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 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.

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. 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. 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 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.

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 as a result, 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. 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 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 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 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.

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 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

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 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.

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.

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.

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. 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. 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 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.

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.

Delving Deeper

In AD 66, the Jews rebelled against Roman rule. The Romans, at first overpowered, chose the expedient course of withdrawing their forces from Palestine. Soon, however, the Roman general Vespasian began a campaign of reconquest in the north. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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."

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."

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

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." The city of Pella was northeast of Jerusalem in present-day Jordan near the boundary with Syria.

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.