Acts 6:1-7 Chosen for Service
In those days, as the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. 2 Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters. 3 Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.” 5 The proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch. 6 They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith. (HCSB)
Before we look at this short passage in detail, it will be helpful to try and determine a timeline for the events that have taken place so far in Acts. There are various interpretations and positions on when these events took place, and it is impossible to know the dates exactly. However, a reasonable estimate is that the events that occurred at the beginning of chapter six took place anywhere from two to five years after Pentecost. This indicates is that the church had been in existence for a period of time now, was continuing to grow, and was starting to exhibit growing pains as the number of believers increased. Still, the leadership team, or at least the organizational structure, had not changed. We now see the church adapting and growing to meet the needs of the people.
The first thing to note in this verse is that the church was experiencing rapid growth. The Greek used here is plethyno. The Greek-English Lexicon defines it as: to increase greatly in number or extent—‘to grow, to increase greatly, to multiply. Whatever the number of believers was at this point, we can only estimate what that would be; the church had experienced significant growth. As with any organization, growth presents both opportunities and challenges. One of the biggest challenges is organizational structure. A similar situation occurs in Exodus, with Moses trying to administer to the entire nation of Israel as they travel to the promised land. Moses’ father-in-law advised him to set up a hierarchy to meet the needs of the people effectively. Although the circumstances surrounding the events here in chapter six are not on the same scale, they do represent a situation where more structure and workers are needed.
The second thing to note is there was a danger of a division occurring within the church.
- Hellenistic Jews were the Greek-speaking Jews who had moved to Palestine from other countries in the region. They may have spoken Aramaic as a second language, but it is reasonable to believe that many didn’t speak Aramaic.
- Hebraic Jews were the people who grew up in Israel and spoke both Aramaic and Greek.
A few points to remember as we read this verse.
- The Hellenistic Jews could be viewed as the “outsiders” in the young community of believers.
- Those that were being overlooked were the “outsiders.”
- The vast majority of believers were likely Jews. The exceptions would be the proselytes, Gentiles who converted to Judaism such as Nicolaus, but they were few in number as the mission to the Gentiles had not begun yet. The church could be viewed as a Jewish Christian community.
- As with any large group, it is easy for “cliques” to develop. In this case, it is highly probable that Hellenistic Jews tended to meet with others from their cultural group, while the Hebraic Jews met with others from their group. This doesn’t mean there was disunity in the church, only the separation that is normal due to language and cultural differences.
- This separation now became evident in how the charity was being practiced within the community. The Hellenistic widows were being overlooked in this. It is possible that there were a significant number of Hellenistic widows, as is alluded to in 1 Timothy 5.
- There were two types of charity practiced by the Jews, and the early church probably followed the same practices.
- Guppah – this was a weekly allowance for needy residents. It was given out every Friday and consisted of enough money to buy fourteen meals.
- Tamhuy – this was a daily distribution for nonresidents and transient people. It consisted of food and drink delivered house-to-house where the needy were known to dwell.
- It seems that the early church combined elements of both practices with a daily distribution to those in need.
- From Acts 2:44f and 4:32f, it is apparent that the early church firmly believed that there should be no needy people in the family of Christ.
The Apostles were presented with a challenge to the unity of the church. How would they react to this potential threat?
They acted promptly to address the unintended slight to the Hellenistic Jewish community. They also understand that they had dropped the ball on this and needed to take responsibility to correct the situation.
A few points to note here.
- The entire group of Apostles, all twelve, convened a meeting of all the believers.
- They wanted the entire community of believers to be aware of the situation and be involved in the solution to the problem.
- This would remove any perception of disunity or discrimination between the two groups of believers. They were equal in the eyes of the church’s leadership.
- The voice of every believer was important in the decision the church would make regarding the situation.
- The Apostles were not sending the message that taking care of the needy was beneath them. They were sending a very clear message that this was an essential part of ministry, but as leaders of the church, they were responsible for teaching and shepherding the flock.
The first question that begs to be asked is, “why seven men?” Here a historical/cultural review reveals that there’s nothing mysterious about this number. Jewish courts typically consisted of seven members. The early church was following what an accepted cultural practice was. The same reason applies for choosing only men; this would be the standard cultural practice.
Next, the Apostles outline the requirements for those that would serve the community.
- They needed to have a good reputation. This would be important for both serving those in the community as well as demonstrating a faithful witness to those outside the community.
- They needed to be full of the Spirit. Being filled and led by the Holy Spirit was an integral component of the early church, especially those in leadership. The Spirit would need to work in and through them to carry out the ministry the Apostles were expecting of them.
- They needed to be full of wisdom. Wisdom is essential when administering funds and ensuring that financial matters are handled above reproach.
Just as choosing the Apostles was a pivotal moment, choosing these seven men would also be a key moment. If mistakes were made in choosing one or more of them, it could potentially seriously harm the members of the church as well as tarnish their high standing within the local community. This could have given a timely opportunity for Satan to damage the church from within. However, this didn’t occur.
The result of appointing seven men to carry out this ministry function would enable the Apostles to continue concentrating on their primary task; evangelism, teaching, and shepherding the church.
There are two important points in this verse.
- First, the proposal from the Apostles to the congregation was pleasing to the “whole” company. It wasn’t a majority decision; it was a unanimous decision to support the proposal.
- Second, the congregation chose the seven who would serve. Although the Apostles set out the requirements to fill the function, it was the members who would make the decision on who would fill them.
We could speculate as to why the seven men were all Hellenistic Christians, but there is nothing significant to be gained by that discussion. It could be as simple as the problem involved the Hellenistic widows, the Hellenistic Christians wanted to serve them, and the Hebraic Christians saw no reason not to let them serve in this manner.
Although we have some further information on several of the men chosen, others are never mentioned again.
- Stephen – being listed first is really not a surprise as he will be the primary character in chapters six through eight.
- Philip – he would also play a significant role in the story of the expanding Christian witness as outlined in Acts 8:5-40.
- Prochorus – early tradition connects him with the Apostle John. In particular, it is thought that he was the writer who took dictation from John when the fourth Gospel was written. He later became the bishop of Nicomedia in Bithynia and was martyred in Antioch.
- Nicanor/Timon/Parmenas – nothing further is known about these men.
- Nicolaus – some scholars believe he may have been Luke’s primary source of information about the Hellenists, especially what is noted in Acts 11:19-21. It is also likely that the Gnostic sect known as the Nicolaitans borrowed his name to gain authority for their teaching. However, there is no evidence that Nicolaus himself had any connection to them.
The selection of the men to fulfill the responsibilities outlined earlier in the passage is now followed by a simple installation ceremony. The men were brought before the Apostles, who prayed over them and laid hands on them. This simple act signified that the Apostles confirmed the selections made by the congregation.
The question begs to be asked as to whether the practice of laying on of hands is a prescriptive or descriptive practice for the church? The idea of a commissioning ceremony with the laying on of hands goes back to Old Testament practices in Exodus 18:13-27 (without laying on of hands) and Numbers 27:16-23 (with laying on of hands). Therefore, from a cultural standpoint, it was an accepted practice. Additionally, Luke uses the practice of laying on of hands to illustrate different concepts in the book of Acts.
- 9:17 – healing.
- 8:18 – giving of the Holy Spirit.
- 13:3 – commissioning to a task.
The overwhelming emphasis is on the designation for a task and not for an appointment to an office.
Another issue that crops up with this passage is the assumption that this is the first designation of the office of deacon within the church. However, that is an incorrect understanding of the passage. The Greek word used in verse one (daily distribution) and verse four (preaching ministry) is diakonia. The proper understanding of this word in verse two is, “a procedure for taking care of the needs of people—‘provision for taking care of, arrangement for support.” In verse four, the meaning is “the role or position of serving—‘ministry, task.” In both cases, the emphasis is on the action, serving, and not an office. The Greek word for a deacon, diakonos, never occurs in this passage. However, it does occur in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, where deacons are explicitly discussed. Therefore, we should not understand this section of the passage as the inauguration of the office of deacon within the church. We should understand it as the selection of seven men to function as faithful servants for the needs of the church, which would free the Apostles to continue their responsibility as teachers and shepherds to the young church.
Luke continues the good news in verse seven.
- First, the Apostles could concentrate on evangelism, and the Gospel message was spreading because of their efforts.
- Second, the church continued to multiply in Jerusalem. The Greek word used for multiply is the same one that was used in 6:1. The was continuing to experience exciting growth.
- Third, a large group of priests became followers of Jesus. Some clarification is needed on this point.
- We should identify these “priests” with the members of the Sanhedrin from Acts 4:1.
- Priests served in rotational “teams” throughout the year.
- The service included all the tasks that were required to be completed, not just the function of the Sanhedrin and the high priests family.
- At this particular point in history, it is estimated that there were as many as 8,000 priests and 10,000 Levites who were involved in temple functions.
- The majority of these men were considerably poorer and likely practiced sincere piety and devotion to God.
- The message of a risen Messiah would have attracted them.
- We don’t have an estimate of how many priests became followers, but it would appear to be a significant number since Luke mentions it here.
As we review this passage, lets’ consider some characteristics that identified the early church.
- They were able to synthesize the matters of spiritual and material concerns. It was not just an evangelism center; it was a congregation that recognized the genuine needs of its members and designed and implemented practical, biblical plans to take care of these needs.
- They were flexible in being able to adjust their organizational structure to meet the needs. The modern church often can be inflexible in meeting needs if the structure doesn’t have a plan to address the need. In the New Testament church, structure only developed to meet needs.
- They practiced positive attitudes of restraint. In this case, they didn’t place blame on anyone for the Hellenistic widows being overlooked. Also, the Apostles didn’t demonstrate autocratic leadership in the search for a solution.
- Are the needs of everyone in your local body of Christ being met? If not, bring up your concern to leadership to address the issue. If you are in a leadership position, take action on the problem.
- Don’t point fingers when problems arise. Instead, work with a spirit of unity and humility to find a solution to the problems. Also, don’t seek after glory in the search for a solution. Only God deserves the glory.
- Decisions within a church or ministry organization should be corporate in nature. Autocracy has no place in a biblical church. If you see that happening in your church, challenge those in charge with a humble but uncompromising spirit.
- Regardless of our gifting or role in our church, we are all called to serve one another. Don’t be a consumer Christian, be a participating and serving Christian.