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I. THE WITNESS IN JERUSALEM 1:1-6:7
This first major section of Acts contains the record of the founding of the church on the day of Pentecost, and its expansion in the city of Jerusalem.
B. The expansion of the church in Jerusalem 3:1-6:7
Luke recorded the events of this section to document the continued expansion of the church and to identify the means God used to produce growth. In chapters 3-5 the emphasis is on how the Christians’ witness brought them into conflict with the Jewish leaders.
The number of the disciples of Jesus continued to grow. This is the first mention of the word "disciple" in Acts where it occurs 28 times. The word appears about 238 times in the Gospels but nowhere else in the New Testament. This is probably because when Jesus was present, or had just departed to heaven, the New Testament writers referred to His followers in relationship to Him. Afterward they identified them in relation to one another and society. [Note: Blaiklock, p. 74.]
Two types of Jews made up the Jerusalem church. Some were native "Hebrews" who had lived primarily in Palestine, spoke Aramaic predominantly but also Greek, and used the Hebrew Scriptures. The others were "Hellenists" who originally lived outside Palestine (Jews of the Diaspora) but were now living in Palestine. Many of these Jews returned to Palestine to end their days in their ancestral homeland. They spoke Greek primarily, as well as the language of the area where they had lived, and they used the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul classed himself among the Hebrews (2 Corinthians 11:22; cf. Philippians 3:5) though he grew up outside Palestine. The basic difference between the Hebrews and Hellenists, therefore, appears to have been linguistic. [Note: Witherington, pp. 240-43.] Those who could speak a Semitic language were Hebrews, and those who could not were Hellenists. [Note: C. F. D. Moule, "Once More, Who Were the Hellenists?" Expository Times 70 (October 1958-September 1959):100.] Within Judaism frequent tensions between these two groups arose, and this cultural problem carried over into the church. The Hebrews observed the Mosaic Law much more strictly than their Hellenistic brethren. Conversely the Hellenists typically regarded the Hebrews as quite narrow-minded and self-centered.
The Hebrews and the Hellenists had their own synagogues in Jerusalem. [Note: Jewish Encyclopaedia, s.v. "Alexandrians in Jerusalem," by Emil Schürer.] But when they became Christians they came together in one fellowship. As the church grew, some of the Christians believed that the church leaders were discriminating against the Hellenists unfairly (cf. Ephesians 4:31; Hebrews 12:15). The conflict arose over the distribution of food to church widows (cf. Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:32 to Acts 5:11). Care of widows and the needy was a priority in Judaism (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18; et al.). The Jews provided for their widows weekly in the synagogues along with the poor. [Note: B. W. Winter, "Providentia for the Widows of 1 Timothy 5:3-16," Tyndale Bulletin 39 (1988):89. See also Barclay, p. 50; Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Christ, 2:437, n. 49; and Jeremias, Jerusalem in . . ., pp. 126-34.]
"It is not here said that the murmuring arose among the widows, but because of them. Women and money occasion the first serious disturbance in the church life." [Note: Robertson, 3:72-73.]
4. Internal conflict 6:1-7
The scene shifts back to life within the church (cf. Acts 4:32 to Acts 5:11). Luke wrote this pericope to explain some administrative changes that the growth of the church made necessary. He also wanted to introduce the Hellenistic Jews who took the lead in evangelizing the Gentiles. Their activity began shortly after the event he recorded here.
In this chapter we see two of Satan’s favorite methods of assailing the church that he has employed throughout history: internal dissension (Acts 6:1-7) and external persecution (Acts 6:8-15).
The 12 apostles wisely delegated responsibility for this ministry to other qualified men in the congregation so it would not distract them from their primary duties. This is the only reference to the Twelve in Acts (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5), though Luke referred to the Eleven earlier (Acts 2:14). Serving tables probably involved the organization and administration of ministry to the widows rather than simply serving as waiters or dispensers (cf. Matthew 21:12; Luke 19:23). [Note: Longenecker, p. 331.]
The leaders of the church asked the congregation to nominate seven qualified men whom the apostles would officially appoint. Many churches today take this approach in selecting secondary church leaders basing their practice on this model. For example, the congregation nominates deacons, and the elders appoint some or all of them. This approach was common in Judaism. It was not a new plan that the apostles devised, though it was new to the church.
"Selecting seven men may go back to the tradition in Jewish communities where seven respected men managed the public business in an official council." [Note: Toussaint, "Acts," p. 367.]
These men needed to have good reputations, to be under the Spirit’s control, and to be wise (Acts 6:3). Note that these are character traits, not special talents or abilities (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). The Twelve then would be free to concentrate on their primary responsibilities: prayer and the ministry of God’s Word (Acts 6:4).
"It is not necessarily suggested that serving tables is on a lower level than prayer and teaching; the point is rather that the task to which the Twelve had been specifically called was one of witness and evangelism." [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p. 126.]
As elsewhere in Scripture, prayer is the primary way God has ordained whereby His people secure His working in human affairs.
"Prayer is the most powerful and effective means of service in the Kingdom of God . . . It is the most dynamic work which God has entrusted to His saints, but it is also the most neglected ministry open to the believer.
"The Bible clearly reveals that believing prayer is essential for the advancement of the cause of Christ. It is the essential element for Christian victory . . .
"We may marvel at the spiritual power and glorious victories of the early apostolic church, but we often forget that its constant prayer life was the secret of its strength . . .
"If the church today would regain the spiritual power of the early church it must recover the truth and practice of prayer as a vital working force." [Note: D. Edmond Hiebert, Working With God: Scriptural Studies in Intercession, pp. 19-20.]
All seven men whom the congregation chose had Greek names. Luke gave the impression by using only Greek names that these seven were from the Hellenistic group in the church, though many Palestinian Jews at this time had Greek names. Thus Hellenists appear to have been given responsibility for settling a Hellenist complaint, a wise approach.
"One commentator has called it the first example of affirmative action-’Those with political power generally repressed complaining minorities; here the apostles hand the whole system over to the offended minority.’" [Note: Witherington, p. 248. His quotation is from Craig Keener, Bible Background Commentary, p. 338.]
Stephen and Philip appear later in Acts in important roles as apologist and evangelist respectively. Luke did not mention Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, and Parmenas again. Nicolas was a Gentile who had become a Jew by the proselyte process and then became a Christian. He came from Antioch of Syria, which Luke may have mentioned because of Antioch’s later prominence as a center of Christianity. Traditionally Antioch was Luke’s hometown. Tradition also links this Nicolas with the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:15), but this connection is questionable since there is no solid evidence to support it. Many Jews lived in Syria because of its proximity to Judea, and most of these lived in the city of Antioch. [Note: Irena Levinskaya, The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting, p. 128.]
Laying hands on someone symbolized the bestowal of a blessing (Genesis 48:13; et al.). It also represented identification with the person (Leviticus 1:4; Leviticus 3:2; et al.), commissioning as a kind of successor (Numbers 27:23), and granting authority (Acts 8:17-19; Acts 9:17; Acts 13:3; Acts 19:6; 1 Timothy 4:14; 1 Timothy 5:22; Hebrews 6:2). Here commissioning for a task is in view (cf. Acts 13:1-3) rather than formal ordination, which came later in church history. [Note: Witherington, p. 251.] Prayer accompanied this ceremony on this occasion, as was customary.
Many Bible students regard these seven men as the first deacons of the church. However, the text never uses the term "deacon" to describe them (cf. Acts 21:8). The Greek word diakonos (deacon) does not occur in Acts at all, though related forms of the word do even in this pericope. Diakonia ("serving" or "distribution" and "ministry") appears in Acts 6:1; Acts 6:4, and diakonein ("serve" or "wait on") occurs in Acts 6:2. I think it is more likely that these seven men represent a stage in the development of what later became the office of deacon. They probably served as a model for this office. Office typically follows function. The historical origin of deacons lies in Jewish social life. The historical origin of the elder office, incidentally, lies in Jewish civil and religious life, most recently in synagogue organization. As the Jerusalem church grew and as its needs and activities proliferated, it adopted some of the organizational features of Jewish culture that these Jewish believers knew well. [Note: See Phillip W. Sell, "The Seven in Acts 6 as a Ministry Team," Bibliotheca Sacra 167:665 (January-March 2010):58-67.]
"The early church had problems but, according to Acts, it also had leaders who moved swiftly to ward off corruption and find solutions to internal conflicts, supported by people who listened to each other with open minds and responded with good will." [Note: Tannehill, 2:81.]
This verse is another one of Luke’s summary progress reports that ends each major section of Acts (cf. Acts 2:47; Acts 9:31; Acts 12:24; Acts 16:6; Acts 19:20; Acts 28:31). It also corresponds to other summary paragraphs within this section of the book (cf. Acts 4:32-35; Acts 5:12-16). Luke linked the spread of God’s Word with church growth. This cause and effect relationship has continued throughout history. The advances of the gospel and the responses of the people were his primary concern in Acts 3:1 to Acts 6:7. Many of the numerous priests in Jerusalem were also becoming Christians. One writer estimated that about 2,000 priests lived in Jerusalem at this time. [Note: Fiensy, p. 228.] The gospel did not win over only the "laity" in Israel.
"The ordinary priests were socially and in other ways far removed from the wealthy chief-priestly families from which the main opposition to the gospel came. Many of the ordinary priests were no doubt men holy and humble of heart, like Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, men who would be readily convinced of the truth of the gospel." [Note: Bruce, Commentary on . . ., pp. 131-32. Cf. Jeremias, Jerusalem in . . ., pp. 198-213.]
This pericope helps us see several very important things about the priorities of the early church. First, the church showed concern for both spiritual and physical needs. Its leaders gave priority to spiritual needs (prayer and the ministry of the Word), but they also gave attention to correcting injustice and helping the poor. This reflects the Christians’ commitment to loving God wholeheartedly and loving their neighbors as themselves, God’s great ethical demands. Second, the early church was willing to adapt its organizational structure and administrative procedures to minister effectively and to meet needs. It did not view its original structure and practices as binding but adapted traditional structures and methods to facilitate the proclamation of the gospel and the welfare of the church. In contrast, many churches today try to duplicate the form and functions of the early church because they feel bound to follow these. Third, the early church did not practice some things that the modern church does. Rather than blaming one another for the problem that arose, the disciples corrected the injustice and continued to give prayer and the ministry of the Word priority. Rather than paternalistically feeling that they had to maintain control over every aspect of church life, the apostles delegated authority to a group within the church (that had the greatest vested interest) and let them solve the distribution problem. [Note: Longenecker, pp. 331-32.]
Acts 6:7 concludes Luke’s record of the witness in Jerusalem. From that city the gospel spread out into the rest of Judea, and it is that expansion that Luke emphasized in the chapters that follow next.
1. Stephen’s arrest 6:8-7:1
A. The martyrdom of Stephen 6:8-8:1a
Luke presented the events surrounding Stephen’s martyrdom in Jerusalem next. He did so to explain the means God used to scatter the Christians and the gospel from Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. This record also throws more light on the spiritual strength and vitality of the church at this time. Stephen’s experiences as recorded here resemble those of our Lord, as Peter’s did in the earlier chapters. Witherington listed 10 parallels between the passions of Jesus and Stephen. [Note: Witherington, p. 253.]
Stephen was full of grace (cf. cf. Acts 4:33; Luke 4:22) and power (cf. Acts 2:22; Acts 4:33) as well as the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3; Acts 6:5), wisdom (Acts 6:3), and faith (Acts 6:5). His ability to perform miracles seems unrelated to his having been appointed as one of the Seven (Acts 6:5; cf. Acts 21:8). Jesus and the Twelve were not the only ones who had the ability to perform miracles (cf. Acts 2:22; Acts 2:43; Acts 5:12).
II. THE WITNESS IN JUDEA AND SAMARIA 6:8-9:31
In this next major section of Acts, Luke narrated three significant events in the life and ministry of the early church. These events were the martyrdom of Stephen, the ministry of Philip, and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Luke’s presentation of these events was primarily biographical. In fact, he began his account of each event with the name of its major character (Acts 6:8; Acts 8:5; Acts 9:1). The time when these events took place was probably shortly after those reported in the preceding chapters of the book.
Many different synagogues existed in Jerusalem at this time (cf. Acts 24:12). The Talmud said there were 390 of them before the Romans destroyed the city. [Note: See Fiensy, p. 234.] Other rabbinic sources set the number at 460 and 480, but these may be exaggerations. [Note: See Edersheim, The Life . . ., 1:119.] Like local churches today, they tended to attract people with similar backgrounds and preferences. Many families that had experienced liberation from some kind of slavery or servitude evidently populated the Synagogue of the Freedmen. Some scholars believe that as many as five synagogues are in view in this reference, but the best interpretation seems to be that there was just one. [Note: See Riesner, pp. 204-6.]
"The Freedmen were Roman prisoners (or the descendants of such prisoners) who had later been granted their freedom. We know that a considerable number of Jews were taken prisoner by the Roman general Pompey and later released in Rome, and it is possible that these are meant here." [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p. 129. See also Barrett, pp. 323-24.]
These people had their roots in North Africa (Cyrene and Alexandria) and Asia Minor (Cilicia and Asia). Thus these were Hellenistic Jews, the group from which Stephen himself probably came. Since Saul of Tarsus was from Cilicia, perhaps he attended this synagogue, though he was not a freed man. The leading men in this congregation took issue with Stephen whom they had heard defend the gospel. Perhaps he, too, attended this synagogue. However they were unable to defeat him in debate. Stephen seems to have been an unusually gifted defender of the faith, though he was not one of the Twelve. He was a forerunner of later apologists. God guided wise Stephen by His Spirit as he spoke (cf. Luke 21:15).
This is the first occurrence in Acts of someone presenting the gospel in a Jewish synagogue. Until now we have read that the disciples taught and preached in the temple and from house to house (Acts 5:42). We now learn that they were also announcing the good news in their Jewish religious meetings. Paul normally preached first in the synagogue in towns he evangelized on his missionary journeys.
"While not minimizing the importance of the apostles to the whole church, we may say that in some way Stephen, Philip, and perhaps others of the appointed seven may well have been to the Hellenistic believers what the apostles were to the native-born Christians." [Note: Longenecker, p. 335.]
Failing to prove Stephen wrong by intellectual argumentation, his adversaries falsely accused him of defying Moses and God (cf. Matthew 26:61; Matthew 26:65). At this time the Jews defined blasphemy as any defiant sin. [Note: Gustaf H. Dalman, The Words of Jesus, p. 314.]
Stephen’s accusers stirred up the Jewish people, the Jewish elders (family and tribal leaders), and the scribes (Pharisees) against Stephen. Soldiers then arrested him and brought him before the Sanhedrin as they had done to Jesus, Peter, John, and the other apostles (Acts 4:15; Acts 5:27; cf. Acts 22:30). Until now we have read in Acts that Jewish persecution focused on the apostles, but now we read that other Christians began to experience this persecution.
The false testimony against Stephen was that he was saying things about the temple and the Mosaic Law that the Jews regarded as untrue and unpatriotic (cf. Matthew 26:59-61). Stephen appeared to be challenging the authority of the Pharisees, the Mosaic Law, and a major teaching of the Sadducees, namely, the importance of the temple. He was evidently saying the same things Jesus had said (cf. Matthew 5:21-48; Matthew 12:6; Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 14:58; John 2:19-21).
"Like the similar charge against Jesus (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58; cf. John 2:19-22), its falseness lay not so much in its wholesale fabrication but in its subtile and deadly misrepresentation of what was intended. Undoubtedly Stephen spoke regarding a recasting of Jewish life in terms of the supremacy of Jesus the Messiah. Undoubtedly he expressed in his manner and message something of the subsidiary significance of the Jerusalem temple and the Mosaic law, as did Jesus before him (e.g., Mark 2:23-28; Mark 3:1-6; Mark 7:14-15; Mark 10:5-9). But that is not the same as advocating the destruction of the temple or the changing of the law-though on these matters we must allow Stephen to speak for himself in Acts 7." [Note: Longenecker, p. 336.]
"For Luke, the Temple stands as a time-honored, traditional place for teaching and prayer in Israel, which serves God’s purpose but is not indispensable; the attitude with which worshippers use the temple makes all the difference." [Note: Francis D. Weinert, "Luke, Stephen, and the Temple in Luke-Acts," Biblical Theology Bulletin 17:3 (July 1987):88.]
Luke may have intended to stress Stephen’s fullness with the Holy Spirit that resulted in his confidence, composure, and courage by drawing attention to his face. Moses’ face similarly shone when he descended from Mt. Sinai after seeing God (cf. Acts 7:55-56; Exodus 34:29; Exodus 34:35). Perhaps Stephen’s hearers recalled Moses’ shining face. If so, they should have concluded that Stephen was not against Moses but like Moses. Stephen proceeded to function as an angel (a messenger from God), as well as looking like one, by bringing new revelation to his hearers, as Moses had. The Old Covenant had come through angelic mediation at Mt. Sinai (Deuteronomy 33:2 LXX; cf. Hebrews 2:2). Now revelation about the New Covenant was coming through one who acted like and even looked like an angel.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Acts 6". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent