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 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.

Getting Practical

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 (James 2:15-17).

But the devil spotted a cultural division in the church that he could take advantage of. Some of the early Christians in Jerusalem spoke Aramaic and some spoke Greek. The "Greeks" (speakers of Greek) tended to be wealthier and better educated. 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.

Pondering a Question

Was this a just complaint?

Probably 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.

Pondering a Question

If the complaint was not just, why did the apostles appease the complainers?

The apostles might have responded to the complaint by dealing harshly with the complainers, as the Lord dealt with the murmuring people of Israel in the wilderness (Num. 21:4-6). But they 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" (speakers of Aramaic). Perhaps the distribution was fair, or perhaps it was not, but either way, there was an appearance of evil. The Bible warns us that to guard our testimony, it is not enough to keep from sin. We must also shun anything that looks like sin. Paul exhorts us, "Abstain from all appearance of evil" (1 Thess. 5:22).

The Office of Deacon

Acts 6:2-7

To stop criticism, the apostles decided to create a new office in the church, the office of deacon. The men in this position would have responsibility to oversee practical affairs, including the program to help widows. 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 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.

Delving Deeper

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 although his church may be crowded with people, it will be empty of spiritual life.

Delving Deeper

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.

The apostles asked the whole assembly to nominate seven men who satisfied 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

    This requirement recognized that every ministry in the church, whether it is 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 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. We see how much they conceded to preserve unity in the church and shut down destructive criticism.

Getting Practical

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 are the multitude of other minor questions that arise in a church of any real importance. The important thing is 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.

The hearts of many of these priests had perhaps 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

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 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 by managing practical affairs, was it not wrong for a deacon to get sidetracked on 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. Rather, he searched them out in their home territory and confronted them with the truth. He went to the synagogue that was a stronghold of skepticism—the synagogue of the Libertines ("freedmen")—where he found Greek-speaking Jews from all the chief centers of Jewish learning, including Alexandria and Asia. There he boldly presented the claims of Christ.

Getting Practical

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.

The leading intellectuals at the synagogue of the Libertines refused to accept Stephen's message and "disputed" with him. In other words, they engaged him in open debate and sought to overturn his arguments. But they could not get the best of him. 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

What was Stephen saying to these unbelievers? 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. Many testify that evidences did help them come to Christ. But 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. It was by debating spokesmen for official Catholic dogma that Luther brought his case before the masses and fueled the Reformation. But unfortunately, debate is almost dead today. A notable exception has been its effective use by creation scientists. In hundreds of confrontations with leading evolutionists, they have exposed just how childish evolutionary theory is.

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 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.

Stephen's Trial

Acts 6:11-7:53

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 Scripture says that the charges against Stephen were false. They were merely a rehash of the trumped-up charges brought against Jesus. 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 by turning them into a threat that He Himself would destroy the Temple (Matt. 26:59-61). Also, His enemies accused Him of being a law-breaker (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 high priest asked him whether the charges were true. Under the Jewish system of justice, he was allowed to speak in his own defense. What he said illustrates why he outmatched his enemies in debate. His speech was eloquent, logical, and compelling.

A casual reader easily misses the point. His speech appears on the surface to be no more that a history lesson irrelevant to the charges. But in fact, he was drawing from the history of Israel a multitude of examples to prove his case. As stated in his summation, his case was, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye" (v. 51).

In his extended review of the nation's past, he highlighted four examples of its rebellious tendencies. He especially wanted to show that the nation treated Christ in exactly the same way that they had in times past treated every other deliverer sent by God.

  1. The first deliverer Stephen discussed was Joseph, son of Jacob. Jacob, next in the lineage of Abraham and Isaac, had twelve sons. Stephen called them "the patriarchs," because they were the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. The ten eldest hated the eleventh, Joseph, because he was their father's favorite. Out of envy, they sold him to slave traders, who carried him away to Egypt. Yet this brother that they rejected was the one God intended to be their deliverer. Years later, a severe famine struck Egypt and Palestine. Because Joseph had warned Pharaoh of the coming disaster, Pharaoh raised him to second place in the kingdom and given him authority to store up grain for the time of shortage. So, there was grain available in Egypt all through the famine. But since there was none in Palestine, Jacob had no choice but to send his sons into Egypt to buy grain. When Joseph met them, he not only forgave them for their past wickedness, but also brought his father and his whole family into the safety of Egypt. He delivered their lives from death, although his brothers had thrown away his life as worthless.
  2. The second deliverer in Stephen's history lesson was Moses. When the Egyptians enslaved the nation of Israel, God raised up Moses to save them. But again, the nation rejected the man that God intended as their deliverer. In his youth, Moses killed an Egyptian who was oppressing a fellow Israelite. Instead of rallying behind him, his brothers in Israel scorned his leadership and forced him to flee. Years later, when he returned to Egypt and led out the nation by the power of God, they gave him temporary obedience, but not from the heart. At first opportunity, they returned to the idolatry of Egypt. When he left them for a few days to receive the law of God, they made a golden calf to worship. They continued to resist Moses during the whole time of their wandering in the wilderness.
  3. Besides rejecting Joseph and Moses, the people of Israel persecuted every one of the prophets that God sent to deliver them from their sinful ways and to announce the future coming of a "Just One."
  4. The nation shamefully mistreated the "Just One" Himself. When He appeared to them recently, they refused to accept Him as their deliverer from sin. Instead, they betrayed Him and put Him to death. Stephen was, of course, speaking of Jesus.

Stephen concluded his defense by answering the specific charges brought against him.

  1. The first charge was that he made threats against the Temple. Notice that he did not bother to deny it. He opted rather to make the more important point that the Temple was not as valuable as the Jews thought. He reminded them that God did not dwell in a man-made building, but in heaven. They could not make any house for Him that He had not already made, for He made all things.
  2. The second charge was that he blasphemed the law of Moses. His reply was, in essence, "What hypocrisy!" It was the nation of Israel that had always blasphemed the law. Throughout most of their history, they preferred the gods of other nations to their own God. They chose to wallow in the wickedness of paganism rather than follow the righteousness of the law. At last God let them be carried into captivity.

The First Martyr

Acts 7:54-60

Stephen's powerful words had the same effect on the Sanhedrin as on the synagogue of the Libertines. They brought conviction of sin, but no repentance. The truth was a sharp knife cutting conscience so deeply that the Sanhedrin "gnashed on him with their teeth," showing that to hear him was sheer torment. Yet he drove the knife still deeper. As he looked up to heaven, he reported to them all that he saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God.

Pondering a Question

Why was Jesus standing and not sitting?

The suggestion is that He was standing to receive Stephen into the presence of God. He was standing as a sign of greeting and also as a gesture of respect and love.

Now the agony of conviction that he had brought to their souls exploded in anger. With one voice they cried out in protest and together they rushed upon him to drag him away. In their own hearts they justified themselves by viewing the man as the worst of blasphemers. Although it was against the law for the Sanhedrin to execute a man without the permission of the Roman authorities, the Jewish leaders were too enraged to consider legal technicalities. They hurried Stephen to a place outside the city, threw him into a pit, and cast stones upon him to kill him.

In his death Stephen gave the crowning proof to all his enemies that he was a man of God, for he showed neither fear nor hatred. He calmly knelt and asked God to receive his spirit. His last words, projected with a loud voice so that all his executioners could hear him, were a petition to God. He asked, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."

Pondering a Question

Was Stephen's prayer answered?

At least one of his enemies was a beneficiary. The men who cast stones laid their robes at the feet of a young member of the council who had consented to Stephen's death. He was named Saul (Acts 7:58). Later, the Lord forgave Saul for all his wickedness and made him a mighty tool for evangelism.

Getting Practical

Stephen was the first after Christ to die for his faith. The Book of Acts devotes a lengthy passage to the story of his martyrdom because his conduct was an example for countless others who would someday follow in his footsteps. We who enjoy religious freedom sometimes forget that the normal lot of Christians is to suffer great persecution. Probably no year in church history has lacked a martyr for Christ. In many years there have been many martyrs, even multiplied thousands of martyrs. The Fascist and Communist regimes of the twentieth century added far more names to the roll of martyrs than we realize.

But a believer who faces the ultimate test of his faith need not fear that God will forsake him. Far from it. God will pour out upon him extra grace. Indeed, He will fill him with the Holy Spirit as He filled Stephen. Because Stephen was buoyed up and carried along by the Holy Spirit, he showed exactly how a believer going through such an ordeal should act.

  1. Jesus taught His disciples that when they went before magistrates, they should not prepare a defense. Rather, they should allow the Holy Spirit to speak through them (Matt. 10:19-20). Stephen heeded the Lord's instruction. When he presented his case, he did not rely on his own cleverness, but made himself a mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Under the Spirit's influence, he said little more than what Scripture itself has to say. His defense was the Word of God.
  3. His object was to bring his accusers and judges under conviction of sin. He did not mince words. He boldly charged them with great wickedness. But his motive was not spite. It was concern for their souls.
  4. He let his enemies see that his hard words proceeded from love, for in the moment of his death, he granted them forgiveness. He died as Christ had died, with words of blessing for his enemies upon his lips. Christ had said as He hung on a cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).