1. Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.
We have previously seen the great unity that existed among believers in the city of Jerusalem at this time. In the words of Acts 4:32, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul, neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” Their hearts were beating as one, and their possessions likewise were shared as one. This was all in fulfillment of the prayer Christ had prayed for the disciples in John 17:21, “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” The Lord’s prayer was granted, and His disciples and those who believed in Him through their word were all united.
In chapters 4 and 5 we saw two challenges to that unity from without, as the Sanhedrin first threatened and then punished the apostles for daring to speak and teach in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The apostles had God’s power with them, however, and merely rejoiced that they were worthy to suffer shame for His name. In chapter 5 we saw the first great challenge to the unity God had created coming from within, as it appeared in the form of the selfish and deceitful attitude of Ananias and Sapphira. Now, this unity faces a second great challenge from within, as a complaint arises among their ranks.
We must remember that those who had joined this fellowship of believers had given their all to the endeavor. They were not living a separate life away from their brethren, and merely meeting together a few times a week with their fellow believers. No, they had given their whole lives to this, and had entrusted their goods and possessions into the hands of the twelve. This had been fine at first, but it seems now a problem arose caused by the fact that the number of the disciples was continuing to multiply. When last we had a number counted of the disciples, we found that there were over five thousand of them, and the number had continued to grow and multiply since that time. Now, a much greater number than five thousand had believed the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ, and this increase meant that the work of actually distributing the funds committed to them became a bigger and bigger job for the disciples to do.
Now a complaint arises regarding widows. This makes sense, for widows in that culture were the neediest people imaginable. It was not possible, as it is today, for a widow without a husband or father to care for her to simply go out and get a job and earn her own living. Women were only expected to work in the business of their husbands or fathers, and were not really permitted to go out and get a job with whomever they wished. Thus, a widow with no man to care for her had few options short of begging to try to earn a living. It was to these souls in most desperate need that the daily distribution from the disciples would have been most needed.
Perhaps when they first started out with a much smaller number of disciples to care for, the twelve found the execution of this task of dispensing to the needy a welcome diversion from their more weighty tasks of studying and searching out the truths of the Word. However, as the numbers of the disciples grew more and more, the handling of this task by men otherwise busily employed became more and more impossible. Now, the distribution of funds was being neglected altogether due to the busy schedule of the disciples. This hit those most in need, the widows, hardest first of all.
Because of this justifiable neglect on the part of the twelve, an understandable attitude of discontent spread among the believers. It seems that it voiced itself first in a complaint from those among them who were called Hellenists. This group we might define as Greek-speaking Jews. These were people who were as much ancestral Israelites as anyone else in the land, and yet who, perhaps due to living outside the land of Israel in the past, had not learned to speak the native language of that land. Thus, they could only speak the Greek language common to the Roman Empire around them, and could not converse in the Aramaic that was far more common in the land of Israel. This would have distanced them somewhat from the believers who spoke the language of the land, and made them extra sensitive to any slight, real or imagined. Now, they are the ones who speak up first to complain that their widows are being neglected. They may have felt that this was because they were Hellenists, but I do not believe that this was the case. The disciples simply had no time for the distribution, and all widows were being neglected, not just those of the Hellenists. Yet they are the ones who start to complain, and bring the issue to the forefront. Now, the great unity will face its second great challenge. Some of the hearts that before were beating as one had started to beat out of rhythm. Will this be allowed to continue, or will God once again step in to preserve what He had so miraculously brought to pass?
We cannot help but see in this attitude of these Greek-speaking Jews a parallel to what happened so often with the sons of Israel in the wilderness of Moses. Even when the Lord had just shown forth His great power in bringing them through the Red Sea and destroying their enemies, the Egyptians, behind them, the Israelites still did not seem to trust God to provide their daily needs. When they had been three days in the Wilderness of Shur without water, we read that the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:24) Moses gave them water, but then when they found no food, they complained even worse, saying, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Exodus 16:3. In spite of God’s provision in the past and His manifest display of His power, they still complained against Him when their physical needs were not met.
In the same way, these Israelites in the great unity, when they find their physical needs neglected, do not come humbly before the Lord to present their request to Him. The Lord certainly would have been able and willing to provide a solution for them then! Yet instead of making such a mature request to the Lord, they complain and grumble like children, acting as if the Lord did not care about their needs. They thus displayed the same kind of attitude that their ancestors had in the wilderness. How sad that these people had learned nothing from the example of their forefathers! Certainly God would have been justified to deal with them again in wrath. He had just displayed His power in removing Ananias and Sapphira from life when they threatened His great unity. In the same way, He could have broken out in power against these complainers. Yet here, God will not display this kind of action. Instead, He will respond to this grumbling with grace. Even in His kingdom order, God is willing and happy to show grace to His people in their need. So we will see Him do here.
2. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.
The twelve, as God’s representatives, act quickly to amend the situation. First, they call all the multitude of the disciples together. Again, considering the number of the disciples, this probably was done in twelve groups, with one disciple leading each of them. Then, once the disciples are gathered, the twelve present for their consideration the difficult situation they are placed in. Though caring for the needy is a task of great importance, it is not reasonable to suppose that those who have dedicated themselves to the even more important task of ministering the word of God should leave that word to accomplish this serving of tables. Some today might not agree with this order of priorities. Yet none in this multitude would have disagreed with this order, for remember that their hearts were all brought into union by the Lord to love and seek the truth.
Otis Sellers notes that these twelve apostles had to reconsider the interpretation of hundreds of passages in the Old Testament in light of the truths they now had from God. They also had to consider the words that the Lord Jesus Christ had spoken while He was on earth. Then, when they had truth from God on these things, they had to bring them before the people. Many were abiding continually in the temple just waiting for the twelve to bring such teaching forth. In the light of this desire on the part of many for the truth, and the fact that God had given them the important task of setting it forth for them, the twelve just could not leave this work to provide for the needs of these widows, no matter how important a work that might be.
3. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business;
Having presented the difficulty they themselves were in regarding this issue, the twelve now present to them the solution. The multitude themselves, not the twelve, are to seek out from among them seven men who meet three important criteria. They are to be men of good reputation, men full of holy spirit, and men full of wisdom. Once the disciples have made their choice, the twelve will appoint them over this business of waiting on tables and feeding the poor.
This was not a suggestion for the multitude to vote on and choose to adopt. The twelve were God’s spokesmen, and they were declaring what was going to be done as it was right in the eyes of God. The multitude was given the privilege of choosing these seven men, but they had no choice in the solution to the problem. To think differently is to deny the position the twelve were given, and the words of Christ, that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The phrase “Holy Spirit” here does not have the definite articles, and thus means the power of the Spirit, not the Person of the Spirit. These seven were to be men who demonstrated the miraculous power of the Spirit. Since it was God Himself Who gave such power to men, it would be a sign of His approval of a person if he demonstrated an unusually high level of filling with this power. Thus, they were to consider the reputation of these seven before men and God.
4. but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
The disciples had a much more important task to give their attention to. This was prayer and the ministry of the word. Many have tried to make this story out to be an example of the way we are to order the church. Yet no church is mentioned in these verses. This was the great unity that God was creating in Jerusalem, and nothing has been like it before or since. If this story shows us anything, it is that those who labor in the Word are doing a more important work than those who labor on behalf of meeting the needs of men. This is not to say that both are not important, but we must count the ministry of the Word, coupled with prayer, to be of primary importance. That was the task the disciples must now concentrate upon, and so these seven would be chosen to give them freedom in this task.
5. And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch,
The multitude was pleased with this arrangement, and they complied with the orders set forth by the twelve, producing seven men as qualified candidates for the work that was to be done. Prominent among these was Stephen, a man who is described as being full of faith and the Holy Spirit. When we remember that in Greek the name that is listed first is the one that would have the greatest emphasis, and thus probably indicates the one considered the leader or the most important, we know that Stephen was the most notable among these. His name means “Crown,” and Stephen certainly did earn the reward of a crown from the Lord for his faithful witness for Him. Philip is listed second, and he is the only other one of these of whom we will read after these few verses. His name means “Lover of Horses,” though in the Lord he certainly found something much greater to love. He is not to be confused with the Philip who was one of the twelve, for of course this was another man entirely.
Let us quickly consider the meaning of the remaining names, none of whom, as we already mentioned, ever appear elsewhere in Scripture. Prochorus means “Leader of the Chorus,” a “chorus” being a dance. Nicanor means “Conqueror,” a name which those of us who know the meaning of Nike (Victory) will quickly recognize. Timon means “Honorable.” Parmenas means “Abiding.” Nicolas means “Victor of the People.”
Now many make much of the fact that these seven names are all Greek names. They assume that this means that those chosen to the work were all Hellenists, and then conclude that the believers generously gave this work into the hands of the Hellenists to insure their satisfaction with the arrangement. However, just because these men had Greek names does not prove that they were Hellenists. Of the twelve, Philip and Andrew both had Greek names, and these men were not Hellenists. Even today, the author of this article has a Hebrew name, yet I am no Hebrew. The fact that these are Greek names does not prove anything. Of these, we read that one, Nicolas, was a proselyte, and so he at least was not a Hellenist or Greek-speaking Israelite.
There is simply no reason to think of these men as the first deacons. There is an attempt to categorize them as this, but the word “deacons” is not found in this passage. These men had nothing to do with a church office. What they had been called to do was a specific work before the Lord. Theirs was a job, not an office.
6. whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.
The peoples’ choices are now presented to the apostles. They pray, seeking the Lord’s mind on this every step of the way. They were now turning a task that the Lord had given to them over to others, and they needed the Lord’s approval to do it. Then, they lay their hands on them. This indicated that the authority of the twelve to do this work was passing to these seven men. Now, they are identified with the twelve in this work. This was a serious relationship, for the seven were now responsible to the twelve for how they performed their office, and the twelve likewise shared responsibility for the things which were done by the seven.
This was not ordination as it is practiced in the churches today, for such a ceremony finds no parallel in Scripture. Rather, this was identification, and meant that these men were now identified with the task they were to perform. There are three kinds of rituals of public identification found in the Scripture whereby men were marked out for special office. One was anointing with oil, as was performed upon kings and priests when they were chosen by the Lord in the Old Testament. Another was the identification John performed by his water baptism, as we read about it in the gospels. Finally was this simple ritual of the laying on of hands which we see here.
Many use this ritual today who have no idea of its true significance. Those who lay hands on one going out to do a work are themselves responsible for the things done by the one sent out. If that person fails to perform his duties honorably or is found in some sin or neglect, the ones who laid their hands on him are equally responsible for the things he has done. Yet no one considers such a thing today. We lay hands carelessly, yet this matters little since we have stripped this ritual of any real meaning. Yet we should still heed Paul’s warning in I Timothy 5:22, “Do not lay hands on anyone hastily, nor share in other people’s sins; keep yourself pure.” We should use care regarding whom we identify ourselves with in the Lord’s work, lest, if they be found unfaithful, this reflects back upon us as well.
Yet for these men, the disciples could lay hands on them with great confidence, for these men were not just responsible before them, but were now responsible before God. I do not believe that any one checked up on these men after this initial choosing of them. These men had the single-hearted love for their brethren that we read about in chapters 2 and 4, and they would not have robbed them under such circumstances. Moreover, they had God watching over them. The One Who had struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for lying about their giving would certainly have meted out an equally severe penalty upon these men if they had dared to misuse their commission. Thus, these men needed no oversight by the twelve, or anyone else. Their position was ultimately responsible before God, and they could not have been dishonest with it under such conditions.
7. Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
Now the word of God continues to spread. This word must have largely been made up of the Old Testament, yet this presents no difficulty, as no passage in the Bible can ever be studied out completely. These men were bringing out truths new and old from the Scriptures for the people, and this was spreading greatly among them. Moreover, the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem. Neither the threats of the Sanhedrin, nor the attempted deceit of Ananias and Sapphira, nor the temporary discord caused by the neglect of widows could stand in its way. Indeed, as God reached out miraculously to remove each obstacle, ever much more must have been the wonder of the people at a movement which was so unbreakably unified and had such power of God behind it. This resulted in men flocking to the truth.
If the number was five thousand before, and it had been growing since, and now it multiplied greatly, then we must conclude that by now tens of thousands had believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. And none of these believers were Gentiles, as we would think of them. Every one of these, remember, was a Jew living in Jerusalem, a city that only had a population between one and two hundred thousand to begin with. Not only that, but even a great many of the priests, that group that had largely opposed the Lord Jesus Christ, had now become obedient to the faith. How, in the light of these facts, can men possibly conclude that the Jews rejected Jesus Christ? At least in Jerusalem, it is clear that the majority of them accepted Him!
8. And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.
Now we see that the ministry of these seven was not confined to the distribution of funds only. Here we see Stephen, full of faith and power, worked the same kinds of great wonders and signs that the twelve before him had done. We know that he must already have had the power of the Holy Spirit working through him, for that was one of the criteria for him to be chosen for this work, as we saw back in verse 3. Yet now he has a greater influence due to his identification with the twelve, and so it seems that the work God was doing through him increased.
9. Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen.
It seems that the signs Stephen worked accompanied a teaching ministry in various synagogues. There were many synagogues in Jerusalem, in spite of the fact that the temple was there. Remember, the temple was the only holy building that God had had built in Israel. The synagogues were just community centers for the Jews. It seems that some of these community centers had been built by Jews who had moved back to Jerusalem from foreign countries, like these from Cyrenia, Alexandria (probably the one in Egypt,) Cilicia, and Asia. The Companion Bible suggests, “During the Civil Wars, many Jews had been enslaved, and afterwards set free by their masters. A manumitted slave was called libertinus. These were probably the descendants of such freedmen who had returned to Jerusalem, after the decree of Tiberius expelling Jews from Rome about 20 A.D.” So this is where this Synagogue of the Freemen probably came from. These synagogues also probably served as comfortable meeting places for those Jews from these countries who came from their homelands to visit the city. The Companion Bible also notes that Tarsus was the capital of Cilicia, which was a province in Asia. Thus, it seems likely that the connection with Saul of Tarsus comes in here.
Now it seems that Stephen had a teaching ministry in this certain Synagogue of the Freedmen. His Greek name may indicate that he had some connection with these. Now, he is performing a mighty work among them. However, some in this synagogue are unwilling to hear his teaching, and so they rise to oppose him.
10. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.
At first, these men who opposed Stephen attempted to overcome him by disputing with him. However, Stephen’s words were given to him by God, and were full of the wisdom of God. God’s Spirit Himself was disputing for Stephen, and as such the cleverness of those who opposed him was utterly overmatched. These men looked just as foolish in trying to confront Stephen as the Lord’s enemies had when they tried to confront Him, for they too were trying to argue with God.
The Greek for “the Spirit” here does have a definite article in front of it, and so we know it was the Person of the Spirit Himself Who was giving Stephen the words to utterly confound his enemies. These words were not just produced by the power of God, but were the words of the Person of the Spirit Himself.
11. Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”
Since they cannot defeat Stephen in fair combat, his enemies resort to foul play. How often do the enemies of the truth act in similar ways even today! These men pay off false witnesses to charge Stephen with blasphemy, both against Moses and God. Moses was greatly revered in Israel, so much so that perhaps some had elevated him above what they should have to place him even on a level with God. At any rate, it is against these two that these false witnesses charge Stephen with blasphemy.
12. And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council.
Again the means they employ to defeat Stephen are foul. They stir up the people, playing to their emotions with the false charges they have brought. This gave what followed the veneer of religious zeal, though actually their behavior was more that of a riotous mob. Then, bringing along the elders and scribes so that they can officially charge him with their false accusations, they come upon him and seize him, bringing him before the Sanhedrin. Now, Stephen will face the same corrupt body that had condemned the Lord Jesus Christ to death, and that had commanded the twelve to obey them rather than God. Yet it is the Sanhedrin who will truly be charged here, and not God’s faithful witness Stephen.
13. They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law;
Now they bring forth these false witnesses, probably setting them up as great men of religious zeal and patriotic feeling. In truth, of course, these men were nothing more than paid liars. They declare their false charges. They do not just claim that Stephen has blasphemed, but imply that he does so continually. Now, what they actually accuse him of is blasphemous words against this holy place and the law. The first reference shows us where this trial was taking place. It seems they had dragged Stephen into the temple itself for his trial. This means they were trying him in the Lord’s house, in the very place where His faithful followers that formed the great unity of this time had been meeting all along.
14. for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”
Here is their false charge, based on garbled versions of Stephen’s own words, as well as of the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. Compare this to the false testimony given to the Sanhedrin regarding the Lord Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:61. “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” Of course, the Lord had claimed no such thing, but rather had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” (John 2:19) speaking “of the temple of His body” (John 2:21.) They had twisted the Lord’s words during His trial to say that He could destroy and rebuild the temple in three days. Now, they falsely charge Stephen of just plain saying that the Lord would destroy the temple. Though this was certainly a false accusation, it is not an uncommon one even today. There are many who call themselves “Preterists” who charge the Lord with doing exactly that and with destroying the temple in 70 AD, which they consider to be His “second coming.” This charge is as false when the Preterists make it as when these false witnesses made it before Stephen so long ago. It was not Jesus Christ Who destroyed the temple of God.
They also charge Stephen with saying that the Lord Jesus would change the customs Moses had delivered to them. This too was a false accusation. The customs the Lord sought to change were those traditions which made the commandment of God of no effect, and which taught as doctrines the commandments of men. (Matthew 15:6-9) Yet as for the law, He said that “one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” These charges brought against Stephen were entirely false.
15. And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.
Now God Himself steps into the situation. He was not silent then, as He is now, but rather was working powerfully. God now gives the most manifest sign that Stephen was not a blasphemer, as they claimed, and certainly not against Moses. For He gives this great sign, that Stephen’s face became as the face of an angel.
Now what does this mean exactly? What does an angel’s face look like? We know that the word angelos in Greek just means “messenger,” and can be used for either human or heavenly messengers. Yet it is clear that a human messenger’s face is no different from any other person’s face, so we would suggest that Stephen’s face became like the face of a heavenly messenger.
So what, then, we must ask, does a heavenly messenger’s face look like? First of all, we know that these heavenly beings appear much like we do. We can deduce this (among other places) from the story in Genesis 18, where we read in verse 2 of Abraham, “So he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing by him.” Yet as we follow the story out, we discover that One of these was actually Yahweh Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, and His two companions were, in fact, heavenly beings. We can confirm this by Genesis 19:1, “Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening.” So we know an angel’s face, as far as its facial make-up, looks pretty much the same as a human face.
So Stephen’s face did not change in its features to become like an angel’s. What did change, then? I think we can get our first clue to this in Matthew 28:3, where the angel that rolled the stone away from the entrance to the Lord’s tomb is described. “His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.” This angel’s face is described as being “like lightning.” Luke 24:4 describes the two angels the women saw at the tomb this way. “And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments.” The faces of the angels are not described, but their garments at least are said to be shining. So I would suggest that angels, when they appear, are described as looking like men, yet they are sometimes described as having shining faces (like lightning,) or else shining garments. So if Stephen’s face became as the face of an angel, I would suggest that what that means is that his face started to shine with a visible light.
Now this is a very interesting thought, for if this is the case, it is one of only two occurrences we know of in the Bible where some human being’s face shown with light. The other was Moses after he had encountered God on the mountain of Sinai, as we read in Exodus 34:29-30. “29. Now it was so, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the Testimony were in Moses’ hand when he came down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with Him. 30. So when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.”
Remember what these false witnesses were accusing Stephen of. They were saying that he had blasphemed against Moses and the law. Yet now, Stephen’s face starts to shine, just like Moses’ face had when he came down from the mount! Could God have given any clearer sign that Stephen was not speaking contrary to Moses, but that he was, in effect, standing in the place of Moses before them to deliver to them the truth of God? Surely nothing but the most stubborn rebellion against God on their part could have overlooked such a sign! Yet we can be sure that, had Moses stood before the Sanhedrin at this time, they would have condemned him to death, just as they condemned Stephen. Yet God had given a sign that none could miss. He made it clear that He was with Stephen, and that the words which Stephen spoke were the very words of God.