STUDIES IN ACTS, Part 6

Acts 6:1—7

Luke is nothing if not honest as he chronicles the early days of the Church in Jerusalem. The church was growing like crazy in response to two things: First, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which empowered the early Christians and enabled the apostles to perform signs and wonders, capturing the imagination and attention of unbelievers. Second, Peter’s sermons continued to resonate with listeners long after he concluded. This incessant growth caused all kinds of problems, spiritual and administrative problems that threatened the unity of the church in Jerusalem.

When we get to chapter 5, we see continued growth but also the first defection in the church, followed by the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, members of the church. In chapter 6, we see more defections. In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, they were believers who were born again, but they could not be a part of the Church with such a big lie in their lives. In this chapter, the defections are different, and the result is different. Here, the trouble makers are not struck dead; instead, a common sense solution was reached by the leaders of the church.

1. Grecian Jews + Aramaic Jews = a problem, verse 1

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. (verse 1)

This is arguably the most important verse in Acts for a number of reasons. Yes, it led to the first level of leadership within the church—the appointment of deacons, but it is important to understand who these Hellenistic (Grecian) Jews were, and the problem they had with the Hebraic (Aramaic-speaking) Jews. If we understand the identity of these two groups of Jews and the problem they had with each other, we will have a clearer picture of the course of events within the Jerusale church and without, including the stoning of Stephen.

Some commentators reason that these two groups of Jews (Jewish-Christians in the story) were distinguished by language. That is, there were Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem who were descendants of the Jews of the Disaspora. These Jews had returned to Jerusalem to settle among the Jews already living there, who spoke Aramaic.

Other commentators understand the Greek-speaking Jews to be Gentile proselytes, Gentiles who had converted to Judaism.

Still other Bible scholars think the Hellenists were Jews who were in some way part of the Essene movement in Palestine!

So, there are many theories as to just what Luke meant in Acts 6:1.

As with most things in life, sometimes the simplest explanation is the best: the Hellenists were Jews who spoke only Greek and no other Semitic language. To Aramaic-speaking Jews, these were almost “second class citizens.” This attitude of cultural superiority explains why, for example, Greek-speaking Jews kept mostly to themselves in Jerusalem and why they had separate places of worship. There was a lot mistrust between the two groups of Jews. They had a common religion, but that was all they had in common.

In the early church, all members were Jewish, either from the Greek-speaking group or from the Aramaic-speaking group. Generations old prejudices die hard, and the resentments between these two groups carried over into the church. We can imagine the difficulties of having two different languages in one church! The Greek-speaking Jewish-Christians would need to have separate meetings where Greek was spoken, and vice versa.

This situation also explains why two of the men chosen to become Deacons, Philip and Stephen, become the first evangelists within their own circle when they had originally been appointed to supervise the distribution of food to the widows of the church.

Verse one dispels any notion that the early church was the “welfare provider” for the city of Jerusalem. In fact, the church only looked after its own. Luke sets the scene carefully: the number of “disciples” was growing, and among those “disciples” were two groups of widows, ones that spoke Greek and one that spoke Aramaic. The word “disciple” occurs here for the first time in Acts and means “learners.” It is the word used most often throughout Acts to describe Christians.

What were these learners doing? According to Dr. Luke, they were literally “multiplying.” In other words, more and more people were joining the church in Jerusalem, and as we all know, the more members a church has, the more potential problems it has. Here is where the “complaining” started.

The Aramaic-speaking Christians outnumbered the Greek-speaking Christians in Jerusalem, and while harmony and unity characterized the early church, cultural differences and language barriers caused the inevitable clash. The minority group felt alienated and overlooked in the distribution of food among their widows. Was this the case? Or did they simply “feel” like they being overlooked. It’s hard to believe the church do this on purpose, given how obedient they were in every other way. In fact, the way it is worded in the Greek suggests if there was any neglect, the apostles were not to blame.

2. The solution, verses 2—4

So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

The apostles’, called “the Twelve” here for the only time in Acts, response to this problem was swift: they presented a reasoned, fully thought-out, solution. Even though this problem, real or imagined, concerned a non-spiritual matter, they were wise enough to know that physical and spiritual concerns are often intertwined together. They did not ignore the problem, but confronted it head on.

As far as the apostles were concerned, their main task as church leaders was to preach and teach the Word of God. Because they were church leaders, the apostles also assumed the responsibility to care for the truly needy in their midst. However, this secondary responsibility was not to cause them to neglect their primary task. The solution: delegate the secondary responsibility to others.

The phrase, “wait on tables” generally is taken to mean “serve or distribute food.” However, the Greek word used for tables, trapeza, was used to describe the tables used by tax collectors and money changers. Given that, what Luke might be saying here is that the deacons were not to literally act like waiters, but more like administrators—either distributing the food to those who truly needed it or giving out money to the widows so they could purchase food. We need not get the picture that the apostles, or anybody else in the early church for that matter, acted like waiters!

The solution, then, was to chose seven men to do work of distributing the food. It was up to the members of the church to choose the seven men and the apostles would ordain them. Not just any person in the church was eligible, however. The candidates had to be men, have solid reputations, and be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. (see also Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8—13)

Interestingly, when it comes to the working in the Church, there is no separation between the sacred and secular. Philip and Stephen, two of the seven, not only made sure the widows got their food, but they also preached the Word and performed miracles.

With the newly-chosen deacons in place, the apostles were free to give their attention to their primary tasks: prayer and the ministry of the Word of God. Several generations ago, a minister would usually put the initials V.D.M. after his name. This was not an abbreviation of a seminary degree, but a description of his calling; Verbi Domini Minster—Minister of the Word. A pastor is not an employee of the church in which he serves and who pays his salary. Neither is he an employee of the denomination that ordained him and holds his credentials. A pastor is essentially a minister of Christ’s Gospel; Jesus sending him forth to teach and preach it (Matthew 28:19—20). If a pastor is a servant of God’s Word, he ought to give himself fully to the task of proclaiming that Word. Pastors ought always guard against the lure of any activity, no matter how good or worthy it may be, that takes him away from that task. The apostles understood this well.

3. A good idea put into practice, verses 5, 6

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented them to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

The apostles made the proposal, but the congregation made the decision. Out their membership, the chose these seven men:

  • Stephen. He is described as a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. Why was Stephen singled out from the rest? Perhaps because his being ordained as the first deacon of the church was a prelude to his also being the first martyr. “Stephen” means “crown.”
  • Philip. He later became a great preacher and evangelist, beginning his preaching ministry after the death of Stephen. He must also have been a man full of courage.
  • Prochorus. According to tradition, he was a scribe to whom John dictated some of his epistles.
  • Nicolas. He was a convert to Judaism from Antioch. Luke mentions Antioch probably because that was also his hometown. The fact that Nicolas was a Greek-speaking Jewish convert would have been very acceptable to that group of widows.

We know nothing of the other deacons, other than they were surely reliable and faithful men of God.

These first six verses are very important to notice because they establish a pattern for the church of today. First, the early church took seriously all needs of their members, whether those needs be physical or spiritual, real or imagined. In meeting all those needs, the church stressed the primacy of prayer and the preaching of God’s Word, but never to the exclusion of making sure the poor of congregation were helped and injustices righted.

Second, the early church seemed to be flexible, adapting its organizational structure in response to needs it may have. A truly Biblical church should never adopt a “one size fits all” approach to ministry.

Last, we must comment on the attitudes of the apostles, the leaders of the church. They refused to get involved in the terrible practice of assigning blame when things went wrong. Instead, they immediately sought a solution. They never let an uncomfortable situation get in the way of their essential tasks of prayer and the proclamation of the Word. They were not afraid to share the job of shepherding God’s congregation. They were not at all threatened by the membership of the church having a say in who would lead them.

Thanks to the wisdom of the church leadership and the fine reputation the church had in Jerusalem at this time, we read this summary statement of Luke;s:

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (verse 7)

Almost as an afterthought, Luke goes out of his way to mention the fact that many Jewish priests became Christians.


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