Exploring the Book of Acts Chapter 6
Persecution Strikes the Church, continued
Hebraic and Grecian Jews (6:1)
Luke turns away from the conflict between the Sanhedrin and the church leaders to introduce two groups within the Jerusalem church. They were the “Grecian” Jews (Greek, Hellenistai, or “Hellenists”) and “Hebraic” Jews. We may be surprised that subgroups exist within the first church. But these groups are crucial to the story of Acts. It’s important we identify these Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews, for it will help us understand the situation of the Jerusalem church, and how the gospel message is being preached.
Most commentators divide the Grecian and Hebraic Jews along linguistic and geographic lines. The Hellenistic Jews are those who speak mainly Greek, and formerly lived outside of Judea and Galilee. But they had settled in Jerusalem — retired, as it were, to the homeland. Nevertheless, they still have affinities with lands of the Jewish dispersion from which they came. The Hebraic Jews are those who speak mainly Aramaic, and were born in Jerusalem or Judea. A parallel in modern Jerusalem would be the distinction between Jews who were born in the land of Israel (sabras) and those who migrated to Israel from other nations. The Hellenistic Jews in the church probably attended Greek-speaking synagogues before they became Christians. The Hebraic Christians attended synagogues in which Aramaic was used.
Defining these two groups solely by their language and place of birth lacks some precision. Paul called himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5) and classed himself among the Hebraioi (2 Corinthians 11:22). But he was fluent in Greek and came from Tarsus in Asia Minor, not Jerusalem. In that sense, Paul was a Hellenist who spoke Aramaic like a native. While Paul had been born a Diaspora Jew, it’s probable that he lived since his youth in Jerusalem, where he was immersed in Judaism.
Clearly, we must go further when trying to understand the difference between Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews. Some commentators feel that the Hellenistic Jews are more devoted to the ancestral religion and culture than the Aramaic-speaking Jews. Why would they have returned to Judea, whose culture and economy were less attractive than those of other regions of the Roman Empire?
Further, we can probably assume that Diaspora Jews who settled in Jerusalem may have been looked upon with dislike and suspicion by the natives. The immigrants would have had different languages (Greek and native tongues), values and culture. We can see this suspicion and resentment in many nations today by native-born people against immigrants.
According to the Talmud, Pharisaism made little secret of its contempt for Hellenists and, unlike those from Syria or Babylonia (regions that are often considered extensions of the Holy Land in Talmudic discussions), they were frequently categorized by the native-born … populace of Jerusalem as second-class Israelites. [Longenecker, 329.]
As the church in Jerusalem grew larger, more and more Hebraic and Grecian Jews came into the church, and some of the prejudices between the two groups carried over into the church. As the case of Ananias and Sapphira showed, all was not well with everyone in the church. One of the difficulties is that the Greek-speaking Jews feel that they are being discriminated against in the Jerusalem church. Perhaps the slight is not intentional, but it is nonetheless felt. Luke implies that the Hellenists are a somewhat neglected minority, and for a time, not well served.
Widows neglected (6:1)
The problem is that the Hellenistic widows of the Jerusalem church are “being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (6:1). That is, the church apparently has an organized charity, such as a daily “soup kitchen” for the needy, including widows. But the immigrant widows are not getting an equal share. This is a blight on the church. Both the Torah and the example of Jesus mandate that the community pay special attention to helping widows. [Deuteronomy 10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17, 19-21; 26:12-13.] The law even specifies a curse for those who neglect the poor (Deuteronomy 27:19).
The prophets stress the responsibility of “doing justice” for widows. [Malachi 3:5; Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:2; Jeremiah 5:28; 7:6; 23:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Psalm 93:6.] In the New Testament, the epistle of James reflects the importance of such justice, insisting that true religion includes looking after orphans and widows in their distress (1:27). Mechanisms for aiding widows had long been promoted in Judaism. Jews had developed a system of aid to the poor and those in need. Religious communities such as the Essenes had a kind of social security system that provided for members’ needs. But here Christians are neglecting their own.
As in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, this neglect of church widows is no incidental problem. Although Luke presents the situation without condemnation, the affront threatens the spiritual integrity of the Christian community. It’s possible that the inequity in the distribution of food was merely the surface issue. This may be part of a larger conflict between two groups who had different cultural backgrounds. (We will eventually see doctrinal differences become more evident between the two groups.)
Earlier, we saw the Christian community taking care of the needy. Believers were freely sharing their possessions with the less fortunate among them (2:44-45; 5:32, 34-35). But as the church grows, so does the number of widows who need help. To make matters worse, widows from the Diaspora would probably be especially in need. They would be less likely to have relatives nearby to help them. And if they do not speak the local language very well, they may be missing out on some of the information.
They are the ones with the most need, but the church is neglecting them. Almost certainly, discrimination is involved in the inequity, but Luke tends to downplay controversies in favor of showing how problems were resolved. The distribution of food is probably in the hands of the Hebrews, and they unthinkingly take care of their own, and the Greek-speaking widows cannot communicate their needs to the people doing the distribution.
Ultimately, the apostles are responsible, because they administer the common fund (4:34-35), but they have more work than they can handle. Since they are Hebrews, it is easy for them to be unaware that the Greek-speaking widows are being neglected. As soon as they learn that the immigrant widows are being neglected, they immediately take steps to correct the problem.
“Choose seven men” (6:2-6)
When the neglect comes to light, the Twelve gather the church together and tell the members that the apostles can no longer manage the food distribution program. They simply lack the time to do it right. The apostles are too occupied with evangelism to “wait on tables” (6:2). They ask the group to chose seven men to handle the daily distribution. The apostles will turn the responsibility of the “soup kitchen” over to them (verse 3).
The apostles do not ignore the problem, nor chastise the widows for complaining. Nor do they try to hold on to this important responsibility, because they can do it only if they neglect their duty to preach. Members of the Jerusalem congregation are therefore asked to choose seven people who can take over the social-service work of the church.
The Twelve obviously have great stature and power in the church community and could have chosen the leaders on their own. But on this critical decision they are willing to give up their authority and ask the community to decide. The apostles turn the authority for working out the solution of the problem to those who feel it most acutely, for they are probably the best ones to solve it.
The apostles give requirements: The men are to have both wisdom and the Spirit, or we might say, a wisdom inspired by the Holy Spirit (6:3). Clearly, the apostles are no longer jockeying for power, as when they were unconverted (Luke 22:24; Matthew 20:20-28). The seven men chosen are Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch (6:5). The men have Greek names, and it is likely that they all come from the Hellenistic wing of the Jerusalem church (though many Judean Jews also have Greek names).
Stephen and Philip (6:5)
Stephen, introduced here almost as an aside, will become an important figure in Luke’s story. (Luke often casually introduces important characters a short time before they become important.) His activities in the next chapter link the Jerusalem church to the Christian movement beyond Judea. He is a pivotal character whose death ends Luke’s story of the Jerusalem church. Luke mentions Stephen later in Acts, and his book shows how Stephen provides a turning point for the spread of the gospel (11:19; 22:20). In particular, Stephen’s speech is the catalyst that sparks a great persecution. This causes Christians to flee to other areas, bringing the gospel with them (8:2). What looked like bad news at first, turned out to be good in the long run.
Of the other six individuals Luke mentions, only Philip plays a further role in Luke’s account. It is an important one. Philip became a prophet-evangelist. Luke shows him doing signs and miracles (8:6, 13) and being empowered by the Spirit to preach the gospel (8:29, 39). His seven daughters prophesy (21:9). Philip carries the gospel to Samaria (8:5); proclaims salvation to the Ethiopian (8:29); and takes the message along the Judean coast from Azotus to Caesarea (8:40). Some years later on his final trip to Jerusalem, Paul visits Philip in Caesarea (21:8). It’s possible that Philip was one of Luke’s sources for the story of Acts, especially for the events narrated in chapters 6-8.
The interesting thing about Nicolaus, the last-mentioned of the seven, is that he is a convert (proselyte) to Judaism from paganism. Only full converts are called proselytes. They are instructed in Judaism, baptized and circumcised. The God-fearers only worship and study in the synagogues; they are not circumcised. Luke notes that Nicolas comes from Antioch in Syria. This is the first reference to the city that will soon become the launching-point for the Gentile mission. And the church already has a leader who is Gentile by blood.
Laying on of hands (6:6)
The church community as a whole, or perhaps the Hellenistic part, selects the men it wants to handle the daily distribution. They are taken to the apostles, who officially place them in office. The apostles give a community prayer and “laid their hands on them” (6:6). This is the first mention of this practice in Acts. In Acts it accompanies several events — baptism (8:17, 19; 19:6); healings (9:12, 17; 28:8) and a commission to ministry (13:3). The practice has ties with the Old Testament, where the laying on of hands is mentioned in a variety of contexts. [Genesis 48:13-20; Exodus 29:10; Leviticus 1:4, 3:2; 4:4; 16:21; Numbers 27:23.] In general, it symbolizes a conferring of office and responsibility (Numbers 8:10). In the Old Testament, it was the community of Israel that placed hands on the individual, though it would have been physically impossible for the entire community to do it. People representing the community laid on their hands. The same thing is true in Acts as the apostles lay hands on the seven men on behalf of the whole community. This ritual signals that the church as a whole approves the men to supervise the daily distribution.
It is not quite as clear as NIV makes out who prayed and laid their hands on them. If the grammatical agreements of the Greek are any guide, then it was done by the whole church acting “in the presence of the apostles”.… By this act the people made them their representatives, as the Israelites had once made Levites their representatives by laying hands on them (Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9). [David J. Williams, Acts. New International Bible Commentary. (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1990), page 123.]
It is often assumed that the Seven are appointed to the office of deacon. However, Luke does not refer to them by this term. He uses the ordinary verb for service, diakoneo, but not the noun diakonos. When Philip is described by a title, he is called “Philip the evangelist” (21:8), not “Philip the deacon.” (The first New Testament mention of deacons is in Romans 16:1 and Philippians 1:1.)
Actually, the Seven are not given a title — they are in a service role. Their responsibility is similar to what deacons later did (1 Timothy 3:8-13), but over time, it becomes apparent that these men are appointed by God to serve in a special ministry. Stephen and Philip, the two of the Seven about which we know something, seem to have no further connection to the daily distribution or “waiting on tables.” They are prophets who preach the word, do signs and wonders, and extend the work of the apostles.
They are formally named as the Seven (Acts 21:8), even as the original apostles are called the Twelve. In effect, the office of the Seven is as unique as that of the original apostles.
While not minimizing the importance of the apostles to the whole church, we may say, that in some way Stephen, Philip, and perhaps others of the appointed seven may well have been to the Hellenistic believers what the apostles were to the native-born Christians. [Longenecker, 335.]
Jerusalem church grows (6:7)
Luke ends the account of the Seven with a summary statement of the progress of the gospel and church: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7). This is one of Luke’s regular pauses to summarize the state of the church’s growth in Jerusalem (2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14). Six of these general reports have been noted in Acts, each one showing a further outreach of the gospel from Jerusalem. [Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:31.]
The events of the first panel probably take place in the first year or so after Jesus’ resurrection. The second panel occurs in the mid-thirties A.D. The second panel (6:8-9:30) focuses on the work of three Hellenists whose ministries were essential for spreading the gospel beyond Jerusalem — Stephen, Philip, and Saul (Paul). Stephen had a brief career. He was martyred after giving a scathing speech to Jews who were members of one or more Hellenistic synagogues in Jerusalem.
Luke records only a brief ministry for Philip in Samaria and the coastal area of Judea. However, he probably continued to preach, and is still part of the community about 20 years later (21:8-9). Also in the second panel, Luke records Saul’s conversion and early ministry. He is, in a sense, the third “Hellenist.” (Though Saul is a Hebraic Jew in some respects, he is also a man of the Diaspora and the Greek world.)
In the second panel, Luke’s interest moves from Peter and the Twelve to focus more on the Hellenistic Seven and Paul. The church in Jerusalem has expanded among Jews who are connected with the world at large — the Hellenists. They may be “Hellenists” because of one or more characteristics — language, place of birth, custom or psychological orientation. This means that the preaching of the gospel has begun to go beyond the traditional preoccupations of Jewish culture — its land (especially Jerusalem), the temple and the Law.
The church has resolved some of its major potential problems — especially injustice and disunity. Now, in a spirit of prayer and with the power of the Holy Spirit, it is ready to move on — “So the word of God spread” (6:7).
Luke has successfully portrayed a restored people and the authority of the Twelve over it. Now, he prepares for the second stage of Jesus’ programmatic prophecy in Acts 1:8, that the Gospel would move out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the world. [Johnson, 110.]
Luke informs his readers that a large number of priests are converted and become part of the church (6:7). One commentator estimates that as many as 8,000 priests and 10,000 Levites serve at the temple. We should distinguish these ordinary priests from the high priestly families. The working priests are a marginalized group — far removed from the world of the enormously wealthy high priestly families — and perhaps even disaffected from them. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:181; Wars 2:409-410.] It is from the ranks of the common priests that many were converted to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
The preaching of Stephen (6:8-10)
Luke next turns to give an account of Stephen’s ministry. The apostles are teaching mainly at the temple, and in front of the Sanhedrin. Now we see a subtle shift in audience, as a leader of the Hellenistic Christian community brings the gospel to the Greek-speaking synagogues in Jerusalem. In particular, he evangelizes among members of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen,” composed of Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria in North Africa and from provinces in Asia Minor — Cilicia and Asia (6:9).
“Freedmen” were former slaves (or their children) who had been emancipated by their owners. During Pompey’s conquest of Judea in 63 b.c., for example, many Jews were taken captive to Rome, and many others probably ended up being sent to various parts of the Empire. Many of these slaves were later freed. The descendants of such slaves, the Jewish freedmen, begin to argue with Stephen. But they cannot “stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (6:10). Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them what to say when they came to trial (Luke 12:12). They will be given “words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict” (Luke 21:15). Luke shows that another prophecy had come to pass.
In essence, Stephen speaks as a prophet, as one of the witnesses predicted by Jesus. He is filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom (6:5, 10; 7:55) and he does “great wonders and signs.” For Luke these are the marks of a prophet. [Acts 2:19, 22, 43; 4:16, 22, 30; 5:12.] Stephen is “full of God’s grace and power” (6:8). The comparison with the apostles, who also spoke “with great power,” is clear (4:33). Stephen speaks with the same spiritual might as the apostles, and should be recognized as one who brings a true gospel message.
False accusations (6:11-14)
After hearing Stephen speak, Jews from the Synagogue of Freedmen organize a smear campaign. They persuade some people to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God” (6:11). To blaspheme or slander Moses is to say something thought to be disrespectful about the Torah, “the law of Moses.” What Stephen is probably doing is challenging the centrality of the law in God’s plan of salvation — he is saying that Jesus, not the law, is the center of God’s plan.
To “speak blasphemous words against Moses” refers to contempt for the temple and its rituals. By saying that salvation comes through Christ, Stephen seems to say that the system of worship centered on the Jerusalem temple is not needed. But the temple is the foundation and focus of Jewish national life, worship and salvation. This does not set well with a pious Jewish group that centers its religious life around its institutions. The temple is the very reason these people had moved to Jerusalem.
The Synagogue of Freedman take their campaign of slander to the streets, to the city fathers and religious leaders. With mounting support in their favor, the Freedmen are emboldened to grab Stephen and drag him before the Sanhedrin. They bring false witnesses who lay an ominous charge against Stephen: “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law” (6:13). Similar charges are later leveled against Paul (21:20-21, 28; 24:7; 25:8).
Stephen is charged with religious innovation. The witnesses claim: “We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (6:14). Although Luke says this accusation comes from false witnesses, there is truth in what they are saying. Even if Stephen was not preaching it, they were able to see that if what Stephen is preaching is true, then it does render the temple and the ancestral customs obsolete.
Temple obsolete (6:11-14)
Jesus did predict the destruction of the temple (Luke 21:5), and that people did not need to worship there (John 4:21). Jesus is God’s replacement for the temple – a hard saying for unconverted Jews (Mark 14:58; 15:19; John 2:19). God is not to be found in a place, or a system of worship, or a time. Rather, he lives within all believers, wherever they were, through the Spirit.
Jesus declared the temple to be obsolete as a place where one must go to worship and have sin atoned. True spiritual cleansing comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection. [Mark 15:38; John 4:21; Ephesians 2:20; Hebrews 10:20; 1 Peter 2:5.] Stephen is probably echoing these thoughts, insisting that with the coming of Christ the temple order is finished. The book of Hebrews explains this, and discusses the same general points Stephen probably makes. As F.F. Bruce points out, “In a number of respects Stephen blazes a trail later followed by the writer to the Hebrews.” [Bruce, 132.]
If the book of Hebrews contains the kinds of spiritual realities Stephen is speaking about, it’s not surprising that the Jews are angry at him. In their view, these ideas support the notion that he is speaking against Moses and God.
Stephen had a vision of a world for Christ. To the Jews two things were specially precious — the Temple, where alone sacrifice would be offered and God could be truly worshipped, and the Law which could never be changed. Stephen, however, said that the Temple must pass away, that the Law was but a stage toward the gospel and that Christianity must go out to the whole wide world. [William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), page 53.]
We have no account of Stephen’s preaching to the Greek-speaking Jews, so we don’t know exactly what he told them. But we can infer the drift of his teaching from the criticisms leveled against him, and from his later speech before the Aramaic-speaking Sanhedrin. With such volatile issues at stake, the antagonistic Freedmen merely needed to put a subtle but deadly twist on what Stephen is saying. There is no need for wholesale fabrication.
Stephen’s speech is unusual in that it attacks the very basis of Jewish life, something that the Twelve, so far as we can tell from Acts, don’t do. They don’t minimize the temple — they worship there, as does most of the church (2:46; 3:1; 5:13). But Stephen is doing more than insisting that Jews must accept Jesus as Messiah. He is telling them that their faith in the law and temple is misplaced and of no particular value.
From the accusations and from his defense, it is clear that Stephen had begun to apply his Christian convictions regarding the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth in God’s redemptive program to such issues as the significance of the land, the law, and the temple for Jewish Christians in view of the advent of the Messiah. This, however, was a dangerous path to tread, particularly for Hellenistic Jewish Christians! It was one that the apostles themselves seem to have been unwilling to explore. [Longenecker, 336.]
Stephen’s frontal attack on Jewish institutions has far-reaching repercussions for the church in Jerusalem. His speech alienates the Jewish community from the church, and unites its disparate parties against the believers. The entire city of Jerusalem is infuriated (6:12).
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in 1995 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
The chief-priestly party knew that they need have no fear of popular disapproval this time in prosecuting a leading member of the Nazarene community; on the contrary, the people would support and indeed demand the severest sanctions of the law against the man. [Bruce, 126.]
From the Sanhedrin to “the man on the street,” it turned into enemies those who had until now at least tolerated the believers. This in turn removed the one thing that had restrained the Sanhedrin from a thoroughgoing persecution of the believers, namely, their popularity (cf. 2:47; 5:13, 26). [Williams, 125.]
Facing the Sanhedrin (6:15)
Chapter 6 describes the background of Stephen’s missionary work, which leads to his arrest. The next chapter, the longest in Acts, is devoted to Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin. Taken together, the two chapters complete Luke’s discussion of the preaching of the gospel in Jerusalem and his description of the church in the city. After this, Luke begins reporting on the church’s expansion beyond Jerusalem.
The last verse of chapter 6 sets the stage for Stephen’s long speech before the Sanhedrin. Luke says that to the Sanhedrin members Stephen appeared to have “the face of an angel” (6:15). Luke probably means to tell us that Stephen is being led by the Holy Spirit (6:3, 5), and that the speech we will read is inspired by God. The high priest asks Stephen if the charges brought against him are true (7:1). This high priest was probably Caiaphas, who held office until A.D. 36. As president of the Sanhedrin, he was the chief judge in Jewish trials.