In our last study we saw the apostle's third arrest and second trial for preaching the Gospel. The Sadducees on the Sanhedrin wanted to kill them, but a Pharisee named Gamaliel talked them out of it, so they beat them and let them go. They left the Counsel beaten, bleeding, and rejoicing. Their Lord Jesus had told them to rejoice when they were persecuted, and they did. Chapter 5 ends with these words:
And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (Acts 5:42 NASB)
As the apostles faithfully teach and evangelize, the church continues to grow:
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. (Acts 6:1 NASB)
The church's continued numerical growth leads to an overload for the apostles in their administration of the common fund for the poor. As a result, the Grecian Jewish widows are being overlooked in the daily food distribution. This results in murmuring that threatens to destroy the church's unity.
The first internal problem that the church faced was what? It was Ananias and his wife Sapphira lying about money. Up to this point the church had been united. They had all things in common (Acts 2:44). They were of one heart and soul (Acts 4:32). After God judged Ananias and Sapphira, again it says, "They were all with one accord" (Acts 5:12). But now again the church is threatened by dis-unity because of the murmuring of some of its members. Money, again, seems to be at the heart of this matter. But this time judgment doesn't fall, but instead, the cause of the murmuring is corrected, and unity is restored.
Let's spend some time on this verse, and then we'll move quickly through the other six verses.
The name "disciples" occurs here for the first time in Acts. The Greek mathetes literally means: "learner." In the Hebrew culture of their day, a disciple was someone who more than anything else in the world wants to be just like Jesus. It is the most common designation in the Gospels for the followers of Jesus. Outside the Gospels, it is found only in Acts.
The problem which arose originated because of the growth of the church and the resulting failure of the church to minister to a particular segment of its congregation.
"A complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews." The Jerusalem church consisted of two major groups: the "native Hebrews" and the "Hellenistic Jews." The "native Hebrews" were those who were born and raised in the land of Israel. They took great pride in this. As a rule, they would have spoken Hebrew (the language in which the First Testament was written) and perhaps some Greek (as a commercial language).
The "Hellenistic Jews" would be those Jews whose ancestors had been dispersed from the land in Israel's captivities (primarily Babylonian). These Jews were drawn back to Israel by their Jewish faith and their expectation of the coming of Messiah and the establishment of His kingdom. They would have spoken as their native tongue the language of the nation from which they had come.
The distinction between these two groups is not primarily linguistic (both were probably bi-lingual) or geographic (native to Palestine vs. Diaspora). Rather, it referred to cultural differences. In the Diaspora, some Jews adopted much of Greek culture , but retained their Hebrew theology, while others remained culturally distinct.
They tended to band together both doctrinally and practically. They felt more at home with each other. In Jerusalem there would be a number of synagogues that were regarded as Hellenistic.
For the most part, Hebrews tended to regard Hellenists as unspiritual compromisers with Greek culture, and Hellenists regarded Hebrews as holier-than-thou traditionalists. Within Judaism, frequent tensions between these two groups arose, and this cultural problem carried over into the church, because both of these groups were present at Pentecost.
The Problem: "Their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food." To be a widow in the first century was a very difficult journey. As a matter of fact, it was often difficult just to survive the most basic level of life. So it was the responsibility of the church to make sure that these widows were cared for, that they had shelter and food, that they were safe, and that they were protected.
The Jews had a great sense of responsibility for those among them who were less fortunate, and in the synagogue it was the routine custom for two "collectors" to go around the market and the private houses every Friday morning and make a collection for the needy. This would be obtained partly in money and partly in goods. Later in the day it would then be distributed. Those who were temporarily in need received enough to enable them to carry on, while those who were permanently unable to support themselves would be provided with enough food for fourteen meals. The fund from which this distribution was made was called the Quppah (basket). In addition to this, a house-to-house collection was made daily for those in pressing need. This was called the Tamhui (bowl for the poor).
Once some of these Jewish widows became Christians, they were immediately disassociated from the Jewish religious community. The synagogue would not provide any support for these women. Following Christ was essentially a death-blow to these ladies. So, the Christian community immediately filled in and began supplying the needs of these widows.
With the rapid growth of the church there were some widows who were "falling through the cracks," as we might say. They were being "overlooked," neglected in the daily serving of food. This was a problem.
Where did the Jews come up with the idea that widows were to be cared for? They were taught it by God. Our feministic society hates this, but I believe that Scripture tells us that God has designed women to be cared for by men. Women are to be under the protection, provision, and care of their father or husband. Women are nowhere in Scripture taught, in principle or example, that they are to provide for themselves. Woman are to be cared for.
Let me give you some Hebrew Scriptures that may help you see this. Speaking of Egypt's weakness, Isaiah says this:
In that day the Egyptians will become like women, and they will tremble and be in dread because of the waving of the hand of the LORD of hosts, which He is going to wave over them. (Isaiah 19:16 NASB)
Isaiah is here emphasizing that Egypt is vulnerable, unprotected, and weak. That was God who said that, not me. Don't get upset with me, women; this is God's Word. Speaking of Babylon, Jeremiah says:
"A sword against their horses and against their chariots, And against all the foreigners who are in the midst of her, And they will become women! A sword against her treasures, and they will be plundered! (Jeremiah 50:37 NASB)
God is here saying that when He moves against Babylon, they will be weak, helpless like women.
The mighty men of Babylon have ceased fighting, They stay in the strongholds; Their strength is exhausted, They are becoming like women; Their dwelling places are set on fire, The bars of her gates are broken. (Jeremiah 51:30 NASB)
Here He is saying that their might had failed, they were in weaknesslike women.
Speaking against Nineveh, Nahum says:
Behold, your people are women in your midst! The gates of your land are opened wide to your enemies; Fire consumes your gate bars. (Nahum 3:13 NASB)
He is saying that, like women, they cannot defend themselves. Women, according to God, are the "weaker vessel." God, the Creator, created the woman as the weaker vessel. Whether women want to admit it or not, whether they like it or not, makes no difference. God has designed women with a strong need to have provision and protection given to them by a man in exchange for loving service rendered to that man.
God is committed to the care of women, and so should His people be. Eliphaz, in trying to condemn Job and explain why he was in such a bad state, said:
"You have sent widows away empty, And the strength of the orphans has been crushed. (Job 22:9 NASB)
He was trying to accuse Job of the worse sin he could think of. Speaking against the sins of Judah, God says:
Your rulers are rebels, And companions of thieves; Everyone loves a bribe, And chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, Nor does the widow's plea come before them. (Isaiah 1:23 NASB)
This was a great sin in God's eyes, not to care for women who had no one to care for them. Women are always to be the special object of protection, provision, and care. And when they have no man (widows), they are under God's special care and protection.
"You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. 23 "If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; 24 and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:22-24 NASB)
God says that He will come against those who mistreat widows. In the ancient society, the widows and fatherless had no one to protect or care for them, and therefore, God always took up their cause.
"He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. (Deuteronomy 10:18 NASB)
The Scripture teaches that God provides for widows; they were allowed to glean the fields after the harvest, according to Deut. 24:19-22. They were also to share a portion of the third year tithe with the Levites, according to Deut. 26:12. God blesses those who help and honor them, according to Isa. 1:17 and Jer. 7:6. God rebukes and punishes those who hurt them (Deut. 24:17, Zech. 7:10, Job 24:3). We must see that God cares for widows.
The nation Israel had sought to care for widows because they understood the heart of God. Jewish law laid down that at the time of his marriage, a man ought to make provision for his wife, should she become a widow.
We see in our text in Acts 6:1 that the first ministry that the early church developed was to care for the widows. They didn't start a building program or a Christian school, they cared for the widows. Ignatius lays it down, "Let not widows be neglected after the Lord, be thou their guardian."
God cares for widows, the Scriptures make this clear, and because of this, the nation Israel cared for widows. As we look at the Gospels, we see that Jesus cared for widows and so the Church, New Israel, was to do the same:
This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27 NASB)
The word religion here is threskeia, and it has to do with the performance of the outward aspect of worship. Pure and undefiled worship boils down to two things: love and holiness. Love is not an abstract emotion, but is an action. The word "visit" denotes more than a friendly social call. In Jewish usage, it commonly denoted to visit with the aim of caring for and supplying the needs of those visited. "Orphans and widows" represented the two most needy classes in ancient society. They had lost their protector and provider and were subject to much affliction. And James tells us the "pure religion" is caring for the needyorphans and widows.
In 1 Timothy 5, Paul goes into a very lengthy discussion on our responsibility to care for widows. And this is a very pertinent word for the Church today. The 21st century Church desperately needs to hear this message. In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, the underlying thought, unstated in the text, is that God has designed women as the weaker vessel, and therefore, they are to be cared for.
Honor widows who are widows indeed; (1 Timothy 5:3 NASB)
This letter was written to instruct believers how to conduct themselves in the Church (3:14-15). So, honoring widows is a basic ministry of the Church. We are to care for widows. This is the Church's responsibility, according to verse 3. The word "widow" has a much broader meaning than we may think. We think of a widow as someone whose husband died. The Greek word for widow includes that, but it is not limited to that. Widow is from the noun chera, which is the feminine form of the adjective cheros, and means: "bereft, robbed, having suffered loss." She is alone, without a husband. This includes a woman who has lost her husband in any fashion: death, divorce, desertion or prison, or we could add sea duty. A woman is bereft who is without a husband. That is the word "widow." This expands our responsibility greatly. We are to care for women who have no man to care for them. It doesn't matter what happened to the man. He didn't have to die, he could have taken off.
I think that, for the most part, the Church today has abdicated its responsibility. We have abandoned true religion and are busy in man-made religion. The Church today is too busy building monuments to men (elaborate superstructures and quasi Christian Disney lands) to care about what is dear to God's hearttrue religion. Much of the Church today is like the Scribes of Luke 20, who devour widow's houses instead of caring for them.
If you have trouble accepting these principles, it's because you are a part of a society that has been victimized by a Godless, Christless, non-Biblical philosophy of living. What we are seeing in our society today is a result of the French revolution. They believed in a society where there was absolute equality; it was a classless, Godless kind of human existence. And the Church, instead of rejecting it, has bought into it wholeheartedly.
Back to Acts: The church in Jerusalem, which was very young, had already organized a program for feeding the widows, which Luke referred to as the "daily serving":
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. (Acts 6:1 NASB)
The neglect of the Hellenistic widows seems to have been the result of the rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem. The expression, "While the disciples were increasing in number," precedes the statement that a complaint arose due to the discrepancy in the care of the two groups of widows:
"A complaint arose."This grumbling of the Hellenistic community is directed against the "native Hebrews." It is not directed toward the other widows nor toward those who may have been in charge (alone), but toward the entire community of "native Hebrews." I see this as evidence of a strong class feelinga cultural cold war.
Now this word "complaint" is worth stopping and looking at. This is not a word that means a concern. It doesn't mean a concern was brought to their attention. This is a very negative word. It is always used negatively, and usually it is translated: "grumbling." Luke uses the Greek word "goggusmos" here for complaint, which means: "sullen discontent, murmuring, criticism." It is an onomatopoetic word, a word that sounds like its meaning such as hiss, buzz, hum, or murmur. It describes the low, threatening, discontented muttering of a mob who distrusts their leaders and are on the verge of an uprising. It is always associated with rebellion. In the Greek of the sacred writers, it has a special connection, it is the word used of the rebellious murmuring of the children of Israel in their desert journey. Every reference to grumbling in the Bible is looked upon as sin.
In 1 Corinthians 10, when Paul is talking about the Hebrew people in the First Testament and their tendency to constantly grumble before God, this is the word he uses there:
Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. (1 Corinthians 10:10-11 NASB)
Goggusmos signifies an emotional rejection of God's will and providence; emotional rejection of the circumstances that God has chosen for your life, and the requirements that He has for your conduct. I'm sure that you've seen this in your children when you tell them to take out the trash, go to bed, or clean up their room. As they do what you have told them to, they grumble all the way. This is rebellion, and it is sin.
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; (Philippians 2:14 NASB)
The Greek text reads, "All things do without complaining and disputing." This applies to you and me. We are to do "all things" without complaining! Do we? Hardly! Social Critic, Christopher Lash, says, "Every age develops its own particular forms of pathology which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure." The pathology of our day is narcisstic, self-indulgence. Narcissus from Greek mythology was a beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. In current psychoanalysis the word "narcissism" is used to mean excessive self-love. I think that characterizes our society. We feed on self indulgence, having every thing, we still brood over what we don't have. We are rarely, if ever, satisfied, and thus always complaining. And it is a sin.
What is interesting to me here is that the New Israel is murmuring just like the old Israel did. They have been baptized with the Holy Spirit, placed into the body of Christ, redeemed and justified, and yet they still murmur. And this murmuring could be very deadly to the unity of the church, so the apostles take action:
And the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. (Acts 6:2 NASB)
The apostles weren't saying that they were too good to take care of the widows, but that they had a different calling. Serving tables involved the organization and administration of ministry to the widows rather than simply serving as waiters or dispensers (cf. Matt. 21:12; Luke 19:23).
Notice that it says, "the twelve." That is the only time in the Book of Acts where they are called "the twelve." These "twelve"the apostleshad been commissioned by God to preach and teach to lay the foundation of the Church. Writing to Gentiles, Paul says:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22 NASB)
That foundation is the Word of God. At that time the Scriptures, as we have them, were not written. None of the New Testament was in writing at this stage of the Church. Yet all of the truths which we have reflected in these New Testament pages were being uttered by the apostles as they taught the people from place to place. It was vital to the Church that the apostles teach the Word.
In a practical fashion, those whom God has called to teach the Word in a congregation need to devote the time to study and prayer that they might effectively teach the Word.
"But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. (Acts 6:3 NASB)
They were to choose seven men. Seven was a sacred number among the Jews, it stood for completion, totality. The apostles did not choose these seven men; they delegated that job to the congregation after giving the necessary qualifications. The congregation brought the seven back to the apostles, who validated the choice by praying and laying hands on them.
The Twelve specifically indicated that MEN be selected for this task. If ever there was a place for women officers in the Church, this would have been it. Indeed, these officers were placed in charge of WOMEN'S MINISTRY.
These leaders must be men of "good reputation." They should be men whose integrity and reputation is blameless, not only among the Church, but also in the eyes of the unbelieving world (1 Tim. 3:7).
Being filled with the Spirit means being controlled by the Spirit. Church leaders should be men whose lives are devoted to the will of God. Is he a student of the Word? Does he seek to order his life by the clear teaching of Scripture? Is he familiar enough with God's Word that when you are in discussions with him he can speak freely of the Bible's contents, applying Scriptures in their God-given context?
A spiritual person builds his life on God's Word, in dependence on God through prayer. In the words of Proverbs 3:4-5, "He trusts in the Lord with all his heart and does not lean on his own understanding."
"Whom we may put in charge"the final decision rested with the apostles. They asked the congregation to nominate the men ("Seek out from among you"), but the decision really rested with the apostles.
"But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word." (Acts 6:4 NASB)
The same Greek word, diakonia, is used for both "serving" (Acts 6:1) and "ministry" (Acts 6:4). The idea behind the word in both places is service, whether in practical or spiritual ways. They were saying, "We'll serve the Word; you serve the tables."
The Scriptures teach that teaching the Word requires such total commitment that those who do so shouldn't be encumbered with earning a separate living:
So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:14 NASB)
The context pertains to paying the preacher. Notice 1 Corinthians 9:11:
If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we should reap material things from you? (1 Corinthians 9:11 NASB)
If someone teaches you God's Word, you should care for his material needs:
And let the one who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches. (Galatians 6:6 NASB)
These commands to provide for the needs of those who teach God's Word illustrate how preoccupied the preacher should be with study and preaching. That's why the disciples said, "We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6:4).
The apostles would not allow this problem in the church to deter them from their God-given task any more than they would allow the threats of their opponents to do so.
The Word of God and prayer were not simply the priority of the apostles. These were a high priority for the entire church:
And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42 NASB)
Giving attention to the Word of God and to prayer should be a high priority in the life of every saint. The only difference between the saints is that a few are to devote themselves to this as their job, while all others are to devote themselves to it as a high calling, but not as their occupation.
What is it that keeps us from the Word of God and prayer? I would wish it were a cause so important and so noble as the feeding of widows. Unfortunately, it often is something far less noble, such as watching television, or indulging in some fleshly pleasure, or perhaps even in the upkeep of our body, as good as that might be (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. (Acts 6:5 NASB)
The seven men all have Greek names, indicating that they are probably Hellenists themselves; the people (and the apostles) show great sensitivity to the offended Hellenists by appointing Hellenists to take care of the widows' distribution.
As soon as they chose these men, there was no longer any dissension. They entrusted them with the responsibility to work it out within their own ranks, and thus they indicated their trust in them and of their ability to solve this problem
Except for Stephen and Philip, Scripture tells us no more of these men. Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch, a heathen Greek, who had not only believed in the God of Israel, but had also received circumcision and consequently was a proselyte of the covenant; had he been only a proselyte of the gate, the Jews could not have associated with him. As this is the only proselyte mentioned here, we may presume that all the rest were native Jews.
And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:6 NASB)
These seven men were then brought to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. Why the laying on of hands? Some say it is a sign of oneness with them. The laying on of hands, regularly in the First Testament, was evidence of identification. Men identified themselves with their sacrifices by laying their hands on them. They appointed representatives by laying hands on them. Thus by this act these seven men were designated as representatives of the apostles.
That could be true, but Luke frequently uses the placing on of hands to signify conveying miraculous powers, which may be the case here, because in verse eight Stephen immediately uses such power:
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. (Acts 6:8 NASB)
Luke uses the laying on of hands in most cases to indicate that miraculous power or healing was conveyed. Other passages where this is true are Acts 5:12; 8:17, 18, 19; 9:12, 17; 14:3; 19:6, 11; 18:8.
Nowhere in this chapter of Acts are these men called deacons, but most consider they were the first to fulfill the office of deacon as described in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. The word deacon simply means: "servant," and these men were certainly servants. But the text does not indicate that they were deacons.
And the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7 NASB)
Again, just like in verse 1, we are told that the number of disciples continued to grow. "A great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith." This was intended to illustrate the fact that the Church was becoming the New Temple of God, and brought home the success of the ministry of the Gospel among the more conservative of the Jews. The New Israel was firmly founded on the old.
The ordinary priests were socially, and in other ways, far removed from the wealthy chief-priestly families from which the main opposition to the Gospel came. Many of the
ordinary priests were no doubt holy men and humble of heart, like Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, men who would be readily convinced of the truth of the Gospel.
They were discovering that Jesus was the key to their ritual, that all these sacrifices, all these animals, all these ritualistic practices had an explanation in Jesus. They all pointed to Him. If you want to see this, read the book of Hebrews.
Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7 NASB)
There is a very obvious transition taking place in chapter 6, a transition from Jerusalem to Samaria, and from "native Hebrews" to "Hellenistic Jews."
Verse 7 concludes Luke's record of the witness in Jerusalem. From that city the Gospel spread out into the rest of Judea, and it is that expansion that Luke emphasizes in the chapters that follow.
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