Acts 6 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

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Verse 1.   From the preceding account of the struggle, between the apostles and the Sadducees, Luke now turns to consider, briefly, the internal condition of the Church during the same period. Though the mass of the disciples had attained many of the excellencies of Christian character, they were still but men, and liable to the partialities and prejudices of men. This became manifest in a manner which at first threatened serious consequences. (1) "Now, in those days, the disciples having multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Hellenist against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration." The disciples in Jerusalem now numbered largely over five thousand. In so large a multitude, it was almost impossible to look after the wants of all with equal care, and some unintentional oversight must unavoidably occur. The "daily ministration" is undoubtedly that distribution from the funds contributed by the brethren, which was made "to every one according as he had need." That it was made daily, confirms our former conclusion, that there was no general equalization of property, but only a provision for the needy. The Hellenists were Jews of foreign birth and Greek education, and were so called because of their conformity to the manners of the Hellenes, as Greeks were called. Many of them were, perhaps, not permanent residents in Jerusalem, but had remained there after Pentecost on account of their interest in the new religion. They were the more likely to be neglected, because less familiarity known to the apostles and their assistants.

Verses 2-4.   This unforeseen circumstances suggested to the apostles the propriety of insinuating a new office in the Church. Though the Holy Spirit was given to guide them into all the truth, its additional instruction was given only as circumstances required. They were not theorists, with a constitution and by-laws drawn up in advance, to which, under all circumstances, the Church must conform; but they allowed the condition of the congregation, from time to time, to dictate the provisions which should be made, and therefore the provisions which were made precisely such as were needed. Hitherto the Church had been without an officer of any kind, except the apostles; for the supposition advanced by some writers, that the young men, oi neoteroi, who buried Ananias and Sapphira, were regularly-appointed officers, is without foundation, except in the analogy of later and unscriptural organizations. Seeing, then, that the Church in Jerusalem existed for a time under the control of the apostles alone, it follows that a Church may now exist under the written teaching alone of the same apostles. But seeing, further, that when circumstances required it, other officials were appointed, it follows that all Churches among whom similar wants arise should provide themselves in the same way. All Churches, however, will inevitably find need for such officers as the New Testament authorizes; hence they should procure them without unnecessary delay.

When the murmuring came to the ears of the apostles they acted promptly. (2) "Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples to them and said, It is not well that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. (3) Therefore, brethren, look out among you seven men of good repute, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. (4) But we ourselves will continue in prayer and the ministry of the word." The alternative with the apostles was to "leave," in some degree, "the word of God," and serve the tables satisfactorily, or turn this business over to other hands, and "continue in prayer and the ministry of the word" as uninterruptedly as before. They showed their superior regard for the latter ministry by choosing the latter course.

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and the apostles that the whole "multitude of the disciples" should take part in the selection of these officers. No ingenuity of argument can evade the conclusion that this gives the authority of apostolic precedent for the popular election of officers of the Church. The multitude were limited, however, by apostolic authority, to the choice of men of a certain description. They must be men of "good repute;" not merely good men, but men whose goodness was accredited among the brethren.

They must also be men who were "full of the Holy Spirit." Whether this means that they must be possessed of miraculous powers, or merely that they must exhibit abundantly the fruits of the Spirit, it is difficult to determine. The circumstances, that up to this time no miracles had been wrought, so far as we know, by any of the apostles, and that, immediately after the appointment of the seven, Stephen appears "doing great wonders and miracles among the people," seem to indicate that they were merely full of the Holy Spirit in the ordinary way, but received miraculous powers when the hands of the apostles were laid upon them. On the other hand, the expression, "full of the Holy Spirit," generally means possessed of the miraculous powers of the Spirit. Whatever may be the decision of this question, it is certain that when a disciple was "full of the Spirit" in either sense, the religious sentiments were in lively exercise, and this is all that can be required in a candidate for the same office at the present day.

The office which the apostles are about to institute and fill is easily identified with that of the deacon as described in the third chapter of First Timothy. The seven are not styled diakonoi, deacons, but they were selected to attend to the daily diakonia, (verse 1) and their service is expressed by the verb diakoneo, (verse 2) the same which expresses the duty of deacons in 1 Tim. iii: 10-13. The chief duty for which they were appointed, was "to serve tables," diakonein trapezais; yet this duty need not prevent them from discharging any other functions for which they were qualified, and for which they could find time. God exacts the employment of every talent that is committed to us, and has appointed no work to be done which is too holy for the humblest disciple. We therefore find one of the seven deacons soon after in the front rank of the defenders of the faith; while another, after the dispersion of the Church, preaches in Samaria, and immerses both the Samaritans and the Ethiopian nobleman. Those who deny to deacons, at the present day, the same privileges, impose a restriction which is in direct conflict with the word of God. As to the title evangelist, afterward applied to Philip, see the "Commentary on Acts," xxi: 8.

Verses 5, 6.   The proposition of the apostles so wisely provided for an obvious want, that there could be no hesitation about prompt compliance with it, (5) "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 Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, (6) whom they placed before the apostles. And having prayed, they laid their hands on them." It is a remarkable proof of the generosity of the Church at large, that all these are Greek names, indicating that they were selected from the very party whence the murmuring had proceeded. It was as if the Hebrews had said to the Hellenists, We have no selfish ends to accomplish, not any jealousy toward you who complain, therefore we give the whole business into your hands, and will fearlessly trust our poor widows to your care. So generous a trust could not be betrayed, except by the basest of men.

All that is now known of five of these men is the fact of their appointment to this office. Their names are not again mentioned in the New Testament. It need not be presumed, from this, that they were subsequently inactive or unfaithful, but simply that Luke selected, for his brief narrative, a chain of events in which others were the actors.

Of Nicolas, it is said that he was "a proselyte of Antioch," which means that he was a Gentile who had been proselyted to Judaism before he was converted to Christ. Thus we see that, even at this early period, the apostles had no objection to the reception of Gentiles, provided they had been circumcised.

Stephen is specially described as "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," not because the others were destitute of these excellencies; for one of the qualifications necessary to a selection was that they should be men "full of the Holy Spirit." But if the seven were distinguished above others in this respect, Stephen may have been distinguished in the same way among the seven.

The object of the imposition of hands, on this occasion, has been a subject of some dispute; some contending that it was merely to impart miraculous gifts to the seven, and others, that it was the ceremony of their induction into office. Miraculous gifts were often conferred by the apostles in this way, and there is much probability, to say the least, that they were now conferred upon the seven; but the context forbids us to suppose that this was the only object of the ceremony. The apostles had commanded the disciples to do one thing, and they themselves proposed to do another. The multitude were to "look out" the men, "whom," say the apostles, "we may appoint over this business." The part performed by the apostles was their appointment to office. But all the apostles did was to pray and lay on their hands; hence, this was the ceremony of their appointment. It stands upon record as a precedent, and should be complied with in similar cases. The fact that men can not now confer a miraculous gift by laying on hands, does not relieve them from the obligation to impose hands as a ceremony of appointment to office.

The question as to who should perform this ceremony should give no trouble. The parties who directed in the organization of the Church were the official on this occasion, and so, according to the precedent, should it always be. Whoever plants a Church, or sets one in order, should lay hands on its officers. When there are peculiar circumstances not anticipated by the precedent, they should be provided for according to the wisdom of those concerned, being careful not to violate the precedent. The example of the apostles is binding in this, as in all cases not peculiar to the apostolic office, or to the condition of the early Churches.

Verse 7.   The appointment of the seven over the business of daily ministration to the poor was intended to supply an existing deficiency in the organization of the Church. The more efficient organization gave greater efficiency to the labors of all. (7) "And the word of God increased, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem was greatly multiplied, and a great multitude of the priests became obedient to the faith." This is the first intimation of the accession of any of the priests to the new faith. It was the most signal triumph yet achieved by the gospel, for the priests of the old religion were more interested in maintaining it than were any other class among the Jews. The peculiar relation which the priesthood sustain to any system of religion must always render them the chief conservators of obsolete forms, and the most formidable opponents to the introduction of new truth. When the priests of an opposing system begin to give way, it is ready to fall. No fact yet recorded by Luke shows so strikingly the effect of the gospel upon the popular mind in Jerusalem.

The expression used concerning these priests, that they became "obedient to the faith," is worthy of notice as implying that there is something in the faith to be obeyed. This obedience is not rendered in the act of believing; for that is to exercise the faith, not to obey it. But faith in Jesus as the Messiah requires obedience to him as Lord; hence obedience rendered to him is styled obedience to the faith. It begins with immersion, and continues with the duties of a religious life. Paul declares that the grand object of the favor and apostleship conferred upon him was "for obedience to the faith among all nations."{1} Without it, faith itself is of no avail, for all who "obey not the gospel," whatever may be their faith, will be "destroyed from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his power."{2}

There is another expression in this verse worthy of notice, because of its singular contrast with modern phraseology in such connections. It is said, "The word of God increased," and the specifications are, that the number of disciples was greatly multiplied, and that a great multitude of the priests became obedient. At the present day such incidents are often introduced by remarks of this kind: "There was a precious season of grace;" "The Lord was present in his saving power;" "A gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit," etc. So great a departure from Scripture phraseology clearly indicates a departure from scriptural ideas. When men are engrossed with the conception that conversion is an abstract work of the Holy Spirit in the soul, they are likely to express themselves in this unauthorized manner. But Luke, who had no such conception, saw in the increase of the disciples an increase of the word of God; by which he means not an increase in the quantity of revelation, but in its effect. The more favorable circumstances which now existed within the Church, by the cessation of recent murmuring, and the introduction of a better organization, gave greater weight to the word that was preached, and greater success was the consequence.

Verse 8.   We are now introduced to a very thrilling account of the labors and death of Stephen. His career, previous to the final conflict, is thus briefly sketched: (8) "Now Stephen, full of faith and of power, did great wonders and signs among the people." The power by which he wrought these miracles is connected with the fact that he was "full of faith." This accords with the fact already observed, (iii: 16,) that the degree of miraculous power exerted by those who possessed spiritual gifts depended upon the degree of their faith.

Verses 9, 10.   The activity of Stephen, though probably not greater than that of the apostles during the same period, naturally attracted to him more especial attention, because he was a new actor in the scene, and one who had hitherto occupied a subordinate position. The opponents of the gospel were aroused into renewed activity. The first persecution occurred upon the surprising success of Peter and John in Solomon's Portico; the second, upon the triumphs which followed the death of Ananias and Sapphira; and the third now springs up upon the appearance of new advocates of the faith. (9) "Then there arose certain persons from the synagogue called the synagogue of the Freedmen and Cyrenians, and those from Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen; (10) and they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke."

The policy of the opposition is now changed. Having been deterred, by fear of the people, and by division of sentiment in their own ranks, from resorting to extreme violence, and finding that threats and scourging were unavailing, they now resort to discussion, expecting, by superior learning, to confound men who could not be forced into silence. The parties who entered the lists of debate were all foreign-born Jews. The Freedmen were Jews who had been set free from Roman slavery; the Cyrenians and Alexandrians were from the north of Africa; the Asians and Cilicians from the peninsula of Asia, the last-named being from the native country of Saul of Tarsus.

The fact that Saul was a leader in the contest now begun{3} identifies the attacking party as Pharisees; for he was a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee, and "brought up in this city, at the feet of Gamaliel."{4} The violent proceedings of the Sadducees having been checked, in part, by the counsel of Gamaliel--the great teacher of the Pharisees--the apostles had gone on in their ministry, not merely proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, but prosecuting the second part of their commission, "teaching them to observe and do all whatsoever Christ had commanded." This somewhat relieved the Sadducees from the brunt of attack, and turned it upon the Pharisees, whose traditions were directly assailed by the maxims of true piety and morality. The consequence was, a rallying of this party to an activity not manifested before since the death of Christ. Having nearly all the learning and talent of their nation in their ranks, and especially the literary culture and wealth of the foreign Jews, they resorted with great confidence to disputation. The seven deacons, who were also foreigners, were naturally brought into more direct contact with these foreign-born disputants; and Stephen, who was the most gifted of the seven, soon found himself engaged, single-handed, in a conflict with them all.

This is the first time the disciples measured the strength of their cause in open discussion. Hitherto the young converts had enjoyed no opportunity to compare the arguments by which they had been convinced with those which learning and ingenuity might frame against them. But now they were to hear both sides of the great question presented, with the odds of number, learning, and social position all on the side of their opponents. It was an interesting crisis, and it needs no very vivid imagination to realize the palpitating anxiety with which the disciples resorted to the place of discussion. Their fondest hopes were realized; for it soon became evident that Stephen had all the facts and the statements of Scripture in his favor, so that "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke." By the "spirit by which he spoke," I suppose Luke refers to the Holy Spirit, who supplied him with whatever knowledge and wisdom he may have lacked.

In entering freely into this discussion, Stephen acted in accordance with the example of his master, and that of all the apostles. Their example makes it the duty of all disciples to whom God has given the necessary wisdom, to defend in discussion, against all opposition, the truth as it is in Jesus. Whoever does so, in the fear of God, and with a devout zeal for the salvation of men, will find his enemies unable to resist him.

Verses 11-14.   When the advocates of error are defeated in discussion, they always resort to slander, or to violence. They tried both against Stephen. The Pharisees having the management of the case, we find their subsequent proceedings governed by the same policy which they pursued in the case of Jesus. (11) "Then they suborned men, who said, We have heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God." This was the indictment upon which the further proceedings were based, and it was circulated boisterously among all classes. (12) "And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and seized him, and led him into the Sanhedrim, (13) and set up false witnesses, who said, This man ceases not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; (14) For we have heard him saying, that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses delivered to us."

This is the first time that "the people" are represented as taking part against the disciples. During the first two persecutions the "fear of the people" had restrained the violence of the persecutors, which renders their present opposition the more remarkable. But the Sadducees, who had conducted those persecutions, had but little popular influence, and had contented themselves with merely asserting the authority of the Sanhedrim, without the aid of any ingenious policy. The Pharisees were more influential and more cunning. They put in circulation a slanderous report, which was cunningly directed against a single individual, and which their great popular influence enabled them to circulate with effect; and by this means they aroused a strong popular feeling in their own favor.

The general charge against Stephen was speaking blasphemy "against Moses and God," otherwise expressed, "against this holy place, and the law." The change of phraseology arises from the fact that the temple and law were the visible representatives of Moses and of God. The specifications under this charge were these: "We have heard him saying that this Jesus will destroy this place, and change the customs which Moses delivered to us." It is quite likely that Stephen was guilty of the specifications; but they fell very far short of the crime of blasphemy against Moses and against God. In thus teaching, he was really honoring Moses, by insisting upon the very termination which Moses himself had assigned to his own law, while he honored God by receiving him whom God had sent.

Verse 15.   As Stephen stood before the Sanhedrim, thus falsely and hypocritically accused, and fully aware of a determination to condemn him without regard to evidence or justice, he could but remember the similar accusation of Jesus, of Peter and John, then of all the apostles; and his heart must have swelled at the thought of being identified with them in suffering. The baseness of his persecutors--who, under pretense of zeal for Moses and the law, were violating the one and dishonoring the other, by seeking the lives of the only men who believed his words--must have filled him with indignation, while love for the truth which he was defending, and for the Redeemer for whom he was suffering, was kindled afresh, and the power of a glorious hope inspired him with the most invincible courage. Emotions so intense and so lofty spread a glow upon his countenance which attracted the attention of the whole audience. (15) "And all who sat in the Sanhedrim, looking earnestly upon him, saw his face as if it were the face of an angel." There is no need to suppose anything supernatural in his appearance, such as a halo of light enveloping his countenance; for a countenance naturally fine and expressive, when lit up by emotions so intense and heavenly as those which must then have swelled the breast of Stephen, would be sufficient to suggest such a comparison. If there were any brethren present, with what tearful delight they must then have gazed upon the hero of faith! And if any of the members of the Sanhedrim were still capable of nobler sentiments, how intense must have been their agitation! The trial proceeds:

      {1} Rom. i: 5.
      {2} 2 Thess. i: 7, 8, 9.
      {3} See vii: 58 below.
      {4} xxii: 3; xxiii: 6.