A Division in the Church
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.
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.
A New Office
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.
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.
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.
- Since they would handle money, they had to be men "of honest report"—that is, with a reputation for integrity.
- They had to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.