Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentActs 6
This very short chapter narrates the preliminaries of Stephen's martyrdom, noting that it occurred following a period of great growth and prosperity for the new faith (Acts 6:1), that Stephen's rise to prominence was a result of his appointment as one of the seven chosen to administer the distribution of food to the needy, an appointment brought about by complaints of neglecting the Grecian widows (Acts 6:2-7), and that his popularity, ability in debate, and fearless proclamation of the truth resulted in a Pharisaical plot against him, leading to his arrest (Acts 6:8-15). Many things of very great significance come to view in this little chapter: there was the first instance of the laying on of the hands of the apostles; there appeared the first violent opposition of the Pharisees; there occurred the first expansion of the church's organization beyond that of the governing apostles; there was a second threat to the unity of the disciples, deriving from the allegations of neglect of a certain class receiving charity; and there was the exceedingly significant record of "a great company of the priests" accepting the faith in Jesus Christ.
Now in these days when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring of the Grecian Jews against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.
In these days ...
indicates a considerable time-lapse after the establishment of the church in A.D. 30, probably a period of six or eight years.
Murmuring of the Grecian Jews against the Hebrews ...
Both classes of these "Jews" were Christians, but there was a language barrier. The Jews of Palestine spoke Aramaic, and those of the Diaspora spoke Greek; many of the latter were living in Jerusalem at that time but were natives of the provinces. "In the Jewish world as a whole there was some tension, and this survived between the two groups," F1 even after they became Christians.
Most scholars assume that there was justification for this action, basing their opinion upon the assumption that the Grecian widows were actually "neglected." However, it is not clear from this verse that Luke intended any admission to that effect; but neither is it denied. It is this word "murmuring" which casts some doubt on the extent of that "neglect," for "murmuring" almost invariably carries with it an imputation of guilt in the persons doing the murmuring; and it rarely implies any guilt in those murmured against. "How long shall I bear with this evil generation which murmur against me?" (Numbers 14:27). As Spurgeon said of the murmuring of Israel in the wilderness:
The tendency of human nature is to
murmur, complain, find fault, a very
easy thing to do, the very word
"murmur" being made of two infantile
sounds - MUR MUR! There is no sense
in it, no wit in it, no thought in it,
being the cry rather of a brute than
of a man, just a double groan! F2
The vice of murmuring is specifically condemned in Philippians 2:14 and 1 Corinthians 10:10; and this student of God's word refuses to see in the incident before us any justification whatever for the murmuring that took place regarding the daily distribution of food to the needy. In the very nature of such distributions, it was inevitable that some should receive less, others more, and that almost any person desiring to find fault could easily have "discovered" some basis for alleging it. Significantly, the apostles spoke not a word of blame regarding either those who murmured or those who had done the distributing. They simply changed the administration of the charities with a view to eliminating all further excuses for any murmuring.
Their Widows ...
As McGarvey noted:
The fact that this distribution was
made daily, and that the widows were
the principal recipients, confirms our
former conclusion that there was no
general equalization of property, but
only a provision for the needy. F3
Elam made a deduction based upon this episode, as follows:
There may be only two classes in the
church, namely, the givers and the
receivers. Each one belongs to one of
these classes. If one is unable to
give, that one is in the class of
receivers and needs to be given to. F4
And the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not fit that we should forsake the word of God and serve tables.
The twelve ...
"shows that Matthias was one of the apostles, for it would take him to complete the list of the twelve." F5
It is not fit that we should ...
Many commentators read this as if it said, "It is not fit that we should CONTINUE to serve tables," assuming that until this incident the twelve had personally distributed the food to the needy; but such is not stated here, nor is it likely that the twelve had been doing such work, except perhaps, occasionally, volunteers, in all probability, having done the most of it.
Serve tables ...
The word "serve" has the meaning of "minister to," and is rendered from the Greek word [diakonia], a derivative from [diakonos], the latter term being rendered "by three English words in our version: MINISTER, SERVANT, and DEACON." F6 It is upon this rather precarious basis that the men here appointed are often called "deacons." Significantly, the record here does not so name them, nor is there very much similarity between their status and that of the deacons Paul commanded Timothy to appoint. The men here were not assistants to elders of the church, but to the Twelve; and, furthermore, they were endowed by a laying on of the hands of the apostles. Perhaps the best name for them is the Seven, as Luke himself called them (Acts 21:8).
Look ye out therefore, brethren, from among you seven men of good report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.
The traditional deductions from this episode, namely, (1) that the men here appointed were installed in the office of deacon, and (2) that the work of deacons is restricted to the church's "business" affairs, are by no means necessary. McGarvey was sure that "The deacon's office was here first created and supplied with incumbents"; F7 and "That no ingenuity of argument can evade the conclusion that this gives the authority of apostolic precedent for the popular election of church officers." F8 However, the Seven were not "elected" at all; they were "appointed" by the apostles. Therefore, to the extent of this episode's application to "church officers," it is the right of nominating elders and deacons which is vested in the congregation, rather than the right of election or appointment of such officers. Despite this, the question is somewhat academic, because neither apostles nor elders can rule any congregation without taking into account the considered judgment of its membership.
But we will continue stedfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the word.
Continue stedfastly ...
What the apostles here proposed was to "continue" as they had already been doing, namely, devoting their total resources to the propagation of the truth. This verse denies the supposition that, until this time, the apostles had been doing all of the distributing of food to the needy. See under Acts 6:2.
The ministry of the word ...
Nothing is any plainer in the New Testament than the priority of the word and doctrine of Christ over every other consideration, even that of taking care of the poor. Neither area of responsibility is to be neglected; but the first duty is that of ministering the word itself.
And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus a proselyte of Antioch.
is mentioned first, as Luke's narrative was about to recount his martyrdom. The qualifications that he had as a man of faith and full of the Holy Spirit were not his alone but belonged to all of the group nominated by the multitude.
Concerning this nominee, Johnson said:
He was distinguished as "Philip the
Evangelist." He gave the gospel to
Samaria, converted the eunuch, and
afterward lived and labored at
Caesarea (Acts 21:8). F9
A great deal of interest attaches to this last named of the Seven. First, he is the only one designated a proselyte, and the only one whose native city is given, the latter fact calling forth this comment from Bruce:
That the only member of the Seven to
have his place of origin named should
belong to Antioch - Syrian Antioch,
of course, is a mark of Luke's special
interest in that city; and this helps
to confirm the tradition that he
himself was an Antiochene." F10
Two of the Ante-Nicene writers connected the name of Nicolaus with the heresy named in Revelation 2:6. Irenaeus wrote:
The Nicolaitanes are the followers of
that Nicolaus who was one of the seven
first ordained to the diaconate by the
apostles. They lead lives of
unrestrained indulgence ... teaching
that it is a matter of indifference to
practice adultery, and to eat things
sacrificed to idols. F11
Of course, it is no greater wonder that one of the Seven should have proved to be unworthy than that one of the Twelve should have been a traitor. Nevertheless, serious doubt is cast upon Irenaeus' charge of heresy against Nicolaus, it being far more likely that a group of sinners pretending to be his followers adopted his name in an effort to further their evil teaching, as appears in this comment from Victorinus who wrote the first known commentary on Revelation. In his comment on Revelation 2:6, he said:
The Nicolaitanes were in that time
false and troublesome men, who, as
ministers under the name of Nicolaus,
had made for themselves a heresy ...
Regarding the fact that all seven of this group had Greek names, the conclusions of scholars are contradictory. Some assume that all seven were members of the dissenting or complaining party. F13 Lange thought it probable that "some of the seven were Hebrews" F14 with Greek names; and Boles noted that some think that "three of the seven were Hebrews, three Grecians, and one a proselyte"! F15 (Quite a political maneuver!) It is obvious that we simply do not know.
Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands upon them.
They laid their hands upon them ...
The Seven were already "full of the Holy Spirit" in the sense ordinary; and therefore something more is intended here. Luke himself connected the laying on of the apostles' hands with the gift extraordinary of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18); and coupled with Luke's statement a moment later that one of the Seven did "great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8), the teaching appears to be that the apostles here endowed the Seven with miraculous powers. To view the laying on of hands as a mere ceremony of ordination is incorrect. For more elaborate discussion of the laying on of hands, see my Commentary on Hebrews, Heb. 6:2.
And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.
Increased ... exceedingly ...
At a number of places in Acts, namely, here, Acts 9:30; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; and 28:31, Luke paused to note the continued success of the gospel. C. H. Turner pointed out that Acts is thus cut into six panels covering, on an average, about five years each. F16
A great company of the priests believed ...
Only here is there such a declaration in the New Testament, and the importance of the truth revealed here is superlative. First of all, here is the secret of all those episodes which took place in the homes of Pharisees, as given in Luke, there being no good reason to doubt that Luke interviewed many of those converted priests; and this student views this as by far the most likely and reasonable explanation of chapters 10-19 in Luke's gospel. In the second place, the conversion of a vast number of Pharisees would account for the savage persecution of the church by that same party, which persecution Luke was in the act of narrating. The defection of many of their own group fired the hatred of the remnant against the gospel.
The success of the gospel, however, in bringing many priests of the old order into the church was not an unmixed blessing. The presence of such a group would tend to meld the old and the new institutions, a melding that was contrary to God's will; and, in this, one may read the necessity for the divine interposition which scattered the young church from Jerusalem. Perhaps it is significant that no name of any priest who became a Christian is found in the New Testament.
Plumptre was evidently wrong in his deduction that:
No priest is named as a follower of
the Lord; and, up to this time, none
had been converted by the apostles ...
the new fact may be connected with the
new teaching of Stephen. F17
There was no "new teaching" by Stephen, whose talent did not consist of inventing new teachings but in the skilled advocacy of the teachings "once for all" delivered to the apostles. As will appear more clearly in Stephen's speech (fully reported in 6:7), there was no "new" element in it.
Obedient to the faith ...
Here is another outcropping of that fundamental fact of the New Testament, making "faith" not a subjective thing at all but an objective obedience of the gospel commandments. As De Welt said:
We must not overlook the expression,
"obedient to the faith." There was
something more to their faith than
mere mental assent; there was
something in it that demanded
obedience ... repentance and baptism
... for the remission of sins. F18
"This obedience is rendered not by believing; for that is to exercise the faith, not to obey it." F19 Wherever faith is mentioned in the New Testament as the basis of God's forgiveness, remission of sins, or justification, it is invariably an "obedient faith" which is meant. See Rom. 1:5 and Rom. 16:26.
And Stephen, full of grace and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people.
No record of specific signs has come down to us; but the fact of their designation here as "great" proves them to have been miracles of the first magnitude. Stephen was a man of the most noble character and of the mightiest ability, "the morning star who ushered in the dawn of St. Paul's ministry!" F20 This verse is "the first indication of miracles worked by any (of our Lord's followers) except the apostles of the Lord Jesus." F21 Even these signs, however, were not done apart from the apostles, because it was through the laying on of their hands that Stephen had received such powers.
Verses 9, 10
But there arose certain of them that were of the synagogue called the synagogue of the Libertines, and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake.
used here in the singular appears to be the designation of a single place frequented by the various persons mentioned; but the existence of so many synagogues in Jerusalem at that time (Halleck says "there were four hundred and eighty") F22 has led some to suppose that two or more synagogues are in view here; but McGarvey was right in viewing the question as "of no special importance." F23
would be better translated "Freedmen," as in the English Revised Version (1885) margin. Members of this group had once been slaves, but had received their liberty. A great many of the Christians in those early years were slaves, the same being indicated by their names as given in Romans 16; but the Libertines had been freed. The place names here refer to non-Palestinian areas of the Roman empire populated by Jews of the Diaspora. Alexandria, aside from Rome and Jerusalem, was the largest Jewish city of antiquity; and Cyrene and Cilicia might have been mentioned by Luke because of the connection of Rufus, Alexander, and Simon with the former, and the fact of Paul's being from Tarsus, the principal city of the latter.
Not able to withstand the wisdom ...
It is rather remarkable that wisdom should have been ascribed to Stephen, in view of the fact that in the gospels it is attributed to our Lord (Matthew 13:54, etc.) and mentioned as belonging to Solomon (Matthew 12:42). "It implies something higher even than the `consolation' from which Barnabas took his name." F24 It was this great wisdom of Stephen that enabled him completely to vanquish all opponents of the truth he proclaimed.
Then they suborned men, who said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.
They suborned men ...
Men do not need to be bribed to tell the truth; and the Pharisees' money in view in this verse is proof enough that the testimony procured by it was false; but such is the mystery of evil that in every generation there must be champions of every lie Satan ever invented. Regarding the false charges alleged against Stephen, "Baur and Zeller accused Luke of uttering an untruth, for ... they alleged that Stephen had really entertained the opinions and spoken the words with which he was charged." F25 It is of no significance that the Pharisees might indeed have "interpreted" some of Stephen's words as blasphemous, because the Pharisees themselves were the actual blasphemers through their conceited device of equating their own prejudiced interpretations with the law of God. On the face of it, the lying charge that Stephen had blasphemed either God or Moses was unsupported by any fact whatever. As De Welt expressed it: "The accusation was nothing but a black lie"; F26 and we might add that the falsity of the charges was matched by the deceit of the suborned witnesses pretending to have "heard" Stephen say things, despite the probability that they had "heard" nothing at all, but were told what to say by the paymasters procuring the perjury. By definition, "suborned witnesses" are "false witnesses."
Verses 12, 13, 14
And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and seized him, and brought him into the council, and set up false witnesses, who said, This man ceaseth not to speak words against this holy place, and the law: for we heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered unto us.
Say ... that Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place ...
This was a lie in that neither our Lord nor Stephen ever declared that he, Christ, would destroy the temple; what Jesus actually said was that they, the religious leaders, would destroy it, that is, the temple of his body, the same having no reference at all to the secular temple of the Jews. Moreover, at that same moment, Jesus promised that he would "raise it up" (the temple of his body) in three days (John 2:19-22).
Jesus indeed prophesied the destruction of the temple, promising not that he himself would destroy it, but affirming that "The king (God) would send his armies (those of the Romans) and destroy those murderers and burn their city" (Matthew 22:7).
Change the customs ...
Only malignant spite could construe Stephen's preaching the very changes God himself had prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures as blasphemy, either of God or Moses. Thus it was no mere twisting what Jesus or Stephen had said, no mere distortion of their words, which was practiced by the suborned witnesses. Their testimony was totally false.
The Pharisaical plot that led to the murder of Stephen was successful, whereas the opposition of the Sadducees had largely failed; and the circumstances that made it so were: (1) the Pharisees, by far more popular than the Sadducees, were the leaders, their engagement in the opposition deriving, in all probability, from the inroads the new faith had made upon their own party (Acts 6:7); (2) they directed their murderous purpose, not against the Twelve, but against a prominent new personality but recently elevated to popular esteem; (3) it was directed against a single individual, not against a group; (4) they stoned him on the spot, not bothering to procure a verdict; it was exactly the same kind of vicious murder they tried unsuccessfully to perpetrate against Christ himself. The action of the Sanhedrin in this murder was totally illegal, being contrary to the laws both of Rome and of the Jews; and yet it succeeded in their objective of killing their intended victim whose arguments they were unable to answer. Over and beyond the circumstances named above, it was time, in the will of God, for the church to be scattered; and, therefore, God here permitted what he had not permitted before.
And all that sat in the council, fastening their eyes on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.
Saul of Tarsus was in that council, and it is a most reasonable conjecture that he reported this phenomenon to Luke. As to what it was, many prefer to view it as merely the radiance of holy and righteous zeal in the person of the martyred Stephen; but it is not safe to limit it to that which is purely natural. As Lange said: "It obviously describes an objective, and, indeed, an extraordinary phenomenon." F27 Whatever it was, Paul never forgot it; nor could he ever erase from his memory the sorrow of that tragic day when the first martyr of the Christian religion sealed his faith with his blood.
Footnotes for Acts 6
1: F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers, 1954), p. 128.
2: Charles H. Spurgeon, Sermons (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company), Vol. IX, p. 389.
3: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Acts (Cincinnati, Ohio: Standard Publishing Company, 1892), p. 103.
4: E. A. Elam, Elam's Notes on Bible School Lessons (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1931), p. 191.
5: H. Leo Boles, Commentary on Acts (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1953, p. 95.
7: J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 107.
8: Ibid., p. 104.
9: B. W. Johnson, Notes on the New Testament (Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 439.
10: F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 129.
11: Irenaeus, Against Heresies in the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers), Vol. I, p. 352.
12: Victorious, Commentary on Revelation 2:6 in the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishers), Vol. VII, p. 346.
13: E. A. Elam, op. cit., p. 190.
14: John Peter Lange, Commentary on Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1866), p. 105.
15: H. Leo Boles, op. cit., p. 97.
16: As quoted by F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 131.
17: E. H. Plumptre, Elliott's Commentary on the Holy Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 35.
18: Don DeWelt, Acts Made Actual (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, 1958), p. 86.
19: J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 110.
20: G. B. F. Hallock, Doran's Ministers Manual (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1930), p. 579.
21: Orin Root, Acts (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Company, 1966), p. 44.
22: G. B. F. Hallock, op. cit., p. 579.
23: J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 112.
24: E. H. Plumptre, op. cit., p. 36.
25: John Peter Lange, op. cit., p. 109.
26: Don DeWelt, op. cit., p. 88.
27: John Peter Lange, op. cit., p. 110.
28: Alexander Campbell, Acts of Apostles (Austin, Texas: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1859), p. 33.
29: E. H. Plumptre, Elliott's Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), Acts, p. 29.
30: John William Russell, Compact Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1964), p. 29.
31: W. R. Walker, op. cit., p. 45.
32: F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 120.
33: Thomas Scott, op. cit., p. 450.
34: Archibald M. Hunter, Introducing New Testament Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), p. 74.
35: Don DeWelt, op. cit., p. 81.
36: J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 95.
37: W. R. Walker, op. cit., p. 47.
38: Orin Root, op. cit., p. 40.
39: Everett J. Harrison, op. cit., p. 401.
40: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 104.
41: Jack P. Lewis, Historical Backgrounds of Bible History (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 170.
42: J. W. McGarvey, op. cit., p. 99.
43: Adam Clarke, op. cit., p. 721.
44: A. C. Hervey, op. cit., p. 162.
45: John Peter Lange, op. cit., p. 101.
46: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 825.
47: John William Russell, op. cit. p. 295.
48: Alexander Campbell, op. cit., p. 18.
49: As quoted by Campbell, ibid.
50: E. H. Plumptre, The Acts of Apostles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 15.