J. W. McGarvey's Original Commentary on ActsActs 6
From the preceding account of the struggle, between the
apostles and the Sadducees, Luke now turns to consider, briefly, the
internal condition of the Church during the same period. Though
the mass of the disciples had attained many of the excellencies of
Christian character, they were still but men, and liable to the partialities
and prejudices of men. This became manifest in a manner
which at first threatened serious consequences.
(1) "Now, in those
days, the disciples having multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the
Hellenist against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in
the daily ministration."
The disciples in Jerusalem now numbered
largely over five thousand. In so large a multitude, it was almost
impossible to look after the wants of all with equal care, and some
unintentional oversight must unavoidably occur. The "daily ministration"
is undoubtedly that distribution from the funds contributed by
the brethren, which was made "to every one according as he had
need." That it was made daily, confirms our former conclusion, that
there was no general equalization of property, but only a provision
for the needy. The Hellenists were Jews of foreign birth and Greek
education, and were so called because of their conformity to the manners
of the Hellenes, as Greeks were called. Many of them were,
perhaps, not permanent residents in Jerusalem, but had remained
there after Pentecost on account of their interest in the new religion.
They were the more likely to be neglected, because less familiarity
known to the apostles and their assistants.
This unforeseen circumstances suggested to the apostles the
propriety of insinuating a new office in the Church. Though the Holy
Spirit was given to guide them into all the truth, its additional instruction
was given only as circumstances required. They were not
theorists, with a constitution and by-laws drawn up in advance, to
which, under all circumstances, the Church must conform; but they
allowed the condition of the congregation, from time to time, to dictate
the provisions which should be made, and therefore the provisions
which were made precisely such as were needed. Hitherto the
Church had been without an officer of any kind, except the apostles;
for the supposition advanced by some writers, that the young men,
oi neoteroi, who buried Ananias and Sapphira, were
officers, is without foundation, except in the analogy of later
and unscriptural organizations. Seeing, then, that the Church in
Jerusalem existed for a time under the control of the apostles alone,
it follows that a Church may now exist under the written teaching
alone of the same apostles. But seeing, further, that when circumstances
required it, other officials were appointed, it follows that all
Churches among whom similar wants arise should provide themselves
in the same way. All Churches, however, will inevitably find need
for such officers as the New Testament authorizes; hence they should
procure them without unnecessary delay.
When the murmuring came to the ears of the apostles they acted
(2) "Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples
to them and said, It is not well that we should leave the word of God
and serve tables.
(3) Therefore, brethren, look out among you seven men
of good repute, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint
over this business.
(4) But we ourselves will continue in prayer
and the ministry of the word."
The alternative with the apostles was
to "leave," in some degree, "the word of God," and serve the tables
satisfactorily, or turn this business over to other hands, and "continue
in prayer and the ministry of the word" as uninterruptedly as before.
They showed their superior regard for the latter ministry by choosing
the latter course.
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and the apostles that the whole
"multitude of the disciples" should take part in the selection of these
officers. No ingenuity of argument can evade the conclusion that this
gives the authority of apostolic precedent for the popular election of
officers of the Church. The multitude were limited, however, by apostolic
authority, to the choice of men of a certain description. They
must be men of "good repute;" not merely good men, but men whose goodness
was accredited among the brethren.
They must also be men who were "full of the Holy Spirit." Whether
this means that they must be possessed of miraculous powers, or merely
that they must exhibit abundantly the fruits of the Spirit, it is difficult
to determine. The circumstances, that up to this time no miracles had
been wrought, so far as we know, by any of the apostles, and that, immediately
after the appointment of the seven, Stephen appears "doing
great wonders and miracles among the people,"
seem to indicate that
they were merely full of the Holy Spirit in the ordinary way, but received
miraculous powers when the hands of the apostles were laid
upon them. On the other hand, the expression, "full of the Holy
Spirit," generally means possessed of the miraculous powers of the
Spirit. Whatever may be the decision of this question, it is certain
that when a disciple was "full of the Spirit" in either sense, the
religious sentiments were in lively exercise, and this is all that can be
required in a candidate for the same office at the present day.
The office which the apostles are about to institute and fill is easily
identified with that of the deacon as described in
1 Timothy 3:8-13.
The seven are not styled diakonoi,
deacons, but they were
selected to attend to the daily diakonia,
and their service is
expressed by the verb diakoneo,
the same which expresses the
duty of deacons in
1 Timothy 3:10-13.
The chief duty for which
they were appointed, was "to serve tables,"
diakonein trapezais; yet this
duty need not prevent them from discharging any other functions for
which they were qualified, and for which they could find time. God
exacts the employment of every talent that is committed to us, and has
appointed no work to be done which is too holy for the humblest disciple.
We therefore find one of the seven deacons soon after in the
front rank of the defenders of the faith;
while another, after the
dispersion of the Church, preaches in Samaria, and immerses both the
Samaritans and the Ethiopian nobleman.
Those who deny to deacons,
at the present day, the same privileges, impose a restriction which is in
direct conflict with the word of God. As to the title evangelist,
applied to Philip, see the "Commentary on Acts,"
Verses 5, 6
The proposition of the apostles so wisely provided for an obvious
want, that there could be no hesitation about prompt compliance
(5) "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 Nicolas, a proselyte
(6) whom they placed before the apostles. And having
prayed, they laid their hands on them."
It is a remarkable proof of the
generosity of the Church at large, that all these are Greek names,
indicating that they were selected from the very party whence the murmuring
had proceeded. It was as if the Hebrews had said to the Hellenists,
We have no selfish ends to accomplish, not any jealousy toward
you who complain, therefore we give the whole business into your
hands, and will fearlessly trust our poor widows to your care. So generous
a trust could not be betrayed, except by the basest of men.
All that is now known of five of these men is the fact of their
appointment to this office. Their names are not again mentioned
in the New Testament. It need not be presumed, from this, that
they were subsequently inactive or unfaithful, but simply that Luke
selected, for his brief narrative, a chain of events in which others were
Of Nicolas, it is said that he was "a proselyte of Antioch,"
which means that he was a Gentile who had been proselyted
to Judaism before he was converted to Christ. Thus we see that, even
at this early period, the apostles had no objection to the reception
of Gentiles, provided they had been circumcised.
Stephen is specially described as "a man full of faith and of the
Holy Spirit," not because the others were destitute of these excellencies;
for one of the qualifications necessary to a selection was that
they should be men "full of the Holy Spirit."
But if the seven were
distinguished above others in this respect, Stephen may have been
distinguished in the same way among the seven.
The object of the imposition of hands, on this occasion, has been
a subject of some dispute; some contending that it was merely to
impart miraculous gifts to the seven, and others, that it was the
ceremony of their induction into office. Miraculous gifts were often
conferred by the apostles in this way, and there is much probability,
to say the least, that they were now conferred upon the seven; but
the context forbids us to suppose that this was the only object of
the ceremony. The apostles had commanded the disciples to do one
thing, and they themselves proposed to do another. The multitude
were to "look out" the men, "whom," say the apostles, "we may
appoint over this business." The part performed by the apostles was
their appointment to office. But all the apostles did was to pray and
lay on their hands; hence, this was the ceremony of their appointment.
It stands upon record as a precedent, and should be complied
with in similar cases. The fact that men can not now confer a miraculous
gift by laying on hands, does not relieve them from the
obligation to impose hands as a ceremony of appointment to office.
The question as to who should perform this ceremony should give
no trouble. The parties who directed in the organization of the
Church were the official on this occasion, and so, according to the
precedent, should it always be. Whoever plants a Church, or sets
one in order, should lay hands on its officers. When there are peculiar
circumstances not anticipated by the precedent, they should
be provided for according to the wisdom of those concerned, being
careful not to violate the precedent. The example of the apostles
is binding in this, as in all cases not peculiar to the apostolic office,
or to the condition of the early Churches.
The appointment of the seven over the business of daily ministration
to the poor was intended to supply an existing deficiency
in the organization of the Church. The more efficient organization
gave greater efficiency to the labors of all.
(7) "And the word of
God increased, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem was greatly
multiplied, and a great multitude of the priests became obedient to the
This is the first intimation of the accession of any of the
priests to the new faith. It was the most signal triumph yet achieved
by the gospel, for the priests of the old religion were more interested
in maintaining it than were any other class among the Jews. The
peculiar relation which the priesthood sustain to any system of religion
must always render them the chief conservators of obsolete
forms, and the most formidable opponents to the introduction of new
truth. When the priests of an opposing system begin to give way, it
is ready to fall. No fact yet recorded by Luke shows so strikingly the
effect of the gospel upon the popular mind in Jerusalem.
The expression used concerning these priests, that they became
"obedient to the faith," is worthy of notice as implying that there is
something in the faith to be obeyed. This obedience is not rendered
in the act of believing; for that is to exercise the faith, not to
But faith in Jesus as the Messiah requires obedience to him as Lord;
hence obedience rendered to him is styled obedience to the faith. It
begins with immersion, and continues with the duties of a religious
life. Paul declares that the grand object of the favor and apostleship
conferred upon him was "for obedience to the faith among all
nations." [Romans 1:5.]
Without it, faith itself is of no avail, for all who "obey not
the gospel," whatever may be their faith, will be "destroyed from the
presence of the Lord and the glory of his
power." [2 Thessalonians 1:7-9.]
There is another expression in this verse worthy of notice, because
of its singular contrast with modern phraseology in such connections.
It is said, "The word of God increased," and the specifications are,
that the number of disciples was greatly multiplied, and that a great
multitude of the priests became obedient. At the present day such incidents
are often introduced by remarks of this kind: "There was a
precious season of grace;" "The Lord was present in his saving
power;" "A gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit," etc. So great a
departure from Scripture phraseology clearly indicates a departure
from scriptural ideas. When men are engrossed with the conception
that conversion is an abstract work of the Holy Spirit in the soul,
they are likely to express themselves in this unauthorized manner.
But Luke, who had no such conception, saw in the increase of the disciples
an increase of the word of God; by which he means not an
increase in the quantity of revelation, but in its effect. The more
favorable circumstances which now existed within the Church, by the
cessation of recent murmuring, and the introduction of a better organization,
gave greater weight to the word that was preached, and
greater success was the consequence.
We are now introduced to a very thrilling account of the labors
and death of Stephen. His career, previous to the final conflict, is
thus briefly sketched:
(8) "Now Stephen, full of faith and of power,
did great wonders and signs among the people."
The power by which he
wrought these miracles is connected with the fact that he was "full
of faith." This accords with the fact already observed,
the degree of miraculous power exerted by those who possessed spiritual
gifts depended upon the degree of their faith.
Verses 9, 10
The activity of Stephen, though probably not greater than
that of the apostles during the same period, naturally attracted to
him more especial attention, because he was a new actor in the scene,
and one who had hitherto occupied a subordinate position. The opponents
of the gospel were aroused into renewed activity. The first
persecution occurred upon the surprising success of Peter and John
in Solomon's Portico;
the second, upon the triumphs which followed
the death of Ananias and Sapphira;
and the third now springs up
upon the appearance of new advocates of the faith.
(9) "Then there
arose certain persons from the synagogue called the synagogue of the
Freedmen and Cyrenians, and those from Cilicia and Asia, disputing
(10) and they were not able to withstand the wisdom and
the spirit by which he spoke."
The policy of the opposition is now changed. Having been deterred,
by fear of the people, and by division of sentiment in their own
ranks, from resorting to extreme violence, and finding that threats and
scourging were unavailing, they now resort to discussion, expecting,
by superior learning, to confound men who could not be
silence. The parties who entered the lists of debate were all foreign-born
Jews. The Freedmen were Jews who had been set free from
Roman slavery; the Cyrenians and Alexandrians were from the north
of Africa; the Asians and Cilicians from the peninsula of Asia, the
last-named being from the native country of Saul of Tarsus.
The fact that Saul was a leader in the contest now
begun [See Acts 7:58 below.]
the attacking party as Pharisees; for he was a Pharisee, the son of a
Pharisee, and "brought up in this city, at the feet of
Gamaliel." [22:3; 23:6.]
violent proceedings of the Sadducees having been checked, in part, by
the counsel of Gamaliel--the great teacher of the Pharisees--the apostles
had gone on in their ministry, not merely proclaiming the resurrection
of Jesus, but prosecuting the second part of their commission,
"teaching them to observe and do all whatsoever Christ had commanded."
This somewhat relieved the Sadducees from the brunt of
attack, and turned it upon the Pharisees, whose traditions were directly
assailed by the maxims of true piety and morality. The consequence
was, a rallying of this party to an activity not manifested
before since the death of Christ. Having nearly all the learning and
talent of their nation in their ranks, and especially the literary culture
and wealth of the foreign Jews, they resorted with great confidence to
disputation. The seven deacons, who were also foreigners, were naturally
brought into more direct contact with these foreign-born disputants;
and Stephen, who was the most gifted of the seven, soon found
himself engaged, single-handed, in a conflict with them all.
This is the first time the disciples measured the strength of their
cause in open discussion. Hitherto the young converts had enjoyed
no opportunity to compare the arguments by which they had been
convinced with those which learning and ingenuity might frame
against them. But now they were to hear both sides of the great
question presented, with the odds of number, learning, and social position
all on the side of their opponents. It was an interesting crisis,
and it needs no very vivid imagination to realize the palpitating anxiety
with which the disciples resorted to the place of discussion. Their
fondest hopes were realized; for it soon became evident that Stephen
had all the facts and the statements of Scripture in his favor, so that
"they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he
spoke." By the "spirit by which he spoke," I suppose Luke refers
to the Holy Spirit, who supplied him with whatever knowledge and
wisdom he may have lacked.
In entering freely into this discussion, Stephen acted in accordance
with the example of his master, and that of all the apostles. Their
example makes it the duty of all disciples to whom God has given the
necessary wisdom, to defend in discussion, against all opposition, the
truth as it is in Jesus. Whoever does so, in the fear of God, and with
a devout zeal for the salvation of men, will find his enemies unable to
When the advocates of error are defeated in discussion, they
always resort to slander, or to violence. They tried both against Stephen.
The Pharisees having the management of the case, we find
their subsequent proceedings governed by the same policy which they
pursued in the case of Jesus.
(11) "Then they suborned men, who
said, We have heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses
This was the indictment upon which the further proceedings
were based, and it was circulated boisterously among all classes.
(12) "And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes,
and came upon him, and seized him, and led him into the Sanhedrim,
(13) and set up false witnesses, who said, This man ceases not to speak
blasphemous words against this holy place and the law;
(14) For we
have heard him saying, that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place,
and change the customs which Moses delivered to us."
This is the first time that "the people" are represented as taking
part against the disciples. During the first two persecutions the "fear
of the people" had restrained the violence of the persecutors, which
renders their present opposition the more remarkable. But the Sadducees,
who had conducted those persecutions, had but little popular
influence, and had contented themselves with merely asserting the
authority of the Sanhedrim, without the aid of any ingenious policy.
The Pharisees were more influential and more cunning. They put in
circulation a slanderous report, which was cunningly directed against
a single individual, and which their great popular influence enabled
them to circulate with effect; and by this means they aroused a
strong popular feeling in their own favor.
The general charge against Stephen was speaking blasphemy
"against Moses and God," otherwise expressed, "against this holy
place, and the law." The change of phraseology arises from the fact
that the temple and law were the visible representatives of Moses and
of God. The specifications under this charge were these: "We have
heard him saying that this Jesus will destroy this place, and change
the customs which Moses delivered to us." It is quite likely that Stephen
was guilty of the specifications; but they fell very far short of the
crime of blasphemy against Moses and against God. In thus teaching,
he was really honoring Moses, by insisting upon the very termination
which Moses himself had assigned to his own law, while he honored
God by receiving him whom God had sent.
As Stephen stood before the Sanhedrim, thus falsely and hypocritically
accused, and fully aware of a determination to condemn him
without regard to evidence or justice, he could but remember the similar
accusation of Jesus, of Peter and John, then of all the apostles;
and his heart must have swelled at the thought of being identified with
them in suffering. The baseness of his persecutors--who, under pretense
of zeal for Moses and the law, were violating the one and dishonoring
the other, by seeking the lives of the only men who believed his
words--must have filled him with indignation, while love for the truth
which he was defending, and for the Redeemer for whom he was suffering,
was kindled afresh, and the power of a glorious hope inspired
him with the most invincible courage. Emotions so intense and so
lofty spread a glow upon his countenance which attracted the attention
of the whole audience.
(15) "And all who sat in the Sanhedrim, looking
earnestly upon him, saw his face as if it were the face of an angel."
There is no need to suppose anything supernatural in his appearance,
such as a halo of light enveloping his countenance; for a countenance
naturally fine and expressive, when lit up by emotions so intense and
heavenly as those which must then have swelled the breast of Stephen,
would be sufficient to suggest such a comparison. If there were any
brethren present, with what tearful delight they must then have gazed
upon the hero of faith! And if any of the members of the Sanhedrim
were still capable of nobler sentiments, how intense must have been
their agitation! The trial proceeds: