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Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
Acts 6

 

 

Verse 1

Acts 6:1. In those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied. The literal rendering was multiplying is more forcible; while the apostles after their liberation went on with their high mission, every day the number of believers continued to increase in spite of the second arrest of the apostles and the scourging.

There arose a murmuring. This dissatisfaction was the first and immediate consequence of the attempts of the Church of Jerusalem to bring about a general community of goods.

Of the Grecians. The words τῶ ν ῾ελληνιστῶ ν are better rendered of the Grecian Jews. These were persons converted to the religion of Jesus from Judaism, but who, owing to their origin or habitation, spoke Greek as their ordinary language, and used the Greek version of the LXX. There were at that time a vast number of Jews who, residing chiefly in foreign parts, had lost the use of their native Hebrew, and generally spoke the Greek language. Many of these, belonging to Jewish families settled in Egypt and other countries, had come to reside in Jerusalem, then as ever the capital city of their people.

Against the Hebrews. The ‘Hebrews’ were the pure Jews who, not residing necessarily in Palestine, still used the Hebrew Scriptures and spoke the dialect of the sacred tongue then current—the Aramaic. The distinction between the Grecians and the Hebrews was not one of nationality, but of language.

Because their widows were neglected. Some commentators have supposed that these widows are mentioned as representatives of all the poor and needy who claimed their daily subsistence from the Church; but this is improbable. It is easy to conceive of these poor lonely women, who belonged to what was considered an inferior caste, being neglected in such a distribution.

In the daily ministration. This refers to a daily distribution either of food or money among the poorer and more helpless members of the Church. The funds which defrayed the cost of such a distribution were supplied by the free donations of the richer brethren (see chap. Acts 2:45 to Acts 4:34). The almoners were, in the first instance, no doubt the apostles themselves; but when the number of the believers had increased, this duty of course was deputed to assistants.

There is no doubt that the real cause of these ‘murmurings’ which disturbed the peace of the early Church, must be sought for in the jealousy which always existed between the Jews who, with the ancient language, had preserved more rigidly the old customs and tone of Hebrew thought, and the Grecian or foreign Jews who, with the Greek language, had adopted broader and less rigid views generally; the former dwelt for the most part, though not exclusively, in Palestine. We find, for instance, the family of St. Paul, which belonged to this exclusive ‘Hebrew’ caste, settled in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia.

The adoption of Christianity does not seem to have welded together these two great divisions of the people. As years went on, the schism even appears to have widened. The pure Hebrew Jews seem to have resented the broad inclusive spirit which soon welcomed the Gentile of every land and race into the fold of the Church, and, standing partly aloof, to have gradually formed themselves into that company of schismatics known later as Judaizing Christians, who so bitterly opposed St. Paul, and then the men of St. Paul’s school of thought. Of this first great schism in the Church, which appears in this sixth chapter of the Acts, we find traces existing as late as the third century.


Verses 1-7

The First Dissension in the Church leads to the Appointment of the Seven Deacons, 1-7.

There is something very sad in the brief statement contained in the opening verses of this sixth chapter. It tells us that the curtain had fallen on the first act of the Church’s history. Hitherto, during the Master’s life and the first two years which succeeded the crucifixion, the story tells us of noble uninterrupted work, of persecution and death endured by the Teacher and His disciples—tells us of a Church ever gathering in fresh converts, marching onwards through suffering to a sure victory; but in all and through all, it tells us of a firm and unbroken peace within, of a mutual love which, in its pure devoted unselfishness, attempted, in the general community of goods of the Jerusalem Church, a way of life afterwards found to be impracticable. But now we see the fair life rudely broken in upon, and the apostles, roused from their dream of love and peace, compelled to make arrangements for governing the community which, in obedience to their Lord’s commands, they had called into existence, after the pattern of the ways of the world. It is a humiliating thought that the first great movement to organize ecclesiastical order and discipline in the Church of Christ was forced upon the apostles by this outbreak of human evil passions among the believers; the ‘murmurings’ which startled the apostles from their early dreams of a Church whose members should possess all things in common, and who should be of one heart and one mind—these ‘murmurings’ of a few poor Jewish women, whose only offence in the eyes of the apostles’ assistants in the public distribution, was, that they spoke the Greek tongue, and were ignorant of the sacred Hebrew dialects, were but the beginning of the first storm of jealousy and fury which rent the Church of Christ—a storm which, as the history of the ‘Acts’ advances, we find ever gathering fresh intensity, and perplexing with new issues the minds of the early leaders of Christian thought (see especially Acts 13:50; Acts 14:19; Acts 18:12; Acts 23:12; Galatians 2; and in post-apostolic literature the Clementine writings, The Homilies and Recognitions).

These records show us only too plainly how in very early times Christians were divided into at least two bitterly hostile camps.


Verse 2

Acts 6:2. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples. In the first instance, the apostles appear themselves to have attended to the distribution of the alms which were brought to them, and laid at their feet; but as the Church rapidly increased, duties more important occupied them, and they were only able to exercise a general oversight. This business of feeding the poor was probably delegated to others in an informal manner, and the feelings set out at some length above, seem to have had their influence in the division of alms and food among the widows and helpless poor of the more despised class; hence the murmuring. The apostles seem at once to have acknowledged the justice of the remonstrance; they agree amongst themselves that an immediate change in their way of administration is necessary, and determine at once upon a formal division of labour. Without making any pretensions to authority, or suggesting the names of men to be chosen as their assistant ministers, they summon a meeting of the whole Church, and after explaining the case leave the decision with the assembled brethren.

A difficulty has been suggested respecting the great number of the multitude of the disciples meeting together; but (1) we are not told where they met: surely the city contained halls and courts large enough for a great assembly if need be. (2) Many of the believers had no doubt left Jerusalem. (3) At such a meeting, only those really interested in the internal government of the society would be present.


Verse 3

Acts 6:3. Look ye out among you seven men. The special number ‘seven’ has been made the object of much curious inquiry; some have suggested that there were now seven thousand believers in Jerusalem, and that one almoner was appointed for each thousand; others, that the Church in the city was divided into seven separate congregations. The seven Archangels, the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit, the sacredness of the number seven, have each in their turn been suggested as giving the clue to the selection of this particular number; but no real ground for this choice of the number seven has ever been found: the reasons which determined the apostles here, are utterly unknown to us.

A far more interesting question, however, is suggested by this episode in the ‘Acts.’ Have we here really the account of the institution of that third order in the Church called ‘deacons’?

It is remarkable that the word διάκονος, deacon, literally a ministering servant, never once occurs in the ‘Acts’ as the title of these seven; the term is used four times in the New Testament as an official designation,—once in the Epistle to the Philippians, and three times in the First Epistle to Timothy. Philip, for instance, one of the seven who is mentioned subsequently in the ‘Acts,’ is called, not a deacon, but an evangelist. In the whole book of the ‘Acts’ no direct mention is ever made of the office of deacon. The silence of this book on the point in question causes us at first to hesitate before we identify the solemn ordination of the seven with the foundation of the third great order of the Christian Church. On the other hand, the early Christian writers Ignatius, Irenæus, and Origen, consider that we have here the history of the institution of the diaconate. From Eusebius we learn that in his day the Church of Rome, whilst it had forty-six presbyters, had only seven deacons. Of course, this was in strict imitation of the first solemn ordination recounted in this sixth chapter of our book. Chrysostom takes a different view of their office, and speaks of their ordination as intended for a special purpose. But the general view of the Church from the earliest times has been, that in the setting apart of the seven, we have the primitive institution of the diaconate. These men were the formally-recognised assistants of the apostles; they were solemnly dedicated to their work, which, besides the superintendence of the Church’s alms, included, as we shall see in the case of the two who subsequently appear in the history, the ministry of the word. Both Stephen and Philip, we know, were powerful and effective preachers; the first (Stephen), as an orator, was probably the most learned and eloquent in the apostolic age. To assert that these seven in any way occupied the position which ecclesiastical order, even so early as in the lifetime of St. Paul, has assigned to deacons, would be utterly to misstate the whole spirit of the story of the early Church. The seven occupied a place of far higher importance than that held by the deacons of after years,—a position, in fact, as Chrysostom says, peculiar to themselves. Still, in this solemn setting apart by the apostles of an inferior order for the purpose of performing certain duties which interfered with the life and work of the elder officers of the Church, we must recognise the first planting of that lower order which, as the Church grew, gradually developed, and adapting itself to new and altered conditions before thirty years had elapsed, was formally termed the diaconate.

Of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom. The requirements to be possessed by the seven show what an important office the apostles deemed this subordinate ministry; they must not only be men of high honour, of acknowledged integrity of character, but they must be full of the Spirit, that is, distinguished for their enthusiasm in the cause, burning with holy zeal, and to their zeal they must add wisdom. Out of the number of believers in Jesus, who were now counted by thousands, it were no hard task to pick out men whose learning and knowledge equalled their zeal and fervour. It is a noticeable fact how in these early days those unlettered men whom the Lord in His wisdom had chosen, were guided, when His Church had become a power, in their first solemn choice of assistants, to look for men not only of stainless character and of burning zeal, but for those who, besides being good and earnest, possessed a reputation for knowledge and wisdom.


Verse 5

Acts 6:5. They chose Stephen, a man fall of faith. ‘See,’ says Chrysostom, writing of St. Stephen, ‘a certain one even among the seven was foremost, and gained the chief prize; for although all shared in the ordination alike, yet this one drew upon himself greater grace (than the others).’ St. Stephen, who has won for himself in the annals of the Church of Christ the proud title of the first martyr, was chosen first by the assembly. He is especially mentioned as ‘full of faith.’ The faith alluded to is that intense loving trust in Jesus as the Redeemer which is the root of all Christian virtues; for this faith, in addition to his other high qualities, Stephen, even in that age of exalted devotion, was conspicuous.

And Philip. Well known afterwards as the ‘apostle’ of Samaria (see Acts 8). It was this Philip who converted the minister of the Ethiopian Queen Candace; he is mentioned again in the twenty-first chapter of the book as dwelling at Cæsarea with his four prophet-daughters; he seems to have been generally known as the ‘evangelist.’

Prochorus, etc. This and the next three names never occur again in the New Testament. Nothing is known respecting the history of these four persons.

Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch. This last-named of the seven must have been originally a Gentile, who bad accepted Judaism and submitted to the rite of circumcision. From the special mention of his being a proselyte, it would seem that the other six were Jews by birth. The names of all the seven are Greek; but we cannot positively conclude from this circumstance that they were all Hellenists or Greek Jews, for it was not unusual for a pure Hebrew to possess a Greek name, as in the case of the apostles Andrew and Philip for instance. Upon the memory of Nicolas rests an unfortunate tradition related by Iremeus, Epiphanius, and others, which asserts that this Nicolas was the founder of the sect of Nicolaitanes mentioned with such stern severity in Revelation 2:6; Revelation 2:15. Perhaps the true version of this story is the relation of Clement of Alexandria, who says that Nicolas himself was famous for the purity of his conduct, but that he was the innocent cause of the heresy which bears his name, which arose from a perversion of some words he once uttered (see Eusebius, H. E. iii. 29).


Verse 6

Acts 6:6. When they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. The hand of ‘him who ordains is laid on the head of him who is to be ordained, but the effect of the act is from God’ (Chrysostom). The earliest mention of ‘laying on of hands’ occurs in Genesis 48:10. It is there connected with blessing only. It was enjoined on Moses as the form of conferring the highest office among the chosen people upon Joshua, and from that time was used on such occasions by the Jews. We find it used in the early Church. By the laying on of hands, the special gifts of the Holy Ghost were imparted (Acts 8:17), the ministerial office was conferred (1 Timothy 5:22. See also Hebrews 6:2, which speaks of the ceremony as one of the Christian institutions). Hackett’s comment on this passage, which speaks of the ‘laying on of hands,’ is noteworthy: ‘It was of the nature of a prayer that God would bestow the necessary gifts, rather than a pledge that they were actually conferred.’


Verse 7

Acts 6:7. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly. The dissensions caused by the growing jealousy between the Foreign and the Hebrew-speaking Jews were at all events for the time composed, and the Church within and without continued to prosper, and its numbers rapidly to increase. The measures taken by the apostles to restore harmony seem to have been effectual, and the introduction of the new officers into the governing body was a fresh element in the society. Authoritative teachers, trained in schools of Greek as well as of Hebrew Thought, now preached and taught side by side with the Twelve, and with their full approval, and thus prepared the way for a far broader preaching of the doctrines of Jesus than had ever yet been dreamed of. As the first-fruits of their wider and more comprehensive teaching, the historian of the ‘Acts’ tells us how a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. Ezra relates (Acts 2:36-39) that 4289 priests returned from Babylon. These numbers by this time no doubt had greatly increased. ‘At this time was probably the culminating point of popularity of the Church at Jerusalem. As yet all seemed going on prosperously for the conversion of Israel. The multitude honoured the apostles. The advice of Gamaliel had moderated the opposition of the Sanhedrim; the priests were gradually being won over. But God’s designs were far different. At this period another great element in the testimony of the Church is brought out in the person of Stephen, its protest against Pharisaism. This arrays against it that powerful and zealous sect, and henceforward it finds neither favour nor tolerance with either of the parties among the Jews, but increasing and bitter enmity from them both’ (Alford).


Verse 8

The Acts of St. Stephen, Acts 6:8 to Acts 8:2.

Acts 6:8. And Stephen. One of the new men just chosen as assistants to the Twelve at once attracted public attention. His fearlessness, his splendid oratory, his intense faith, the great wonders and signs done in the power of this faith, threw into the shade the apostles and their words and works. Stephen soon became in the eyes of the Jews the foremost among the Nazarene heretics by his fearless denunciation of the emptiness of Judaism as practised by Pharisee as well as Sadducee. He drew down on his head the bitter hatred of each of the powerful parties in the state.

Full of faith. The better reading here is ϰάριτος, grace, not to be understood as ‘favour with the people,’ but as ‘favour with God,’ the effects of which grace were those Divine powers which enabled him to work those signs and wonders.

And power. That is, strength, heroic fortitude to do and to endure; heroismus (Meyer).

Did great wonders and miracles among the people. It is better to refer the special power by which Stephen worked these great wonders, to the intenseness of his faith, rather than to the special grace which, in common with the other six, he received by the imposition of the apostles’ hands. This is the first instance given us of any one not an apostle working signs and wonders.


Verse 9

Acts 6:9. Then there arose. The more accurate translation is, ‘But there arose.’ The connection of thought is, the teaching and work of Stephen struck a new chord in the heart of the people. Many who had been deaf before, like the priests, were now constrained to listen. A new tide of success apparently had commenced to flow, ‘but there arose’ new enemies; the success stirred up a new hindrance.

Certain of the synagogue. An exact classification of these synagogues, which are mentioned here as the scenes of Stephen’s disputation, is perhaps impossible; the Greek here is perplexed, and the precise definition of each of these Jewish congregations somewhat doubtful. In the great Jewish city, the common metropolis of the race, all shades of opinion, Greek and Aramaic (Hebrew), of course found a home. The Rabbinic writers tell us that there were in Jerusalem 480 synagogues. This is no doubt an exaggeration, and the number probably a mystic one; still, it is certain that most of the great foreign colonies of Jews, whose members for religious purposes or for business were constantly passing and repassing between their distant homes and the holy city, were represented by a synagogue settled in Jerusalem. Five of these nations are here mentioned as possessing congregations in the capital. They seem to represent generally the three great divisions of Jews settled abroad,—Roman, Grecian, Asiatic. The Libertine and Cyrenian synagogues represent Rome; the Alexandrian, Greece; the Cilician and Asian, the East. With the teachers of these different schools of Jewish thought, Stephen came in contact.

Which is called the synagogue of the Libertines. This is not, as some have supposed, a geographical designation, but it stands for a great class of Roman Jews whose fathers were originally sold as captives in Rome after the Expedition of Pompey about B.C. 53. These were for the most part freed, and, by a decree of Tiberius some twelve or thirteen years previous to the present time, had been banished from Rome, and great numbers had taken up their abode in Jerusalem.

And Cyrenians. Cyrene was a great city of the province of Cyrenaica, in North Africa. Josephus relates how one-fourth of its inhabitants were Jews. They had originally been settled there by Ptolemy Lagus. Simon the Cyrenian is mentioned as carrying the cross of Jesus. Cyrenian Jews were present at the feast of Pentecost of Acts 2 (see also Acts 11:20; Acts 13:1).

And Alexandrians. Alexandria was considered at this time to be the second city of the empire. It was the seat of Hellenistic learning and culture. A special quarter of the city was assigned to the Jews, who were estimated as numbering 100,000. Alexander the Great settled them there as colonists, and gave them extraordinary privileges. They had a governor of their own named the Alabarch, and were ruled by their own laws. The famous writer Philo was at this period living in Alexandria.

And of them of Cilicia. This province, geographically speaking, occupied the south-eastern division of what is now known as Asia Minor. Many Jews were settled here. A colony of Jews was settled here by Antiochus the Great. It was at this time a Roman province. St. Paul was a native of Cilicia, and there is no doubt but that among the Rabbis and teachers of the Cilician synagogue, who met and argued with Stephen, not the least distinguished was the brilliant pupil of Gamaliel, the young man Saul.

And of Asia. Not Asia Minor in the modern geographical division, but a province including Mysia, Lydia, and Caria, with Ephesus as the principal city.


Verse 10

Acts 6:10. And they were not able to resist the wisdom. In the disputation the doctors of those great synagogues just mentioned, were fairly beaten in argument by the divinely-inspired wisdom of Stephen, who met them on their own ground, showing how marvellously the allusions and promises contained in the law and in the prophets were fulfilled in the person of Jesus.

What now was there in Stephen’s preaching which so powerfully affected the rulers in Israel, which even alienated the people hitherto so favourably inclined to the new sect? Was his teaching different to that of Peter or John? There is no doubt that Stephen, with the light of the Holy Ghost shining clear and full on his early and elaborate training, saw more plainly than the older and comparatively untaught apostles how transitory after all was that law of Moses now more than ever fanatically reverenced and observed; how faded were the glories of that Temple, the object now, more than at any previous time, of a passionate love. The sacred law, the holy and beautiful house, in the days when our Lord and His apostles lived on earth, were all that remained to the Jew of his ancestral glories; their holy land was ruled by strangers, their name and fame were only a memory; so they surrounded the law of Moses and the house on Mount Sion with a strange unreasoning devotion; and when Stephen told them that these things were only shadows which were even then passing away, it was an easy matter, by a very slight perversion of his words, for the Jewish leaders, Pharisee and Sadducee, to excite among the people a storm of patriotic indignation against one who dared to teach such hateful doctrines.


Verse 11

Acts 6:11. Then they suborned men, which said. That is, they secretly instructed, having concerted together what should be said.

Blasphemous words. According to the law of Moses, blasphemy consisted in contempt of Moses and his institutions, and was a capital offence (see Deuteronomy 13:6; Deuteronomy 13:10). This charge brought against Stephen was the same which was made against Christ, and for which, as far as the Jews were concerned, He was condemned.


Verse 12

Acts 6:12. And they stirred up the people. It was above all things necessary for the enemies of these Nazarenes to have public opinion on their side. We have seen how popular favour on a former occasion (chap. Acts 5:26) had protected the apostles. The people were now won over to the side of the persecutors of the followers of Jesus by an appeal to their patriotism (see note above on Acts 6:10).

And the elders, and the scribes. The foremost men in Israel who had seats in the great council. These are mentioned without reference to the peculiar school of thought, Pharisee or Sadducee, to which they might belong. The teaching of Stephen arrayed both these two great parties against him and his cause.


Verse 13

Acts 6:13. And set up false witnesses. These words have created some difficulty. In what sense were these witnesses ‘false’? At first sight Stephen seems to have used in his arguments words not very dissimilar from those which he was charged with uttering. But these witnesses, even perhaps quoting before the Sanhedrim the very words used by the eloquent Nazarene teacher, took them out of their original context, distorted them, and evidently represented him as unceasingly ( ον παύεται) assailing the Temple and the holy Jewish rites, held him up, first before the people, and then in more guarded language before the great council, as a fanatical enemy of all that the devout Israelite looked upon as holy and divine.

The procedure of these jealous and angry Jews who suborned the false witnesses is curious, and deserves special notice. Firstly, When they wanted to excite the populace against Stephen, they did not scruple to charge him (Acts 6:11) with the most awful blasphemy against Moses and even against the God of Israel. Secondly. When they had so far gained their point, and they had the people with them, and the accused was about to be brought before the state Jewish tribunal, the witnesses they instructed had considerably modified the grave and terrible accusation they had spread abroad among the people. The word blasphemous (Acts 6:13) disappears (according to the reading of the better MSS.). Nothing is said about Stephen railing against the revered lawgiver or the Awful Name. His offence was, he had spoken against the Temple and the law. Thirdly. When face to face with the accused, these charges are again watered down to a simple statement, how they remembered Stephen quoting certain well-known words of the Crucified, which they construed as a threat against the Temple and the law; but even this was enough in the eyes of the hostile Sanhedrim to warrant a solemn trial for life or death.


Verse 15

Acts 6:15. Saw his face as it had been the face of an angel. And the whole of that great council turned their earnest and excited gaze from the accusers to the accused, to see how the follower of the Crucified would look, charged with so grave a charge, now brought face to face with the rulers of his people; and to their surprise and awe, no troubled anxious gaze met theirs; for over the features of the servant of Jesus had passed a radiance not belonging to this world, a light at once beautiful and terrible, which these men could only compare to the light which their Divine story told them used to play round the forehead of Moses when he came from the presence of the Eternal. Many have attempted to show that nothing more is intended by the words ‘his face as it had been the face of an angel,’ than a description of the calm and holy aspect of the first martyr as he stood before his judges. But the expression in the ‘Acts’ points to something more than this, for, as Hackett observes, ‘the comparison is an unusual one, and the Jews supposed the visible appearance of angels to correspond with their superhuman rank (see Acts 1:10; Matthew 28:3; Luke 24:4; Revelation 18:1). The countenance of Stephen, like that of Moses on his descent from the Mount, shone probably with a preternatural lustre proclaiming him a true witness, a servant of Him whose glory was so fitly symbolized by such a token. The occasion was worthy of the miracle.’

St. Augustine beautifully writes of the martyr’s transfigured face: ‘O lamb, foremost (of the flock of Christ), fighting in the midst of wolves, following after the Lord, but still at a distance from Him, and already the angel’s friend. Yes, how clearly was he the angel’s friend who, while in the very midst of the wolves, still seemed like an angel; for so transfigured was he by the rays of the Sun of Righteousness, that even to his enemies he seemed a being not of this world.’

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Acts 6:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/acts-6.html. 1879-90.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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