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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible

Acts 6

Introduction

CHAP. VI.

The apostles desirous to have the poor regarded for their bodily sustenance, as also careful themselves to dispense the word of God, the food of the soul, appoint the office of deaconship to seven chosen men: of whom Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, is one: who is taken of those whom he confounded in disputing, and after falsely accused of blasphemy against the law and the temple.

Anno Domini 34.

Verse 1

Acts 6:1. There arose a murmuring of the Grecians, &c.— Or, the Hellenists. There is not all the light which some have wished for concerning the distinction of the Jews into Hebrews and Hellenists; but the following appears the most probable account. The Jews who inhabited Judea, and those of the eastern dispersions, generally retained the Syro-Chaldaic, which in the New Testament is called the Hebrew language; but those of the western dispersions generally made use of the Greek, the language which then prevailed very generally. The former were called Hebrews, and the latter Hellenists, or Graecising Jews; and of this sort were most of the Roman, Grecian, and Egyptian Jews, as well as the "Proselytes of righteousness" of the western dispersions. After the time of Ezra, the scriptures, of the Old Testament were read to the Jews in their synagogues in their original Hebrew, and interpreted in Chaldee, because the common people had forgotten the original Hebrew by living so long in Chaldea. But the Jews who were planted at Alexandria in Egypt, seemed generally in process of time to have forgot both the Hebrew and the Chaldee; and by conversing so much in a Grecian city, to have fallen into the use of the Greek language. Hence a translation of the scriptures for the use of the common people became necessary; and part of the version which goes under the name of the Septuagint, was made by some of the learned men among the Jews there; and is thought to have been first made use of in that city instead of the Chaldee interpretation: for we are to observe, that the Jews did not any where, at that time, publicly read the scriptures in any other language than the Hebrew. Hence then it is probable, that these Jews were called Hellenists, because of their using the Hellenistick, or Greek language; and by that name theycame to be distinguished from the Hebrew Jews, who used only the Hebrew tongue. These different customs are said to have made a sort of schism between them; inallusion to which, St. Paul seems to have mentioned it among the Jews, that he was an Hebrew of the Hebrews, (see Philippians 3:5.) that is, a descendant of that sort of Jews who were most highly esteemed upon the account of their using the Hebrew language, 2 Corinthians 11:22. The Syriac version has rendered 'Ελληνιστων, by the Jews who understood, or spoke Greek. That these Hellenists were not all of them proselytes of righteousness, as some aver, seems indisputable from St. Luke's observation, Act 6:5 that Nicolas was a proselyte of Antioch. It may possibly be hence inferred, that some of the Hellenists were proselytes of righteousness. But as he alone, of all the seven deacons, is said to have been a proselyte, it is very unlikely that all the Hellenists were such; for it is highly probable that others of the seven deacons were Hellenists, as well as Nicolas; whereas, by saying that Nicolas was a proselyte, St. Luke seems to have intimated that all the other six deacons were Jews by birth, as well as religion, though some of them might be Hellenists, and others Hebrews.

While Satan's kingdom fell before the preaching of the gospel like lightning from heaven, and the number of the Christians increased exceedingly, the Hellenists, or Graecising Jewish Christians, complained of the Hebrew Christians; because, in the daily distribution of the charity; their widows, who were poor or sick, or burdened with the care of children, were either wholly neglected, or at least not made equal with the widows of the Hebrews. It is highly probable, that they esteemed the widows of the Graecists, agreeably to their prejudices, less worthy and honourable; and perhaps no land had been sold out of Palestine to raise or support the fund, but what Barnabas had sold in the island of Cyprus; and therefore they might think that the Hellenists had not an equal claim, as the Hebrews had been the chief contributors. The apostles, undoubtedly, acted a very faithful part in the distribution of money raised by the sale of lands. But they could not do all things. Perhaps they intrusted some who had been proprietors of the estates sold, who would naturally have some peculiar regard to the necessity of their neighbours, as being best acquainted with them. And if any suspicions arose, as to the sincerity of their character, and the reasonableness of their pretensions, these strangers would naturally be least capable of giving satisfaction.

Verse 2

Acts 6:2. The multitude of the disciples That is, the whole body of Christian converts; they being the persons to whom satisfaction was then due. And serve tables, is in the Greek δικκονειν τραπεζαις, to minister to, or take care of the tables, that is, of the poor;—to attend to the distribution of charitable gifts among them.

Verse 3

Acts 6:3. Of honest report, Of good credit. Heylin.

Verse 5

Acts 6:5. And they chose Stephen, Some have thought that Stephen was one of the seventy; but it seems a precarious conjecture. The, termination of most of these names makes it probable that they were Hellenists;—a supposition which agrees very well with the occasion of their election. Nicolas was not a Jew born, but a proselyte of Antioch, whom they were the more willing to fix in this office, as his peculiar relation to the Grecians would make him especially careful to remedy any neglect of them which might have insensibly prevailed. Some ancient writers tell us, that he fell into great errors in the decline of life, and became the founder of the sect of the Nicolaitans, mentioned Revelation 6:15. But it seems much more probable, that the founder of this sect, considering how common the name was, might be some other person so called.

Verse 7

Acts 6:7. And a great company of the priests We learn from Ezr 2:36-39 that 4289 priests returned from the captivity; the number of whom was now probably very much increased. It is certainly wonderful that a great multitude of the priests should embrace the gospel, considering what peculiar resentments they must expect from their unbelieving brethren, and the great losses to which they must be exposed in consequence of being cast out of their office. But the grace of God was sufficient to animate and support them against every objection; and it is very probable, that the miracle of rending the veil of the temple, and the testimony of the guards to the truth of the resurrection, might contribute considerably towards their conversion, in concurrencewiththemiraculousgiftsandpowersoftheapostles;the most convincing proofs of which they saw before their eyes in their own temple.

Verse 9

Acts 6:9. The synagogue of the Libertines, These were Jews born at Rome, whose grandfathers had been in slavery there, and then made free. Great numbers of Jews taken captive by Pompey, and carried into Italy, were set at liberty, and obtained their freedom from their masters. Their children, therefore, would be libertini, in the proper sense of the word. Agreeably to this, the Jews banished from Rome by Tiberius are spoken of by Tacitus as of the libertine race, who might easily constitute one of the 480 synagogues, said to have been at Jerusalem.

Verse 11

Acts 6:11. Blasphemous words against Moses, &c.— There is no reason to believe that Stephen knew the mystery of the abolition of the Mosaic law, which the apostles do not seem immediately to have understood: and it is much less probable, that he openly taught what St. Paul himself, many years after, insinuated with so much caution. See Galatians 2:2. This, therefore, seems to have been the inference which they drew from what he taught concerning the destruction that he denounced on the Jews, if they continued in their unbelief: but it was a very precarious inference, as the city and temple had been destroyed before without any repeal of the law, and therefore they were false witnesses. Compare Acts 6:13-14.

Verse 15

Acts 6:15. Saw his face, &c.— Many commentators interpret this as a proverbial expression of the majesty and beauty of his countenance, arising from the transport of inward joy in the consciousness of his innocence, and the expectation of glory, though he had so cruel a sentence and execution in view. And upon this, the translation of 1729 takes the unpardonable liberty of rendering it, they saw an air of majesty in his aspect; but it seems rather to mean, that there was a supernatural splendour on his face, resembling that of Moses when he came down from conversing with God on mount Sinai. They reckoned that his preaching of Jesus to be the Christ, was to destroy both Moses and the law; and God bears witness to Stephen with the same glory as he did to Moses, when he gave the law by him. The Jews never devised or conceived any thing greater of their forefathers, or their most illustrious prophets, than what they now beheld in the countenance of Stephen. In this view, it was indeed a most astonishing instance of the incorrigible hardness and wickedness of their hearts, that they could murder a man on whom God put such a visible glory, similar to that of their patriarchs and prophets, and their great legislator in particular.

But we know what little impression other miracles made upon them, the truth of which they were compelled to acknowledge. See ch. Acts 4:16.

Inferences.—From the instance recorded in the first part of this chapter, we see how difficult it is, even for the wisest and best of men to manage a great multitude of affairs, without inconvenience, and without reflection. It will therefore be our prudence not to engross too much business into our own hands; but to be willing to divide it with our brethren and inferiors, allotting to each their proper province, that the whole may proceed with harmony and order.

How solicitous should we be against the doing any thing through partiality; but especially so, in the distribution of charities. It is a solemn trust, for which the characters at least of those concerned, are to answer to the world now, and which they themselves must, ere long, account for to God. Such persons therefore should be willing to receive information of the truth of particular cases; willing to compare a variety of them; and then select such as, in their consciences, they are persuaded it is the will of God they should in present circumstances regard, and in such or such proportion prefer to the rest.
In religious societies, it may be highly proper, that, after the example here given, proper persons to perform this office should be appointed: it is their business to serve tables. Happy those societies which make choice of men of an attested character, and evincing themselves to be full of the Holy Spirit, by the virtues and graces of a Christian temper.

While these good men are dealing forth their liberal contributions, the ministers should devote themselves with all attention to prayer and to the ministry of the word. Let those who would administer that word with comfort and success, remember of how great importance it is that it be watered with prayer, falling upon it as the former and latter rain, and especially see to it, that by the constant exercise of lively devotion, in secret, in their families, and on other proper social occasions, they keep their graces vigorous and active; that so, living continually in a state of nearness to God, they may be qualified to speak in his name with that dignity, tenderness, and authority, which nothing but true devotion can naturally express, or long retain.

Who can fail to adore that efficacy of divine grace, whereby a multitude of the Jewish priests were made obedient to the faith? Let us heartily pray, that if there be any who claim a sacred character, and who yet, out of regard to worldly things, oppose the power and purity of the gospel,—they may be convinced by the influences of the blessed Spirit, that they can have no interest in contradiction to the truth; and that they are happy who purchase, at the highest price, that gospel which may enrich them for ever.

In whatsoever station we are fixed, whether in the world, or in the church, may we always remember our obligation to plead the cause of the gospel, and to render a reason of the hope that is in us! If this engage us in disputation with men of corrupt minds, we must still hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering, as knowing He is faithful that hath promised. Hebrews 10:23.

The vilest charge, as we see in the chapter before us, may be fixed upon the most worthy men. Piety may be defamed as blasphemy; and that which is true love of our country, as treason against it. But (blessed consideration for the oppressed!) there is one supreme Lawgiver and Judge, who will not fail, sooner or later, to plead the cause of injured innocence. When we read therefore of this vile attack made by perjury upon the character and life of Stephen, we may take occasion to adore that wise and powerful Providence, which so remarkably exerts itself to defend our reputation and our lives against those false tongues which run through the earth, and which, were it not for that secret and invisible restraint, might, like a two-edged sword, so quickly destroy both.

How loud is the clamour here raised by malice and fraud against innocence and truth! Incessant blasphemy is charged on one of the most pious of men. And can we indeed wonder at it, when we reflect that thus it was charged even upon Christ himself? If they called the Master of the house Beelzebub, how much more those of his household?—His disciple learns of him not to render evil for evil, but answers their calumnies in the language of calm reason, and meek conviction.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, The admirable peace and harmony of the church suffer some slight interruption, and yet good arises out of this great toil. We have,

1. The cause, whether real or imaginary, of the discontent which appeared among some of the members of the church. In those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied; for the sufferings of the apostles, so far from checking the progress of the gospel, proved its furtherance; there arose a murmuring of the Grecians, or Hellenist Jews, who were chiefly foreigners, and were so called from the Greek language, which they spoke, and used in their synagogues, against the Hebrews, who were inhabitants of Judea, and made use of the Hebrew language in reading the Old Testament; and they complained, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration, as if there was a partiality shewn to the poor who were Hebrews, and theirs either passed over; or scantily supplied. As the Hellenist Jews lay under some kind of disadvantage as foreigners, they were jealous lest they should be slighted; for those who are poor, are too apt to be querulous, to eye with jealousy what is bestowed on others, and to clamour, as if any kindness done to them was an injustice to themselves. Note; (1.) Money matters are too often the causes of much dissatisfaction even among those who profess to be dead to the world. (2.) In the best ordered church some imperfections will be found, and the most careful pastors may hear of some real or pretended cause of complaint.

2. The apostles propose an excellent expedient to remove all cause of murmuring; and this not only for the satisfaction of others, but for their own relief; their necessary employment, in preaching the word of God, being too much interrupted by minding these secular concerns. They assembled the multitude of the disciples, it being a matter of common concern, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables; these avocations of providing for the poor, diverting them too much from the great business of preaching the gospel, and governing the church. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint ever this business, men of established reputation and integrity, endued with a distinguished measure of the gifts and graces of the Spirit to enable them for the faithful discharge of their office, and whose wisdom and prudence are eminent, that they may manage the church's stock to the greatest advantage. These were to be chosen by the people themselves, who could not afterwards reasonably find fault with the persons of their own appointment; and the apostles would ordain them to their office, that they might be invested with due authority, and that those who were concerned might know to whom they must apply in these matters: but we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word, as our more immediate and proper employment. Note; (1.) They who are appointed to any holy office, even the lowest in the church, may here behold the requisites thereto. They must be persons of blameless character, men of parts and abilities for the discharge of their trust, with wisdom, and above all experimentally acquainted with the grace of God in their souls, and partakers of the Holy Ghost. To ordain persons immoral, ignorant, destitute of experimental religion, and to count them fit for ministering in the church, who are fit for nothing else; how shocking! how contrary to the apostolical practice! and what a scandal must such be to the office they bear! (2.) Divested as much as possible of worldly cares, Christ's immediate ambassadors should be occupied wholly in his work and the service of immortal souls, preaching his gospel in season and out of season, and watering with their prayers the labours of the pulpit, that God may give the increase.

3. The proposal met with general approbation, and, after serious deliberation, the church, with joint concurrence and perfect unanimity, made choice of seven persons, whose names are recited, and seem to be of the Hellenist Jews; which would most effectually serve to silence all future murmurings among them. Stephen stands first in the catalogue, with a most honourable testimony borne to him; he was full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, a man eminent for gifts and graces. Philip, who follows him, we find afterwards successfully employed in preaching the gospel, ch. 8: Of the rest we have no particular account, unless Nicolas, as some have suggested, was the founder of that sect which St. John mentions with abhorrence, Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:15. These seven being presented to the apostles, they prayed with them and for them, that they might be qualified for their work, and approve themselves faithful, and then, by the imposition of hands, solemnly separated them for this service, to which they were chosen.

4. The church continued to increase greatly, the intestine murmurs being silenced, the apostles being more disencumbered, and all zealously attending to their several charges. Thus the gospel word spread its blessed influence around; the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem, where, during our Lord's ministry, few comparatively seem to have believed in him; and what is still more astonishing, and to be reckoned among the chief wonders of grace, a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith, who had been the most inveterate enemies of Christ and his gospel, but now embraced the profession of Christianity, and proved, by their holy conversation, the unfeigned faith which was in them. Note; True faith in Jesus as a Saviour, ever produces sincere obedience to him as our Master.

2nd, Stephen, the first of the seven deacons, not only discharged the office to which he was appointed, but also appeared a zealous preacher of the gospel.
1. He was full of faith and power; endued with an eminent measure of courage and zeal for Christ, and, in confirmation of the truths that he preached, did great wonders and miracles among the people.

2. He appeared a bold disputant against those who opposed the cause of truth. There arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, such Jews as were honoured with the freedom of the city of Rome, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia, and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. These Hellenist Jews and proselytes, bring generally the greatest zealots for Judaism, and perhaps being eminently skilled in Grecian literature, thought they could soon confute and confound this zealous advocate for Christianity, and challenged him to a public disputation. Probably Saul of Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, was among the foremost of them. Stephen declined not the opportunity of vindicating the glorious truths of the gospel; and this he did with such clearness of argument, force of reasoning, energy of diction, and piercing application, that they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake; confounded, silenced, and unable to make any reply which carried the shadow of argument.

3. Enraged at being thus baffled, and instigated by malice and revenge, they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God; endeavouring by perjury and murder to silence him for ever, whose arguments they felt themselves so utterly unable to answer. And, working upon their prejudices and passions, they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and in a popular tumult they came upon him, and caught him, as a criminal, and brought him to the council, as a blasphemer; and set up false witnesses which they had hired, and instructed what to swear against Stephen, who said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, the temple, and against the law. For we have heard him say, what fully amounts to the charge we produce against him, that this Jesus, the contemptible Nazarene, who was crucified, shall destroy this place, this sacred house, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us; abolishing all the ceremonial institutions of our celebrated law-giver, and introducing others of his own appointment in their stead.

Such was the charge; which, if real, was far from amounting to blasphemy; and these things actually came to pass; though probably even in this they falsified, as the apostles themselves seem not to have been yet apprized, that the ceremonial law should be utterly abolished; but whatever he might have said, we may suppose they put upon it the more malicious construction that it would bear. Note; It is no new thing for the faithful preachers of the gospel to be branded as blasphemers; and it is only wonderful that, when the enemies of the gospel make no conscience of an oath, they do not by more frequent perjuries attempt to blacken or destroy those whom they so much abhor.

4. God owned his suffering servant by a signal mark of his favour, visible even to his persecutors. All that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, to observe if he betrayed any tokens of fear or guilt, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel; such deliberate courage, such undisturbed serenity, such majesty and mildness sat on his countenance; nay more, a divine splendour beamed from it, like that of Moses when he came from the mount, and seemed to make him appear more than human.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Acts 6". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tcc/acts-6.html. 1801-1803.