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DISSENSION IN THE CHURCH—THE RISE OF A NEW ORDER OF CHURCH OFFICIALS
1. The Church’s first Strife allayed; or, the Institution of the Diaconate (Acts 6:1-7).
2. The Ministry of Stephen; or, the rising of a Bright Particular Star in the Church’s Firmament (Acts 6:8-15).
Acts 6:1. In those days should be in these days,—i.e., shortly before Stephen’s martyrdom which did not long antedate Saul’s conversion in A.D. 37. Hence the events recorded in the present chapter may be set down as having taken place in A.D. 35 or 36. It is satisfactory to know that while Baur denies, Zeller, and Weizsäcker admit that the ensuing narrative concerning Stephen proceeds upon undeniably historical ground. Was multiplied.—Better, was multiplying, or becoming numerous, through the teaching and preaching spoken of in Acts 6:2. Grecians.—Not Greeks, but Hellenists or Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora (Acts 9:29, Acts 11:20), as distinguished from the Hebrews or Palestinian Jews (Philippians 3:5), who talked in Syro-Chaldaic or Aramæan. Were (habitually) neglected.—Or overlooked, the imperfect hinting at the frequency of the occurrence, though it is not clear whether the complaint was well founded or only imaginary. The daily ministrations were not of private benefactions (Wendt) but of public alms from the funds already mentioned (Acts 2:45, Acts 4:35), either of food or of money.
Acts 6:2. The twelve must have included Matthias (Acts 1:26), whose apostleship is thus placed beyond dispute as valid, at least in the judgment of both his colleagues and the Church. The multitude of the disciples.—Of those resident in Jerusalem, since many must by this time have left the city. Not reason.—οὐκ ἄρεστον, properly = non placet, not pleasing, or not fit, becoming, suitable. Leave.—In the sense of “forsaking,” “deserting,” “discontinuing.” Serve or minister to tables.—The apostles had seemingly at first undertaken this work, acting “not merely as a teaching college, judicial bench, court of representatives, but also as an administrative authority; specially arranging, distributing, and superintending the feedings” (Holtzmann).
Acts 6:3. Wherefore, brethren, or according to some MSS., but, brethren, look ye out.—If the selection was made by the congregation, the appointment proceeded from the apostles. Of honest report.—Lit. attented persons—i.e., of good report (compare Luke 4:22; 1 Timothy 5:10). For Holy Ghost read Spirit.
Acts 6:4. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer.—The idea is that of steadfast perseverance.
Acts 6:5. On the names of the deacons see “Homiletical Analysis.” That all the seven were Hellenists arose not from the circumstance that they were intended solely to look after the Hellenist widows’ interests—of which there is no hint in the narrative; but probably from a desire to avoid anything that might look like favouring the Hebrew widows (Holtzmann). The statement that Nicolas was a proselyte suggests that all the others were Jews.
Acts 6:6. They, the apostles laid their hands on them, the deacons.—The first mention in Acts, but not the last (Acts 13:3), of this ceremony which occurred in the Old Testament; in the consecration of the Levites (Numbers 8:10), and in the appointment of Joshua (Numbers 27:23) and afterwards in the New in the ordination of ministers (1 Timothy 4:14; Hebrews 6:2).
Acts 6:7. Increased and multiplied.—The tenses (imperfect) indicating gradual and continuous growth, might be rendered kept on increasing and multiplying. A great company of the priests.—Not merely persona of Levitical descent (Zöckler), but real sacerdotal persons, priests proper, who must then have been numerous, considering the number, 4,289, that returned from Babylon (Ezra 2:36; Ezra 2:38). Obedient to the faith.—A genuine Pauline expression (see Romans 1:5).
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 6:1-7
The Institution of the Diaconate; or, the Church’s First Strife allayed
I. The occasion of its institution.—
1. The rapid increase of the Church’s members. It was certainly gratifying that, notwithstanding the persecutions directed against the apostles, their labours in propagating the gospel were attended by conspicuous success. The remarkable influx of disciples which took place under their preaching would most likely have called for assistance of some sort in the organisation of the Christian community. The special form of assistance they did solicit was dictated by the state of matters now to be mentioned.
2. The unexpected rise of dissension among the Church’s members.
(1) The opposing parties in the Church were the Palestinian, or Hebrew (i.e., Syro-Chaldaic, or Aramaic) speaking, and the Grecian, or Greek-speaking Jews. Though both of one blood, they were nevertheless divided by speech, and as a consequence by habits of thought ard social customs. The rivalry, and even jealousy between them, the Hebrew or Conservative party, who adhered with greater closeness and tenacity to the law and traditions of Mosaism, and the Grecian (Hellenists) or Liberal party, who had been influenced by the broader culture and laxer notions of the empire generally, perpetuated itself for long years in the Christian Church, and was a source of much strife during the early centuries of our era.
(2) The cause of their dissension was the habitual neglect (whether studied or accidental, real or imaginary, is not stated) of the Grecian widows in the daily distribution of food or money. It is not likely that the apostles or their helpers deliberately arranged thus to set a mark of inferiority upon the Greek-speaking Christians; but one can readily perceive how widows of foreign origin might not be so well known as those who resided in Palestine and Jerusalem, and how, being foreigners, they might have greater difficulty in making their wants known and getting them attended to. In any case it is not hard to understand how the Grecian Christians should feel somewhat sensitive over what had the appearance of a studied neglect.
II. The mode of its institution.—
1. The apostolic decision concerning themselves.
(1) To withdraw from the business of dispensing the Church’s alms. Not because they resented the suspicion of unfairness implied in the complaints of the Greek-speaking Jews (or Christians). The complaint may have been just, and (whether it was just or not) the apostles may have seen that some different arrangement, as, e.g., the distribution of the Church’s alms by responsible officials—would be required in order to restore confidence and prevent the recurrence of similar mistakes or complaints. Not because they deemed the service of tables too mean an occupation for persons of their capacity and dignity. It may be taken for granted that the apostles were not actuated in their procedure by personal vanity or self-esteem, but because they considered themselves to have been called to a higher form of ministry with which this lower interfered, to the extent of threatening to withdraw them altogether from it. In their estimation preaching was a more exalted form of work than acting as Church almoners, distributing the bread of life, a more urgent labour than doling out, even to poor widows, loaves and fishes or the wherewithal to purchase them. And because this latter was work for which the Church had an ample supply of competent workers within her ranks.
(2) To reserve themselves for the more spiritual labours of the apostolate—praying and preaching. By and-by they would need assistants in these duties also; but in the meantime these claimed their whole time and attention. N.B.—The position of pre-eminence among ministerial duties here assigned to praying and preaching should be noted by those who think that in modern times these should be reduced to a minimum. Praying and preaching are twin gospel ministries that never should, and cannot be dissociated except to the detriment of both.
2. The apostolic direction to the Church members.
(1) What it was. To “look out from among themselves seven men of good report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” whom the apostles might appoint over the business of serving the Church’s tables. In which direction should be noted: First, the proper work of the diaconate. “To serve tables,” to distribute the Church’s alms, and care generally for the poor. This, as the cases of Stephen and Philip showed, excluded not the exercise, where possessed, of the gift of preaching, praying, or working miracles. Secondly, the requisite qualifications for the diaconate. Approved character. The deacons (seven in number, most likely because no more were required; but see “Hints on Acts 6:5”) were to be of “good report”—i.e., of recognised Christian standing and worth (compare1 Timothy 3:8-10; 1 Timothy 3:8-10). Eminent piety. “Full of the Spirit”—i.e., of the Holy Spirit, which would be known by the fruits of the Spirit appearing in their lives (Matthew 7:20). Practical sagacity. “Full of wisdom,” which probably meant that insight into truth, discernment of character, and knowledge of how to act, which resulted from being inspired and led by the Holy Ghost. Thirdly, the body to elect the diaconate. The congregation of believers. Neither their leaders, the apostles, nor a committee of their number, but the whole assembly of the Church members—all who chose to take part in the proceedings, which would likely be the majority of those residing in Jerusalem. The apostles’ language expressly recognises the Church as the elective board. Fourthly, the source of authority for the diaconate. This the apostles as distinctly reserved for themselves. If the congregation selected, they appointed; if the congregation called, they ordained.
(2) How it was received. “The saying pleased the whole multitude.” This showed the wisdom by which the apostles had been guided in proposing their motion; the confidence with which they were regarded by the believing community, no one attempting or desiring to dissent; and the spirit of unity which still prevailed and could triumph over the incipient stirrings of discord. Happy the Church whose pastors are guided by the Chief Shepherd, whose counsels are accepted by their congregations, and whose people are actuated by a spirit of love and concored!
(3) How it was carried out. First, the election of the seven. “They chose Stephen,” etc. (see “Hints”). Secondly, the presentation of the seven. To infer that the election was conducted in the absence of the apostles would not be safe. Thirdly, the ordination of the seven. The apostles, having prayed, “laid their hands upon them.” In this act the brethren did not join, showing that the authorisation of the new officers proceeded not from them. The laying on of hands—first mentioned in connection with the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48:10-14), of frequent occurrence in Mosaic ritual (Leviticus 3:2; Leviticus 16:21; Numbers 8:12), and used in appointing Joshua to succeed Moses (Numbers 27:18)—became the customary form in the New Testament Church of Dedication to a sacred office (Acts 13:3; 1 Timothy 4:14). “It was a symbol of the impartation of the gifts and graces” which those dedicated “needed to qualify them for the office,” and was “of the nature of a prayer that God would bestow the necessary gifts rather than a pledge that these were actually conferred” (Hackett).
III. The result of its institution.—By setting free the apostles to attend to higher duties important consequences followed.
1. A wide extension of the gospel. “The word of God increased.” The area over which it spread enlarged. The influence it wielded deepened.
2. A large increase of disciples. Their number multiplied in Jerusalem greatly. Christ promised, if He were lifted up, to draw all men unto Himself (John 12:32); and wherever the gospel is openly, courageously, affectionately, and faithfully proclaimed, it seldom fails to secure adherents.
3. A great accession from the priesthood. This must have been a numerous body at the time to which this chapter refers, since, according to Ezra (Acts 2:36-38), it was 4,289 strong on returning from Babylon. The coming over to Christianity of so considerable a company of priests, of whom none had ever followed Christ, marked a signal advance in Christianity. Plumptre suggests that their conversion may have been due to the preaching of Stephen, who anticipated Paul in announcing the passing away of the temple worship, which had probably become a weariness to the flesh and an intolerable burden to the spirit of the more earnest, at least of the priests, who, accordingly, responded to the fascination of a simpler and more spiritual worship.
1. That Christians ought to be, but are not always, above quarrelling (1 Corinthians 3:3; Galatians 5:20; Philippians 2:3).
2. That oversight may occur in the bestregulated congregations.
3. That Christian ministers and people should ever study the things that make for peace (Romans 14:19).
4. That nothing should be allowed to hinder a Christian minister from his specific work of preaching and praying.
5. That Christian congregations have a right to elect their own officebearers.
6. That those who hold office in the Christian Church should be above suspicion.
7. That the word of God cannot be bound (2 Timothy 2:9).
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 6:1. Murmuring in the Primitive Church.
I. The occasion of it.—It sprang out of the multiplying of the disciples. This teaches—
1. That increase of numbers does not always mean increase of happiness, increase of devotion, increase of spiritual life, but has often brought increase of trouble and discontent alone. Undiluted joy, uninterrupted success, is not to be the portion of God’s people while tabernacling here below.
2. That the presence of supernatural gifts, the power of working miracles and speaking with tongues, did not raise the spiritual level of individual believers above that we find in the Church of the present day. What a comfort to God’s servant striving to do his duty is the study of this sixth chapter of the Acts! The apostles themselves did not escape the accusation of favouritism.
3. That the primitive Church was no ideal communion but a society with failings and weaknesses and discontent, exactly like those which exist in the Church of our own times.
II. The ground of it.—That which lay at the basis of this murmuring was “a racial question,” or perhaps it should be said those “social and linguistic differences” which “had found place in the Church.” “The bitter dissensions which racial and linguistic differences have made in the Church of every age are here depicted in miniature. The quarrels between the East and West, between Greeks and Latins, between Latins and Teutons, between Teuton and Celt, between Roman Catholic and Protestant, between the whites and negroes, between European Christians and Hindoo converts—the scandalous scenes still enacted round the Holy Place at Jerusalem, where peace is kept between nominal Christians only by the intervention of Mahometan soldiers—all turn upon the same points and embody the same principles.
III. The removal of it.—The difficulty which had arisen was solved by laying down the following principles:
1. That there are diversities of functions and of work in the Christian Church. There is a ministry of the word and there is a serving of tables.
2. That one class should not absorb every function; for if it does, the highest function of all, the ministry of the word and prayer, will inevitably suffer.
3. That the Church of Christ should ever have the power to organise herself in the face of new departures, while at the same time she proclaims the absolute necessity and the perpetual obligation of the Christian ministry in her midst.—G. T. Stokes, D.D.
Dissension, in the Church.—
1. Old. Dating from Apostolic, yea, even from Pentecostal times.
2. Common. Having shown itself in almost every Christian community since.
3. Unbecoming. All sin is; this especially so as breaking out among those who should love as brethren.
4. Hurtful. As again all sin is, but this in particular as marring the beauty, destroying the peace, and hindering the usefulness of the Church.
Acts 6:2. Serving Tables; or, the Church’s Care of the Poor.—Of Christian service this is
I. A necessary form.—Considering that God hath chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith (James 2:5), that Christ esteems them as His brethren (Matthew 25:40), and that kindness to the poor has been specially enjoined on Christ’s disciples (Acts 20:35; Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 4:28).
II. An honourable form.—Though not to be placed on a level with preaching, yet to be highly esteemed as one requiring the most exalted gifts and conferring the most enduring benefits (1 Timothy 5:10).
III. A difficult form.—Calling for much wisdom and tenderness, so as to avoid giving offence by either neglecting or hurting the sensibilities of the recipients of the Church’s bounty (Romans 12:8).
IV. A profitable form.—Since Christ will reward all such service as done to Himself (Matthew 25:40).
Acts 6:1-2. Blots in a Church.
I. When nominal adherents multiply faster than true disciples.
II. When a spirit of discord and division breaks out among its members.
III. When the poor are neglected and the rich only attended to.
IV. When ministers have no time to preach because of being absorbed in secular business.
V. When the spirit of prayer dies out of both pulpit and pew.
Acts 6:4. Praying and preaching.
I. Praying without preaching.—An imperfect if not a presumptuous ministry. Christ having ordained the preaching of the gospel as a means of its propagation (Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:47). This form of worship cannot be discontinued without sin. A word for those who would dispense with the sermon in church services or reduce it to the smallest dimensions.
II. Preaching without praying.—An unprofitable exercise. The same Lord who commanded His disciples to preach also taught them to pray (Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:1), and said, “Without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). A hint to those who forget that the ends of the ministry cannot be reached by human wisdom or eloquence alone.
III. Praying and preaching.—The true ideal of an acceptable ministry. What Christ hath joined let none of His followers put asunder (1 Timothy 2:1-8).
Acts 6:5. The First Christian Deacons.
I. Their number.—Seven. Not likely either:
1. Because the congregations in Jerusalem were seven in number, and each selected a man; or
2. Because the number of believers was now seven thousand, and one was chosen for each thousand; or
3. Because of the sacredness of the number seven; or
4. Because there were already different elements in the Church, Hebrews
(1), that required to be provided for; or
5. Because Jerusalem was divided into seven districts; or
6. Because there were seven archangels; or
7. Because the gifts of the Holy Spirit were sevenfold; or
8. Because among the Libertini of Rome “there was a distinct guild or collegium known as the Septemviri Epulones or Seven Stewards, whose business it was to arrange for the banquets held in honour of the gods which were more or less analogous to the Christian agapœ, on certain set days” (Plumptre); but
9. Probably because, for some reason not stated, seven was considered by the apostles the number required for the work.
II. Their names.—All Greek. But not therefore all belonging to Hellenistic Jews, since Palestinian Jews with foreign names were not rare (see Acts 1:23).
1. Stephen. An uncommon name appearing in few inscriptions, but found in the burial place of the Empress Livia as the designation of a libertinus or freedman, a goldsmith, and an immunis—i.e., one exempted from the religious obligations of his trade guild. In addition the name is found “on a tablet in the museum of the Collegio Romano.” Wherefore it has been conjectured that “in the proto-martyr of the Church … we have one of the earliest representatives of Roman Christianity” (Plumptre). His character is given in words afterwards used of Barnabas (Acts 11:24).
2. Philip. Subsequently styled an Evangelist (Acts 21:8), and employed to preach the gospel to the city of Samaria (Acts 8:5) and to the eunuch (Acts 8:26). A tradition, preserved by Epiphanius, places Philip as well as Stephen among the Seventy. The fact that, when Paul arrived at Cæsarea (Acts 20:8), Philip had four fully grown daughters renders it probable that at the date of his election he was married.
6. Parmenas. Of these four, nothing being known, nothing need be surmised. Christ can be as well served by obscure as by famous men. If Stephen acquired the glory of being the first martyr perhaps they, like Philip, had the honour of long service, and unlike him had the merit of serving without distinction.
7. Nicolas. What Luke records of him is that he was a proselyte of Antioch, and therefore the first Gentile named as having been admitted to the Christian Church; what Luke does not record is that he was the founder of the sect of the Nicolaitanes (Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:15)—a supposition not hastily to be credited, though attested by Irenaeus (I. xxvi, 3; III. xi. 1), Clement of Alexandria (Strom. II. xx. 118; III. 4), and Hippolytus (vii. 36), and accepted by some moderns (Zöckler and others). The statement that Nicolas was a proselyte may imply that the others were of Jewish birth.
III. Their duties.—
1. Principally to attend to the administration of the Church’s benevolence, and generally to care for the poor.
2. In addition to evangelise, if they possessed the gifts for such work—as was shown by both Stephen and Philip.
Note.—That the seven men, though not expressly named “deacons,” were the forerunners of the ecclesiastical officers who afterwards bore that title (1 Timothy 3:8), is apparent. Though nothing is said by Peter about their being constituted a new order of Church rulers, it need not be doubted that the Church came to recognise them as such on the ground of this transaction. Since the days of Cyprian this opinion has prevailed. That the seven are not like the later deacons subordinated to the presbyters is no valid objection (Holtzmann), because the organisation of the Church at this time may not have been complete. That the seven formed a special order of officials created for a special purpose (Weizsäcker) may be true without the inference being correct that the order was not designed to be permanent. That funds for the poor were at a later period entrusted to the hands of the elders (Acts 11:30) does not prove that the diaconate gradually developed into the presbyterate (Vitringa, Böhmer, Lange, Ritschl, Wendt, Lechler), but merely that the elders, as the spiritual rulers of the Church, received the money from those who brought it. The actual distribution may have been carried out by deacons. The notion that the seven were the predecessors of both bishops (ἐπίσκοποι) and deacons (διάκονοι), and that neither of these constituted a preaching or teaching order, but were merely finance officers (Hatch, Harnack), is not in accordance with Scripture (1 Timothy 3:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:24).
Acts 6:1-5. The Seven Chosen.
I. The unique functions of the Church.—It must be assumed that, in the rise of the Christian Church, a new power obtained among men. Baptised with this new “power,” the Church confronted the world with the fact of the unity of the race. The wonderful works of God were confined to no peculiar peoples; they meant the Church for the world. In addition to this was the new principle as to social life. The poor should share, equally with the rich, the gospel benefits. Says Mr. Lecky: “No achievements of the Christian Church are more truly great than those which it has effected in the sphere of charity.”
II. The choice of “the seven.”—That the best men cannot always please is evidenced by the text. In their distribution of charity the apostles failed. They were accused of neglecting the Grecians in their zeal for the Hebrew converts. There are two important truths involved in that election, claiming special notice. Thus, firstly, the responsibilities inhering in the Church-membership. It was not an apostolic appointment. Not even Peter could choose; the election was the act of the multitude. Secondly, the wisdom of the Church is evidenced in their choice. Instead of further murmuring there had come a profound peace—a peace built on no compromise.
III. The characteristics of “the seven.”—They must be men of “good report.” There is no disputing the fact that, in the apostolic estimate, the truest religion makes men of the best and most honest report. No office—of bishop or evangelist or deacon—can give a good report to a dishonest man. Character is greater than office-bearing. Again, “the seven” must be “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” In this demand lay hidden the secret of their spiritual power.
IV. The model character of the diaconate.—It is a natural sequence of the choice of “the seven” that it should be supplemented by a character equal to the highest ideal. Stephen met the fullest requirements.—Monday Club Sermons.
Acts 6:7. The Progress of the Church.
I. How it is effected.—By the preaching of the word.
1. In ever-enlarging fulness.
2. In ever-widening circles.
3. By ever-increasing agents.
4. With ever-deepening earnestness.
II. How it is revealed.—By the multiplication of disciples.
1. Not of merely nominal adherents, which are not always a source of strength.
2. But of genuine believers, whose hearts have been touched by grace.
III. How it is consolidated.—By obedience to the faith.
1. By the submission of the whole being to the Lord of faith, Christ.
2. By the consecration of every power to the life and work of faith.
3. By regulating every step in accordance with the principle of faith.
Acts 6:8. Faith.—According to the best texts should be grace (Acts 4:33); the change having probably been made to correspond with Acts 6:5.
Acts 6:9. The synagogue which is called, etc., should be of the Libertines and of the Cyrenians and of, etc. The Rabbis credited Jerusalem with 480 synagogues, but Talmudic information is not perfectly reliable. The Libertines, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians may have attended one synagogue (Holtzmann, Hausrath, Zöckler, Plumptre), and the Cilicians along with the Asians another; but the simplest view is to repeat “some of,” etc., before each proper name, and to count as many synagogues as there are names (Meyer, De Wette, Hackett). The Libertini were Jews who had been slaves at Rome, having been deported thither after Pompey’s war, but on obtaining their freedom had returned to Jerusalem. Tacitus (Ann., ii. 85) speaks of 4,000 of such Jewish freedmen as having been banished to Sardinia. From this class Stephen may have sprung. The Cyrenians were Jews from Cyrene (Acts 2:10), of the population of which island the fourth part were Jews. The Alexandrians.—From the city of that name, of which the fifth part was Jewish. To the synagogue of Cilicia Saul of Tarsus may have belonged (Acts 7:58). Asia, being distinguished from Cilicia, cannot mean the whole of Asia Minor, but must be restricted to Proconsular Asia, as in Acts 2:9; Acts 16:6; Acts 19:10; Acts 19:22; Acts 19:26-27, etc. (Holtzmann); though Ramsay (The Church in the Roman Empire, p. 150) thinks the use of the term here “is quite consistent with either the Roman (the narrower) or the popular (the wider) sense.”
Acts 6:11. Suborned.—I.e., secretly instructed, putting the charge into their mouths (compare Matthew 26:59-60). Blasphemous words.—Compare Matthew 26:65.
Acts 6:12. The elders and the Scribes.—The classes from which the Sanhedrim was taken.
Acts 6:13. Set up.—Introduced and placed before the council (Hackett). False witnesses.—No extravagant exaggeration of Luke, contradicted by the actual facts of the case (Baur, Zeller, Overbeck), since, according to chap. 7. Stephen had made no such assault upon the Law and the Temple as that with which he was charged (Zöckler). It is noticeable that the adjective blasphemous is now in the best texts omitted as an insertion from Acts 6:11.
Acts 6:14. This Jesus of Nazareth.—In the witnesses’ mouths an expression of contempt. Shall destroy this place.—The temple, in a room or chamber of which the court may have been sitting. Based probably on a reminiscence of Christ’s words in John 2:19, which Stephen may have quoted. The customs which Moses delivered us.—Compare Acts 16:21, Acts 21:21; meaning the ceremonial ordinances.
Acts 6:15. All that sat in the council. Baur finds in the statement that the scene with reference to Stephen was laid before the council a desire to institute a parallel between Stephen’s trial and that of Christ; but no sufficient reason can be given why the accuracy of Luke’s narrative should be challenged. Weizsäcker admits that Stephen was put upon his trial, and, as the result, stoned to death (see on Acts 7:59). The face of an angel.—Signifying more than that Stephen’s countenance was illumined by a radiant serenity produced by the fulness of the Spirit which dwelt within him (Holtzmann). At the least the expression points to a supernatural lustre like that with which the face of Moses shone on descending from Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:13). According to Old Testament conceptions angels were superterrestrial beings, who, in order to be seen by men, were able to assume bodily forms corresponding to their rank. Since all in the council beheld Stephen’s face, it is clear that the historian is not dealing with a vision, but depicting an external phenomenon.
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 6:8-15
The Ministry of Stephen; or, the Rising of a Bright Particular Star
I. The miracles and preaching of Stephen.—
1. His miracles were great.
(1) In origin, proceeding from the grace (rather than faith) of which he was full—grace here being the supernatural endowment conferred on him by the Holy Ghost.
(2) In efficiency, being remarkable for the indications they gave of divine power.
(3) In number, it being most likely they were neither few nor small, but numerous and striking.
(4) In impressiveness, having in all probability arrested the attention and awed the hearts of those in whose presence they were done. What they were is not told—an indication that Luke was not composing a romance but writing a history.
2. His preaching was irresistible.
(1) For the wisdom (knowledge of divine truth) and spiritual insight (discernment of its applicability to souls) which it displayed, and (compare Luke 21:15),
(2) for the Holy Spirit who was behind that wisdom and that insight as their source, inspiration, and power (compare Mark 13:11). No interpreter of Scripture can be placed alongside of the Holy Ghost for either clearness or force of exposition (1 Corinthians 2:13).
II. The opponents and revilers of Stephen.—
1. His opponents. Certain parties from the various synagogues in the metropolis, of which, according to the Rabbis, there were then 480.
(1) Their designations. Libertines: freed men who had been slaves, their fathers having been sold as bondmen to Rome after Pompey’s expedition against Judæa in B.C. 53. Cyrenians: belonging to the city of Cyrene in Lybia, North Africa, of whose population a fourth part were Jews (Jos., Ant., XIV. vii., 2), the rest being derived from the Lacedemonians (Wars, II. xvi., 4). From this class came Simon the Cyrenian (Luke 23:26), with his two sons, Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). Cyrenians attended Pentecost (Acts 2:10), and preached to the Greek-speaking Jews at Antioch (Acts 11:20), while Lucius of Cyrene was among the prophets and teachers associated with the Church in that city (Acts 13:1). Alexandrians: Jews from Alexandria in Egypt, the second city in the empire, and a principal seat of Hellenic learning and culture. Numbering one hundred thousand, they occupied a quarter of the city by themselves, were governed by an ethnarch of their own (i.e., enjoyed Home Rule), and had high privileges conferred upon them by Ptolemy Philadelphus. There Philo at that time resided. From Alexandria in former times (B.C. 280) had come the Septuagint or Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Cilicians: from the south-east of Asia Minor, where many Jews were settled, Antiochus the Great having established a colony there. Among those attached to their synagogue would no doubt be Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:11). Asians: from the pro-consular province or geographical division of Asia Minor, which included Mysia, Lydia, and Caria, and had Ephesus as its capital. Asian Jews appear at a later stage in the history of Paul (Acts 21:27).
(2) Their disputation. They discussed with Stephen the teaching he promulgated, which, in addition to the doctrine of Jesus and the resurrection, embraced that of the passing away of the Old Testament temple-worship, for the permanence of which they as patriots and disciples of Moses jealously contended.
(3) Their defeat. They could not resist the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke. Not his equals in either Biblical learning or sacred eloquence, they could not reply to his arguments, or deny his conclusions, being inwardly convinced of the truth of both.
(4) Their duplicity. To avenge themselves of their victorious adversary they secretly instructed witnesses to appear against him with a trumped-up accusation, the terms of which they had previously concerted.
2. His revilers. These wretched instrument; of his opponents’ treachery, were without question, “lewd fellows of the baser sort,” creatures without consciences—
“Fellows by the hand of nature mark’d
Quoted and sign’d to do a deed of shame”—
Shakespeare, King John, Act IV., Sc. 2.
who for a consideration would lend themselves to any “bloody villainy,” and would not hesitate to swear away the lives of the innocent. Such monsters of wickedness had appeared against the Saviour (Matthew 26:59).
III. The arrest and indictment of Stephen.—
1. His arrest.
(1) Moved by his defeated opponents. A poor answer to give another’s arguments to shut him up in prison or charge him with a crime he has not committed. But people who fail in logic frequently resort to law, endeavouring to reach by force or fraud what they have not been able to gain by honesty and reason.
(2) Effected by the populace, the elders, and the Scribes. It is never difficult to inflame the mob, whose inconstancy is as proverbial as that of the wind. If the elders and the Scribes were ablaze already against the new sect and its leaders, hitherto the people had sided with the Christians (Acts 5:22). Now, however, their patriotic fears had been stirred by the slanders poured into their ears.
(3) Followed by a speedy trial. Having seized him either in his house or most likely in the temple while teaching they hurried him off, as they had hurried Christ, not to prison but to judgment—haling him before the council or Sanhedrim which probably had arranged to meet for despatch of business, so important was the occasion that had arisen.
2. His indictment.
(1) Technically correct. Consisting of two counts which were really one. First, that he had spoken blasphemous words against Moses and against God. Secondly, and in this lay the blasphemy, that he had uttered words against the temple and the law, saying that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple and change the customs which Moses had delivered to the nations. Like the similar impeachment preferred against Christ (Matthew 26:61; Matthew 26:63; John 5:18) which had rested on words actually used by Him, these accusations against Stephen may have been based on sentences which had escaped his lips. Yet were they
(2) Essentially incorrect. Stephen indeed had, ostensibly, and in the letter, spoken against the Hebrew Lawgiver and the Jewish temple in so far as he had taught, that the Christian was superior to the Mosaic dispensation, that the days of sacrificial worship were numbered, that the gospel was designed to supersede the law, that observance of the Levitical ritual was henceforth to be no condition of justification, and that worship was no more to be limited to Jerusalem, but might be freely, if spiritually, offered anywhere. Yet in so teaching Stephen had neither blasphemed God nor contemned Moses, inasmuch as Christ was the prophet like unto himself (Moses), whom the Lawgiver foretold, and the system of worship inaugurated by Christ was in reality a carrying forward into fulfilment of all that had been prefigured and pre-signified by the Mosaic dispensation. That Stephen’s accusers felt secretly conscious of distorting his words has been argued from the anti-climax which reveals itself in their indictment. First, before his arrest they accuse the eloquent deacon of blaspheming Moses and God—a palpable exaggeration. Next, in the council they drop the term of blasphemy and limit their charge to speaking against the temple and the law. Lastly, confronted with the accused, they water down their language to this, that they had heard him repeat some statement about Jesus of Nazareth’s intention to destroy the temple and change its customs.
IV. The attitude and appearance of Stephen.—
1. His attitude. One of unresisting meekness. With perfect calmness he listened to the charges preferred against him. Like his master, he opened not his mouth, answered not a word till invited to speak. Conscious of no crime, he was in no haste to defend himself.
2. His appearance. One of unearthly beauty. “All who sat in the council,” his accusers and his judges, “fastening their eyes upon him,” in expectation of what he would reply to the grave indictment to which he had listened, “saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” The radiance was one which never shone on sea or land, was more than the serene and dignified lustre, solar light it has been named, wherewith the soul in moments of crisis, when conscious of innocence, illuminates the countenance; it was the shine of supernatural glory, reflected back from the face of the Risen Christ on whom he gazed (Acts 7:55)—like the light which rayed forth from the countenance of Moses when he descended from the Mount (Exodus 34:29-30; Exodus 34:35)—attesting to those who beheld it, his innocence.
1. The secret of true ministerial influence—being filled with grace and power, with wisdom and the Holy Spirit.
2. The triumphant career which lies before the gospel—its enemies will not be able for ever to resist its progress, dispute its truth, or prevent its sway.
3. The certainty that all faithful preachers of the gospel will excite against themselves hostility,—all whose interests the gospel threatens will array themselves against it.
4. The falsehood of all such charges against the gospel as that it is revolutionary and destructive, whereas it works its changes by slow degrees and destroys nothing but sin.
5. The glory that will even here irradiate and hereafter crown every faithful servant of Christ.
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 6:8. The Biography of Stephen.
I. A devout Christian.—Full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.
II. A trusted Deacon.—The first elected to the office.
III. An eloquent Preacher.—His opponents could not resist the wisdom with which he spake,
IV. A glorified Prisoner.—His face shone as it had been the face of an angel.
V. A blessed Martyr.—“They stoned Stephen,” etc. (Acts 7:59).
Acts 6:15. The Face of an Angel.—“Dante, describing the angels whom he met in the Paradiso, impresses us with their external glory and their spiritual effulgence. Invariably he makes the former a result of the latter. With closer faithfulness to physical science than he dreamed, and building better than he knew he sings (Paradiso, Canto ix., 13–19).
‘Another of those splendours
Approach me, and its will to pleasure me
It signifies by brightening outwardly,
As one delighted to do good;
Became a thing transplendent in my sight,
As a fine ruby smitten by the sun.’ ”—
Joseph Cook’s Monday Lectures, Second Series, p. 148.
Stephen’s illuminated Face.—“He had been accused of blaspheming Moses, and lo! the clearness of the face of Moses, a reflection of God’s glory (Acts 7:2), was to be seen on him and vindicated him. A morning beam of the heavenly splendour, in which the teachers of righteousness will eternally shine (Daniel 12:3), surrounded him; and well might he have been regarded as an angel, since, as the angels always behold the face of God, and reflect His glory, so was it granted to him in this hour of witness for encouragement to look, first into the opened mystery of God’s historical glory upon the earth, and then into the opened heaven, and to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55).”—Besser.
Acts 6:8-15. The Opponents of Stephen.
I. Devout Jews.—They were Stephen’s countrymen and fellow-worshippers, believers in the same God, disciples of the same lawgiver, probably members of the same synagogue. Three arguments which should have caused them to befriend rather than hate Stephen.
II. Defeated controversialists.—They could not resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which Stephen spake. This should have cautioned them against opposing one who obviously possessed clearer insight than themselves, and one with whom their inmost convictions sided.
III. Unscrupulous calumniators.—They suborned men who said (no doubt what Stephen’s adversaries told them) that Stephen had spoken blasphemous words against Moses and against God—Moses first and God second—which was not true.
IV. Murderous conspirators.—Their object in moving the elders and the Scribes was to bring upon their foe the wrath of the Sanhedrim, which they knew would mean arrestment, imprisonment, and perhaps death.
Stephen the Deacon.
I. The central figure of this whole section is St. Stephen. He is introduced into the narrative with the same startling suddenness which we may note in the cases of Barnabas and Elijah. He runs a rapid course, flings all, apostles and every one else, into the shade for a time, and then disappears,” exemplifying the saying of inspiration, “The first shall be last, and the last first.”
II. The union of the words grace and power is significant. “It was not the intellect, or the eloquence, or the activity of St. Stephen which made him powerful among the people and crowned his labours with success. It was his abundant grace. Eloquence and learning, active days and laborious nights, are good and necessary things. But these will be utterly useless and ineffective apart from Christ and the power of His grace. To this busy age these words convey a useful warning that the best organisations and schemes will be useless to produce Stephen’s power, unless Stephen’s grace be found there as well.”
III. “This passage is a prophecy and picture of the future in another aspect. The fulness of grace in Stephen wrought powerfully amongst the people. It was the savour of life unto life in some. But in others it was a savour of death unto death, and provoked them to evil deeds, for they suborned men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
IV. These words, even through their falsehood, afford “a glimpse into the character of St. Stephen’s preaching. A false accusation need not be necessarily altogether false.” “In order to be effective” it must have” some basis of truth. St. Stephen was ripening for heaven more rapidly than the apostles themselves. He was learning more rapidly than St. Peter himself the true spiritual meaning of the Christian scheme. He had taught, in no unambiguous language, the universal character of the gospel and the catholic mission of the Church.”
V. “We learn how religious zeal can overthrow religion and work out the purpose of evil. Religious zeal, mere party spirit taking the place of real religion, led the Hellenists to suborn men and falsely accuse St. Stephen. They made an idol of the system of Judaism, and forgot its spirit. They worshipped their idol so much that they were ready to break the commandments of God for its sake. How true to life has our own age found this prophetic picture!”—G. T. Stokes, D.D.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Acts 6". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29