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 financial assistance. Money donated by wealthier members of the church was handed out to the widows each day so that they could buy food and other necessities.
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. Since relatives can be stingy, it was common for widows to be extremely poor. Therefore, moved by compassion, the church reached out to help the poor widows in its own midst.
But the devil spotted a cultural division in the church that he could turn to his advantage. Some of the early Christians in Jerusalem spoke Aramaic and some spoke Greek. The "Grecians" (speakers of Greek) tended to be wealthier and better educated than the "Hebrews" (speakers of Aramaic). Those who were giving handouts to the widows probably did not find many in the Greek community who needed help. Yet the Greeks started to complain that the daily handout was neglecting their widows.
The Office of Deacon
To stop criticism, 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 men originally chosen. The word "deacon" simply means servant. The verb form appears in the description of their duty—that they would "serve tables." In other words, they would oversee the program assuring that widows had enough to eat. Doubtless they would manage the 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 the rulers over all matters of business and administration.
The apostles asked the whole assembly to nominate seven men who satisfied 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 was a Greek. 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 the challengers as members of synagogues, he strongly implies that these very synagogues were the arenas of debate. It appears that Stephen’s adversaries were men he had confronted with the truth during excursions into their home territory.
Exactly where he went is a question that scholars have not resolved. One interpretation of the text is that he went to two synagogues. One, known as the synagogue of the Libertines (better rendered "freedmen"), was attended 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. The other synagogue was attended by Jews from Cilicia, a province in southeast Asia Minor, and from Asia, a province in western Asia Minor. Perhaps the second was Paul’s own synagogue, since Tarsus, Paul’s hometown, was in Cilicia. Also, it may have been the place where Paul first heard Stephen speak. Alexandria and likely Tarsus as well were centers of Jewish learning. In his outreach to synagogues with men like Paul, Stephen seems to have been deliberately targeting leading intellectuals in the city. To these proud men he boldly presented the claims of Christ.
Refusing to accept Stephen’s message, some of the most vocal members of the synagogues he visited "disputed" with him. In other words, they 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.
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.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.