Acts (Part10) - Deacon Stephen
Acts 6 begins by presenting a functional problem that arose in the Jerusalem church. Hellenist widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food. Hellenists are those Jews in Jerusalem who spoke Greek. They spoke Greek because (most likely) they had lived outside Palestine and at some time had moved to (or back to) Jerusalem. The Greek-speaking Jews were separated to some extent from the Aramaic-speaking Jews because of preferred language. That there was this hinderance does not imply that there was rivalry, distrust, or any kind of ill-feeling whatsoever. Some scholars/historians have assumed that this language (and perhaps culture) difference must have created other disharmonies that engendered spiteful relations or at least competing purposes. While we do see some of that in the historical record at large, I think there is biblical evidence to say it was not that way within the church. We’ll get to that evidence in a moment.
The problem of missing the Hellenist widows in the daily distribution of food had root cause in the speedy expansion of the number of believers. It is not certain how much time had elapsed between Pentecost and chapter 6, but to the thousands that had come to Christ soon after Pentecost, chapter 5 tells us that “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (5:14). The burgeoning church surely was an organizational nightmare, especially for those who were distributing food to the needy. New needy people were being added to the numbers daily.
But why was it that the Hellenists were overlooked? Since there is no hint of animosity toward the Hellenists, we have to look at obvious cultural reasons. The daily distribution was, no doubt, not a door-to-door delivery service, but rather a place to which people could go to receive needed supplies. Remember that people sold houses and land and brought the proceeds to the apostles (4:34-35). These proceeds were distributed and also food was purchased and distributed to those in need. But consider widows—particularly those up in years. The Jews native to the region had family on whom they could rely to secure the distributed supplies and bring them to their door. The Hellenist widows, having immigrated from other lands, probably did not have the family structure in place to give them assistance. If they (for whatever reason—age, sickness, etc.) could not make it to the place of distribution, they very well may have gone without. When other Hellenists found out about it (probably at synagogue), they complained that the system did not seem to be working.
The apostles had apparently not given too much oversight attention to this distribution. And it seems now they did not want to start. This was no arrogance on the part of the apostles. They were called by Christ to a specific task. Christ had told them plenty of times not to lord it over the people as the Gentiles; so they apparently had no interest in maintaining oversight control over everything that the new church was doing organizationally. (Perhaps something that our contemporary pastors would do well to imitate.) The apostles believed they were called to devote themselves to prayer and preaching (6:4). They, therefore, suggested that the people choose seven men to oversee the distribution. The text implies serving tables, but since all the Jerusalem church (thousands and thousands of Christians) did not all meet together each evening to eat dinner in one place and since seven people would hardly be enough to wait on multiple thousands anyway and since a structure of sorts apparently was already in place for food distribution, we have to assume that the activity meant for these seven was one of oversight of the process.
But notice now who the chosen seven are. We read their names in verse 5 and find that all seven had Greek names—apparently all Hellenists! The problem was in overlooking the Hellenist widows. Therefore, the solution that seemed best to everyone (Jews included – 6:2) was to select deacons who would be most interested in rectifying the problem. This, I believe, demonstrates that there was no ill will between native Jew and Hellenist. The native Jews were not demanding equal representation in this new office of oversight. There was a problem, and they simply chose the seeming best way to answer the problem. And it apparently worked. The function of deacon in the church spread throughout the Mediterranean world as the church grew.
Luke (at God’s prompt) inserted verse 7 as more than a mere summary / transitional / keep-the-story-moving type of comment. We read that the word of God continued to increase and that the number of disciples continued to increase. But to this is added “and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” I think that that comment is made here, between two trial scenes (chapters 5 and 7) in which priests become enraged and cry out for execution, for the purpose of ensuring that the readers understand this is not about Christians for the people and against the priests. The gospel is for everyone.
The rest of chapter 6 relates a conflict outside the church. As intimated earlier, the Christians did not stop going to synagogue because they entered the New Covenant with Christ. I think this is important to note because it is not a new religion that is being established (as liberal scholars like to surmise). Through Christ we find the true course of God’s plan from the OT covenants. Therefore, it was natural for the Christians to continue to meet at the synagogues each Sabbath. The Hellenists, because they preferred speaking in Greek, had their own synagogue (or synagogues). Verse 9 indicates that these Hellenists came from all over—Freedmen (from a Jewish community of former slaves located on the Tiber outside Rome), Cyrenians (from a Jewish community in what is now northern Libya—remember, the man compelled to carry Christ’s cross was a Jew from this community), Alexandrians (from Alexandria, Egypt), those from Cilicia (south coastal Asia Minor (or what is now Turkey)), and those from Asia (western Asia Minor).
Apparently Stephen, newly-appointed deacon, was at this Greek-speaking synagogue, attempting to explain how Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures’ prophecy of the coming Messiah. The Jews there took issue with him, but could not refute what he explained. So these people (apparently acting much like people do today) left off the argument of doctrine and merely categorized him as a heretic, speaking blasphemy against Moses and God (6:11). The charge wound its way up to the Sanhedrin who were told that Stephen spoke against the Law and the temple (6:13). The charge made to the council was no different from the earlier charge of blasphemy. The Jews had come to equate Moses and the Law as well as God and the temple.
The charge was serious. Blasphemy is a capital offense. The high priest (Annas or Caiaphas) asks Stephen if the charge was true, and Stephen embarks on his defense. Some commentators argue that Stephen began relating their common history and heritage in order to gain their general good will, but, when finding that failing, turned sharply against them. That viewpoint, I believe, ignores the developing argument through Stephen’s speech. Stephen was in attack mode from the start. Stephen begins by calling them “brothers and fathers” not to gain good will, but to implicate them in the history of disobedience that he relates.
Stephen’s defense (Acts 7) may be divided into five main sections, the first four of which discuss the history. Each section focuses on one (or two) of their heritage with whom God makes a covenant. In the first section, the focus is on Abraham. Stephen discusses Abraham’s obedience to leave his country and journey to land promised by God as an inheritance for his offspring. The covenant sign of circumcision is given.
Before continuing we need to discuss a seeming discrepancy between Stephen’s account and what we read in the OT. Stephen says in verse 4 that Abraham doesn’t leave Haran until “after his father died.” Putting together a few verses from Genesis 11 and 12 seem to indicate otherwise. Abram was born when his father, Terah, was about 70 years old (Genesis 11:26). Abram leaves Haran to go to Canaan when Abram is 75. If Stephen was correct in Acts 7:4, Terah must have died when he was 145 years old (70 when Abram was born plus 75 years of Abram’s life until he left Haran). However, Genesis 11:32 reads, “The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.” So who is right—Moses or Stephen?
It appears that the best answer we have is that Stephen was simply not concentrating on the age/date/mathematical accuracy of the event. His point was that Abram followed God in the sense of God now being his Father rather than Terah as his father—who died or was left in Haran (doesn’t matter to Stephen in getting his point across that Terah was no longer the father figure to Abram; God was). And that certainly makes sense. This is not a concern of biblical inerrancy. If Stephen did indeed mention that Terah had already died when Abram left Haran, and Luke had corrected that in recounting the speech, then perhaps we’d have to wonder about inerrancy. As it is, Luke appears to have faithfully recorded what Stephen said.
There is a way of looking at this that does seem to harmonize the two accounts. The Bible lists the fathers and first sons from Noah through Abram in Genesis 7 and 11. Here is the list. The number following the name is the person’s age at the time his child was born. The second number is how many more years after his son was born that he lived.
Noah 500 450
Shem 100 500
Arpachshad 35 403
Shelah 30 403
Eber 34 430
Peleg 30 209
Reu 32 207
Serug 30 200
Nahor 29 119
Terah 70 135
Now, if you add all the years that each person lived until he fathered his son, you’ll get the number of years from Noah to Abram. So, adding Shem’s 100 years, Arpachshad’s 35 years, Shelah’s 30 years, and on to Terah’s 70 years, you get a total of 395 years. If you add Abram’s 75 years (the age he left Haran), you have 465 years from Shem’s birth to Abram entering Canaan.
But the OT usually presents ages as the year of that person’s life. In other words, when I say I’m 53 years old, I mean that I have lived 53 years and now I am in my 54th year. In the OT, when it says someone is 75, it means he has lived 74 years and is now in his 75th year. A slight difference of perspective, but one that would eliminate about 10 years from our calculated time (since there are 10 people in the list from Shem to Abram). Therefore, instead of 465 years as calculated before, it is really about 455 years from Shem’s birth to Abram entering Canaan.
One more factor to consider-- Genesis 12:4 mentions that Abram is 75 when he left Haran. In the Hebrew that is written (literally word for word) “And Abram a son of five years seventy years when he departed from Haran.” Some scholars have suggested that Abram was 70 rather than 75, and that the meaning of this verse is that Abram had been following God as his Father (he being a son) for 5 years now of his 70 years if age. Without arguing the merits of that interpretation, the 5 fewer years would knock our calculation down from 455 to 450.
Now notice that the 450 years just happens to coincide from our chart with how many years Noah lived following Shem’s birth. In other words, Noah would have died just at the time Abram left Haran to go to Canaan. Since the Greek pater could mean either father or ancestor, Stephen’s reference in Acts 7:4 may not have been to Terah dying, but rather to Noah dying. Therefore, the verse could be meant to read: “After his ancestor [Noah] died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living” (7:4). It is possible that this is Stephen’s meaning, but it is a stretch.
Okay, back to Stephen’s defense. In the second section, Stephen concentrates on Jacob and Joseph. He mentions first that the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph and sold him into slavery. But with the famine and God’s favor on Joseph, Joseph saves the family from starvation. The family moves to Egypt, but when Jacob dies, he is buried back in the land promised by God.
Section 3, the longest, focuses on Moses. Stephen describes how “as the time of the promise drew near” (the promise of land inheritance), the people increased in Egypt. Moses understands he is to bring salvation to the people, but apparently the Israelites didn’t understand and Moses runs for his life to the desert around Sinai. But later Moses does lead the Israelites out and to Sinai and the receiving of the “living oracles.” (Note: Stephen’s high regard for the Law demonstrates that the early church was not seeking to establish a new religion, but saw the New Covenant as developing from the OT plan of God.) But though Moses led them to God and the Law, the Israelites disobeyed (7:39) and chose to worship the heavens (7:42-43) and make images to worship (7:41). Note especially that they “were rejoicing in the works of their hands.”
Section 4 focuses on David and Solomon. Here Stephen speaks of the tabernacle being of a pattern given by God. The Tabernacle and then the temple were to signify relationship with God—that he would (in a sense) dwell with them. But that should have been understood from the people’s perspective. They, however, seemed to understand it from God’s perspective—that God was confined to the temple over which they exercised control. Stephen argues that that is not so: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands” (7:48). The Jews had come to think of the temple—the thing made with hands—as the object of their worship. This was the same idolatry as expressed by their fathers in the desert at Sinai when they made the calf, calling it the god that brought them from Egypt.
Notice that Stephen’s descriptions of these four segments of the Jews’ history contain certain common themes that Stephen is emphasizing. We see mention of the land promise in all four segments. We see a type of savior in Joseph, Moses, and David. And we see the idea of God with his people through the circumcision sign, the giving of the Law, and the temple itself. But also in each segment following Abraham, we find that the Jews acted for themselves—selling Joseph because of jealousy, turning their hearts to Egypt, and by worshipping images (the work of their hands).
It is of great significance that Stephen links the themes of land promise, savior, and God’s presence together. These cumulatively are the promise to Abraham. And from these cumulatively are the blessing to all Abraham’s offspring, of whom are all the covenant people of God (Galatians 3:29), that is, the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). Recognize then that the promise of land is not simply a promise of a plot of dirt. Hebrews 3 and 4 make it clear that God’s promise of land is a connection to resting in him. Hebrews 11 shows that Abraham’s focus was not on land, but on “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). God’s promise of land, savior, and presence is our blessed hope of eternal relationship, secure and in peace, with our God.
In the fifth and final section Stephen makes the application. He calls the rulers stiff-necked because like their fathers they refuse to obey. He calls them uncircumcised in heart and ears because like their fathers, the desire of their hearts has turned away from God. And he says they resist the Holy Spirit because they’ve made their tradition and the temple into objects of worship just like their fathers. Finally, Stephen makes the most profound connection by saying that their fathers killed the prophets who had announced God’s Messiah, but they killed God’s Messiah himself. So Stephen has used his defense to brilliantly turn the tables on the rulers. They had accused him of blasphemy against the Law and against God, but Stephen says, “You broke the Law! You are the God-deniers!”
This speech is the longest of all the speeches and sermons recorded in Acts. None of either Paul’s sermons or Peter’s sermons is longer. The reason is that this speech provides the very purpose for the Apostolic Age—the transition of the covenants. It demonstrates the failures of the people in the old. It provides the reality of purpose within God’s plan—relationship. And it anticipates the New Covenant relationship in Stephen’s call to Christ to receive his spirit.