On the Acts of the Apostles.

Chapter 6:1-6.

Taken from The Bible Treasury Number 323 - April 1883


Chapter 6:1-6.

Persecution of the Christian for Christ's sake is an honour from God (Phil. i. 29, as grace makes it a blessing to the Church and a testimony to the world. The real danger is from within, and this yet more when the confidence of love yields fit all largely to any evil eye and a discontented tongue. And so it was now: after God had so signally judged the deception of Ananias and Sapphira, fleshly find selfish complaint broke out among the Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews apparently against those of Jerusalem and Judea. It was not the Jews of pure descent jealous of those from elsewhere, who profited by the self-sacrificing love which sold houses and lands that none might want. Still less was it the germ of those judaizing divisions which were to be a source of not only deep, wide, and longlasting disquiet, but of the utmost danger in denying the grace and corrupting the truth of which the Church and the Christian are the responsible depositories.

"Now in those days, when the disciples were multiplying, there arose a murmuring of the Hellenists against the Hebrews that [or, because] their widows were overlooked in the daily ministration" (ver. 1). The murmuring came from those who had more or less of foreign admixture: whereas ill-feeling usually and naturally characterised those who boasted of associations wholly Israelitish. It was the Greek-speaking Jews who murmured against the Hebrews. That the mistake and indeed wrong was with the complainers seems plain, if from nothing else, from the grace evinced by all those who were the object of their murmuring, as the sequel shews. It is habitually the wrong-doer who denounces men better than himself. "Their widows," they alleged, were being overlooked in the daily supply of wants. We are not told that so it really was, but so they complained. The poor "widows are ever remembered of God. Their mouth should be stopped, if the allegation were false.

"And the twelve, having called the multitude of the disciples unto [them] said, It is not seemly that we, leaving the word of God, should serve tables. Look out then, brethren, from among you seven men of good report full of [the] Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint this s business; but we for our part will give ourselves closely to prayer and the ministry of the word " (ver. 2-4).

Up to this time the administration was in the hands of the apostles, as we see in Acts iv. 35, though probably they may have employed many brethren in the actual distribution to each needy individual. But that there were already officers whose province it was is not only without but against the evidence of. Scripture. I am aware that Mosheim tries to prove such a class of functionaries from " the young men" (οἱ νεώτεροι) in chap. v. 6, which he will have rather fancifully to be the counterpart of " the elders" (οἱ πρεσβύτεροι) who do net appear till the end of chap. xi., Kuhnol and Olshausen accepting his thought. But the usage of Scripture nowhere countenances any such official "younger men," as it does often in the use of "elders." On the contrary in the same context, on their return from burying Ananias, they are called " the young men," (οἱ νεανίσκοι) which cannot be conceived to have such a force and therefore ought to refute it for the previous and corresponding term. They were simply the younger brethren, on whom would naturally devolve any prompt call for a laborious and sorrowful duty, of a physical nature. Compare 1 Tim. v. 1, 2; Tit. ii. 6; and 1 Pet. v. 5. Teat not the Hellenists but the Hebrews bad deacons already is the unfounded idea of the same writer, whose history would have small value as to later times if not far better than his use of the inspired source. It would be hard to say where Mosheim is right in his review of the apostolic church.

The fit moment was come for the apostles to be relieved from outer work and thus free for what was spiritual. They direct therefore the establishment of responsible men for the daily ministrations in Jerusalem. This service was diaconal, yet peculiar (as Chrysostom long ago remarked), because of the actual circumstances there. Hence it may be that the term "deacons" is not here or elsewhere given to " the seven," but this number of theirs even more than " the twelve" becomes a sort of distinctive badge. As the money came from the disciples in general, on them do the apostles call to look out from among them brethren in whom they could happily confide; yet the apostles, acting for the Lord in order, established them over the business. It was not seemly, or proper (for ἀρεστόν admits of a wider sense than the very narrow one of "pleasing," or" our pleasure" that they should forsake the word of God, and serve tables. To this their continuance in that work would otherwise have come. Loving wisdom thus turns for good ungrateful complaints. But it is in this a principle of moment is rendered evident. Where the Lord gives He chooses, as for all ministry in the word; where the assembly gives, they choose as here. We see the same thing in 2 Cor. viii. 18, 19, where a brother was 'chosen by the assemblies as fellow-traveller with Paul and Titus, providing for things honest. not only before the Lord but also before men. This is the meaning of " messengers of churches." They were selected by the assemblies which sent help to the poor saints elsewhere, as the apostle would not take charge of the collection otherwise. Compare also Cor. xvi. 3, 4. In the case of " elders" we find the apostles choosing, and not the disciples (Acts xvi. 23.); and so Titus is told to do. Thus we have three principles quite distinct: (1) the Lord choosing and sending those whom He gives as gifts to the church; (2) the apostle, or an apostolic man by express commission, choosing or establishing elders; and (3) the assembly choosing the administrators of its funds, whom the apostles set solemnly over this business.

That " the seven" were deacons (in the traditional sense of a brief noviciate or apprenticeship to the priesthood) is as unscriptural as that they had previously been of the "seventy" whom the Lord sent out " two and two" with a final message through Judea. Their work was not to preach and baptize, but the dispensing of help to the temporal need of every day. Philip no doubt did preach, but he, we are expressly told, was "an evangelist." It was therefore in virtue of this gift, not of that appointment to care for the poor in Jerusalem, that we find him, in the dispersion of the assembly, preaching in Samaria and beyond. Just as evidently had Stephen the gift of a teacher if not of a prophet, which he exercised in a most solemn testimony before the council. But neither the multitude chose, nor yet did the apostles appoint, a single man to preach or teach. Evangelists and teachers were given by Christ the Head, and so they are still. The church is neither the source nor the channel of ministry; which is the exercise of a gift flowing from Christ at the right hand of God. So it was at the beginning, and so it remains till He comes again.

Here it was but a local charge, however important and honourable, to which, as the multitude chose, the apostles appointed. The distinction is as plain as it is complete; but men are apt to view matters of the kind through the medium of habit and prejudice. Their duty was to carry out the distribution of the means for relieving the wants of the christian community; which would leave the apostles free for the service of the word of God. Their number was doubtless suitable to the requirements of their work. Their qualifications were that they should have a good report, and be full of the Spirit and wisdom.. To make their establishment more or other is as common as it is baseless. It would be unaccountable if men had not objects foreign to Christ and s ο to God's word.

"But we," say the apostles emphatically, "will give ourselves closely to prayer and to the ministry of the word." This is much to be weighed. For that service of the word prayer should take the first place. So it was with the apostles, but not so with the Corinthian saints, who forgot not only that power is to be subordinated to order (1 Cor. xiv.) but that life according to Christ has to be exercised now in holy and constant self-denial, as the prime duty of him who names the Lord. Prayer is the outgoing and expression of dependence, and is so much the more requisite, that the ministry of the word be iiot in the will or resources of man, but in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, yet in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that the faith of the saints stand not in men's wisdom but in God's power. In the order of the soul's blessing from God the word takes precedence, as we may see in comparing the end of Luke x. with the beginning of Luke xi., where we have the moral sequence of these two means of grace. Receiving from God goes before drawing near to our Father. But for the due ministry of the word prayer is the great prerequisite that flesh may afford no occasion to the enemy, and the individual may be a vessel to honour, sanctified, meet for the Master's use, prepared unto every good work.

And the saying pleased [lit, before] all the multitude; and they chose Stephen, a man full of grace and of [the] Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Simon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and having prayed they laid their hands Of them" (ver. 5, 6).

The grace shown by the apostles had a remarkable answer to it in the multitude; for all the names being Greek indicate a Hellenistic connexion. Persons seem to have been chosen without exception from the ranks of the Greek-speaking believers, the very class which had murmured against the Hebrews. Was not this grace enough to make the suspicious ashamed? There was no human provision of a balance or of a fair representation, as habits of business or the spirit of a law-court would suggest. God was looked to in faith, and the most marked conciliation prevailed. The supposition that there had been already Hebrew care-takers, and now that Hellenists wore added to look after Hellenistic interests, is to miss and mar this beautiful account of divine love in full activity, b supposing the infusion of a mere worldly prudence.

It is also to be observed that "the seven" when chosen were presented to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them in token of fellowship with their appointment. Imposition of hands was an ancient sign of blessing, Gen. xlviii. 14, especially of official recognition, Numb. xviii. 15, or of commendation to God's grace, Acts xiii. 3, 26 (compare xv. 40). The impartation of the Spirit by that act in Acts viii. 17, and xix. 6, or again in 1 Tim. iv. 14, 2 Tim. i 6, is distinct, as will be shown in their places. Probably in the establishment of elders there may have been a similar laying on of hands as some have gathered from 1 Tim. v. 22. But Scripture is silent as to the fact, it would seem in order to guard believers from that fatal routine of superstitious form which has overlaid Christendom to the dishonour of the Lord and the hurt of rule. Even if apostolic hands were laid on presbyters, we are not told it; but where the duty was of an outward character, and godly men were chosen by the multitude, the apostles (we are, expressly told) did lay hands on them. Not the multitude, but as we have seen the apostles chose elders for the disciples (Acts xiv. 23); and Scripture does net tell us of their hands being laid on them, even if the fact were so. How infirm is the groundwork of ecclesiastical pride! How perfect is the word both in what it says and in its reticence!