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In those days ... - The first part of this chapter contains an account of the appointment of “deacons.” It may be asked, perhaps, why the apostles did not appoint these officers at the first organization of the church? To this, question we may reply, that it was better to defer the appointment until an occasion should occur when it would appear to be manifestly necessary and proper. When the church was small, its alms could be distributed by the apostles themselves without difficulty But when it was greatly increased when its charities were multiplied; and when the distribution might give rise to contentions, it was necessary that this matter should be entrusted to the hands of “laymen,” and that the “ministry” should be freed from all embarrassment, and all suspicions of dishonesty and unfairness in regard to pecuniary matters. It has never been found to be wise that the temporal affairs of the church should be entrusted in any considerable degree to the clergy, and they should be freed from such sources of difficulty and embarrassment.
Was multiplied - By the accession of the three thousand on the day of Pentecost, and of those who were subsequently added, Acts 4:4; Acts 5:14.
A murmuring - A complaint - as if there had been partiality in the distribution.
Of the Grecians - There has been much diversity of opinion in regard to these persons, whether they were “Jews” who had lived among the Gentiles, and who spoke the Greek language, or whether they were proselytes from the Gentiles. The former is probably the correct opinion. The word used here is not what is commonly employed to designate the inhabitants of Greece, but it properly denotes those who “imitate” the customs and habits of the Greeks, who use the Greek language, etc. In the time when the gospel was first preached, there were two classes of Jews - those who remained in Palestine, who used the Hebrew language, and who were appropriately called “Hebrews”; and those who were scattered among the Gentiles, who spoke the Greek language, and who used in their synagogues the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. These were called “Hellenists,” or, as it is in our translation, “Grecians.” See the notes on John 7:35. These were doubtless the persons mentioned here - not those who were proselyted from Gentiles, but those of Jewish origin who were not natives of Judea, who had come up to Jerusalem to attend the great festivals. See Acts 2:5, Acts 2:9-11. Dissensions would be very likely to arise between these two classes of persons. The Jews of Palestine would pride themselves much on the fact that they dwelt in the land of the patriarchs and the land of promise; that they used the language which their fathers spoke, and in which the oracles of God were given; and that they were constantly near the temple, and regularly engaged in its solemnities. On the other hand, the Jews from other parts of the world would be suspicious, jealous, and envious of their brethren, and would be likely to charge them with partiality, or of taking advantage in their contact with them. These occasions of strife would not be destroyed by their conversion to Christianity, and one of them is furnished on this occasion.
Because their widows ... - The property which had been contributed, or thrown into common stock, was understood to be designed for the equal benefit of “all” the poor, and particularly, it would seem, for the poor widows. The distribution before this seems to have been made by the apostles themselves - or possibly, as Mosheim conjectures (Commentary de rebus Christianorum ante Constantinum, pp. 139, 118), the apostles committed the distribution of these funds to the Hebrews, and hence, the Grecians are represented as complaining against them, and not against the apostles.
In the daily ministration - In the daily distribution which was made for their needs. Compare Acts 4:35. The property was contributed doubtless with an understanding that it should be “equally” distributed to all classes of Christians that had need. It is clear from the Epistles that “widows” were objects of special attention in the primitive church, and that the first Christians regarded it as a matter of indispensable obligation to provide for their needs, 1 Timothy 5:3, 1 Timothy 5:9-10, 1 Timothy 5:16; James 1:27.
Then the twelve - That is, the apostles. Matthias had been added to them after the apostasy of Judas, which had completed the original number.
The multitude of the disciples - It is not necessary to suppose that all the disciples were convened, which amounted to many thousands, but that the business was laid before a large number; or perhaps “the multitude” here means those merely who were more particularly interested in the matter, and who had been engaged in the complaint.
It is not reason - The original words used here properly denote “it is not pleasing or agreeable”; but the meaning evidently is, it is not “suitable” or “proper.” It would be a departure from the design of their appointment, which was to preach the gospel, and not to attend to the pecuniary affairs of the church.
Leave the word of God - That we should neglect or abandon the preaching of the gospel so much as would be necessary if we attended personally to the distribution of the alms of the church. The “gospel” is here called the “Word of God,” because it is his message; it is what he has spoken, or which he has commanded to be proclaimed to people.
Serve tables - This expression properly denotes “to take care of, or provide for the table, or for the daily needs of a family.” It is an expression that properly applies to a steward or a servant. The word “tables” is, however, sometimes used with reference to “money,” as being the place where money was kept for the purpose of “exchange, etc.,” Matthew 21:12; Matthew 25:27. Here the expression means, therefore, to attend to the pecuniary transactions of the church, and to make the proper distribution for the needs of the poor.
Look ye out - Select, or choose. As this was a matter pertaining to their own pecuniary affairs, it was proper that “they” should be permitted to choose such men as they could confide in. By this means the apostles would be free from all suspicions. It could not be pretended that “they” were partial, nor could it ever be charged on them that they wished to embezzle the funds by managing them themselves, or by entrusting them to men of their own selection. It follows from this, also, that the right of selecting “deacons” resides “in” the church, and does not pertain to the ministry. It is evidently proper that men who are to be entrusted with the alms of the church should be selected by the church itself.
Among you - That is, from among the Grecians and Hebrews, that there may be justice done, and no further cause of complaint.
Seven men - Seven was a sacred number among the Hebrews, but there does not appear to have been any “mystery” in choosing this number. It was a convenient number, sufficiently large to secure the faithful performance of the duty, and not so large as to cause confusion and embarrassment. It does not follow, however, that the same number is now to be chosen as deacons in a church, for the precise number is not commanded.
Of honest report - Of fair reputation; regarded as men of integrity. Greek: “testified of,” or “bear witness to”; that is, whose characters were well known and fair.
Full of the Holy Ghost - This evidently does not mean endowed with miraculous gifts, or the power of speaking foreign languages, for such gifts were not necessary to the discharge of their office, but it means people who were eminently under the influence of the Holy Spirit, or who were of distinguished piety. This was all that was necessary in the case, and this is all that the words fairly imply.
And wisdom - Prudence, or skill, to make a wise and equable distribution. The qualifications of deacons are still further stated and illustrated in 1 Timothy 3:8-10. In this place it is seen that they must be people of eminent piety and fair character, and that they must possess “prudence,” or wisdom, to manage the affairs connected with their office. These qualifications are indispensable to a faithful discharge of the duty entrusted to the officers of the church.
Whom we may appoint - Whom we may “constitute,” or set over this business. The way in which this was done was by prayer and the imposition of hands, Acts 6:6. Though they were “selected” by the church, yet the power of ordaining them, or setting them apart, was retained by the apostles. Thus, the rights of “both” were preserved - the right of the church to designate those who should serve them in the office of deacon, and the right of the apostles to organize and establish the church with its appropriate officers; on the one hand, a due regard to the liberty and privileges of the Christian community, and, on the other, the security of proper respect for the office as being of apostolic appointment and authority.
Over this business - That is, over the distribution of the alms of the church - not to preach, or to govern the church, but solely to take care of the sacred funds of charity, and distribute them to supply the needs of the poor. The office is distinguished from that of “preaching” the gospel. To that the apostles were to attend. The deacons were expressly set apart to a different work, and to that work they should be confined. In this account of their original appointment, there is not the slightest intimation that they were to “preach,” but the contrary is supposed in the whole transaction. Nor is there here the slightest intimation that they were regarded as an order of “clergy,” or as in any way connected with the clerical office. In the ancient synagogues of the Jews there were three men to whom was entrusted the care of the poor. They were called by the Hebrews “parnasin” or “pastors” (Lightfoot, Hor. Heb. et Talin.; Matthew 4:23). From these officers the apostles took the idea probably of appointing deacons in the Christian church, and doubtless intended that their duties should be the same.
But we will give ourselves continually - The original expression used here denotes “intense and persevering” application to a thing, or unwearied effort in it. See the notes on Acts 1:14. It means that the apostles designed to make this their constant and main object, undistracted by the cares of life, and even by attention to the temporal needs of the church.
To prayer - Whether this means “private” or “public” prayer cannot be certainly determined. The passage, however, would rather incline us to suppose that the “latter” was meant, as it is immediately connected with preaching. If so, then the phrase denotes that they would give themselves to the duties of their office, one part of which was public prayer, and another preaching. Still it is to be believed that the apostles felt the need of secret prayer, and practiced it, as preparatory to their public preaching.
And to the ministry of the word - To preaching the gospel, or communicating the message of eternal life to the world. The word “ministry” διακονία diakonia properly denotes the employment of a “servant,” and is given to the preachers of the gospel because they are employed in this as the “servants” of God and of the church. We have here a view of what the apostles thought to be the proper work of the ministry. They were set apart to this work. It was their main, their only employment. To this their lives were to be devoted, and both by their example and their writings they have shown that it was on this principle they acted. Compare 1 Timothy 4:15-16; 2 Timothy 4:2. It follows also that if their time and talents were to be wholly devoted to this work, it was reasonable that they should receive competent support from the churches, and this reasonable claim is often urged. See the 1 Corinthians 9:7-14 notes; Galatians 6:6 note.
And the saying - “The word” - the counsel, or command,
And they chose Stephen ... - A man who soon showed Acts 7:0 that he was in every way qualified for his office, and also suited to defend the cause of the Lord Jesus. This man had the distinguished honor of being the first Christian martyr.
And Nicolas - From this man some of the fathers (Iren., lib. 1:27; Epiphanius, 1; Haeres., 5) says that the sect of the “Nicolaitanes,” mentioned with so much disapprobation Revelation 2:6, Revelation 2:15, took their rise. But the evidence of this is not clear.
A proselyte - A “proselyte” is one who is converted from one religion to another. See the notes on Matthew 23:15. The word does not mean here that he was a convert to “Christianity” - which was true - but that he had been converted at Antioch from paganism to the Jewish religion. As this is the only proselyte mentioned among the seven deacons, it is evident that the others were native-born Jews, though a part of them might have been born out of Palestine, and have been of the denomination of “Grecians,” or “Hellenists.”
Of Antioch - This city, often mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 11:19-20, Acts 11:26; Acts 15:22, Acts 15:35; Galatians 2:11, etc.), was situated in Syria, on the river Orontes, and was formerly called “Riblath.” It is not mentioned in the Old Testament, but is frequently mentioned in the Apocrypha. It was built by Seleucus Nicanor, b.c. 301, and was named “Antioch,” in honor of his father Antiochus. It became the seat of empire of the Syrian kings of the Macedonian race, and afterward of the Roman governors of the eastern provinces. In this place the disciples of Christ were first called “Christians,” Acts 11:26. Josephus says it was the third city in size of the Roman provinces, being inferior only to Seleucia and Alexandria. It was long, indeed, the most powerful city of the East. The city was almost square, had many gates, was adorned with fine fountains, and possessed great fertility of soil and commercial opulence. It was subject to earthquakes, and was often almost destroyed by them. In 588 a.d. above 60,000 persons perished in it in this manner. In 970 a.d. an army of 100,000 Saracens besieged it, and took it. In 1268 a.d. it was taken possession of by the Sultan of Egypt, who demolished it, and placed it under the dominion of the Turks. It is now called “Antakia,” and until the year 1822 it occupied a remote corner of the ancient enclosure of its walls, its splendid buildings being reduced to hovels, and its population living in Turkish debasement. It contains now about 10,000 inhabitants (Robinson’s Calmet). This city should be distinguished from Antioch in Pisidia, also mentioned in the New Testament, Acts 13:14.
And when they had prayed - Invoking in this manner the blessing of God to attend them in the discharge of the duties of their office.
They laid their hands ... - Among the Jews it was customary to lay hands on the head of a person who was set apart to any particular office, Numbers 27:18; Compare Acts 8:19. This was done, not to impart any power or ability, but to “designate” that they received their authority or commission from those who thus laid their hands on them, as the act of laying hands on the sick by the Saviour was an act signifying that the power of healing came from him, Matthew 9:18; compare Mark 16:18. In such cases the laying on of the hands conveyed of itself no healing power, but was a sign or token that the power came from the Lord Jesus. Ordination has been uniformly performed in this way. See 1 Timothy 5:22. Though the seven deacons had been chosen by the church to this work, yet they derived their immediate commission and authority from the apostles.
And the word of God increased - That is, the gospel was more and more successful, or became more mighty and extensive in its influence. An instance of this success is immediately added.
And a great company of the priests - A great “multitude.” This is recorded justly as a remarkable instance of the power of the gospel. How great this company was is not mentioned, but the number of the priests in Jerusalem was very great; and their conversion was a striking proof of the power of truth. It is probable that they had been opposed to the gospel with quite as much hostility as any other class of the Jews. And it is now mentioned, as worthy of special record, that the gospel was sufficiently mighty to humble even the proud, and haughty, and selfish, and envious priests to the foot of the cross. One design of the gospel is to evince the power of truth in subduing all classes of people; and hence, in the New Testament we have the record of its having actually subdued every class to the obedience of faith. Some mss., however, here instead of “priests” read Jews. This reading is followed in the Syriac version.
Were obedient to the faith - The word “faith” here is evidently put for the “Christian religion.” Faith is one of the main requirements of the gospel Mark 16:16, and by a figure of speech is put for the gospel itself. To become “obedient to the faith,” therefore, is to obey the requirements of the gospel, particularly what requires us to “believe.” Compare Romans 10:16. By the accession of the “priests” also no small part of the reproach would be taken away from the gospel, that it made converts only among the lower classes of the people. Compare John 7:48.
And Stephen - The remarkable death of this first Christian martyr, which soon occurred, gave occasion to the sacred writer to give a detailed account of his character, and of the causes which led to his death. Hitherto the opposition of the Jews had been confined to threats and imprisonment; but it was now to burst forth with furious rage and madness, that could be satisfied only with blood. This was the first in a series of persecutions against Christians which filled the church with blood, and which closed the lives of thousands, perhaps a million, in the great work of establishing the gospel on the earth.
Full of faith - Full of “confidence” in God, or trusting entirely to his promises. See the notes on Mark 16:16.
And power - The power which was evinced in working miracles.
Wonders - This is one of the words commonly used in the New Testament to denote miracles.
Then there arose - That is, they stood up against him, or they opposed him.
Of the synagogue - See the notes on Matthew 4:23. The Jews were scattered in all parts of the world. In every place they would have synagogues. But it is also probable that there would be enough foreign Jews residing at Jerusalem from each of those places to maintain the worship of the synagogue; and at the great feasts, those synagogues adapted to Jewish people of different nations would be attended by those who came up to attend the great feasts. It is certain that there was a large number of synagogues in Jerusalem. The common estimate is, that there were four hundred and eighty in the city (Lightfoot; Vitringa).
Of the Libertines - There has been very great difference of opinion about the meaning of this word. The chief opinions may be reduced to three:
1. The word is Latin, and means properly a “freedman,” a man who had been a slave and was set at liberty. Many have supposed that these persons were manumitted slaves of Roman origin, but who had become proselyted to the Jewish religion, and who had a synagogue in Jerusalem. This opinion is not very probable; though it is certain, from Tacitus (Ann., lib. 2:c. 85), that there were many persons of this description at Rome. He says that 4,000 Jewish proselytes of Roman slaves made free were sent at one time to Sardinia.
2. A second opinion is, that these persons were Jews by birth, and had been taken captives by the Romans, and then set at liberty, and were thus called “freedmen” or “liberties.” That there were many Jews of this description there can be no doubt. Pompey the Great, when he subjugated Judea, sent large numbers of the Jews to Rome (Philo, In Legat. a.d. Caium). These Jews were set at liberty at Rome, and assigned a place beyond the Tiber for a residence. See Introduction to the Epistle to the Romans. These persons are by Philo called “libertines,” or “freedmen” (Kuinoel, in loco). Many Jews were also conveyed as captives by Ptolemy I. to Egypt, and obtained a residence in that country and the vicinity.
3. Another opinion is, that they took their name from some “place” which they occupied. This opinion is more probable from the fact that all the “other” persons mentioned here are named from the countries which they occupied. Suidas says that this is the name of a place. And in one of the fathers this passage occurs: “Victor, Bishop of the Catholic Church at Libertina, says, unity is there, etc.” from this passage it is plain that there was a place called “Libertina.” That place was in Africa, not far from ancient Carthage. See Dr. Pearce’s Commentary on this place.
Cyrenians - Jews who dwelt at “Cyrene” in Africa. See the notes on Matthew 27:32.
Alexandrians - Inhabitants of Alexandria in Egypt. That city was founded by Alexander the Great, 332 b.c., and was populated by colonies of Greeks and Jews. It was much celebrated, and contained not less than 300,000 free citizens, and as many slaves. The city was the residence of many Jews. Josephus says that Alexander himself assigned to them a particular quarter of the city, and allowed them equal privileges with the Greeks (Antiq., Romans 14:7, Romans 14:2; Against Apion, Romans 2:4). Philo affirms that of five parts of the city, the Jews inhabited two. According to his statement, there dwelt in his time at Alexandria and the other Egyptian cities not less than “ten hundred thousand Jews.” Amron, the general of Omar, when he took the city, said that it contained 40,000 tributary Jews. At this place the famous version of the Old Testament called the “Septuagint,” or the Alexandrian version, was made. See Robinson’s Calmet.
Cilicia - This was a province of Asia Minor, on the seacoast, at the north of Cyprus. The capital of this province was Tarsus, the native place of Paul, Acts 9:11. As Paul was of this place, and belonged doubtless to this synagogue, it is probable that he was one who was engaged in this dispute with Stephen. Compare Acts 7:58.
Of Asia - See the notes on Acts 2:9.
Disputing with Stephen - Doubtless on the question whether Jesus was the Messiah. This word does not denote “angry disputing,” but is commonly used to denote “fair and impartial inquiry”; and it is probable that the discussion began in this way, and when they were overcome by “argument,” they resorted, as disputants are apt to do, to angry criminations and violence.
To resist - That is, they were not able to “answer” his arguments.
The wisdom - This properly refers to his knowledge of the Scriptures; his skill in what “the Jews” esteemed to be wisdom - acquaintance with their sacred writings, opinions, etc.
And the spirit - This has been commonly understood of the Holy Spirit, by which he was aided; but it rather means the “energy, power,” or “ardor” of Stephen. He “evinced” a spirit of zeal and sincerity which they could not withstand; which served, more than mere argument could have done, to convince them that he was right. The evidence of sincerity, honesty, and zeal in a public speaker will often go further to convince the great mass of mankind, than the most able argument if delivered in a cold and indifferent manner.
Then they suborned men - To suborn in law means to procure a person to take such a false oath as constitutes perjury (Webster). It has substantially this sense here. It means that they induced them to declare what was false, or to bring a false accusation against him. This was done, not by declaring a palpable and open falsehood, but by “perverting” his doctrines, and by stating their own “inferences” as what he had actually maintained - the common way in which people oppose doctrines from which they differ. The Syriac reads this place, “Then they sent certain men, and instructed them that they should say, etc.” This was repeating an artifice which they had before practiced so successfully in relation to the Lord Jesus Christ. See Matthew 26:60-61.
We have heard ... - When they alleged that they had heard this is not said. Probably, however, they referred to some of his discourses with the people when he performed miracles and wonders among them, Acts 6:8.
Blasphemous words - See the notes on Matthew 9:3. Moses was regarded with profound reverence. His laws they held to be unchangeable. Any intimation, therefore, that there was a greater Lawgiver than he, or that his institutions were mere shadows and types, and were no longer binding, would be regarded as blasphemy, even though it should be spoken with the highest professed respect for Moses. That the Mosaic institutions were to be changed, and give place to another and a better dispensation, all the Christian teachers would affirm; but this was not said with a design to blaspheme or revile Moses. “In the view of the Jews,” to say that was to speak blasphemy; and hence, instead of reporting what he actually “did” say, they accused him of “saying” what “they” regarded as blasphemy. If reports are made of what people say, their very “words” should be reported; and we should not report our inferences or impressions as what they said.
And against God - God was justly regarded by the Jews as the giver of theft law and the author of their institutions. But the Jews, either willfully or involuntarily, not knowing that they were a shadow of good things to come, and were therefore to pass away, regarded all intimations of such a change as blasphemy against God. God had a right to change or abolish those ceremonial observances, and it was “not” blasphemy in Stephen to declare it.
And they stirred up the people - They “excited” the people, or alarmed their fears, as had been done before when they sought to put the Lord Jesus to death, Matthew 27:20.
The elders - The members of the Sanhedrin, or Great Council.
Scribes - See the notes on Matthew 2:4.
To the council - To the Sanhedrin, or the Great Council of the nation, which claimed jurisdiction in the matters of religion. See the notes on Matthew 2:4.
And set up false witnesses - It has been made a question why these persons are called “false” witnesses, since it is supposed by many that they reported merely the “words” of Stephen. It may be replied that if they did report merely his “words”; if Stephen had actually said what they affirmed, yet they perverted his meaning. They accused him of “blasphemy”; that is, of calumnious and reproachful words against Moses and against God That Stephen had spoken in such a manner, or had designed to “reproach” Moses, there is no evidence. What was said in the mildest manner, and in the way of cool argument, might easily be perverted so as in “their view” to amount to blasphemy. But there is no evidence whatever that Stephen had ever used these words on any occasion, and it is altogether improbable that he ever did, for the following reasons:
- Jesus himself never affirmed that he would destroy that place. He uniformly taught that it would be done by the “Gentiles,” Matthew 24:0. It is altogether improbable, therefore, that Stephen should declare any such thing.
(2)It is equally improbable that he taught that Jesus would abolish the special customs and rites of the Jews. It was long, and after much discussion, before the apostles themselves were convinced that they were to be changed, and when they were changed it was done gradually. See Acts 10:14, etc.; Acts 11:2, etc.; Acts 15:20; Acts 21:20, etc. The probability therefore is, that the whole testimony was “false,” and was artfully invented to produce the utmost exasperation among the people, and yet was at the same time so plausible as to be easily believed. For on this point the Jews were particularly sensitive; and it is clear that they had some expectations that the Messiah would produce some such changes. Compare Matthew 26:61 with Daniel 9:26-27. The same charge was afterward brought against Paul, which he promptly denied. See Acts 25:8.
This holy place - The temple.
The law - The Law of Moses.
Shall change - Shall abolish them, or shall introduce others in their place.
The customs - The ceremonial rites and observances of sacrifices, festivals, etc., appointed by Moses.
Looking stedfastly on him - Fixing the eyes intently on him. They were probably attracted by the unusual appearance of the man, his meekness, his calm and collected fearlessness, and the proofs of conscious innocence and sincerity.
The face of an angel - This expression is one evidently denoting that he manifested evidence of sincerity, gravity, fearlessness, confidence in God. It is used in the Old Testament to denote special wisdom, 2 Samuel 14:17; 2 Samuel 19:27. In Genesis 33:10, it is used to denote special majesty and glory, as if it were the face of God. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, it is said that the skin of his face shone so that the children of Israel were afraid to come near him, Exodus 34:29-30; 2 Corinthians 3:7, 2 Corinthians 3:13. Compare Revelation 1:16; Matthew 17:2. The expression is used to denote the impression produced on the countenance by communion with God; the calm serenity and composure which follow a confident committing of all into his hands. It is not meant that there was anything “miraculous” in the case of Stephen, but it is language that denotes calmness, dignity, and confidence in God, all of which were so marked on his countenance that it impressed them with clear proofs of his innocence and piety. The language is very common in the Jewish writings. It is not unusual for deep feeling, sincerity, and confidence in God, to impress themselves on the countenance. Any deep emotion will do this; and it is to be expected with religious feeling, the most tender and solemn of all feeling, will diffuse seriousness, serenity, calmness, and peace not affected sanctimoniousness, over the countenance.
In this chapter we have another specimen of the manner in which the church of the Lord Jesus was established. It was from the beginning amidst scenes of persecution, encountering opposition adapted to try the nature and power of religion. If Christianity was an imposture, it had enemies acute and malignant enough to detect the imposition. The learned, the cunning, and the mighty rose up in opposition, and by all the arts of sophistry, all the force of authority, and all the fearfulness of power, attempted to destroy it in the commencement. Yet it lived; it gained new accessions of strength from every new form of opposition; it evinced its genuineness more and more by showing that it was superior to the arts and malice of earth and of hell.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Acts 6". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany