A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 6:1-7. The Seven are chosen and commissioned.
The devil’s next attack was the cleverest of the three. Having failed to overcome the church by either persecution or corruption, he now tried distraction. If he could preoccupy the apostles with social administration, which though essential was not their calling, they would neglect their God-given responsibilities to pray and to preach, and so leave the church without any defence against false doctrine.
a). The problem (6:1)
The situation is clear. On the one hand, *in those days… the number of the disciples was increasing*. On the other, the excitement of the church growth was tempered by a regrettable *goggysmos*, a ‘complaint… expressed in murmuring’ (BAGD). The cognate verb is used in LXX to denote the ‘murmuring’ of the Israelites against Moses (eg. Ex.16:7; Num.14:27; 1Cor. 10:10), and evidently the Jerusalem church members were murmuring against the apostles, who received the relief money (4:35,37) and were therefore expected to distribute it equitably. But such grumbling is inappropriate in Christians (Phil.2:14; 1 Pet.4:9).
The complaint concerned the welfare of the widows, whose cause God had promised in the Old Testament to defend (eg. Ex.22:22ff; Dt.10:18). Assuming that they were unable to earn their own living and had no relatives to support them (cf.1 Tim.5:3-16), the church had accepted the responsibility, and a daily distribution of food was made to them. But there were two groups in the Jerusalem church, one called *Hellenistai* and the other *Hebraioi*, and the former *complained against* the latter *because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food* (1). It is not suggested that the oversight was deliberate (‘the Hebrew widows were being given preferential treatment’, JBP); more probably the cause was poor administration or supervision.
What exactly was the identity of these two groups? It has usually been supposed that they were distinguished from each other by a mixture of geography and language. That is, the *Hellenistai* came from the diaspora, had settled in Palestine and spoke Greek, while the *Hebraioi*, were natives of Palestine and spoke Aramaic. This is an inadequate explanation, however. Since Paul called himself *Hebraios* (2 Cor.11:22; Phil.3:5), in spite of the fact that he came from Tarsus and spoke Greek, the distinction must go beyond origin and language to culture. In this case the *Hellenistai* not only spoke Greek but thought and behaved like Greeks, while the *Hebraioi* not only spoke Aramaic but were deeply immersed in Hebrew culture. This being so, *Grecian Jews* is a good rendering, while *the Aramaic-speaking community* is not, since it refers to language only and not culture. ‘What is needed here’. writes Richard Longenecher, ‘is some such translation as “Grecian Jews” and “Hebraic Jews”. There had always, of course, been rivalry between these groups in Jewish culture; the tragedy is that it was perpetuated within the new community of Jesus who by his death had abolished such distinctions (eg. Gal.3:28; Eph.2:14ff; Col.3:11).
The issue was more, however, than one of cultural tension. The apostles discerned a deeper problem, namely that social administration (both organising the distribution and settling the complaint) was threatening to occupy all their time and to inhibit them from the work which Christ had specifically entrusted to them, namely preaching and teaching.
b). The solution. (6:2-6).
*The twelve* did not impose a solution on the church, however, but *gathered all the disciples together* in order to share the problem with them. They said, ‘*It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables*’ (2). There is no hint whatever that the apostles regarded social work as inferior to pastoral work, or beneath their dignity. It was entirely a question of calling. They has no liberty to be distracted from their own priority task. So they made a proposal to the church: ‘*Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom* [JBP, “both practical and spiritually minded”]. *We will turn this responsibility over to them (3) and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word*’ (4). It is note-worthy that now the Twelve have added prayer to preaching (probably meaning public as well as private intercession) in specifying the essence of the apostles’ ministry. They form a natural couple, since the ministry of the word, without prayer that the Spirit will water the seed, is unlikely to bear fruit. This delegation of social welfare to the Seven is commonly thought to have been the origin of the diaconate. It may be so, for the language of *diakonia* is used in verses 1 and 2, as we shall see later. Nevertheless, the Seven are not actually called *diakonoi* (cf.Rom.16:1; Phil.1:1; 1 Tim.3:8, 12; 4:6).
The church saw the point of the apostles’ plan: *This proposal pleased the whole group*. So they put it into effect. *They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas from Antioch, a convert* (NEB, ‘a former convert’) *to Judaism* (5). i.e. a proselyte. It has been pointed out that all seven had Greek names. They may all, therefore, have been *Hellenistai*, deliberately chosen to satisfy this group who were complaining. But this is speculative. It seems more likely *a priori* that ‘some of both classes of Jews were elected, the only fair and proper course’. Whether they were deacons or not, and whether they were *Hellenistai* or not, the church *presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them* (6), thus commissioning them and authorizing them to exercise this ministry.
Tomorrow: Acts 6:1-7. c). The principle.
|The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.|