Adam Clarke Commentary
The Hellenistic Jews complain against the Hebrews, that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration, Acts 6:1. To remedy the evil complained of, the apostles appoint seven deacons to superintend the temporal affairs of the Church, Acts 6:2-6. The progress of the word of God in Jerusalem, Acts 6:7. Stephen, one of the deacons, becomes very eminent, and confounds various Jews of the synagogues of the Libertines, etc., Acts 6:8-10. They suborn false witnesses against him, to get him put to death, Acts 6:11-14. He appears before the council with an angelic countenance, Acts 6:15.
A murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews - Those who are here termed Grecians, Ηλληνισται, or Hellenists, were Jews who sojourned now at Jerusalem, but lived in countries where the Greek language was spoken, and probably in general knew no other. They are distinguished here from those called Hebrews, by which we are to understand native Jews, who spoke what was then termed the Hebrew language, a sort of Chaldaio-Syriac.
It has been remarked that Greek words ending in ιστης imply inferiority. Ἑλληνες, Hellenes, was distinguished from Ἑλληνισται : the former implies pure Greeks, native Greeks, who spoke the Greek tongue in its purity; and the latter, Jews or others sojourning among the Greeks, but who spoke the Greek language according to the Hebrew idiom. Pythagoras divided his disciples into two classes; those who were capable of entering into the spirit and mystery of his doctrine he called Πυθαγορειοι, Pythagoreans; those who were of a different cast he termed Πυθαγορισται, Pythagorists: the former were eminent and worthy of their master; the latter only so so. The same distinction is made between those called Αττικοι and Αττικισται, Attics and Atticists, the pure and less pure Greeks, as between those called Ἑλληνες and Ἑλληνισται, Hellenes and Hellenists, pure Greeks and Graecising Jews. See Jamblicus, De Vit. Pyth. cap. 18, and Schoettgen on this place.
The cause of the murmuring mentioned here seems to have been this: When all the disciples had put their property into a common stock, it was intended that out of it each should have his quantum of supply. The foreign or Hellenistic Jews began to be jealous, that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration, that they either had not the proportion, or were not duly served; the Palestine Jews being partial to those of their own country. This shows that the community of goods could never have been designed to become general. Indeed, it was no ordinance of God; and, in any state of society, must be in general impracticable. The apostles, hearing of this murmuring, came to the resolution mentioned below.
It is not reason - Ουκ αρεστον εστι, it is not pleasing, proper, or fitting, that we should leave the word of God, that we should give up ourselves, or confide to others, the doctrine of salvation which God has commanded us to preach unto the people.
And serve tables - Become providers of daily bread for your widows and poor: others can do this, to whom our important office is not intrusted.
Wherefore - look ye out among you seven men - Choose persons in whom ye can all confide, who will distribute the provisions impartially, and in due time; and let these persons be the objects of the choice both of the Hebrews and Hellenists, that all cause of murmuring and discontent may be done away. Though seven was a sacred number among the Jews, yet there does not appear to be any mystery intended here. Probably the seven men were to take each his day of service; and then there would be a superintendent for these widows, etc., for each day of the week.
Of honest report - Μαρτυρουμενους Persons to whose character there is authentic testimony, well known and accredited.
Full of the Holy Ghost - Saved into the spirit of the Gospel dispensation; and made partakers of that Holy Ghost by which the soul is sanctified, and endued with those graces which constitute the mind that was in Christ.
And wisdom - Prudence, discretion, and economy; for mere piety and uprightness could not be sufficient, where so many must be pleased, and where frugality, impartiality, and liberality, must ever walk hand in hand.
Whom we may appoint - Instead of καταστησωμεν, we may appoint, καταστησομεν, we shall appoint, is the reading of ABCDE, and several others. It makes, however, very little difference in the sense.
We will give ourselves continually to prayer - Προσκαρτερησομεν, We will steadfastly and invariably attend, we will carefully keep our hearts to this work. The word is very emphatic.
To prayer. - See this defined, Matthew 6:5; (note). Even apostles could not live without prayer; they had no independent graces; what they had could not be retained without an increase; and for this increase they must make prayer and supplication, depending continually on their God.
Ministry of the word - Διακονιᾳ του λογου, The deaconship of the word. The continual proclamation of the Gospel of their Lord; and, to make this effectual to the souls of the hearers, they must continue in prayer: a minister who does not pray much, studies in vain.
The office of deacon, διακονος, came to the Christian from the Jewish Church. Every synagogue had at least three deacons, which were called פרנסים parnasim, from פרנס parnes, to feed, nourish, support, govern. The פרנס parnas, or deacon, was a sort of judge in the synagogue; and, in each, doctrine and wisdom were required, that they might be able to discern and give right judgment in things both sacred and civil. The חזן chazan, and שמש shamash, were also a sort of deacons. The first was the priest's deputy; and the last was, in some cases, the deputy of this deputy, or the sub-deacon. In the New Testament the apostles are called deacons, 2 Corinthians 6:4; Ephesians 3:7; Colossians 1:23; : see also 2 Corinthians 11:15. Christ himself, the Shepherd and Bishop of souls, is called the deacon of the circumcision, λεγω δε Χριστον Ιησουν διακονον γεγενησθαι περιτομης, Romans 15:8. As the word implies to minister or serve, it was variously applied, and pointed out all those who were employed in helping the bodies or souls of men; whether apostles, bishops, or those whom we call deacons. Some remark that there were two orders of deacons:
In the Church of England, (the purest and nearest to the apostolical model in doctrine and discipline of all national Churches), a deacon receives ordination by the imposition of the hands of a bishop, in consequence of which he can preach, assist in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and in general perform any sacred office, except consecrating the elements, and pronouncing the absolution. No person in this Church can be ordained deacon till he be twenty-three years of age, unless by dispensation from the Abp. of Canterbury. There were deaconesses, both in the apostolic and primitive Church, who had principally the care of the women, and visited and ministered to them in those circumstances in which it would have been improper for a deacon to attend. They also assisted in preparing the female candidates for baptism.
At present, the office for which the seven deacons were appointed is, in the Church of England, filled by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor; in other Churches and religious societies, by elders, stewards, etc., chosen by the people, and appointed by the minister.
Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost - A person every way properly fitted for his work; and thus qualified to be the first martyr of the Christian Church.
Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch - A heathen Greek, who had not only believed in the God of Israel, but had also received circumcision, and consequently was a proselyte of the covenant; for, had he been only a proselyte of the gate, the Jews could not have associated with him. On the word proselyte, see the note on Exodus 12:43. As this is the only proselyte mentioned here, we may presume that all the rest were native Jews. From this Nicolas, it is supposed that the sect called Nicolaitans, mentioned Revelation 2:6, Revelation 2:15, derived their origin. Dr. Lightfoot doubts this, and rather inclines to derive the name "from ניכולא nicola, let us eat together; those brutes encouraging each other to eat meats offered to idols, like those in Isaiah 22:13, who said, Let us eat flesh and drink wine, etc." Both Irenaeus and Epiphanius derive this sect from Nicolas the deacon. Clemens Alexandrinus gives this Nicolas a good character, even while he allows that the sect who taught the community of wives pretended to derive their origin from him. See on Revelation 2:6; (note).
And when they had prayed - Instead of και, and, the Codex Bezae reads οἱτινες, who, referring the act of praying to the apostles, which removes a sort of ambiguity. The apostles prayed for these persons, that they might in every respect be qualified for their office, and be made successful in it. And, when they had done this, they laid their hands upon them, and by this rite appointed them to their office. So then, it plainly appears that the choice of the Church was not sufficient: nor did the Church think it sufficient; but, as they knew their own members best, the apostles directed them, Acts 6:3, to choose those persons whom they deemed best qualified, according to the criterion laid down by the apostles themselves, that they should be of honest report, and full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom. Let us examine the process of this business:
The word of God increased - By such preachers as the apostles and these deacons, no wonder the doctrine of God increased - became widely diffused and generally known; in consequence of which, the number of the disciples must be greatly multiplied: for God will ever bless his own word, when ministered by those whom he has qualified to proclaim it.
A great company of the priests were obedient to the faith - This was one of the greatest miracles wrought by the grace of Christ: that persons so intent on the destruction of Christ, his apostles, and his doctrine, should at last espouse that doctrine, is astonishing; and that they who had withstood the evidence of the miracles of Christ should have yielded to the doctrine of his death and resurrection, is worthy of note. And from this we may learn that it is not by miracles that sinners are to be converted unto God, but by the preaching of Christ dying for their offenses, and rising again for their justification.
Instead of ἱερεων, priests, a few MSS., and the Syriac, read Ιουδαιων, Jews; for the copyists seem to be struck here with two difficulties:
Stephen, full of faith and power - Instead of πιϚεως, faith, χαριτος, grace, is the reading of ABD, several others, the Syriac of Erpen, the Coptic, Armenian, Vulgate, and some of the fathers. This reading Griesbach has admitted into the text. Some MSS. join both readings. Stephen was full of faith - gave unlimited credence to the promises of his Lord; he was full of grace - receiving the fulfillment of those promises, he enjoyed much of the unction of the Divine Spirit, and much of the favor of his God; and, in consequence, he was full of power, δυναμεως, of the Divine energy by which he was enabled to work great wonders and miracles among the people.
The synagogue - of the Libertines, etc. - That Jews and proselytes from various countries had now come up to Jerusalem to bring offerings, and to attend the feast of pentecost, we have already seen, Acts 2:9-11. The persons mentioned here were foreign Jews, who appear to have had a synagogue peculiar to themselves at Jerusalem, in which they were accustomed to worship when they came to the public festivals.
Various opinions have been entertained concerning the Libertines mentioned here: Bp. Pearce's view of the subject appears to me to be the most correct.
"It is commonly thought that by this name is meant the sons of such Jews as had been slaves, and obtained their freedom by the favor of their masters; but it is to be observed that with these Libertines the Cyrenians and Alexandrians are here joined, as having one and the same synagogue for their public worship. And it being known that the Cyrenians ( Acts 2:10;) lived in Libya, and the Alexandrians in the neighborhood of it, it is most natural to look for the Libertines too in that part of the world. Accordingly we find Suidas, in his Lexicon, saying, upon the word Λιβερτινοι, that it is ονομα του εθνους, the name of a people. And in Gest. Collationis Carthagine habitae inter Catholicos et Donatistas, published with Optatus's works, Paris, 1679, (No. 201, and p. 57), we have these words: Victor episcopus Ecclesiae Catholicae Libertinensis dixit, Unitas est illic, publicam non latet conscientiam. Unity is there: all the world knows it. From these two passages it appears that there was in Libya a town or district called Libertina, whose inhabitants bore the name of Λιβερτινοι, Libertines, when Christianity prevailed there. They had an episcopal see among them, and the above-mentioned Victor was their bishop at the council of Carthage, in the reign of the Emperor Honorius. And from hence it seems probable that the town or district, and the people, existed in the time of which Luke is here speaking. They were Jews, (no doubt), and came up, as the Cyrenian and Alexandrian Jews did, to bring their offerings to Jerusalem, and to worship God in the temple there. Cunaeus, in his Rep. Hebr. ii. 23, says that the Jews who lived in Alexandria and Libya, and all other Jews who lived out of the Holy Land, except those of Babylon and its neighborhood, were held in great contempt by the Jews who inhabited Jerusalem and Judea; partly on account of their quitting their proper country, and partly on account of their using the Greek language, and being quite ignorant of the other. For these reasons it seems probable that the Libertines, Cyrenians, and Alexendrians, had a separate synagogue; (as perhaps the Cilicians and those of Asia had); the Jews of Jerusalem not suffering them to be present in their synagogues, or they not choosing to perform their public service in synagogues where a language was used which they did not understand."
It is supposed, also, that these synagogues had theological, if not philosophical, schools attached to them; and that it was the disciples or scholars of these schools who came forward to dispute with Stephen, and were enraged because they were confounded. For it is not an uncommon custom with those who have a bad cause, which can neither stand the test of Scripture nor reason, to endeavor to support it by physical when logical force has failed; and thus: -
"Prove their doctrine orthodox,
By apostolic blows and knocks."
In the reign of Queen Mary, when popery prevailed in this country, and the simplest women who had read the Bible were an overmatch for the greatest of the popish doctors; as they had neither Scripture nor reason to allege, they burned them alive, and thus terminated a controversy which they were unable to maintain. The same cause will ever produce the same effect: the Libertines, Cilicians, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, pursued this course: Stephen confounded them by Scripture and reason, and they beat his brains out with stones! This was the most effectual way to silence a disputant whose wisdom they could not resist. In the same way were the Protestants treated, when by Scripture and reason they had shown the absurdity and wickedness of that anti-christian system which the fire and the sword were brought forth to establish. These persecutors professed great concern at first for the souls of those whom they variously tortured, and at last burned; but their tender mercies were cruel, and when they gave up the body to the flames, they most heartily consigned the soul to Satan. Scires è sanguine natos: their conduct proclaimed their genealogy.
They there not able to resist the wisdom, etc. - He was wise, well exercised and experienced, in Divine things; and, as appears by his defense, in the following chapter, well versed in the Jewish history. The spirit by which he spake was the Holy Spirit, and its power was irresistible. They were obliged either to yield to its teachings, or were confounded by its truth. Several MSS. add to this verse, because he reproved them with boldness, they could not resist the truth. This reading is not genuine, though it exists (but in different forms) in some good MSS.
Then they suborned men - Ὑπεβαλον . They made underhand work; got associated to themselves profligate persons, who for money would swear any thing.
Blasphemous words against Moses, and against God - This was the most deadly charge they could bring against him. We have already seen, Matthew 9:4, that blasphemy, when against God, signifies speaking impiously of his nature, attributes, or works; and, when against men, it signifies speaking injuriously of their character, blasting their reputation, etc. These false witnesses came to prove that he had blasphemed Moses by representing him as an impostor, or the like; and God, by either denying his being, his providence, the justice of his government, etc.
And they - The Libertines, etc., mentioned before, stirred up the people - raised a mob against him, and, to assist and countenance the mob, got the elders and scribes to conduct it, who thus made themselves one with the basest of the people, whom they collected; and then, altogether, without law or form of justice, rushed on the good man, seized him, and brought him to a council who, though they sat in the seat of judgment, were ready for every evil work.
Against this holy place - The temple, that it shall be destroyed.
And the law - That it cannot give life, nor save from death. It is very likely that they had heard him speak words to this amount, which were all as true as the spirit from which they proceeded; but they gave them a very false colouring, as we see in the succeeding verse.
Saw his face, as it had been the face of an angel - Sayings like this are frequent among the Jewish writers, who represent God as distinguishing eminent men by causing a glory to shine from their faces. Rabbi Gedalia said that, "when Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh, they appeared like those angels which minister before the face of the Lord; for their stature appeared greater, and the splendor of their faces was like the sun, and their eyes like the wheels of the sun; their beard like clusters of grapes, and their words like thunder and lightning; and that, through fear of them, those who were present fell to the earth."
The like is said of Moses, in Debarim Rabba, fol. 75. that "when Sammael (Satan) came to Moses, the splendor of his face was like the sun, and himself resembled an angel of God." The reader may find several similar sayings in Schoettgen.
It appears that the light and power of God which dwelt in his soul shone through his face, and God gave them this proof of the falsity of the testimony which was now before them; for, as the face of Stephen now shone as the face of Moses did when he came down from the mount, it was the fullest proof that he had not spoken blasphemous words either against Moses or God, else this splendor of heaven had not rested upon him.
The history of the apostolic Church is a series of wonders. Every thing that could prevent such a Church from being established, or could overthrow it when established, is brought to bear against it. The instruments employed in its erection and defense had neither might nor power, but what came immediately from God. They work, and God works with them; the Church is founded and built up; and its adversaries, with every advantage in their favor, cannot overthrow it. Is it possible to look at this, without seeing the mighty hand of God in the whole? He permits devils and wicked men to work - to avail themselves of all their advantages, yet counterworks all their plots and designs, turns their weapons against themselves, and promotes his cause by the very means that were used to destroy it. How true is the saying, There is neither might nor counsel against the Lord!
Saturday, February 25th, 2017
the Seventh Week after Epiphany
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