For an introduction to this series, click here.
May 31, 2007
This is the shortest chapter in Acts, but it is significant.
We are not sure how far along these events come in the progression of the church, but we assume it is less than a couple of years. Remember that the church was still basically concentrated around Jerusalem, and the church there was still in this arrangement where they shared everything. And we have our first schism in the church. It seems the Diaspora, Jews who were born elsewhere in the world and who spoke Greek as their mother tongue but returned to Jerusalem, were mad at the native Palestinian Jews, who were the majority. They accused the Apostles of favoring the native Jews when they made their distribution of food to the widows.
The idea of Peter and John and the other Apostles driving a wagon around Jerusalem delivering food is a strange one for us to think about, but it really happened. It's a picture I thought about a lot when I was delivering pizza for a living (for those of you who know me, it's pretty obvious I'm writing this section in 2015). They couldn't have been serving food at a central location, because if they were I highly doubt that anyone would be turned away. They had to have been delivering it to people's houses. Perhaps many of the foreign-born Jews lived on another side of town from where the Apostles were living. Whatever the reason, it was unfair to accuse the Apostles of favoritism. But that's exactly what the Diaspora did.
The Apostles were tired of this distraction: "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables." (6:2) They came up with a good solution: "Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." (6:3-4)
These men are usually referred to as the first deacons. Notice their names: "Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch." (6:5) The last five of these men all have Latin or otherwise non-Jewish names. The Apostles and the church at large were sensitive enough to these issues to recognize that enlisting some men from among the foreign contingent would be a positive step toward rectifying the hurt feelings in the church. The Diaspora were no doubt treated as second-class citizens by the general population of Jerusalem. The church was not a place for such sinful behavior.
The office of deacon is designed to assist the pastor and to serve the church. The first deacons were more like assistant pastors than the deacons we have now in most of our churches, middle-aged business men who act as a board of directors. These deacons knew who the primary authority was, the Apostles. They were certainly leaders, and they had spiritual as well as practical authority. This is true for all times, since Scripture outlines the specific qualifications for a deacon. They are not as stringent as those for an elder, but they do carry spiritual authority. The Scripture is broad enough that I don't think I have seen very many churches where the relationship between elders/pastors and deacons is unbiblical, but we should think through these things. The church is too important for us to just assume that since this is the way it's always been done, that's the way it's supposed to be.
We can see what kind of spiritual leader Stephen was. He went out and preached and performed miracles in the city. Then some Jews paid some other people to come to the council and say, "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us." (6:14, ESV) Then the council had Stephen arrested. And that is where the chapter ends. Stephen's defense makes up most of chapter 7.