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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 6

 

 

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Verse 1

‘Now in these days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring of the Grecian (Hellenistic) Jews against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.’

That the administration of the funds and charitable giving now being made available to the Apostles was not carried out with efficiency and precision is not surprising. They had not been trained for it, and it was really outside their sphere. They were quite rightly keeping their emphasis on their main ministry. The neglect of the widows of the Hellenistic Jews thus probably arose, not from inherent racism, but from inefficiency. The Aramaic speaking Jewish Christians were naturally more in touch with the Aramaic speaking widows, than they were with the solely Greek speaking widows, and appear therefore not have been aware of the needs of some of the latter. Naturally the Hellenists themselves (not their widows) felt a little upset about it so that the matter was eventually brought up with the Apostles. This was something that needed sorting out. It was all a part of the openness with which they treated each other.

This division between predominantly Aramaic speaking Jews and predominantly Greek speaking Jews was marked everywhere in Judaism and no more so than in Jerusalem. The Hellenists (Greek speaking Jews) tended to be more affected by Greek culture and to use the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) rather than the Hebrew Scriptures, and thus to be broader in their views and outlook. They had a tendency to interpret things differently from the more orthodox, tending to be freer spoken in religious matters and interpretation. Naturally therefore, without actually splitting off, they tended to band together both doctrinally and practically. They felt more at home with each other. In Jerusalem there would be a number of synagogues which were regarded as Hellenistic.

And it would appear that this difference had necessarily crossed over into the church. The Apostles would therefore naturally be much more alive to what was happening among the Aramaic speaking section of ‘the church’, for the church, while united, would meet in smaller groups, and this would explain the accidental discrimination. It was probably mainly due to lack of administrative ability and awareness rather than to conscious neglect, and possibly also connected with the district they lived in.

Although none of them were aware of it God was about to use this difference to set things off in a new direction, both in an expansion of the ministry to less orthodox circles, and in a change in the emphasis of the church’s teaching, both directly as a result of the activity of the Holy Spirit.

‘Murmuring.’ There was an expression of dissatisfaction. This would probably come from concerned Hellenistic Christians who saw how some of their widows were missing out and went and grumbled to their own ‘elders’. These elders would then approach the Apostles.


Verse 2

‘And the twelve called the multitude of the disciples to them, and said, “It is not fit that we should forsake the word of God, and serve tables.” ’

The Apostles immediately responded to the complaint which they recognised may well be justified in the circumstances. They pointed out that it was their responsibility to spread and teach the word of God, a work which must not be restricted by the need to deal with administrative problems. It was not fitting that it should be so.

‘Serve tables.’ Whether this meant that food was gathered on table for distribution, or is simply an expression meaning ‘serving the wherewithal for meals’ we do not know. If in fact tables were set up the problem may simply have been that not all were not in a position to come to where the tables were. Either way the Apostles wanted others to take on the responsibility for it.

Note the emphasis on the fact that the twelve acted together. It was a united leadership. There is no thought of anyone having precedence in such decisions.


Verse 3

“Look you out therefore, brethren, from among you seven men of good report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.”

So they put forward the practical solution that seven suitably qualified people be selected from among their number to act as administrators, taking charge of the practical distribution of alms among the Hellenists while they themselves concentrated on preaching the word. (The system which was working well among the Hebraic believers could carry on as before). All that was necessary was that they be men of outstanding reputation, and full of wisdom in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It seemed a good and practical solution, and was quite probably decided on the basis of Jewish practise. It revealed their general naivety in that it demonstrated their limited vision. They had no idea when they did it what an avalanche they were unleashing. For God had other plans for the extending of His work, and this was the means by which He was bringing them about. He would not limit the seven to serving tables.


Verse 4

“But we will continue steadfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the word.”

The administrative problems being sorted out, they hoped satisfactorily, the Apostles themselves would then concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the word. The new appointees would be administrative ‘ministers’ (deacons) and the Apostles would be ‘deacons’ of the word. We should not see here , except possibly in embryo form, a deliberate distinction between ‘deacons’ and non-deacons. It was simply a practical division of responsibilities, with all ‘serving’ (deaconing) together, while recognising the special responsibility of the Apostles.


Verse 5-6

‘And the saying pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus a proselyte of Antioch, whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.’

This practical solution pleased everyone and seven men were chosen out and set apart. The Greek sounding names may suggest that they were mainly selected from the Hellenist section, it being recognised that that was where the problems lay. And this may suggest that these seven were set aside to look after the Hellenistic widows, the Hebraic ones being seen as already catered for. The first-named, Stephen, was said to be ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’. This was simply in preparation for what was to follow, for all seven would undoubtedly have been chosen precisely because they were so. Certainly Stephen and Philip were about to cause great changes in ‘the church’.

These seven men were then brought to the Apostles who prayed and laid their hands on them as a sign of oneness with them. The laying on of hands was regularly in the Old Testament evidence of identification. Men identified themselves with their sacrifices by laying their hands on them. They appointed representatives by laying hands on them. Thus by this act these seven men were designated as representatives of the Apostles.

We only know the futures of Stephen and Philip, but we need not doubt that all began to serve God in their own way, for the persecution would shortly interrupt their ministry and they would mainly be driven out of Jerusalem to new pastures.

‘Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.’ Seemingly the only one of the seven who was a comparatively recent convert to Judaism, and not born of Jewish parents, although it may simply signify that Luke knew him personally. (There are no genuine grounds for associating him with the Nicolaitans of Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:15).


Verse 7

‘And the word of God increased, and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly, and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.’

The seven having been appointed this description now seals off the section. A satisfactory solution appeared to have been reached and things could now go on smoothly.

The equally satisfactory result was that ‘the word of God’ (God’s new teaching effective through the Spirit) continued to expand and spread, the number of disciples continued to multiply, and it became noticeable that large numbers of priests became followers of Jesus. This last comment was very much intended to illustrate the fact that the church was becoming the new Temple of God in preparation for Stephen’s ministry which was to follow, and brought home the success of the ministry of the Gospel among the more conservative of the Jews. A firm foundation was being laid for the future, and Luke wanted it to be recognised that in spite of what happened next, the orthodox work still carried on satisfactorily. The new Israel was firmly founded on the old.

From this point on the general ministry of the Apostles is allowed to carry on in Jerusalem unobserved by Luke (Acts 8:1) while the work is seen to expand outwards into unexpected places. And the man whom God has chosen to be the mainspring of this change was the new appointee, Stephen. None of those present could ever remotely have dreamed, as hands were laid on Stephen, a godly man bristling with faith, who was simply to help control the maintenance of the Christian poor in Jerusalem, that a revolution in thinking and activity was about to take place as a result of his faith.

‘And a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.’ Here was evidence, if such was needed, that the new ministry was firmly founded on a true Scriptural perspective. Those who were the very heart of Israel’s faith were responding to the new message and acknowledging its truth and orthodoxy. Thus, whatever followed, God had laid His seal of approval on what was happening.

It would seem quite apparent that Luke sees this as particularly significant. In a sense it was the last bastion to fall. The priests would be the most resistant to change. But now they were coming over in large numbers. the triumph of the Gospel in Jerusalem was complete.


Verse 8

Stephen Disputes With Hellenist Jews And Is Falsely Accused (6:8-15).

‘And Stephen, full of grace and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people.’

Compare here Acts 4:33 where the Apostles were said to speak with great grace and power. Stephen possessed similar divine assistance to the Apostles. And through that divine help he wrought great wonders and signs among the people, the wonders and signs which were so much a part of the new inundation of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:19; Acts 2:22; Acts 2:43; Acts 4:30; Acts 5:12; Acts 8:6; Acts 8:13; Acts 14:3). It was now apparent that not only had the Apostles laid hands on him, God had also laid hands on him with a special ministry in view.

This might suggest that Christians placed in positions of authority in those early days did expect God also to work through them in these ways. They were seen as adjuncts to their ministry.


Verses 8-60

The Preaching and Martyrdom of Stephen (6:8-7:60).

It is one of the exciting things about serving God that we never know what He is going to do next. In Acts 6:1-7 the Apostles had rid themselves of the administrative burden of ‘serving tables’ and dealing with the administration of food to needy Hellenistic Christians, by appointing seven men to perform the task, one of whom was named Stephen. Little did they dream that God would then choose to take Stephen and give him a ministry similar to that of the Apostles. And even less did anyone realise that shortly he would be promoted to glory by way of martyrdom.

Stephen was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian (essentially Greek speaking and previously attendant at synagogues where Greek was basically used) and his ideas and interpretations of the Old Testament were therefore probably more liberal than those of the Hebraic Jewish Christians, although we must not make too much of this for what he would shortly say in his defence was perfectly orthodox.

But it may help to explain why he caused a furore where the Apostles had not. The Hellenistic Jews in general may well have laid less emphasis on the centrality of the Temple and its accompanying ritual, interpreting the Scriptures more allegorically (as Philo, a Hellenistic Jew, certainly did in Alexandria). On the other hand the Apostles, centring their message on Christ, and on what He had come to do and finally accomplish, seemingly otherwise kept common cause with their Jewish brethren. Their present view was of a transformed Judaism, responsive to Jesus Christ. They had not yet considered wider issues.

Stephen appears to have stressed that in Christ ‘the land’ and the Temple had ceased to hold a position of prime importance. Now it was Christ, coming as the Saviour of men, Who was to take central stage. And the thoughts of men should therefore be more centred on Him than on Temple ritual. It was not that he abandoned the Temple completely. It was that he deprecated the hold that it had on people, when he felt that their focus should be centred on Christ. These are the ideas that will shortly come to the fore in his final defence. Men, he declares, should not be looking to the land, or to the Temple, they should be looking to God’s great Deliverer.

Thus as a Hellenist he went to synagogues in Jerusalem which the Apostles had probably little touched, for there were many synagogues of all shades of opinion in Jerusalem. But one thing is certainly clear. His declaration of the faith was powerfully effective.

Up to this point the main opponents of the new born church have been the Sadducees, for the witness of the church appears to have been focussed through the Temple, although they had no doubt taken up opportunities to speak elsewhere. However, on the whole the Pharisees appear to have tolerated them. But now Stephen would take his witness into the synagogues in no uncertain fashion, and there he would be in direct confrontation with the Pharisees. Thus the Sadducean opposition would now be bolstered by the Pharisees.


Verse 9

‘But there arose certain of those who were of the synagogue called the synagogue of the Libertines, and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen.’

So Stephen boldly went into the Hellenistic Jewish synagogues in Jerusalem and proclaimed Christ. And the description suggests that there he disputed with many who disagreed with him. We do not know whether this was one synagogue where all these types met, or a number of synagogues such as a synagogue of the Freedmen (Libertines), a synagogue for Cyrenians, a synagogue for Alexandrians (Egyptians), and one for Cilicians and Asians. But the participants were all firm in their beliefs, and we can almost certainly presume that some Pharisees were involved, for as knowledgeable in the Law and in the Scriptures they would unquestionably involve themselves in such a situation.

The Libertines were possibly composed of freedmen who having been released from slavery tended to group together and make common cause. They may well have formed a separate synagogue, for a synagogue could be set up by ten or more adult males. The Cyrenians and Alexandrians were from North Africa. The Cilicians and Asians were from the north. The Cilicians may well have included Saul (Paul) among their number.


Verse 10

‘And they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.’

Stephen was clearly a capable debater and on top of that was also enabled in wisdom by the Holy Spirit. Thus as his opponents discussed with him they found that their arguments were being defeated. They became aware that all too often Stephen was winning the argument. They began to find the things that they saw as most precious marginalised. We may surmise that they argued about the things that Stephen would lay down in his speech, that Christ was the coming Prophet and Righteous one, that men should look more to Him than to the Temple, and that presence in the land mattered little one way or the other. What mattered was to follow Christ and obey Him.

The account concentrates on the response of those who took this badly. To be in the ‘holy land’ and in the ‘holy Temple’ meant a huge amount to them. They hoped that it might help to get them obtain eternal life. And now they felt as though their foundations were being taken away. But there may well have been some who found themselves convinced, and became Christians.


Verse 11

‘Then they suborned men, who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.” ’

But those who took their defeat hard and were not willing to yield did what many do who lose an argument, they stirred up trouble for Stephen. They were genuinely angry and their policy was, if you cannot beat him have him beaten. Thus they raised up evil men to spread false rumours. These went about declaring that they had heard Stephen speaking blasphemous words against Moses and against God. Men of strong belief are prone to see things that they do not agree with as blasphemous, especially if it shows up what they do believe in. It is a tendency when someone has a strong belief in something.


Verse 12

‘And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came on him, and seized him, and brought him into the council,’

They were in fact so effective in what they said that ‘the people’ (a vague term meaning part of the general population) became stirred up. There appears to have been a general furore, for it resulted in the members of the Sanhedrin having him arrested and brought before the council. It would seem from the fact that he alone was affected by this that the council was in general following its own decision to leave the Apostles to prove themselves. But they clearly saw this outspoken Hellenistic Jewish Christian as different, especially in view of the severe charges being set against him.

It was, of course, the Sanhedrin’s duty to examine any serious charge of blasphemy. If they thought that such a thing had happened they were duty bound to examine it. And we note here that, because it was the result of trouble in the synagogues rather than in the temple, the Pharisees (‘the scribes’) were directly involved. Now that it was in the synagogues and not the Temple that this was happening it had begun to affect them personally. That is why later Saul, a disciple of the Pharisaic doctor Gamaliel, will be involved. It is now for the first time since the crucifixion the Pharisees who are influential in opposing the infant church.


Verse 13-14

‘And set up false witnesses, who said, “This man does not cease from speaking words against this holy place, and the law, for we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”

‘Set up false witnesses’ may simply indicate that they set up as witnesses the ones who had been spreading false rumours and were demanding that something be done. It does not necessarily mean that the council were involved in actually themselves fabricating evidence. And even then we must recognise that there was probably some partial truth in what the false witnesses had to say, as Stephen’s own words make clear. Half truths are usually more effective than total lies which can easily be disproved. The accusations were close enough to what Stephen had said to be uncomfortable.

These false witnesses claimed that he had spoken against ‘this holy place’ (the Temple) and against ‘the Law’. This would be seen as an attack on both the things that were important to the chief priests (the Temple) and to the Pharisees (the Law). They then amplified this by pointing out that what he had actually said was that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the Temple and would change the customs which Moses had delivered to them.

The probability is that they were exaggerating what he had said rather than totally making it all up. We can compare, with regard to their statement about the Temple, how false witnesses at Jesus trial had claimed, “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple which is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands” (Mark 14:58). That too we know was probably a distortion of a genuine saying of Jesus (e.g. John 2:19).

Stephen may well have let slip that Jesus had said that the Temple was shortly to be destroyed (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), which would appear blasphemous enough to those who believed in the inviolability of the Temple. And he may certainly have given the impression that Jesus had amplified some of what the Law taught (as indeed we see in the Sermon on the Mount - ‘But I say to you’ - Matthew 5) and that He had put on the Law a different emphasis from the Pharisees (e.g. Mark 7:5-23). So they might well have seen this as ‘changing the customs of Moses’. The distortions were based on half truths, which are always the most dangerous kind of lie.

He was therefore brought to stand before the council in order to defend himself. And when we consider this we must not assume immediately that the council was at fault, or even antagonistic. We must remember that the council did have the responsibility to look into charges of blasphemy. It was not the fact of the investigation that demonstrated their unreasonableness, but its aftermath.


Verse 15

‘And all who sat in the council, fastening their eyes on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.’

But when Stephen came before them they were astonished, for when they gazed at his face it looked like the face of an angel. This probably means that he was so filled with the sense of the presence of God that his face in some way shone (compare Daniel 10:6; Matthew 28:3). This need not be seen as a miracle, but it should certainly have reminded them of how when Moses came to the people with a message from God his face too had shone (Exodus 34:29-35). They should therefore have realised that here was a man who had come to them with a message from God, and have been more open. He bore the truth of his own testimony on his face.

We should note how this phenomenon is brought into account later. Here they saw his face as though it was the face of an angel. In Acts 7:53 the sentence against the Sanhedrin is that ‘they received the Law as it was ordained by angels and kept them not.’ Luke is bringing out how God was here giving the Sanhedrin a huge opportunity, speaking through His ‘angel’ (messenger), as He had previously to Israel when He gave them the Law. The point is that in the end they responded to neither. Here was God’s angel bringing a greater covenant, but they missed their opportunity once again.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 6:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/acts-6.html. 2013.

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