Today we come to the first real problem within the early church. And unfortunately this first problem had its basis in race. Because the early church was made up of two distinct groups people. It was made up of “Hellenistic Jews” (those who were Greek and therefore spoke Greek) and it was made up “Hebraic Jews” (those who were Jewish by birth and therefore spoke Hebrew/Aramaic). And as we will soon see the “Hellenistic Jews” felt that they were being discriminated against by the “Hebraic Jews.”
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”—6:1-4
As we have already said the early church included two distinct groups based on the language they spoke. The Hebrews were native, Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians, and the Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jewish Christians. It was not uncommon for Jews who had lived outside of Jerusalem to retire there. Thus, a large number of Hellenists widows would not have been unusual. The complaint seems to have been particularly sensitive and likely came from two issues. First, there was an obvious language barrier. Second, the Hebraic Jews native to Jerusalem would easily have been able to access existing networks. The Hellenists might not have had such easy access.
Good leadership stays on task and delegates duties to those equipped to handle them. This is what the apostles did. Their task was the ministry of the word of God and prayer. Normally in the book of Acts, “word of God” or “word” refers to the gospel. It does so here as well. Since pastoral needs are real, the church was to select seven men of impeccable character who were wise and full of the Spirit. These people would then organize and administer a relief system to meet the needs of the widows.
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.—6:5-7
The names of the Seven are all Greek. Archaeology has yet to find some of the names in Jerusalem inscriptions (at burial sites). Their Greek names, as well as the notation that one was a proselyte from Antioch, suggest they were all diasporic Jews (who grew up outside the land of Israel). To select these men solved the issue of the language barrier. The laying on of hands does not definitely mean that a new church office was created, though it does suggest a commissioning for the task. Verse 7 serves as a summary, concluding the episode. It notes that a large number of priests came to the faith, which is impressive. These men helped validate the Christian message.
In the New Testament, the laying on of hands was used in five ways:
- In connection with miracles of healing.
- In blessing others.
- In connection with the baptism in the Spirit.
- In commissioning people for a specific work or responsibility.
- In conveying or recognizing spiritual gifts by the church leaders.
As one of the ways by which God commissions people to use spiritual gifts and also conveys his blessings to people, laying on of hands became a foundational teaching in the early church. It must not be detached from prayer because prayer focuses on God as the source of the gifts, healings or baptism in the Holy Spirit, not the person who is ministering.
The two Greek words that describe the responsibilities of these seven men (“wait on”) is the verb from which the noun “deacon” comes. The Greek word for deacon can also be translated “minister” or “servant.” Ordaining or commissioning the seven men meant primarily two things.
- It was a public testimony or recognition by the church that these seven men had a history of showing Godly character and faithfulness to the Spirit’s leading.
- It was an act of setting these men apart, dedicating them to God’s work and confirming their willingness to accept their God-given responsibilities.
And that is where we will pick tomorrow as we see the beginning of the story of one of these seven men, Steven.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
1 Chronicles 19-21, Romans 2:25-3:8, Psalm 11:1-7 and Proverbs 19:10-12
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