The Church of Christ requiring it, Deacons are chosen. Stephen being elected, and speaking by the Spirit, is opposed by many.
And in those days, when the number of the disciples were multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.
As the last chapter opened with an account of the corruption which had crept into the Church, in the awful instance of Ananias and Sapphira, so here again we enter upon this chapter, with the relation of other taints of our Adam-nature transgression, in the murmuring and dissatisfaction breaking out in the Church. Reader! it will be our mercy to gather, under the Holy Ghost's teaching, improvement from it, in learning, that the purest moment of the Church, in this time-state of her being, (for such, surely, this era was,) is not free from sin. And, oh! how blessedly do such convictions preach Christ, Yes! thou dear Lord! well is it for thy people, that thy name is the Lord our righteousness! Jeremiah 23:6; Isaiah 14:24-25; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31.
It should seem from the account here given, that so numerous was the Church of the Lord now become, that the alms collected from the more affluent of the people, were not enough for the daily supply of the more needy. And it is more than probable, from the infirmities of a poor fallen nature, partiality might have been shewn in the distribution. Be this as it may, there arose a murmuring by the Grecians, (by which, I suppose, is meant the Jews of Greece, to distinguish them from those of Judaea,) on this account, which no doubt much disturbed the harmony of the Church. Reader! do not overlook the merciful designs of the Great Head of his Church, in disposing the inequalities of life in the outward circumstances of it. I do not doubt, but that the Lord made much good spring out of this seeming evil, among Christ's redeemed ones, who found themselves neglected. For if the unkindness of men, even of brethren, inclines the heart to look more to the Lord and less to man, the very sorrow is made sweet. Jesus would hot, for he needed not, have made his Church poor, had not poverty best suited her present time-state of being. Sweet is that scripture, pray turn to it, for it suits the Church of Jesus in all ages; I will also leave in the midst of thee, an afflicted and poor people, and they shall trust in the name of the Lord, Zephaniah 3:12. Depend upon it, that it is our affliction and poverty, both in spirituals and temporals, which minister most advantageously to keep the heart near Jesus. For amidst all the love we seem, to have to Him, if at any time we get out of this conscious need of Jesus, we find the same risings of pride as Israel of old, and say as she did, we are lords, we will come no more unto thee, Jeremiah 2:31.
Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. (3) Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. (4) But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.
The twelve Apostles, including Matthias, are here engaged in making suitable arrangements for the correcting of the present, and any future errors which might arise in the Church. And, from this authority it should seem, first sprung that order, which all well regulated societies in the faith have since observed, in the appointment of subordinate offices to the ministry in the Church. Moses, at the suggestion of Jethro, adopted somewhat of the same plan in his days, Exodus 18:14, etc. How truly Apostolic was this advice? How affectionately, as to brethren, was it delivered? And what a lovely view doth it afford of Christ's Church, in this blessed age of the Apostles? We, (said they,) will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. As if, (and which in one sense is literally the case,) their very persons, as well as their time and labors, were not their own. For though Apostles, their eminency consisted not in rank, but in usefulness. Jesus their Lord, while loving their persons, loved their office no further than as it ministered to his glory, and the feeding his sheep, John 21:15-17. Peter, to whom Christ gave this charge (and thrice repeating it, as if to intimate the importance of it,) in his last exercises of his Apostleship, dwelt upon it very sweetly; The elders which are among you, (said he,) I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed; feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away, 1 Peter 5:1-4.
And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: (6) Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. (7) And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.
Reader! behold here again, what a lovely representation is made of the Church! As in the preceding verses we stood to admire the Lord's Apostles in the department of their office, let us pause a moment now to contemplate the beautiful order of the people. The saying of the Apostles, we are told, pleased the whole multitude. And if we call to mind, how God the Holy Ghost all along, from the day of Pentecost, had been calling Christ's redeemed ones from the darkness of nature to the light of grace; we shall find, that the Church was indeed a multitude little short of ten thousand: (see Acts 1:15; Act_2:41; Act_4:4; Act_5:14,) and yet all were pleased with the Apostles' proposal. What a delightful view it affords of the Church of Jesus! And, though it is not said, yet we may reasonably conclude, such was the love of the whole Church to the persons and labors of the Apostles, that while they were giving themselves to prayer, as well as the ministry of the word, the people were not unfrequently at prayer for them. Paul, in his days, was so sensible of the blessedness of being borne by the arms of the Church, in the prayers of the people before the mercy-seat, that he desired the brethren to pray for him, and his fellow labourers, 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1; Hebrews 13:18. And it must be in all ages of the Church a blessed thing, and more especially in times like the present, when the people lodge much prayer, and daily add to the stock before the Great Head of his Church, that the labors of his poor servants be commissioned and owned by the Lord. It hath been said, and I see no ground to doubt the truth of it, that many a minister of Christ, hath found the blessed effects of his peoples' prayers, in the grace and abilities he hath at certain seasons received from the Lord. Certain it is, that if a Church is looking for blessings from the Lord, in the ministry of his word; it would be well to be looking at the same time, that the Lord would bless the messenger which brings them; that both minister and people may be blessed of the Lord, and send up their thanksgivings together.
The seven men here chosen by the Church, if we may judge by their names, were all taken from the Jews of Greece, for there is not one Hebrew name among them. And it may serve to shew, how much the whole body of the people were earnest, that the murmuring which arose from that quarter should have a full redress, since those who were appointed to this part of government, were all taken from their own people. Reader do not fail to observe, how the stratagems of Satan were defeated by his own weapons, since the very plan he devised to separate believers, became the means of uniting them more closely together, in forming a body of holy men, and full of the Holy Ghost, to listen to the sorrows and enquire into the wants of the Lord's family, that they might be softened and relieved.
I do not think it necessary to detain the Reader, with dwelling on the names and characters of the seven men here chosen. Indeed, excepting the first of them, Stephen, (and of him I shall have occasion to speak somewhat particularly, in the close of this and the following chapter,) the Holy Ghost hath recorded no more than their names. So that, where the Lord is silent, it should seem to be our wisdom to be silent, also. But I beg the Reader to notice, the method the church was pleased to adopt, for their being ordained to their office, in setting them before the Apostles, and after prayer, the Apostles laying their hands on them. And let it not be overlooked, that when the Apostles directed the Church to look out seven men from among them, they were supposed to be brethren; that is, persons regenerated by the Holy Ghost; holy brethren, as they are elsewhere called partakers of the heavenly calling, Hebrews 3:1. In those days, none would have been chosen into the humblest office of the ministry, who was not himself a partaker of grace, and savingly called by the Holy Ghost. For how should a dead sinner minister in the life-giving word and doctrine? Neither can any man have a feeling affection for the Church of Christ's body, as a body, who hath never himself by regeneration, tasted that the Lord is gracious, 1 Peter 2:1-5. These men, therefore, were themselves brethren, and by regeneration, made partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust, 2 Peter 1:4. And yet we see, that while without this work of God the Spirit upon their souls, they would not have been qualified for the office the Apostles had directed; they were not permitted to enter upon it without prayer, and the laying on of the Apostles' hands. See Numbers 27:18.
What a short, but blessed account, this passage closeth with; of the increase of the word; the multiplying the number of true believers; and what is more extraordinary, the great company of the Jewish priests, (for there were no other in those days in Jerusalem,) which joined the faithful. But what cannot the Lord the Spirit accomplish? There is a provision in the covenant which never fails, Psalms 110:3; John 6:37; Joh_17:2. Reader! it is by the virtue and efficacy of this covenant, ordered in all things, and sure; faithful ministers of the Lord Jesus, as well as the Apostles in those early ages of the Church, labor in the word and doctrine; and like the great father of the faithful, against hope believe in hope, Romans 4:18.
And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. (9) Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. (10) And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake. (11) Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. (12) And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, (13) And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: (14) For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us. (15) And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.
We here enter upon the interesting history of Stephen, the first of the seven brethren, in the government of the Church under the Apostles, and the first martyr in the Church of Christ, after the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. It is evident, that Stephen preached, as well as did wonders and miracles among the people; for we read, that those who opposed him, were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit, with which he spake. But the most important point for us to consider is, what blasphemy it was, with which these foes to Christ, and to his people, charged him? I conceive this to be no unimportant point, For if, as I am inclined to believe, Stephen died a martyr to the Godhead of the Lord Jesus, it will throw a light upon this part of the Church's history, and serve to teach us, that this glorious truth, which is the very foundation of our holy faith, was then, as in modern times it hath since been, what infidelity most revolts at.
If the Reader will gather into one point of view, the several charges before the council brought against Stephen, and. consider them a little attentively, he wilt perceive that the whole together were four in number. First, Blasphemous words against Moses, Secondly, Against God. Thirdly, Blasphemous words against this holy place, meaning most probably, the temple; or, perhaps, the city of Jerusalem, called the holy city in which the temple stood, Matthew 27:53. And, fourthly, Against the law. Now, by analyzing these several and distinct charges, and examining them, one by one, under their respective heads, we shall be enabled to form a clear apprehension of the ground upon which the council acted, when stoning Stephen, according to the Jewish law, for the supposed blasphemy.
And, first, concerning the blasphemous words against Moses. It is, indeed, an extraordinary, and to this time an unheard of accusation, to talk of blasphemy against a man. For nothing can be called blasphemy, except it hath the Lord for its object. Blasphemy, is peculiarly, and specially, a sin against Him. But here was the drift of their resentment. Stephen had said, that the Lord Jesus would change the customs, that is, the rites, which Moses had delivered to the people. Indeed, the Lord had done it. Those rites were only shadowy representations, and Christ himself was the substance ; and as such, the whole of Moses' institutions, having accomplished the end for which they were originally appointed, did of themselves cease. But, as this doctrine implied, that Moses was the servant of Christ, and consequently God; He who was with the angel, (as he told them in the following chapter,) when speaking to Moses from the bush; (Acts 7:38) the conclusion became undeniable, that Christ was God; and this they deemed blasphemy. I pray the Reader to turn to Hebrews 3:5-6.
The second charge of blasphemy against God, could have been no other than the ascribing divine honors to the Lord Jesus Christ. And if the Reader will in this place, by way of ascertaining more, clearly the matter of fact, anticipate in some measure Stephen's history, by turning to the close of it, towards the end of the next chapter, (Acts 7:56-58) he will immediately perceive, by what this faithful servant of the Lord then said, how firm his mind must have been in the belief of Christ's Godhead. We there find him exclaiming in a rapture of holy joy, and regardless of all around him, that he saw the Lord Jesus in person, as the Shechinah in the Old Testament, which manifested the presence of the Lord, used to appear; and nothing could be more decisive in proof, that Stephen considered Christ as God. Indeed his enemies themselves so interpreted Stephen's words, and as such, unable to suppress their indignation, they dragged him instantly from before the council, and stoned him with stones till he died. Nothing, surely, can be more full in point, that Stephen died a martyr to the profession of the Godhead of Christ. See Leviticus 14:6; Lev_14:23; 1 Kings 21:13; Deuteronomy 17:2-7.
For the third of those charges against Stephen, namely, blasphemous words in relation to the temple, or the city, we may consider this as in some degree included in the former, being by a necessary consequence implicated in it. For, if the Lord Jesus would destroy the temple, it implied the divinity of his nature in the deed. Indeed Christ had predicted the destruction of it, Matthew 24:1-2. But then it was for rejecting him, Luke 19:44. And, therefore, here also was an indirect acknowledgment of Stephens faith in the Godhead of the Lord Jesus.. Stephen, as a Jew, would have been equally shocked, as those carnal Jews were, at the idea of any one destroying their beloved city and temple. But Christ as God, in the faith of Stephen, not only reconciled that, and every other event which the Lord appointed, but gave him an holy joy, in contemplating the sovereignty of Jesus.
And, lastly, for the fourth of those charges; blasphemous words against the law; the very introduction of the Gospel, in superseding the law, became blasphemy in the extreme in the eyes of a Jew. And as none but He who gave the law could have authority to do away the law, by so much, while Stephen asserted that Christ would change the customs, which Moses delivered; plainly he asserted also, that Christ was God. So that each, and everyone of those charges, to which they annexed the crime of blasphemy, most evidently prove their views of the faith of Stephen. He stood forth a firm champion for the Godhead of Christ; and it was for this supposed blasphemy, for which he was stoned. Indeed, in the very moment of his death, he committed his soul into the hands of the Lord Jesus as God. Lord Jesus! (said he,) receive my spirit? Acts 7:59.
I stay not to notice, (though highly meriting our notice, in respect to the Lord's tender regard to his faithful servant,) what is said in the close of this chapter, of the bright countenance of Stephen, like an angel, which all in the council, it is said, beheld. I cannot speak upon it with any decision. As such, I rather decline any observations, than to run the hazard of speaking presumptuously. But, I would just humbly ask, might it not have been similar to the case of Moses, when in the Mount, Exodus 34:29-30. And, if so, were not both instances, Moses and Stephen, from the same Lord Jesus? But, as God the Holy Ghost hath not been pleased to record anything further than the fact itself, it becomes us not to enquire. But of one point we are taught, and in which we cannot err. Stephen was here engaged in his Lord's cause; and for the testimony of Jesus, he was brought before the council. Hence Christ's promise, Luke 21:12-15. Very blessed is it, therefore, to discover, as in the case of Stephen, that a suited grace is always dispensed, as the circumstances of the Lord's tried ones shall require. As thy day is, thy strength shall be. Reader! let you and I take occasion from this view of Stephen, to calculate upon it for every hour of need, and especially like his, for the hour of death. Oh! for the Lord in that season to be eminently present, as he assuredly will, with all his re deemed. Lord! lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon my soul! that when I awake up, I shall be satisfied with thy likeness, and behold thy face in righteousness!
Reader! ponder well even in this golden age of the Church, how tarnished with abuse the Lord's mercies were, when murmurings arose from partial ministrations of the good things of God's providences. Behold from it, my soul, and learn what a mass of corruption, the unrenewed part of our fallen nature is, and what a handle Satan makes of it to interrupt the peace of the Church! But learn also, how the Lord the Spirit takes occasion therefrom, to raise improvements for his people. The appointment of inferior officers in the Church of Christ, took its rise from hence. And in how many instances, have they since that time, proved a blessing. But what a sweet relief ought such views of the imperfection of the best of Churches bring to the mind, in the recollection, that amidst all the errors of men, the Lord's truth is the same; and, however brethren, through the infirmity of a fallen nature, may neglect one another; Jesus never overlooks, or neglects his people. Precious Lord Jesus! let me never lose sight of this.
Happy and prosperous is that Church of Christ, where men of good report, and full of the Holy Ghost, minister in her government, and are helpful to the Lord's family. And blessed must be those ordinances, where faithful pastors, like the Apostles, give themselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. Not serving tables, and mingling with the carnal, and learning their works; neither as being lords over God's heritage; but being ensamples to the flock, in word, in conversation, in faith, in charity.
Oh! for the faith of Stephen, to be valiant for the truth, amidst all the libertines of the present day. Jesus will own and bless all such. Their witness is in heaven, and their record on high. And, though a brightness like that of Stephen, may not, because it is needed not, shine upon their countenances, to the view of their foes; yet, the Lord will cause their eyes to be so directed to Him in faith, that their souls will be enlightened, and their faces shall not be ashamed.
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Hawker, Robert, D.D. "Commentary on Acts 6". "Hawker's Poor Man's Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany