6:1-7 The Establishment of a Greek speaking Congregation
In and around the city of Jerusalem there were many synagogues of various kinds (as in 6:9). So far the church services in Jerusalem had been conducted by Jewish Christians who spoke Hebrew (or Aramaic). With many more than four thousand members in the church in Jerusalem (2:47, 4:4, 5:14) several Christian synagogues (congregations) would have been needed. As in other cities mentioned in the New Testament, there is only one church in each city consisting of many congregations. But up to this point the church in Jerusalem would have used the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures, and they prayed in Hebrew. Inevitably those who were Greek speaking (Hellenistic) Jews, felt that they were second class citizens in the Jerusalem church.
By this time a system for visiting and providing help for widows (2:45, James 1:27) was in place (Paul later gave principles for administering this, 1 Timothy 5:3-16). But at this stage, because the Hebrew speaking widows in the city were better known, and there was no language barrier for them, the Hebrew speaking widows were getting more attention than those who mainly spoke Greek.
The solution was to form a Greek speaking Christian synagogue (congregation). All that was needed to form a Jewish synagogue was twelve men with their families. So the apostles appointed seven elders to administer this first Greek speaking Christian synagogue in Jerusalem (as in 14:23, 20:17, Titus 1:5). Instead of the Hebrew Old Testament, these would have used the Septuagint (LXX) Greek version for the readings and the Psalms. And the seven Greek speaking elders who were appointed (6:3) would have been responsible for making sure that money was properly collected and distributed to meet the needs of their widows.
The Jewish system of church government by elders has been continued in Presbyterian, Baptist, and many other kinds of congregation. Others prefer parish councils assisted by denominational superintendentsfor each area. In India villages are governed by a panchayat of five, so congregations tend to use the same method.. People used to autocratic government like the order and discipline of a hierarchy of Pope or Patriarch, bishops, and priests in charge of local congregations.
The eldership function was different from the work of congregational servants (janitors, caretakers, secretaries) who assisted the elders (see 1 Timothy 3:8-13). Phoebe for example was a deacon of the church at Cenchreae (Romans 16:1, 1 Timothy 3:11). Mark was an assistant to Paul and Barnabas (13:5).
The laying on of hands was used by Jesus in some cases for healing (Matthew 8:3, 15, 9:18,25, 19:13). And in his Gospel Luke recorded that "Those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them" (Luke 4:40). In his Book of Acts he records that the apostles continued this practice in their ministry of healing (3:7, 5:12 NRSV inexplicably omits the apostles "hands," see Paul in Malta, 28:8).
The laying on of hands was used to indicate the setting aside of someone or something for God's service (8:18, 1 Timothy 4:14, 5:22, 2 Timothy 1:6 ). The apostles laid their hands on those already enrolled by baptism to receive the Holy Spirit (8:17-18, 9:17, 19:6 ). For the first missionary journey "after fasting and praying" the prophets and teachers of the church in Antioch laid hands on Barnabas and Paul and sent them off to Cyprus (13:1-3). But in this section we have the laying on of hands (now called ordination) for the appointing of local congregational elders (6:6).
The seven who were appointed were therefore episkopoi (over-seers of a local congregation, unfortunately translated "bishops" in Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-2, Titus 1:7 KJV). As time went on, one of the local congregational elders was appointed to act as president for all the elders in a city, and was given the name bishop. But we should note that our modern bishops (superintendents) have a quite different function as over-seers of a group of denominational congregations.
This makes clear the distinction, which become clearer in the work of Paul, between local church eldership (14:23) and the leadership of an apostolic team (engaged in "bloodstream ministry" see The Church chapters 13-14). Watchman Nee used to say that local church elders should not control the movements of an apostolic team, and apostles have no continuing authority in the work of a local church. This principle would have saved much pain and confusion in the work of Christian missions. There is no way to prove that city and local area bishops are successors of the moving "bloodstream" apostles like Peter and Paul.
6:1 The translation "their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food" (6:1, NRSV) confuses the situation. The translation should be "the Hellenists (Greek speaking Jews) . . . complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily service" (diakonia). And we should note that diakonia refers to the work of apostles (as in 1:17, 20:24, 1 Timothy 1:12).
6:2 What had gone wrong was that the twelve apostles were trying to handle all the financial problems of this rapidly growing church in Jerusalem. "Waiting on tables" does not refer to being waiters and food servers. A trapeza to this day is the Greek word for a banker's table, or any table for receiving or paying out money. So what the apostles were asking for was to be freed from taking care of the collection and distribution of funds for the widows. Their task was going to be prayer and the diakonia of the Word of God among all nations (as in Matthew 28:19-20).
6:3 Here the new Greek speaking congregation (Christian synagogue) chose the persons they wanted as their elders, and the apostles appointed them. This was probably Paul's method of appointment (14:23, Titus 1:5). When a new congregation was formed in a city the apostle naturally wanted to make sure that the new elders were "full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom" with qualifications suitable for their work (1 Timothy 3:2-7, Titus 1:6-9)
6:4 The apostles wanted to be free for the world-wide task Jesus had given them (Matthew 28:19-20), and this required prayer and focus on ty diakonia (the service of) the Word of God.
6:5 This solution pleased the community of Greek speaking Jews in Jerusalem, and they chose Stephen and six others to be their new synagogue (congregation) elders. Nicolaus is mentioned as a proselyte from Antioch. This meant he was a Greek who had been converted to Judaism there (and been circumcized) before moving to Jerusalem where he found what he was really looking for, and was then chosen to be an elder of the new congregation.
6:6 This is the laying on of hands by the apostles for those chosen to be elders in the first Greek speaking synagogue (congregation) of the church in Jerusalem. This would soon have important consequences in the future growth of Greek speaking congregations all over the Mediterranean (see the emergence of Greek speaking Hellenist congregations in Antioch, 11:20-21).
6:7 The solution of this problem enabled the apostles to move out from local church administration into their church planting work (8:14, 9:32, 38-39, 10:23-29). With the appointment of elders in each of the multiplying congregations in the Jerusalem church, they could now move on. It also resulted in further church growth in and around Jerusalem as "a great many of the priests" realized that they had been wrong to have their Messiah crucified, and vast numbers of Hellenistic Jews were also coming to faith.
6:8-15 Stephen's Arrest
There were already Greek speaking synagogues in Jerusalem which did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. They came from various areas of the Jewish diaspora around the Mediterranean (see comment on 6:9). And they apparently met in synagogues organized by country of origin (as is often the case in the Christian congregations of large cosmopolitan cities).
The synagogue of freedmen ("as it was called", 6:9) originated from Rome.. Pompey (106-48 BC) was the Roman general who attacked Palestine in 63 BC, and took a large number of Jews as slaves to be part of his triumphal procession. These were later freed and formed the large Jewish synagogue in Rome. Some of them were present on the Day of Pentecost (2:10), and they had formed themselves into the Christian church in Rome well before Paul arrived there (Romans 1:7, 11-15).
Simon, who was forced to carry the cross for Jesus (Matthew 27:32) would have been a member of the Cyrenian Greek speaking synagogue in Jerusalem, and having become a Christian (he was obviously known in the church) he first found himself in a Hebrew speaking synagogue, and then would have joined the new Greek speaking Messianic congregation.
There was a very large community of Jews in Alexandria, and Luke mentions that Apollos came to Ephesus from there (18:24, he had been a disciple of John the Baptist).
The capital of Cilicia was the port of Tarsus in south-eastern Turkey, where Paul was a citizen of the city (21:39, 22:3), and did his Greek university degree before moving to Jerusalem for rabbinic studies in Hebrew (22:3). As a result he was totally bilingual, but Luke focuses on his work among Greek speaking Jews (from Jerusalem to present-day Croatia, Romans 15:19).
The capital of Asia (the western coast of Turkey) was Ephesus, where there was a strong Greek-speaking Jewish synagogue when Paul arrived there (18:19, 26, 19:8).
The sudden emergence of a Greek-speaking synagogue that recognized Jesus as their Messiah was very upsetting for these diaspora synagogues in Jerusalem. Probably some of their best members were moving to this Messianic congregation. So they engaged with Stephen, who was obviously the leader of the new grouping (6:5,10). But being defeated in discussion (6:10) they persuaded some to act as witnesses against Stephen, and brought him before the main Jewish sanhedrin. With the conversion of "a great many of the priests" (6:7) opposition from the temple authorities had been undercut.
Luke therefore wanted to chronicle the beginning of the bitter opposition from diaspora Jews, which was first led by Saul of Tarsus until his unexpected conversion on the Damascus Road. This struggle with the Greek-speaking Jews of the Mediterranean would continue throughout the remainder of the Book of Acts.
From Luke's account we might imagine that the growth of the Christian church was only to the west, but in fact the twelve apostles fanned out in other directions. Paul for example focused on uncircumcized Greek and Roman people while Peter worked mainly with Hebrew speaking circumcized orthodox Jewish people, (Galatians 2:7). While Christians were being persecuted in the area of the Mediterranean huge churches with hundreds of bishops (presiding over elders in each city) mushroomed to the east into Arabia across Iran and into India and even as far as China.
The Book of Acts is therefore given in our canon of Scripture, not to provide a full early church history, but among other things to illustrate the problem of different racial and social groups working together in one church in each city (see the same problem in Ephesians 2:11-22)..
6:8 Among the seven elders of the new Greek speaking Messianic synagogue Stephen was full of the grace of Jesus the Messiah and the power of the Holy Spirit. He also had the spiritual gifts of working miracles and deeds of power (1 Corinthians 12:10, 28). In a group of congregational elders Paul explained that some who "rule well" (implying that some did not) should be honored and when needed supported financially, especially those who "labor in preaching and teaching" (1 Timothy 5:17).
6:9 The "freedmen" were Greek-speaking Jews from Rome. The Cyrenians and Alexandrian synagogues provided for Jews from North Africa. And other synagogues met the needs of Greek speaking people from what is now eastern and western Turkey (see comments in the introduction to this section).
6:10-11 Stephen was obviously in good standing among the diaspora Jews of Jerusalem, and he had great wisdom and empowerment by the Spirit (as specified in 6:3). His reasoning was unanswerable, and the only way to silence him was to find witnesses who would accuse him of rejecting the torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and temple worship.
6:12 They carefully prepared the ground, lobbied influential people, and found sanhedrin elders and theologians who would support them. When they knew they had the support they needed Stephen was suddenly grabbed and brought to the sanhedrin supreme court which was already convened for the purpose.
6:13-14 The accusation was that in his preaching Stephen said that the Jerusalem temple was going to be destroyed (see 7:48-49). This was obviously true as Stephen was only repeating what Jesus had stated would take place (Matthew 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-6). And it was also true that Jesus taught that the externals of the Jewish law, and the kosher laws in particular (Mark 7:19, see Matthew 15:1-20, Colossians 2:16-17) were not relevant. Very soon Peter himself would be told to ignore the kosher laws (10:11-15), and circumcision would not be necessary for non-Jews (15:5, 19-20).
6:15 These items of accusation would have been sufficient to convict Stephen of blasphemy, but as they looked at him there was an astonishing transfiguration (as in Matthew 17:2). In Luke's account of Jesus' transfiguration he wrote "the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white" (Luke 9:29), and obviously Luke is referring to that when he writes of Stephen "they saw that his face was like the face of an angel." As Luke goes on to record, the judges of the great Sanhedrin were so stunned by this that they allowed Stephen to preach a long sermon before they realized that they were now the accused (7:51-53).