Acts of the Apostles

Acts of the Apostles - Lesson 6

Chapter 6

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  • Today we begin the story of Stephen

    • Commonly known as the first martyr of the Church

      • He was also the first deacon

      • And deacons have traditionally played the role of martyr ever since

    • The story has two parts or divisions, which follow neatly in two chapters

      • Chapter 6 tells the story of why and how Stephen received his appointment as well as Stephen’s witnessing of the Gospel

      • Chapter 7 covers Stephen’s martyrdom, including his famous monologue summarizing God’s plan for redemption

        • At the end of Chapter 7 we also see a hint of Luke’s second main character in the book of Acts

        • Stephen’s story becomes the link between Luke’s protagonist in the first part of Acts (Peter) and his protagonist in the second half of the story (Paul)

  • To start, we need to finish the final two verses of Chapter 5, which set the stage for the events of Chapter 6

Acts 5:41 So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.
Acts 5:42  And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
  • After the second trial and flogging of the apostles, they went back to the brethren
    • They had been beaten and threatened with more severe punishment

    • Yet they left rejoicing

      • The reason for rejoicing was the way the Lord had counted them worthy to suffer shame for His Name

      • Jesus Himself had told the disciples that they would be blessed when persecuted

Matt. 5:10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matt. 5:11 “Blessed are you when people  insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.
Matt. 5:12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
  • The disciples knew this, and as persecution came upon the apostles, they naturally rejoiced
    • Truly, it was an honor

      • The honor comes from how God is using our life to mirror His Son’s life, in particular mirroring His sacrificial death

      • Not every Christian is granted this honor

      • And the apostles rejoiced at having been counted worthy for that honor

    • God purposes in granting it now and in this way it seems to be preparation for what will follow in Chapter 6

      • The leaders of the early Church were the Apostles

      • But the Apostles were hardly the only ones who would suffer persecution

        • And God has determined not to bring the Apostles to death too quickly, since they were needed to build this early church

      • So it stands to reason that other disciples would be appointed to be among the first to die

      • That leads us into Chapter 6, where we encounter Stephen

    • So the Apostles gladly ignored the command of the council and kept teaching and preaching, which kept growing the church

Acts 6:1 Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.
Acts 6:2 So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.
Acts 6:3 “Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.
Acts 6:4 “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
Acts 6:5 The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.
Acts 6:6 And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.
  • So at this time the church is growing

    • And with growth comes growing pains

      • Christians are people, and anytime people gather, relationship difficulties can develop

      • And the solution to disunity is strong leadership

    • Here we’re witnessing the second example of internal threats to unity within the early church (the first being Ananias and Sapphira)

      • A complaint arose – the term in Greek is goggusmos, which means to murmur or secretly complain

      • It tells us that discontent was percolating and threatening to erupt into something more serious

    • The two groups involved were Jews from different origins

      • The first group are Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews

        • They came from outside the land of Israel and have returned to settle in Jerusalem

      • The second group are Hebrews

        • Which means they are Jews from within the land who speak Hebrew and Aramaic

      • There was long history of tension between these groups

        • Hebrews were more conservative and a bit haughty

        • Hellenistic Jews were more liberal and less likely to following the Law

    • Both of these groups had their respective widows

      • Widows were especially vulnerable members of society, and the church placed an emphasis on showing respect for widows

        • This may have been one reason why the church stood out positively in the culture

        • Especially against the backdrop of the Pharisees, who showed no regard for widows despite requirements in the Law to do so

      • The church supported widows by taking collections and distribution money and food to the widows to support them

  • Somewhere along the way, this process began to fail

    • The widows of the local Hebrew Jews were receiving a disproportionate share of the support

      • The text says that the widows of the Hellenistic Jews were being overlooked or shortchanged

      • How would something like this arise? Who would have instigated it or permitted it?

        • Today, we would assume it was the fault of a church leader who was biased or incompetent

      • But at this point in the church’s history, there are only the apostles in leadership

        • And we know the Apostles weren’t the kind of men to condone this type of favoritism

        • So we can rule out the possibility that they were the cause of the favoritism

    • That means that the unfair distribution of food was the result of the congregation itself conducting the distribution in a biased fashion in favor of the Hebrew widows

      • It’s likely that the greater number of Jews in the Jerusalem Church were Hebrew

      • So the majority of the church body probably favored the Hebrew widows, naturally resulting in the unfair distribution

      • And when the Hellenistic widows raised a complaint, a dispute arose

    • We can see a pattern emerging here in Luke’s account

      • The enemy works to divide the church over temptations of money, possessions and honor or pride

        • Think Ananias and Sapphira

      • Or he works to intimidate the brethren through persecution

        • Which forms the second half of Stephen’s story

  • This incident highlighted to the Apostles the need for additional leadership in the church to watch over the flock

    • So in response to the argument, the Apostles act

      • They bring the entire church together and announce the need for additional leaders

        • The reason for additional leaders is obvious

        • The needs of the church had grown beyond the capability of 12 men to handle everything

    • The Apostles express the need by saying it is not desirable (or pleasing) for them to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables

      • Let’s consider what the apostles are proposing

      • First, the word pleasing suggests that the apostles know there is an audience watching their actions

        • The audience is the Lord, of course

      • Secondly, the thing that will displease the Lord is neglecting the word of God for lessor

        • The highest levels of leadership in the church were to be primarily – if not exclusively – devoted to teaching God’s word

          • To do otherwise would not be pleasing to God’s word

        • Even something as important and loving as feeding helpless widows was not as important as teaching God’s word

      • Obviously, the need still had to be met, which is why the Apostles move to appoint deacons

        • But it’s worth remembering that the model presented here is that the role of a congregational leader – pastor –is to teach God’s word

        • And nothing should come before that duty (they were to be “devoted” to prayer and the word)

          • Other duties should be performed by other leaders

          • In my opinion, the pastor’s weekly schedule should be dominated by teaching and preparation for teaching

  • So the apostle bring the congregation together and announce the decision

    • The announcement makes clear three things to the congregation

      • Teaching God’s word is preeminent in the church

      • Other needs will be met by other (lessor) leaders

      • These leaders have the backing of the apostles

    • The selection process was also placed in the hands of the congregation

      • Though we remember that Acts was not written as a manual for church operation, nevertheless this practice is consistent with Paul’s instruction in 1 Timothy and Titus

        • Suggesting that this practice for identifying leaders is intended to be a model

      • Here’s the model:

        • The pastoral leadership of a church is a plurality of teachers with manifest authority to conduct the church’s affairs

          • They are not beholden to the congregation

          • The sheep do not lead the shepherd

        • Since we do not have apostles today, we refer to these leaders as elders

      • Paul told Titus to appoint elders

Titus 1:5 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint  elders in every city as I directed you,
    • So a shepherd appoints elders, based on their qualification to teach
      • The congregation selects deacons

      • Leadership from among themselves to minister to the other needs of the body

      • These lessor leaders also have qualifications, as Paul outlines in 1 Timothy and Titus

    • Here the qualifications are good reputation, the anointing of the Spirit

      • Reputation is martureo or witness or testimony

        • They must have a life and walk in faith that bears witness to godliness

        • It wraps up all that Paul outlines later in his letters

      • Then they must be full of the Spirit, which means having a life obviously under the control and direction of the Spirit

        • One thing (Spirit-led life) leads to the other (good reputation)

  • The seven men selected are an interesting group

    • First, Stephen gets the most attention, because of his later focus in the chapter

      • Phillip is listed second because of his role in Chapter 8

      • The rest have no further mention in the Bible

    • All the names are Greek, indicating they were Hellenistic Jews

      • And one of them, Nicolas, was a Greek who converted to Judaism

    • This shows that the election of the deacons was clearly under the Spirit’s direction

      • We might have expected at least an even distribution of Hebrew and Hellenistic Jews

        • Or even a predominantly Hebrew selection

      • But it was all Hellenistic Jews, showing that the Spirit was working to correct for the biases in the group

    • Finally, they were confirmed in their ministry with a laying on of hands

      • This is an important step

        • The men are nominated by the congregation but appointed by the apostles (elders)

      • And the laying on of hands symbolically represents the anointing work of the Spirit

        • All authority and power for ministry comes from the Spirit

  • Now look at the result of this step

Acts 6:7 The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
  • The word of God kept spreading because the apostles were freed from other responsibilities

    • This in turn led to the further increase of the church – and exceeding numbers

    • And now a new element

      • Priests, one after another, were coming into the faith

      • This is a remarkable footnote, because the priests of that day would have been Sadducees, since the Sadducees were in power during this time

        • And we see God adding to the church from among the ranks of their enemy in the city

      • And this revelation is likely the cause of the next episode of external threat to the church

Acts 6:8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people.
Acts 6:9 But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen.
Acts 6:10 But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.
Acts 6:11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
Acts 6:12 And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council.
Acts 6:13 They put forward  false witnesses who said, “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law;
Acts 6:14 for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.”
  • Stephen is working in the full power of the Spirit

    • And he has evidently received supernatural power to perform miracles and teach with authority

      • We know in Chapter 8 that Phillip has been given similar powers, so apparently the seven deacons were equipped in a similar fashion

      • Stephen and Phillip are clearly not capable of these things prior to their appointment, so the power traces to the Apostles

    • This is an example of how the Apostles were able to appoint others to perform miracles

      • But these seven are never shown transferring those same powers further

      • It stopped with them because it had to originate with Apostles

    • Secondly, notice that Stephen is not depicted waiting tables

      • No doubt he did his fair share of table waiting, but it’s also likely that he and the other seven appointed others to that task

      • They were deacons, leaders

        • This meant they had responsibilities to lead and run the congregation

  • Stephen encounters a group of Hellenistic Jews and proceeds to present the truth of the Gospel to them from Scripture while in a synagogue

    • This is the first example of the disciples preaching inside synagogues

      • Paul later made this his usual practice in every new city he visited

      • He brought the gospel to the Jew first, seeking the remnant, but then quickly moved to the Gentiles, his primary calling

    • Luke identifies these men as members of the Synagogue of Freedmen

      • Jewish records indicate there were somewhere between 390-480 different synagogues in the city of Jerusalem

        • This synagogue was founded by formerly enslaved Jews, who returned to the city

      • Other groups involved were

        • Cyrenians, which were Jews from North Africa

        • Alexandrians which were Jews from Egypt

        • Cilicia, which were Jews from Turkey

          • This last group included Tarsus, which was Saul’s (Paul) hometown

          • Perhaps Saul was in this group unable to argue against Stephen’s wisdom

  • Since the men couldn’t win the argument, their pride was injured and their anger turned to conspiracy

    • So they stirred up others to spread rumors and lies

      • They accused Stephen of blasphemy

        • The literal blasphemy under Jewish law was speaking the name of God, which Stephen had not done

        • Instead they said he spoke against Moses and God, probably because he proclaimed the end of the Law

      • This led to the Elders dragging Stephen away and bringing him to the Council for yet another inquest

    • Stephen is accused before the council of two offenses:

      • Declaring the end of the Temple

        • Likely a repetition of Jesus’ own words, referring to the replacing of the house of stone with the Temple of the Body of Christ

        • This charge would have been an offense to the Sadducees who operated and protected the Temple grounds

      • Secondly, he is accused of destroying the customs of the Law from Moses

        • Certainly, this refers to the end of the Law now that grace has come in Jesus Christ

        • This charge would have incited the minority party on the council, the Pharisees

    • So the charges against Stephen are designed to make everyone mad at him

      • This sets the stage for Stephen’s persecution