currency, to this thought such as never after that could be claimed for it. The truth was that God was but severing unto the name of Jesus from His ancient people such as should be saved, before He sent His armies, destroyed the murderers of His servants (yea, we can add, of His Son), and burned up their city according to the word of the Lord.

And so, if I err not, God is now doing in the active work of salvation which He is carrying on throughout the earth, in Christendom especially. It is the sure sign, not of the world’s surrender to Christ and the cross, but that the Lord is separating His own from the world which is hastening to inevitable, unsparing, and condign judgment. Never till then can there be universal or stable blessing for the earth as a whole, such as we are entitled to expect according to Psalms. 65 - 68; 72; 92 - 107; and to the Prophets generally. The heavens must receive Jesus till the times of the restoring (not the destruction) of all things of which God has spoken by the mouth of His holy prophets since time began. It is the corrupt harlot, not the true bride, that wants to reign in the absence of the Bridegroom. If grace convert ever so many or ever so extraordinarily, as with the priests, they were but saving themselves from that crooked generation. Judgment personally inflicted by the Lord must precede His introduction of God’s kingdom in power and glory; but this does not hinder the action of sovereign grace in changing His own and translating them to be with Himself on high before the day of His judgment dawns on the earth. For when His day comes they are already with Him, and hence they follow Him out of heaven, and appear with Him for the execution of that judgment.

Another element of moment is now introduced — the free action of God’s Spirit even in Jerusalem, where all the twelve apostles were.

The ordination, if we call it ordination, of ‘the seven’ was for a temporal service, expressly not for spiritual ministry by the word, but on the contrary, by handing over to them the exterior duty, to let the apostles be undistracted in their blessed work. Assuredly, if it be a ridiculous perversion in one part of Christendom to devise a modern answer in the charge of the paten and chalice, it is only a shade better to make it a sort of probationership to the office of a presbyter. Scripture is overlaid and ignored by human tradition. ‘The seven’ were stewards for the poor, and not a formal noviciate for a full-blown minister. It was reserved for dissent to find a still lower deep, through money to constitute (what one of their own best men called) ‘the lords deacons’, with power to conciliate or coerce, to pamper or starve out, the minister. How unlike are all these to the holy ways of God and His word!

Yet one of ‘the seven’ is brought before us as used and honoured of God in a way quite outside the work for which they were appointed. ‘And Stephen, full of grace27 and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people. And there arose certain of those that were of the synagogue called28 [that] of the freedmen [Libertines], and of Cyrenians, and of Alexandrians, and of those of Cilicia and Asia,29 disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Then they suborned men, saying, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God. And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes; and coming upon (him) they seized and brought him into the council, and set false witnesses, saying, This man ceaseth not speaking words against the30 holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses handed down to us. And all that sat in the council, gazing fixedly on him, saw his face as it were an angel’s face’ (vers. 8-15).

Beyond a doubt the levelling spirit of democracy, the unwillingness to recognize those who are over us in the Lord, is very far from the word of God. But even in those days when the church shone in order and beauty as never since, when the highest authorities that ever God set in the church were all there, we behold His sovereign grace acting in a man with no other title than what grace gave him. He was not even a bishop or presbyter; he had been set apart with others to a grave but lowly service. Yet we find him soon after described as full of ‘grace’ (not ‘faith’ merely) and power, working great marvels and signs among the people. There was no jealousy in that day of grace and power: for all who could and did glorify the Lord there was room and welcome. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of liberty. Even law, as well as the world and the flesh, gender bondage, and pride, and sin, man being what he is.

The fact is that Scripture knows nothing of ordaining a man to preach or to teach, still less if possible for the administration, so-called, of baptism and the Lord’s supper. Superstition has entered, and the power of religious habits of thought founded on everyday routine; so that even pious men fail to see in the Bible what contradicts their theory and practice, and they attach to scriptural acts or words in defence of their own thoughts a meaning which is quite foreign to the truth.

According to Scripture, if a man has a spiritual gift from the Lord, he is not only free as regards others but bound before the Lord to use it. Otherwise let him beware of the condemnation in the parable of the unprofitable servant, who counted his lord hard and was afraid and went away and hid his talent in the earth. It is no question of a Christian’s rights but of the grace of Christ, as well as of the obligation on him who has received the gift to use it according to His will to Whom the church belongs and for His glory. So says the apostle Peter, and it were well that men who misuse should hear and weigh his words: — ‘According as each hath received a gift, ministering it among yourselves, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God: if any man speak, as oracles of God, if any man minister, as of strength which God supplieth, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, Whose is the glory and the dominion for ever and ever. Amen’ (1 Peter 4:10, 11).

I purposely press this scripture which is in perfect keeping with all others that treat on the same subject. It seems the more apposite as Peter was there with the eleven when God put forward Stephen to act on it. The free energy of the Holy Spirit in gift is therefore in no way a Pauline peculiarity as some affect to believe. In the Epistles of the great apostle of the Gentiles, no doubt, we have the truth on this head, as on so many others dependent on Christ’s headship of the church, developed more profoundly and comprehensively than the Lord was pleased to do by any others. But the principle is the same in a]l. Thus we find James warning the brethren not to be many teachers, knowing that we shall receive greater judgment, not because they were not ordained. And as the Second Epistle of John thunders against receiving a man (ordained or not), who did not bring the doctrine of Christ, so does the Third encourage Gaius (however Diotrephes might oppose) in all loving reception of such as went about preaching the truth. John had authority, if anyone on earth then had, to act for Christ; but he takes no other ground than the character of the doctrine they preached, for rejecting or receiving them. It was a question for him (is it for us?) simply of Christ, of the truth. This we must have if we are to love in truth. Love is of God, and God is love, but we must have the truth in order to love the truth. Otherwise it is the most illusive and fatal of snares.

Nor can one hesitate to say, that whatever might be the great marvels and signs that Stephen was doing (ver. 8) to the glory of the rejected but exalted Christ, the Second Man in heaven, the wisdom and the Spirit by which he was enabled to speak (ver. 10) were a reality yet deeper and more blessed. The one might arrest anyone, but no adversary could withstand the other. And there were many adversaries, here of course all of the circumcision.

Who were the Libertines? It would seem, according to the oldest interpretation on record, Jewish freedmen banished in A.D. 19 from Rome, whither Pompey had carried many prisoners taken in war, but afterwards emancipated by their masters and allowed to adhere to their religion. It is natural, as another has suggested, that men such as these should show strong feeling if they conceive that the religion for which they had suffered abroad was insulted or endangered at home. They are at any rate put into the foremost rank of Stephen’s adversaries by the inspired historian. If it be so, it is a Grecized Latin word. This too would account for the expression ‘called’ as due to the connected ‘Libertines’. Some have tried to make out a city Libertum in Africa, and it is known that there was a bishop of Libertum at the synod of Carthage in A.D. 411. But if such a town existed in the days of Stephen, and it was not too small to be noticed, it could never take precedence of Cyrene and Alexandria.

Doubt has been felt whether two synagogues were meant, or five. It appears to me that Winer is not justified in the former supposition, that the τῶν first used would have sufficed to have united the five classes, and that the second is not to indicate only two parties, each possessing a common synagogue, but the difference of such as came out of cities like Cyrene and Alexandria with the freedmen first named from those of provinces like Cilicia and Asia. When we are told that there were then some 480 synagogues in Jerusalem, it seems very unlikely that there should not be a separate place for each, as the Jews were notoriously numerous in most if not in all.

It is of solemn interest to observe how unbelieving men can find a show of reason to fasten the most odious charges on the truth which they hate and on those who proclaim it. Yet why suborn men to inform, if they honestly felt indignation at alleged wickedness? One can understand that to claim for Jesus the title of the Christ, the Anointed, was to imply His superiority to Moses; also to hint at the transitory nature of the temple, which the Lord had said was to have not a stone left on another, might be regarded as blaspheming the God Whose house it was.

However this may have been, they thereby roused the people and the elders and the scribes. Here the Pharisees would be as furious as the Sadducees or more so. It was a general outburst of proper Jewish resentment; and so Stephen was seized and brought into the council. If the words had been said, the witnesses were none the less false. Nothing could be more wickedly untrue than that he said anything disrespectful to God or Moses, to the law or the temple. But wicked men hear with a wicked feeling, and the Spirit pronounces them false witnesses, though Stephen’s words might sound as they reported. ‘For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses handed down to us.’

I know not why commentators should question the singular mark of divine favour vouchsafed to Stephen’s person, unless they abjure faith and deny the yet more wondrous privilege at the close of his discourse. It is striking that he who was accused of reviling Moses and God should receive from God a sign like that which His servant Moses enjoyed. The Jews at any rate ought to have felt it to be a solemn appeal to them above all mankind. The occasion was worthy of divine intervention whether in the case of him who received the commandments of Jehovah for Israel, or in his case who bore witness to the rejected but glorified Son of man, and that ‘better thing’ to which His atoning death was to give birth according to the law and the prophets. The supernatural attestation singularly suited both. But there is no evidence possible which wilful unbelief cannot evade, not even if one rose from the dead, as our Lord warned (Luke 16:31).

26 It is painful to note how prone men of learning are to parry and pare down the marvels of God’s grace. Thus Beza, Casaubon, and Valckenaer would change the text — Elsner, Heinsius, KÂhnol, and Wolf, the only legitimate use of the last clause — to get rid of this great work among the priests. Is aught too hard for the Lord? Were priests alone a hopeless class? The Peschito (not the Philoxenian) Syriac had already yielded to similar unbelief, and the Arabic also, both omitting all notice of the priests.

27 Such is the reading of ABD, of more than twenty cursives, and of the best ancient versions.

28 If we might safely adopt the reading of Tischendorf’s last edition ( τῶν λεγομένων with A, eight cursives, Sah. Memph. et al), the construction would be easier, ‘of those called L’. But the mass of uncials, cursives, versions, et al, is adverse.

29 Lachmann was bold enough to omit ‘and of Asia’, because of its absence in

30 The best authorities omit ‘blasphemous’, which the Received Text adds with ‘this’ against the mass.