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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Acts 6

 

 

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Verse 1

VI. PENTECOSTAL CHURCH FORMING ITS ECONOMY.

Choice of the Seven, 1-8.

1. In those days—A Hebrew phrase used in Acts 1:15, to mark a period of a few days, and in Matthew 3:1, to imply an indefinite number of years. As thus far Luke has given but few dates, the reader may suppose that we are advanced but a few months from the Ascension. But according to the best chronology the events of this chapter take place in the year thirty-six. (See note on Acts 9:24.) Assuming the crucifixion to have occurred in the year 30, we must either overleap a few years, or, more properly, distribute the events thus far as we best can over a period of six years. During this period the management of the affairs of the Church, as limited to Jerusalem alone, rests upon the apostles. Yet the real power lies in the body of the Church. The apostles, though divinely appointed, are the personal representatives and executives of that power.

Their authority is undefined by any exact limits. With them as its heads, the whole body moves with spontaneous harmony and freedom. The hierarchy in form is a democracy in spirit.

Meanwhile they are now beginning to find that, like Moses, (Exodus 18:13-26,) their task is too large for their hands. The instrumentalities they are obliged to use, especially in the charitable distributions, are too irresponsible, and negligences and partialities give rise to murmurs. Baumgarten entitles this section “The first dissension,” but he might as well define it the first official deficiency; for that the administration was defective is proved by the prompt thoroughness with which the radical correction was made.

A murmuring—The Greek word γογγυσμος is an imitative word expressing a low buzz of discontent gradually reaching the apostolic ears.

Grecians… Hebrews—Three classes of persons are to be carefully distinguished in this earliest Christian history—the Hebrews, the Proselytes, and the Grecians or Hellenists. The FIRST were claimants of the real Hebrew blood, more or less pure, speaking mainly the vernacular Hebrew of the day, (the Aramaic or Syro-Chaldaic,) inclined to reside in or connect themselves with Palestine, and especially Jerusalem, and standard zealots for Moses and the law. The SECOND were Gentiles who, tired of idolatry and polytheism, were glad to learn from Judaism the doctrine of one true and holy God. One class went only so far as to accept the Monotheism and the so-called moral precepts of Noah, without undergoing circumcision and the ritual of Moses; and, because thus stopping at the threshold, (or rather, perhaps, because they were strangers “within thy gates,” Exodus 20:10,) they were significantly named Proselytes of the Gate, while the receivers of the whole law were proudly styled Proselyres of Righteousness. The Grecians, Grecising Jews, or Hellenists, (see note on Acts 9:29,) were Jews by birth and circumcision, who, born in a foreign land, spake a foreign language, especially the Greek, and were held by the pure Jews to be tinctured with Gentilism, and so defective in the perfectness of their Judaism. They were inclined to liberalism, except when prompted by emulation to become more Jewish than the Jews themselves.

It was among the two latter classes that Christianity found most ready acceptance. The Gentile inclined to Monotheism was glad of a religion teaching holiness, salvation, and God, without circumcision and the burdens of ritual Mosaicism. The liberal Greek-speaking Jew or Hellenist glided easily into a resignation of the ceremonial law for a more spiritual piety. But the rigid, proud, intense Jew, most inflexible of all, was disposed to reject Christianity with a flout, or to accept it by the half, and to carry into his Christianity fragments of old Judaism with a conscious superiority over his Christian brethren often intolerant and fanatical. It was from this class of Jews and Jewish Christians that Paul, though by blood a pure “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” suffered through his whole apostolic career.

The extremest of these became the Ebionites of later, but very early, Church history. It must therefore be acknowledged that this murmur, if not the first buzz of a long quarrel, did indicate a division of classes from which subsequent permanent quarrel would arise.

Widows—A turbulent and bloody age throws large numbers of widows upon the benevolence of the Church.

Daily ministration—The daily distribution of food to the home of each widow.

Ministration—Greek, διακονια diaconia, from which deacon and diaconate or deaconship are derived. Its composition from δια, through, and κονις, dust, if correct, implies a service through drudgery of a very humble sort. But Scripture nowhere applies the official title deacon to these men, and Luke seems even to avoid so doing (Acts 21:8) in calling Philip one of the seven. This is not parallel to calling the apostles the twelve, for that was their divinely limited and permanently fixed number. Luke’s phrase indeed apparently implies that “the seven” was a unique and memorable, though discontinued, class of men. The application to their office of the generic term diaconia, ministry, or the verb form of the word, is no proof of specific deaconship. The generic term is rendered ministry in Acts 6:4, serve, Acts 6:2, Luke 10:40, Luke 12:37, Luke 22:26-27.


Verse 2

2. Then the twelve—This is the first recorded movement for forming a Church economy; we can hardly say government. Beyond the appointment of his twelve, Christ had left no draft of a constitution for his Church.

There is clearly no connection between this seven and the seventy deacons sent forth by our Lord, nor any certain connection between them and the deacons of the Epistles or of subsequent ecclesiastical history. The whole movement of their election is a measure of immediate expediency, suggested by an incidental want, adopted without any claim or consciousness of special inspiration, and without the least apparent thought that they are adopting a permanent order for the universal Church, without which a complete and valid Church cannot exist. The whole act suggests the doctrine that any Church is endowed by the great Head of the Church with the right of shaping itself into any organic form most conducive to its great mission of salvation. (See note on Acts 13:3.)

Called the multitude—The apostolic mind originates the new idea, but the body of the Church alone can give it reality. The thought moves in the brain, but the energetic and active soul lives in the whole body.

Serve tables—The Greek word τραπεζα may signify either a money table or a meal table indifferently, (Matthew 16:27, Acts 16:34, and also Matthew 21:12, and Luke 19:23,) and perhaps includes both here.

This deaconship was certainly not a merely pecuniary office, a mere agency to apply the moneys laid at the apostles’ feet. In all probability the seven, with the funds, supplied the ministrations of the daily table-provisions where the oversights took place.


Verse 3

3. Look ye out—The laity were to look the seven men out, and the laity concurred (the saying pleased them) and chose the men. It is thus the business of the Church in all ages to provide for itself a ministry. Though the ministry does at first call, and so in a sense create the Church, yet normally in turn the Church creates its ministry. It must search, find, bring out, and perform its part in choosing them.

We may appointκατατησομεν, may make-stand, may station or establish. The electing by the laity did not make the officer without the appointing by the apostles. Both must, and, animated by one spirit, would spontaneously concur.

Seven—Doubtless this number, like that of the twelve, had a symbolic character, as we have illustrated in our notes on the Sacred Numbers in our second volume. So the Jews, according to Maimonides as quoted by Dr. Gill, had seven good men of the city as a kind of trustees of the synagogues. Some suppose, without much reason, that the Jerusalem Church was divided into sections worshipping in seven different houses, with a deacon to each. Dr. Clarke supposes, with more reasonable probability, that one deacon served in turn on each of the seven days of the week. A symbolical and a real reason could easily coincide in a given case. It is a curious instance of the service of the letter that the Church in Rome scrupulously limited its deacons to seven even while its elders amounted to forty.

Honest report—Honourable reputation.

Holy Ghost… wisdom— The high qualifications of the deacons implied that even they were not to be limited to a mere manual service. To feed the poor and tend the sick in a Christian way require service to the soul as well as body. In point of fact we find that of two of the seven preaching was largely the providential duty. For this their official character was an authorization.


Verse 4

4. Give ourselves… continuallyπροσκαρτερησομεν. We will persevere in, or continue in; constantly, yet not exclusively. Their spiritual office exempted them from official attention to temporal charities, but was no cessation from spontaneous alms. As Christ was, at first, divine Apostle, (Hebrews 3:1,) and contained within himself all authority, so his apostles were the source whence all church-official grades are derived. As Dr. Schaff well says, (“Apostolic History,” 499:) The higher (the apostolate) “includes the lower, not the reverse.” “The apostles were at the same time prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, and at first had charge even of the business of the deacons, Acts 4:35; Acts 4:37; Acts 6:2.” What was peculiar to the apostles alone left the earth with them; but all other ministries are carved out of what was transmissible in them, and all true ministers are successors of the apostles.

Prayer… ministry of the word— These every minister inherits as his blessed perquisite and privilege from the apostles. In the divine establishment of the Church the “ministry of the word” is a permanent institution. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” is the command, followed by the promise of Christ’s presence “until the end of the world.” So that preaching and preacher stand while the world stands. It is by the foolishness of preaching the world is to be saved. And such a preacher is divinely “called” to his work. That call by the moving of the Holy Ghost is manifested to his own soul by an impressive sense of duty, an assuring testimony to the soul from God upon prayerful inquiry, and a deep love and attraction for the blessed work of gaining souls for Christ and heaven. Without such a “call” no man should ever enter the ministry of reconciliation.

We do not say that a man may not, by the same Spirit and in a similar way be “called” to some other “calling,” as to be a physician or a mechanic. Did men consult the divine will in a profounder spirit of devotion the divine “call” would be oftener recognized. But if the call and the Spirit may be much the same, the destination to which the call directs is profoundly different. Medicine is not a spiritual institution; it has not the direct notice of revelation; it forms no part of a divinely established Church; and the divine call directs a man to it as to a secularity. But the minister is divinely called to a divinely constituted work, office, responsibility, danger, and dignity. And we may add that such a call may be outlived and forfeited. Many a minister gives evidence, by the loss of the true spirit of a minister, that he has lost his call as a minister.


Verse 5

5. Pleased… whole multitude—The organic consent of the entire body of both sexes, apparently, without which the measure would not have been adopted.

Full… faith… Holy Ghost—Luke pauses after Stephen’s name to add a precious eulogy, premonitory of his future history. It is remarkable that of the names the entire seven are Greek, a uniformity which could not exist without a cause. Hebrews had often indeed Greek names. Of the twelve apostles, as their names appear in the Acts, four are Greek. From the uniformity here it is perhaps too much to infer with some that the whole seven were foreign Greekish Jews added to Hebrew deacons already existing, for, as we have already intimated, the present office was entirely new. We may infer that possibly the Church, magnanimously to the weaker party, chose Greekish Jews alone. Or perhaps three were Hebrews with Greek names, three were foreign Jews, and one proselyte through Judaism from the Gentiles.

Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch—First a Gentile, then a Jew, then a Christian. He was led by Moses from Paganism to Christ. Of the seven, two alone, Stephen and Philip, have any history in the New Testament; while a third, this Nicolas, possesses a singular note in ecclesiastical literature. He was said by Irenaeus to have been the founder of the vile sect of Nicolaitans condemned in Revelation 2:14. And this statement is confirmed by the recently discovered work of Hippolytus, an authority considered by Pressense decisive upon this point. It is indeed certain that that infamous sect claimed him as their founder. Yet the statement of Clement of Alexandria, an early and discriminating authority, seems well to account for the assumption of his name by the sect and yet exculpate him from guilt. It was a favourite maxim of Nicolas that “it is right to abuse ( παραχρησθαι) the flesh.” This maxim was doubtless identical with the maxim that “all evil lies in matter,” or flesh. (See note on Acts 8:8.) Both these maxims could alike be interpreted to mean either that the flesh should be mortified ascetically, or indulged licentiously. It is very possible that Nicolas meant it in an ascetic sense, while a licentious sect used it as a license for infamy and claimed the credit of his name. Just so Epicurus taught in a good sense the maxim that virtue and pleasure coincide, meaning that true pleasure could be attained only by virtue. But the Epicureans made it to mean that the pursuit of pleasure is all the virtue there is.


Verse 6

6. Whom they set before the apostles—The people selected and elected the men; the apostles were to ratify the election by laying hands upon them, implying a veto power in an extreme case where the good of the Church was at stake.

Laid their hands—This imposition of hands, the form of patriarchal benediction, was derived from Moses, (Numbers 27:18,) and was permanent in the Jewish Church. It implied the identification of that touched individual from all the world for that office, and poured, as it were, through the hands of the imposer, the official individualization. This imposition of hands, adopted from the Jewish Church, is the true type by which every Christian Church would properly authenticate its established ministry. Were a pious layman to be cast upon a pagan island and by his holy labours to convert the people and gather a Church of thousands or millions, of which the ministers were chosen and authenticated by other credentials than imposition of hands, both the Church and ministry should be accepted by others as valid in spite of the absence of the New Testament form. Doubtless such a Church ought, in Christian propriety, upon learning the biblical example, to conform thereto. The neglect to do so would be worthy of disapproval, but would not invalidate the Church or ministry. (See note on Acts 13:3.)


Verse 7

7. Increased… multiplied—In consequence of this wise action of the apostles, peace and increased prosperity returned to the Church. And this is a clear indication that the complaints of the Grecians (Hellenists) (Acts 6:1) were originally just.

Priests—The number of priests in Jerusalem even at the return of Ezra from Babylon was more than four thousand, and must have been much larger in the time of Stephen. It was a great evangelic triumph to reach this class, the hierarchy; and then the ingathering seems to have been suddenly great. A sanguine spirit might now begin to anticipate that all the priesthood, and thence all Jerusalem, and finally all Judaism, were about to accept the faith, and so Christianity about to triumph in the capital and the nation. This was the zenith of the Pentecostal Church—its moment of highest popularity just previous to its downfall. That downfall is the next event of this history.

What was the theology of the Pentecostal Church? Special interest in this question arises from the fact that Rationalists have maintained that it was Ebionitic; that is, that this first Church maintained the cessation of property, and denied the divinity and vicarious atonement of Christ. With regard to the first of these points, enough has been already said in our foregoing notes. In regard to the latter, 1. If we confine our investigation simply to Luke’s history, we shall find that Jesus was held to be enthroned at the right hand of God, (Acts 2:33-36;) the hearer of prayer, (Acts 1:24;) the sender of the Spirit, (Acts 2:33;) the receiver of the spirits of the dying, (Acts 7:59;) and the final Judge of the human race, (Acts 2:25.) Salvation is possible only through his name, (Acts 4:12.) All these things are affirmed incidentally, without any formal purpose of laying down a complete system of doctrine, and they imply, if they do not fully express, the full theology of the evangelical Church of the present day. But, 2. We are not rightfully limited to Luke’s brief history, written with no purpose of framing a doctrinal programme. We have a right to say that there is no reason to doubt that this most primitive Church held the entire doctrine taught in the entire New Testament. We must not forget that the formers of this holy canon were members of that holy Church. Matthew and Mark, and John, and probably Luke, the four Evangelists, were all there. Peter, the author of two epistles, and James, of one, were also there. And Paul, if not there in person, was well represented by Luke, whose theology the epistles of Paul, and especially that to the Romans, may be safely held to have embodied. The Hebrew edition of the Gospel of Matthew was published, we believe, not much later than this, and that Gospel, in its baptismal formula, (xxviii, 19,) contains the fundamental trinitarian dogma. The exact relations of Christianity to the Church of the Circumcision, and the real era of the coming of Christ, inspiration itself professedly withheld from the infant Church. (See sup. note to Matthew 25.) There is no just ground to doubt, with these two exceptions, that the doctrines found by our present Evangelical Church in the New Testament were the doctrines of Pentecostal Christianity. Early in the second century, Hegesippus, having ascertained by extensive travel, declared that one Gospel doctrine was unitedly held by all the apostolic Churches.


Verse 9

9. Certain of the synagogue—The five synagogues here mentioned, out of the four hundred and eighty synagogues in Jerusalem, were all held by Hellenists or foreign Jews, and so glad, perhaps, to signalize their zeal for Judaism against their brother Hellenist, Stephen.

Libertines—That is, freedmen, emancipates from slavery. They probably belonged to the Roman Jews, who were mostly of this class. (See section on the Roman Church in our Introduction to Romans.) About seventeen years before this period Tiberius had ordered the Jews to depart from Rome, and we may thence infer that some of them immigrated to Jerusalem and built their synagogues. Libertines here would therefore be equivalent to Roman Jews.

The structure of the verse implies a twofold classification into Roman and African Jews, and Asiatic Jews.

Cyrenians—See Mark 15:21. About one fourth of the African city of Cyrene were Jews. This city had representatives at the Pentecost, (Acts 2:10,) and probably from among them it was that certain came and preached at Antioch, (Acts 11:20,) and Lucius of Cyrene was one of the eminent men who commissioned Barnabas and Paul from Antioch, (Acts 13:1.)

The more fully we investigate the subject the more strongly we incline to the belief that Luke is identical with “Lucius of Cyrene” in Acts 13:1, (where see our note,) and so was himself a Cyrenian and an attendant at this synagogue. Supposing, according to our note on Luke 24:13, that he was one of the two from Emmaus, he arrived in Jerusalem (from Cyrene by way of Alexandria perhaps) at the Passover of the crucifixion, and was some way connected with the Christian disciples. He was a physician, and both Cyrene and Alexandria were medically celebrated. He was, thence, at the Pentecost, as his full narrative of the preparations and of the Pentecost, as well as his full report of the speeches of Peter, show. He was part of the Pentecostal Church through the whole six or seven years of its history. Then upon the Stephanic dispersion he was one of the “men of Cyrene,” who went first to Cyprus (Acts 11:19-20) and thence to Antioch, where he is the “Lucius of Cyrene,” of Acts 13:1, where see note.

Alexandrians—Alexandria, the chief maritime city, and for a long time the metropolis, of lower Egypt, received its name from its founder, Alexander the Great. Its advantageous commercial position raised it among the most eminent cities of its period, and well attested the wisdom of its founder in its selection. Alexander was a favourer of the Jewish race, and gave them such advantages in this new metropolis that they became numerous, wealthy, educated, and influential. The Jews never had a man of greater erudition than Philo, who adorned this city with his genius, and left works extant and valued at the present day. Here the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into the Greek, forming the celebrated Septuagint. (Vol. II, p. 10.)

Cilicia—Paul’s native province. It was the long, narrow strip of territory lining the northern shore of the eastern part of the Mediterranean. It was bounded, or rather walled in from the rest of Asia Minor, by the almost impassable line of Taurus mountains. Yet, though thus isolated, it formed the marching route of armies between Europe and Asia. At the eastern extremity, where the Taurus range nearly touches the great northeast corner of the sea, was the narrow pass into Syria and Asia, generally called the Cilician Gates, (Issus,) where more than one memorable battle was fought for the right of way. The inhabitants were Asiatic Greeks mixed with Syrians. The aboriginal population, as well as the name, is probably Phenician. Antiochus the Great introduced two thousand Jews into Asia Minor, and the Jewish population appears from this verse to have been numerous enough to need a synagogue in Jerusalem.

Asia—The Asia of the New Testament never includes, as in modern times, the eastern great quarter of the globe, (called by a late Roman writer, Justin, Asia Major.) Nor was the term Asia Minor used until the fourth century. Asia under Roman dominion, “proconsular Asia,” usually included the provinces of Phrygia, Mysia, Caria, and Lydia, of which the capital was Ephesus, and this was the Asia of Acts and the Epistles.

Disputing with Stephen—It is probable that some of the synagogues of large cities consisted of two apartments, one for public worship, the other for theological education and discussion.


Verses 9-15

VII. PENTECOSTAL CHURCH IN ITS LAST STRUGGLE AND DISPERSION, Acts 6:8 to Acts 8:4.

2. Zeal and Arraignment of Stephen, Acts 6:9-15.

As the name of Peter stands at the head of the catalogue of apostles to indicate that he was preeminent in character, though possessed of no official authority over the rest, so the name of Stephen (whose name signifies crown) crowns the list of deacons. It was thereby his mission to disturb the delusive repose into which the Pentecostal Church was forgetfully declining by bringing out into uncompromising prominence the doctrine of our Lord’s discourse (Matthew 25,) that the ritual was to disappear and merge into the Universal Church.


Verse 10

10. Not able to resist—Five synagogues against one man were unable to resist his prowess.

Wisdom—That insight into the independence of Christianity which foresaw the vanishing destiny of Judaism.

Spirit—That blending (compare Acts 6:5; Acts 6:8) of perfect faith in distinctive Christianity, of divine grace through its experience, and of power to illustrate its truth with miracle.


Verse 12

12. Came upon… caught… brought—The words imply a taking him by surprise and hurrying him by force into the presence of the Sanhedrin.


Verse 13

13. Set up—Made stand.

False witnesses—Before the council or Sanhedrin. The facts adduced by these witnesses were mainly true; but the witnesses infused a false spirit and intent into them as to make facts be lies.

There were five things of which Stephen is charged with blasphemously predicting a change, namely: Moses, Jehovah, (Moses taking precedence in their talk,) this holy place, (the temple and perhaps city,) the law, (place takes precedence of law with them,) and the customs, or entire body of ritual observances. Touching all these, the predictions of Stephen have become history. The perjury of the witnesses which unjustly produced his death consisted in inventing a blasphemous or hostile animus. Stephen announced the disappearance of all that was transient in these, yet not as necessarily, destroyed, but living essentially in their permanent elements with a renewed vitality in the new Christianity. Hence in his defence Stephen seeks to give such a rehearsal of Israel’s whole history as to show that his Christianity joins on to it as the latest and most natural development of the New from the Old. So far from hostility or blasphemy against these venerable five, he reverently claims them as among the antecedents to the divine consequents embraced in Jesus Messiah, and would urge his countrymen to identify themselves while they may with the coming New.

And here commences the great fracture anticipated in our note on Acts 4:1, between Judaism and Christianity, which scattered the Pentecostal Church, and has lasted for ages. (See note on Acts 10:1.) Its termination is indicated in Romans 11:32-36.


Verse 15

15. All… sat… council—Stephen now stands the focus upon which the eyes of the Sanhedric semicircle are concentrated. The victim stands, while the judges sit.

[image]

THE SANHEDRIN Directly facing him sits upon an elevated seat, at the middle point of the semicircular line, the high priest. It is probably no longer Caiaphas, who after twenty years of office had been deposed, but Theophilus, a son of Annas, and so a member of the same great Sadducean family who so long monopolized the supremacy at Jerusalem.

Face… angel—He who was accused of blaspheming Moses bears the radiance that authenticated Moses in his own face. (Exodus 35:29-35.) It was a faint beam from that glory of which he spoke in Acts 7:2, and which his own eyes beheld in Acts 7:55. Awed by his beaming face the Sanhedrin gaze steadfastly on him, and for a while listen with rapt and silent attention.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Acts 6:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/acts-6.html. 1874-1909.

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Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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