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Acts 6

Scripture: Acts 6:1-15

Highlights:

  • The traditional Aramaic-speaking Jews are accused by the Greek-speaking Jews of overlooking immigrant widows in the daily distribution of food
  • The Twelve apostles think it is not a good use of their time to “wait on tables,” so they appoint a few holy guys, like Stephen, to do it
  • Stephen gets into (and wins) numerous arguments with a local synagog (or two — see below)
  • The members of the synagog(s) decide the best way to shut Stephen up is to charge him with blasphemy
  • Stephen gets dragged in front of the Sanhedrin and accused of dissing Moses (i.e. the law and the temple)
  • Stephen looks really chill despite the fact he’s facing the death penalty

Historical Context:

Hellenistic vs. Hebraic Jews

The first difference between these groups was language. Hebraic Jews spoke almost exclusively Aramaic (the language of the homeland), whereas the Hellenistic Jews spoke Greek (the language of the Gentiles/invaders). Secondly, though both of these groups lived in Jerusalem, the Hebraic Jews had lived for many generations in the nation of Israel whereas the Hellenistic Jews were part of the Diaspora, and had more recently returned from abroad to settle in Jerusalem. Third, the Hebraic Jews tended to be traditionalists and whole-heartedly rejected Greek/Gentile culture, but the Hellenized Jews felt they could include many elements of Greek culture into their lifestyle** and still be true to their beliefs.

One can imagine that the Hellenized Jews thought they could help their old-school, traditional brethren update their primitive beliefs/practices by incorporating elements of modern Greek culture. Conversely, the established Jewish community felt that any Jews who were willing to assimilate into the surrounding culture were giving up on Judaism. The Hellenistic Jews would advocate the pursuit of modernity. The Hebraic Jews would advocate that no good Jew would ever abandon their original culture, history, and religion.

The Daily Distribution of Food

The early church had started to build a charitable infrastructure quickly as indicated by the earlier chapters in Acts where people shared their possessions (2:44) and sold their possessions (4:34) so that no one was in need. The daily “soup kitchen” described in this chapter gives us a sense of how that manifested itself on a day to day level.

No doubt with several thousand members now part of the church it took considerable effort to manage the requests for help and the money offered to help. To make matters worse, immigrant widows from the Diaspora would probably be especially needy. They’d be less likely to have local family around to help, and if there was a language barrier they’d have a hard time understanding how or where to get help.

In the Jewish synagogues at the time, three men were appointed to care of the poor, especially the widows, orphans and foreigners (groups of people God was explicit about caring for–see: Deuteronomy 10:18;14:2916:111424:1719-2126:12-1327:19Malachi 3:5Isaiah 1:172310:2Jeremiah 5:287:623:3Ezekiel 22:7Psalm 93:6). They were called by the Hebrews Parnasin or Pastors and they distributed a weekly quppah, or poor basket of food and clothing.  From these existing practices the apostles took the idea of appointing “servants” (sometimes translated deacons) in the early church. They most likely appointed seven men so that each person could be responsible for a single day of the week. The number of people appointed to oversee the program, and the fact that it was daily rather than weekly✢, may be an indication of the magnitude of the needs they were trying to fulfill.  The needs may also have been magnified by the fact that the temple/synagog funds were probably being withheld from widows who became Christians

The Laying On of Hands

This is the first mention of this practice in Acts. The laying on of hands accompanies several other important events including baptism (Acts 8); healings (Acts 9, 28) and the commission to ministry (Acts 13). In the Old Testament the laying on of hands generally symbolized a conferring of office and responsibility (Numbers 827).  The actual placement of hands is done by a few individuals, but they did so on behalf of the whole community. The same thing is true in Acts as the apostles lay hands on the seven men signaling that the whole church approved of them.

This wasn’t done to impart any special power or ability, but to designate that they had received the authority/approval of those who laid their hands on them.

Synagog of Freedmen

“Freedmen” were former slaves (or their children) who had been emancipated. These people may have been the descendants of those Jews subjugated by Pompey the Great and had been since liberated from Rome. Some have speculated that there were several hundred synagogues in Jerusalem at the time. Luke may have been indicating that there were up to five synagogues of Freedmen (i.e. Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia (the apostle Paul’s home town), and of Asia), or that there was one synagog with members from all these areas. It is speculated that Saul (soon to be Paul) attended one of these synagogues.*

Blasphemy

To “speak blasphemous words against Moses” refers to contempt for the temple and its rituals and to be disrespectful of the Torah (“the law of Moses”). As indicated in chapter 7, Stephen is declaring that salvation comes through Jesus and therefore the system of worship centered on the Jerusalem temple is no longer needed. The Jews saw the temple as the foundation and focus of Jewish life, worship and salvation. The Temple was where God lived, and was the only place where a sacrifice could be offered. The Law could never be changed. Stephen was saying that the Temple would pass away (and was never where God lived to begin with), and that the Law was but a stage toward the Jesus.

According to Leviticus 24:16: “…anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.”

The Face of an Angel

“The description is of a person who is close to God and reflects some of His glory as a result of being in his presence (Exodus 34:29ff).” (Marshall)

It is used in the Old Testament to denote peculiar wisdom, 2 Samuel 14:1719:27, or the impression which will be produced on the countenance by communion with God; a look of calm serenity and composure.

Observations:

  • The “daily distribution of bread” gives a sense of what is happening in Acts 2 and 4 where believers “shared everything” so that there wasn’t “a needy person among them.”
  • The apostles do not ignore the problem with the widows, nor chastise the widows for complaining. Nor do they try to hold on to this important responsibility, because they can do it only if they neglect their duty to preach.
  • The seven men all have Greek names, indicating that they are probably Hellenists themselves; the people (and the apostles) show great sensitivity to the offended Hellenists by appointing Hellenists to take care of the widows’ distribution.
  • Nicolaus, the last-mentioned of the seven, is a convert (proselyte) to Judaism from paganism. Only full converts are called proselytes. They are instructed in Judaism, baptized and circumcised.
  • Deacon” is not a title in this context. It is a verb, not a noun. It means “servant.” One speculation on the origin of the word is that it means “through the dust,” referring to the dust raised by the busy servant or messenger.This group is formally named as the Seven (Acts 21:8), even as the original apostles are called the Twelve. In effect, the office of the Seven is as unique as that of the original apostles.
  • The word tables is sometimes used with reference to money, as being the place where money was kept for the purpose of exchange, etc., Matthew 21:12. Here the expression could mean “to attend to the pecuniary transactions of the church, and to make the proper distribution for the wants of the poor.”
  • The same Greek word is used for both distribution (Acts 6:1) and ministry (Acts 6:4). The idea behind the word in both instances is service.
  • The punishment for blasphemy was stoning to death. Curiously, this is similar to the charge brought against Jesus. Not more than a few months ago, this same Sanhedrin heard testimony that Jesus said he would destroy the temple and build it again in three days (Matthew 26).

Discussion:

  • Who is being overlooked by the church today? Are there any deep-rooted prejudices we’re using as a filter to decide who gets help and who doesn’t?
  • The widows did the right thing by making their need known, the apostles did a good thing by realizing they don’t have the bandwidth to fix it themselves, and the Seven did a good thing by taking on a relatively simple task as a ministry. Is this a formula to solve disputes in the church? How do we resolve them now?
  • Where were Peter and John at this crisis? Apparently Stephen stands alone before the Sanhedrin as Jesus did.  Why didn’t Gamaliel speak up again?
  • What was inaccurate about the charges brought against Stephen? What was accurate?
  • Why did the apostles insist on choosing holy men just to hand out food to the poor, then give them such a ceremonial blessing? What does this say about the importance of these types of ministries to them? What does it say about the importance of unity and fairness in the church? Do we treat similar problems the same way today?

References:

*Interesting side note: “The mention of Cilicia suggests this may have been Paul’s synagogue before he was converted. He came from Tarsus in Cilicia.” (Lovett) This may explain why Paul (then Saul) was present at the stoning. He may have also been present as a student of Gamaliel (a member of the Sanhedrin). Paul may have tried his wits against Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew (don’t forget, Paul saw himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” a devoted Pharisee at the time) and lost, which may have fueled his hatred and subsequent persecution of Christians. 

**Some commentators note that the Hellenistic Jews were willing to violate Jewish law to fit in with Gentiles by reversing circumcisions so they would fit in at the gymnasia.

✢The distribution of provisions to the poor may have been part of the “agape feasts.” As Joachim Jeremias describes it in his book: The Jerusalem church assembled daily, probably in the evening, where they listened to the Twelve’s teaching, prayed, ate together, and distributed goods to the needy.

Post Discussion Perspectives:

  • With regards to the commissioning of the Seven: this was a ministry (feeding the widows) that taken seriously not just because of the immediacy of the need, but because of the emphasis put on this responsibility by God (see numerous Old Testament quotations above). Taking care of the widows was something God instructed his community to do over and over and over again. The next question that came up was: Which instruction(s) reiterated time and again by Jesus should the church be appointing people to run with now?  The suggestions ranged from more traditional church appointments like church planting and missions, to jobs/ministries/positions that aren’t clearly defined in the church like: loving one another, breaking down barriers between people, and helping individuals utilize their full talents.

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