A Division in the Church

Acts 6:1

So far in the experience of the early church, there has been no internal strife. The saints have fulfilled Christ’s intent that the church would be a showcase of love (John 13:35). But the devil is always working to stir up hard feelings between brothers in Christ, and at last he found an issue with the potential to tear the church apart.

The church was, as a regular practice, providing "daily ministration" for all the needy widows. This probably refers to provision of their immediate material needs, whether food or clothing. The hand-outs were donated by wealthier members of the church.1

In compliance with the many commands in the law of Moses to help the poor, the fatherless, and the widow (Deut. 14:28–29; 15:7–11; 24:19–21; 26:12; etc.), charitable giving was widespread in first-century Jewish society, much more so than it was elsewhere.2 Religious leaders organized something like a food kitchen, called a "poor bowl," for wandering beggars and maintained regular distribution of material relief to all the poor in the city.3

The ones who received aid included many widows and their children. In Bible times, a widow was helpless to support herself. She could not take a job. Unless she was a trained craftsman, she could not make anything to sell. So, she was completely dependent on relatives and public charity. Since relatives can be stingy and since public charity was a weekly dole generally sufficient only to sustain normal life until the next dole,4 it was common for widows to be extremely poor. Therefore, moved by compassion, the church accepted responsibility for the widows in its own midst and reached out to help them. Each evening, the church was meeting to share a meal, celebrate the Lord's Supper, and hear the apostles preach. Perhaps at each gathering, the wealthier believers were providing poor widows with food for the meal as well as with other provisions to sustain them at least until the next evening.

Getting Practical

The virtue in sharing

The generosity of the early Christians is a model for us today. To ignore the real needs of people in the church is a sign of heartless and hypocritical Christianity (Jas. 2:15-17).

But the devil spotted a cultural division in the church that he could turn to his advantage. Some of the early Christians in Jerusalem were Grecians (that is, Hellenistic Jews) and some were Hebrews (that is, Jews fully Semitic in their cultural background).5 As we noted in our discussion of Acts 2, Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was a magnet for Jews from places far and wide. Many took up permanent residence in the city, together forming a substantial portion of its population. The great majority of these immigrants came from the Greek-speaking world. Although intensely loyal to their Hebrew traditions, these Grecians were distinct in many ways from Jews whose forbears in recent centuries had stayed within the Holy Land. One difference was language.6 The Grecians spoke Greek as their language of choice. If the Hebrews knew Greek, they preferred not to use it. Their language of choice was Hebrew if they belonged to the class of trained rabbis. Otherwise, it was Aramaic. Another possible difference was that many Grecians were more sophisticated in the ways of the world. The challenge of making a living among gentiles had forced them not only to learn Greek, but also to adapt in other respects to the surrounding heathen culture. It is likely that they were better acquainted with Greek thought and religion, and that in some degree they had conformed to Greek habits in dress, dining, and doing business. As a result of the linguistic and cultural divide, the Hebrews throughout Judea tended to be distrustful or even contemptuous of the Grecians.7 Within the church, the two groups were probably segregated to some extent during times of fellowship.

Thus, it was not long before the two groups became divided by outspoken animosity. The Greeks started to complain that the daily handout to the poor was neglecting their widows.

Pondering a Question

Was this a just complaint?

Probably it was, but conceivably it was not. Most complaints that arise in the church have no basis. Some people take so much pleasure in complaining that they are quite willing to invent reasons. If the sermon is long, they say, "If you can't strike oil in thirty minutes, stop boring." If the sermon is short, they accuse the preacher of having nothing to say.

A New Office

Acts 6:2-7

Who was supervising aid to poor widows? The official response of the Twelve to the complaint, "It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables," leaves the impression that previously they had distanced themselves from the ongoing work of charity. Believers had left proceeds from the sale of land and property at their feet (Acts 4:37; 5:2), but the task of buying necessities for the poor and distributing them apparently fell to others. Perhaps, instead of operating a central relief station where widows could come as they needed help, they had been doing the work in a more haphazard manner. The men closest to the apostles, such as members of the 120, used their own observations or news from the grapevine to determine who needed help, and then they responded accordingly. But because most of these men were Hebrews, their charitable endeavors had two serious flaws. First, the language barrier between Grecians and Hebrews kept the grapevine from efficiently transmitting information about Greek widows to Hebrew aid-givers. Second, because most Greek widows came from families that in the past had operated successful businesses in the larger world and attained a higher standing in society, they did not necessarily look poor. Judging by their dress and manners, the Hebrews might have assumed that they were still well-to-do.

But returning to Judea had doubtless been a financial blow to their families. They had left their means of livelihood in a foreign country. Setting up a profitable new business in the midst of established competitors was difficult. If they planned to live on funds saved for retirement, these were diminishing or gone. As strangers in the land, they had few personal ties to call upon when they needed help.

For whatever reasons, the apostles did not question that there might well be legitimate grounds for the complaint. To stop criticism and restore unity, the apostles decided to create a new office in the church at Jerusalem. They gave it no formal name, but later churches honored the precedent by placing men in the office known as "deacon," a term we, in line with church tradition, will also use for the seven men originally chosen.8 Their duty would be to "serve tables." In other words, they would oversee the program assuring that widows had enough to eat and enough of other necessities.9 Perhaps they would manage other practical affairs of the church as well. The new office freed the apostles to devote themselves wholly to spiritual ministries, especially prayer and ministry of the Word.

Pondering a Question

Is not complaining always wrong? Why did the apostles appease the complainers?

The apostles might have responded to the complaint by dealing harshly with those voicing it, as the Lord dealt with the murmuring people of Israel in the wilderness (Num. 11; 16; 20:1–13; 21:4–9). But the apostles understood that the Lord became severe only after the nation had resisted gentler correction (Exod. 15:24; 16:3; 17:1–4). Moreover, the apostles recognized that the arrangements for helping widows could be seen as favoritism. All the leaders of the church and all those handing out the money were Hebrews, and Hebrew widows were apparently getting a larger share. So, there was a strong suggestion of impropriety. The Bible warns us that to guard our testimony, it is not enough to keep from sin. We must refrain from offending a brother by doing something he thinks is sin or might be sin (1 Cor. 8:11–13; 10:32–33). We need not fence our conduct to protect ourselves from any suspicion that might be conceived by village prejudice or scheming malice or lurid imagination or self-righteous legalism, but we must shun anything that might look like sin to a reasonable and just person—in other words to a person inclined to see good rather than evil.

Pondering a Question

What does "deacon" mean?

The word "deacon" is diakonos, which simply means servant.10 In the New Testament, it is a word for servant or minister that we commonly find with reference to a household servant (John 2:5, 9), a person with a servant's heart toward others in the church (Matt. 20:26; 23:11; etc.), a servant of Christ (John 12:26; Eph. 6:21; etc.), or even a servant of Satan (2 Cor. 11:15).

In Acts 6, the word is not used for the original Seven. Exactly when it emerged as the usual title both for their office and the comparable office that existed later is uncertain, but we can make a good guess as to the title's derivation. The one who chose it was probably Paul, and he probably reasoned as follows. As we pointed out, the task especially incumbent on the original Seven was to "serve tables" (v. 2). "Serve" is diakonein,11 an inflection of a verb cognate to diakonos.12 The Seven did the work of servants. How appropriate, then, to call them servants.

Delving Deeper

When church leaders in a supportive role were first called deacons

Never in the Book of Acts do we find a man who is called a deacon, and never after chapter 6 do we find a man who appears to be an officeholder with deaconlike responsibilities. Attempts to prove that the office of deacon existed in the early church get no help outside of two Pauline passages, yet these leave little doubt that both the office itself and its customary name were established in Paul’s day.

In First Timothy, Paul instructs his son in the faith to place men in a supportive role under the pastor (1 Tim. 3:8, 12). He calls them diakonous13 ("those who serve," v. 8) and diakonoi14 (again, "those who serve," v. 12), both inflections of diakonos.15 He also uses a verb form, diakoneitosan16 (v. 10, "let them serve"). Paul then lays out qualifications that a man must satisfy before he is placed in this role. Since these are more stringent than qualifications for membership in a church—a deacon must be neither a polygamist nor a divorcé for example (v. 12)—it is evident that his role is a special office setting him apart from other laymen. Indeed, a man should not be elevated to deaconship until he has proved himself faithful in discharging other roles within the church (v. 10). So, here we have strong evidence that the office of deacon was not only known to Paul, but also owes to him both its name and the criteria that should be used in selecting office holders.

The second passage that speaks of deacons appears in a much later epistle, Philippians. At the very beginning Paul offers his greetings to "all the saints . . . with the bishops and deacons" (Phil. 1:1). "Deacons" is diakonois,17 "those who serve," another inflection of diakonos.18 The wording clearly conveys the idea that the deacons, like the elders, were a subgroup of the whole body. If the term refers to all the saints, reminding them of their humble calling as servants, why would Paul treat servants and elders as distinct categories within the church, as if the elders were not servants? In Paul’s picture of the Philippian saints, the deacons stand side-by-side with the elders only because they are a second kind of church official.

This division of duties into spiritual and temporal created the model for church government ever since. One Baptist distinctive is the conviction that God intended the leadership of a local church to reside in two offices: pastor (equivalent to elder) and deacon. The pastor is the spiritual leader, with the same duties that occupied the original apostles. The deacons are responsible to handle all matters of business and to administer church programs.

Delving Deeper

Apostle or CEO

In the modern church, a pastor is becoming more like a CEO or CFO than an apostle. This is one of many unhealthy trends transforming the church from a spiritual fellowship into a business providing a variety of social services. A pastor functioning within the new framework can appear to succeed—that is, he can build a large church—even though he neglects prayer, Bible study, and other pastoral duties. But as a result, although his church may be crowded with people, it will be empty of spiritual life.

Delving Deeper

Two church offices

Many churches have adopted forms of government radically different from the one employing only pastors and deacons. Some, like the Presbyterian and Episcopalian, bring local deacons and elders under the authority of outside overseers. Others, like the Plymouth Brethren and the Salvation Army, have no deacons or elders at all. The existence and prosperity of churches so diverse in structure shows that God grants His people considerable latitude in arranging their affairs according to what seems best under the circumstances. Yet Paul’s influence leading to appointment of elders and deacons at Philippi (Phil. 1:1) and his instruction to Timothy that he appoint elders and deacons in the churches he was founding or supervising (1 Tim. 3:1–13) strongly suggests that church government by two offices is God’s preference.

The apostles did not simply appoint men to the new office they were creating. Rather, in recognition that every believer is indwelt by the Spirit who is the source of all wisdom, they chose the officeholders by a process we would now call democratic. They asked the whole assembly to nominate seven candidates, each satisfying three requirements.

  1. Since they would handle money, they had to be men "of honest report"—that is, with a reputation for integrity.
  2. They had to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

    Getting Practical

    More than a job

    This requirement recognized that every ministry in the church, whether preaching or managing accounts or sweeping floors, is a spiritual ministry. No ministry can be done right, with results for eternity, except by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  3. They had to be filled also with wisdom. Wisdom can be defined as native intelligence with a cutting edge honed by thorough knowledge of Scripture.

Every man that the assembly nominated to serve as deacon had a Greek name. Although Hebraic parents sometimes gave a Greek name to their child, the fact that we find only Greek names in the seven strongly suggests a deliberate exclusion of Hebraic Jews.19 It appears that with the consent of both the apostles and all the other Hebrews in the congregation, none of their own people were placed in the new office. The Hebrews did not demand a majority, or even an equal number. They did not demand any representation at all. One of the seven, Nicolas of Antioch, was not even a Jew. The term "proselyte" means that he was a gentile convert to Judaism before he became a follower of Christ. We see how much the Hebrews conceded to preserve unity in the church and shut down destructive criticism.

Getting Practical

Yielding better than striving

Here also is an example for us. When there is conflict in the church, how should we approach it? With the goal of defending our rights—of gaining for ourselves the largest possible share of the pie? No, we should approach conflict with a willingness to give up our rights if necessary to restore peace. When a group of seniors goes on an excursion, is it of any real importance whether they stop for supper at Wendy's or Taco Bell? No. Nor of any real importance are many of the other contentious questions that arise in a church. The goal always must be to keep the church strong in its work of saving sinners and nurturing saints.

The seven deacons chosen by the congregation came before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them as a sign of delegated authority. Once the dispute was resolved in a godly manner, God's blessing again rained down upon the church. The church grew rapidly, and among the new members were many priests.

Why would priests flock to a new religious movement that offered forgiveness of sins through one man’s sacrificial death rather than through priestly sacrifices? Perhaps their hearts had been turned toward Jesus by the great sign seen in the Temple some months before, at the very time when He died on a cross. The veil dividing the outer chamber from the inner chamber, the place of God's presence, was rent in two (Matt. 27:51). Although it is likely that none of the priests at first comprehended the sign, which meant that direct access to God was now possible through Jesus, they could not deny that something strange and supernatural had occurred in connection with His death.

Delving Deeper

Congregational government

The various branches of Christianity have adopted different kinds of church government. Here in Acts 6 we have a Scriptural precedent for the kind known as congregational. The deacons were chosen not by a direct revelation of God's will, nor by the apostles, nor by any body representative of the congregation, but by the whole congregation itself. In a congregational church, the congregation holds ultimate authority. It has the right to select its officers including the pastor and to dismiss any of these should the need arise. Likewise, it has the right to discuss and decide any major question before the church.

Stephen's Boldness

Acts 6:8-10

One of the seven new deacons was a man named Stephen, who was outstanding both for wisdom and spirituality. He was so gifted with faith that he was able to perform "great wonders and miracles." As an evangelist, he was among the boldest and most effective within the church.

Pondering a Question

If it was wrong for the apostles to get sidetracked onto managing practical affairs, was it not wrong for a deacon to get sidetracked onto spiritual ministries?

Although the original role of deacons was to oversee the business of the church, God never meant to exclude them from any larger role. He never intended them to keep their noses in balance sheets. The proof is the contribution that Stephen and the other early deacons made to the spiritual ministries of the church.

Throughout church history, the office of deacon has always been a stepping-stone to larger responsibility. Most pastors and other men in full-time Christian work served as deacons earlier in their careers.

Stephen did not wait for unbelievers to come wandering into the assembly before he spoke to them about God. Luke says only that certain men arose to dispute Stephen, but by identifying at least some of the challengers as members of a synagogue, he strongly implies that this very synagogue was an arena of debate. It seems that Stephen’s adversaries included men he had confronted with the truth during excursions into their home territory.

Exactly how many synagogues Luke intends in verse 9 is a question that scholars have not resolved. Some take him to mean that a groundswell of protest against Stephen arose in five different synagogues. Others see a reference to two. Others find only one.20 The best interpretation, though we cannot be dogmatic, is that Luke speaks of only one synagogue, called the synagogue of the Libertines (better rendered "freedmen"21), which was attended primarily by Jews from Alexandria in Egypt and Cyrene in Libya. These were Jews from North Africa who had won freedom from slavery or who were descendants of liberated slaves. During past wars, many Jews had been taken captive by Rome, only to be released later as a gesture of good will or in exchange for redemption money.22 Yet for the sake of both fairness and accuracy, Luke adds that opposition to Stephen in the community of Greek-speaking Jews was not limited to the Libertines. Joining them were Jews from Cilicia, a province in southeast Asia Minor, and Asia, a province in western Asia Minor.

Since Tarsus, Paul’s hometown, was in Cilicia, he may have been one of the campaigners against Stephen, but in a personal testimony dating from many years later, he limits his own blame to how he conducted himself at Stephen’s trial (Acts 22:20).

Alexandria was a major, perhaps the foremost, center of Jewish learning.23 It therefore appears from Stephen's incursion into the synagogue of the Libertines that he was deliberately targeting leading intellectuals of Jerusalem. To these proud men he boldly presented the claims of Christ.

Delving Still Deeper

Meaning of the text

Although the KJV is at pains in verse 9 to give us a translation close to the Greek, it may still be helpful to consider an interlinear translation. "And arose certain of those of the synagogue called Libertines, and of Cyrenians, and of Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen."24 It is indisputable that "synagogue" is singular.25 Yet contrary to the opinion of most scholars who favor a one-synagogue interpretation, the wording does not actually place the Cilicians and Asians among the Libertines. By repeating "of those," it treats the non-African Jews as a distinct group.

However, the reference to Cyrenians and Alexandrians does appear designed to give us more information about the Libertines. A translation reflecting this interpretation would be, "the synagogue called Libertines, consisting of Cyrenians and Alexandrians."

Getting Practical

The need to reach out

We too should not sit in our churches and wait for the lost to find us. We should find them, by starting conversations with people we happen to meet, by going door-to-door in our neighborhoods, and by sending out missionaries to remote places. Jesus told us to scour the highways and hedges for people we might "compel" to enter the Kingdom (Luke 14:23).

The word "compel" does not imply that we should force them to enter against their will. It means rather that when we witness, the lost should see our love and concern for their souls. It means also that we should do our best to persuade them that they cannot afford to live without Jesus. The opposite of compelling the lost is to let witnessing become a matter of routine. We will accomplish little if we are half-hearted, if we really don't care about the people we meet, if we think witnessing is just to go through a two-minute spiel, or if we are quick to give up and go on to somebody else.

Refusing to accept Stephen’s message, some of his most vocal enemies "disputed" with him. Where? Doubtless one battleground was the synagogue of the Libertines, yet Luke's account does not forbid us to suppose that he ventured into other synagogues as well. In every hostile venue where he proclaimed truth, opponents engaged him in open debate and sought to overturn his arguments. But they did not succeed. In seeking to outwit a man of exceptional intellect under the Spirit’s control, they had no chance. His success in making them look foolish had a predictable result. They became extremely frustrated and angry, to the point of conspiring against his life.

Delving Deeper

Stephen's strategy

What was Stephen saying to these unbelievers? We may be sure that besides preaching the gospel, he was giving the evidences that it is true. He was telling them that Christ fulfilled prophecy and rose from the dead. We see throughout Acts that evidences were prominent in the preaching of the early church. The presentation of evidences is known as apologetics, which the modern church has neglected to its detriment. People today tune out the gospel because the schools and the media have indoctrinated them to think that the gospel cannot be true. When we place the gospel on a foundation of evidences, as did the apostles, we greatly strengthen our witness. Evidences shake the unbeliever's complacent satisfaction with unbelief and wake up his mind to hear what we are saying. They may or may not convince him. But many have testified that evidences did help them come to Christ. Whether or not they bring an immediate conversion, they provoke thought and soften resistance to the wooing of the Holy Spirit.

The method Stephen used was debate. The early church thrived on debate, as did the Reformers in the sixteenth century. Public confrontation of spokesmen for official Catholic dogma was one technique that Luther used to bring his case before the masses and to fuel the Reformation.26 But unfortunately, debate is almost dead today. A notable exception has been its effective use by creation scientists. In hundreds of confrontations with evolutionists, they have exposed evolutionary theory as bankrupt.

It is evident that Stephen had taken up his cross and was following Christ (Mark 8:34), for he was suffering the same rejection that Christ suffered. Christ also infuriated His enemies by speaking words that they could not answer (Matt. 22:46). In matters of religion, it is often impossible to convince a man just by giving him good arguments. They may help some people come to the truth, especially those who are dissatisfied with their own world view, or who have a desire to be fair-minded. But many people are closed-minded. Many believe what suits their pride and gives them prestige among the people they value. The Libertines and the others who opposed Stephen could not accept truth that required them to lower themselves before both God and man—before God, by admitting they were sinners, and before man, by identifying themselves with the despised followers of Jesus.

Plot against Stephen

Acts 6:11-15

The Libertines "suborned" (that is, "paid") men to give false witness against Stephen. Then they dragged him before the highest Jewish court, the Sanhedrin (here called "the council"), and stated serious charges against him. With the support of their hired witnesses, they accused him of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs based on the law of Moses.

In a sense the accusations were true. Now that Jesus had died on the cross, the sacrifices in the Temple were no longer necessary. Therefore, the sovereign hand of God would indeed set aside the Mosaic system and replace it with the church. Some years later, in AD 70, God brought a terrible judgment on the nation that rejected His Son. The Jews revolted against Rome, and the Roman legions responded by destroying Jerusalem and its Temple. Without the Temple, the Mosaic system dissolved.

Delving Deeper

Destruction of Jerusalem

In AD 66, the Jews rebelled against Roman rule. The Romans, at first overpowered, chose the expedient course of withdrawing their forces from Palestine.27 Soon, however, the Roman general Vespasian began a campaign of reconquest in the north.28 His advance was slowed by stiff opposition, seasonal delays, and political instability back in Rome, but finally in AD 70, after he had made himself emperor, a Roman army under the leadership of his son Titus reached Jerusalem.29

As predicted in Daniel 9:26, speaking of events soon after the cutting off of the Messiah, the end of Jerusalem came "with a flood." The last bastion of the rebels, the upper city, fell in a single day.30 Victory was swift because war, famine, and wanton bloodshed had already killed many of the inhabitants. Few among the survivors had the will or the strength to fight. The legions pouring in through breaches in the walls met little effective opposition.

Also as predicted in Daniel 9:26, the city and the sanctuary were destroyed. In fact, after the Romans overran the city, they leveled it to the ground. They razed every building except three towers and the western wall, which Titus left as monuments to his victory.31 No trace of the Temple complex remained above its foundations.

The toll of human lives was catastrophic. During the siege of Jerusalem, many Jews tried to escape or to secretly forage for food outside the city so that they might feed family members trapped inside, but rarely did they succeed. The besiegers caught as many 500 Jews per day, sometimes more. Titus adopted the policy of summarily executing them by crucifixion. His soldiers looked on it as a sadistic sport.32 According to Josephus, "The soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another [that is, in different postures], to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies."33

Many commentators have noted the irony. William Whiston, who gave us the classic translation of Josephus, said of an earlier writer, a certain Adriaan Reland, that he "properly takes notice here, how justly this judgment came upon the Jews . . . since they had brought this judgment on themselves by the crucifixion of their Messiah."34

According to Josephus, total Jewish casualties in the holocaust exceeded one million.35 Many of the ninety-seven thousand that were taken alive later died in Roman arenas.36

Pondering a Question

Why did God bring such severe judgment upon Jerusalem if it was home to at least some believers in Christ?

More than once during His ministry, Jesus warned of the destruction that would fall on Jerusalem after His death (Matt. 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 19:41–44; 21:6, 20–24; 23:28–31). He left little doubt that this future horror lay within the lifetimes of some who heard His words, for He said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children" (Luke 23:28). Of critical importance for the believers remaining in Jerusalem as AD 70 approached was Jesus’ saying in Luke 21:20–22. "And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled." The early church historian Eusebius, who died in about AD 340, testified that the Christian community in Jerusalem heeded Jesus’ warning and escaped from the city before the holocaust. "But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there [in other words, leaders of the church] before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come thither from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men."37 The city of Pella was northeast of Jerusalem in present-day Jordan near the boundary with Syria.38

Yet although the Mosaic system was obsolete in God’s program, the actual charges against Stephen were false. Scripture says they were brought by false witnesses. The hired testimony implied that Christians were plotting violence with the aim of wresting power from the Jewish leaders and demolishing the Temple, whereas their real aim was only to win converts through peaceful methods.

The lies told about Stephen were merely a rehash of the trumped-up charges brought against Jesus Himself. Early in His ministry, His first promise that He would rise from the dead was concealed in the mysterious saying, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19). His enemies twisted these words into a threat that He Himself would destroy the Temple (John 2:20–21). Several years later, at Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, the same distortion of this saying resurfaced as one of the accusations brought against Him (Matt. 26:59–61). Also, throughout His ministry His enemies accused Him of being a rebel against the law of Moses (John 9:24), although He clearly taught that He came to fulfill the law of Moses, not to destroy it (Matt. 5:17).

Pondering a Question

Why did Greek-speaking enemies of the church focus their wrath on Stephen rather than on the apostles, the most prominent leaders of the church?

Some scholars have argued that Stephen rather than another leader such as Peter or James became the first church martyr because he was a doctrinal innovator, pulling believers in Christ away from their Jewish roots. They imagine that in his preaching he was using language and introducing concepts which struck his hearers as radically alien to Mosaic religion. As a result, the tradition-bound Jews in his audience feared that he was a spokesman not for a new sect of Judaism, but for a new religion threatening the survival of Judaism.

Yet in Acts 6, we find no evidence that Stephen was preaching anything new. Nor in Acts 7 do we find anything in his speech before the Sanhedrin that could not have come from Peter's mouth.

If he truly had been a doctrinal innovator, he would have provoked contention and division within the church, with some siding with him and others against him. But there is not the slightest evidence that he failed to retain the high respect of all believers. So far as we know, none distanced themselves from him before his martyrdom. And none repudiated him afterward, even though his testimony before the Sanhedrin inflamed persecution of the whole church.

Why then did he become the first martyr? Not because he taught new ideas, but because he raised witness to a new level of boldness. He forayed into strongholds of unbelief and confounded self-important unbelievers with his arguments. By humiliating the proud, he fanned to fever pitch their hatred of both himself and the church he represented.

Delving Still Deeper

Daniel 9:25–26

Yet we must acknowledge that Stephen may have been the first to present one truth that Jewish unbelievers would have seen as profoundly threatening. He was charged with preaching that Jesus would destroy the Temple. Is it possible that he had been expounding Daniel 9:25–26, which says that the Temple would be destroyed after the Messiah was cut off? Still, if he had been, he was not speaking as a doctrinal innovator. It was not a new doctrine, although it may have been a new insight. The apostles surely would have supported his interpretation.

When Stephen came before the council, his face shone like an angel’s, radiating the very presence of God within him. The glow was God’s vindication of His man, Stephen. The Sanhedrin viewed him as a rebel against Moses, but Moses was the only other man in recorded history who, at a sublime passage in his life, drew so close to God that his face reflected divine glory (Exod. 34:29–35). From Stephen’s angelic radiance, it should have been obvious to his accusers that he was not a betrayer of their religious heritage derived from Moses, but a godly man standing in Moses’ place.


  1. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, trans. F. H. and C. H. Cave (German ed., 1962; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 131.
  2. Ibid., 126–134.
  3. Mish. Peah 8.7, Pesahim 10.1 (TB Pesachim 99b–114a); TB Baba Bathra 8b, Baba Metzia 38a.
  4. Jeremias, 131.
  5. Richard N. Longenecker, The Acts of the Apostles, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 329.
  6. Ibid.; F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 181.
  7. Ibid.
  8. William Arthur Heidel, "Deacon," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, ed. James Orr (n.p., 1929; repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955), 800.
  9. Thomas Walker, Acts of the Apostles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965; repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1984), 169.
  10. W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, reprinted in An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, by W. E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 264–265.
  11. George Ricker Berry, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (N.p., 1897; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981), 442.
  12. Vine, 1020.
  13. Berry, 740.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Vine, 265.
  16. Berry, 740.
  17. Berry, 698.
  18. Vine, 265.
  19. Longenecker, 331; Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007), 261; I. Howard Marshall, Acts, vol. 5 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 135.
  20. Longenecker, 335; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 187; Bock, 271; Marshall. 137.
  21. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 187; Longenecker, 335; Bock, 270.
  22. Emil Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 2.2.57; Bock 270; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 187.
  23. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 401; Luigi Pareti, The Ancient World, vol. 2 of History of Mankind, trans. Guy E. F. Chilver and Sylvia Chilver (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965), 333, 425–426, 467; D. S. Russell, The Jews from Alexander to Herod, vol. 5 of The New Clarendon Bible: Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 18–20, 105–109.
  24. Berry, 442–443.
  25. The Analytical Greek Lexicon (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers; London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, Limited, n.d.), 385.
  26. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950; repr. New York and Toronto: The New American Library, Inc., n.d.), 82–92.
  27. Jos. Wars 2.19–22.
  28. Ibid., 3.1–6.
  29. Ibid., 3.7–5.2; Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past: The Archaeological Background of Judaism and Christianity, 2nd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959), 328.
  30. Jos. Wars 6.8.4–5.
  31. Ibid. 7.1.1.
  32. Jos. Wars 5.11.1.
  33. Ibid.
  34. William Whiston, trans., The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus (Chicago: The John C. Winston Company, n.d.), 800 (note on Jos. Wars 5.11.1).
  35. Jos. Wars 6.9.3.
  36. Ibid., 6.9.3; 7.3.1.
  37. Eusebius Church History 3.5.
  38. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Howard F. Vos, The Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands (Chicago: Moody Press, 1967), 176–177, map 7.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's In Perils Abounding: Commentary on Acts 1-14. For further information, click here.