Read the Passage: Acts 6-7
Choosing of Deacons (6:1–7)
In Acts 6:1 Luke writes, “In those days . . . the number of the disciples in Jerusalem was multiplying.” While we know that the number was at least 5,000 men (cf. Acts 4:4), it is unknown how many believers there were—a likely estimate is around 20,000 people. The dramatic growth of the church led to logistical challenges (cf. Acts 1:15; 2:41). Luke explains, “A complaint arose against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1). Hebrews were ethnic Jews, and Hellenists were Greek proselytes. The daily distribution was likely a reference to the sharing mentioned at Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–35. The apostles’ response to this situation was, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. . . . We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2–4).
In order to resolve the conflict—be it real or perceived—the apostles suggested appointing seven deacons who were of good reputation, and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. These men could handle the practical matters of the church, while the apostles devoted their time to the spiritual matters. Then seven men, likely all Hellenists, were appointed to be deacons, only two of whom appear elsewhere in Scripture—Philip and Stephen. This solution was evidently a good one, for “the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7). Note the characteristics of deacons given later in Scripture, which include: being reverent, not double-tongued, not given to wine, not greedy, holding sound doctrine, being blameless, having a spiritually mature wife, and having one’s family in order (cf. 1 Tim. 3:8–13).
Ministry of Stephen (6:8–15)
In Acts 6:8–15 the ministry and persecution of Stephen is introduced. Luke notes that persecution came especially from the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” (Acts 6:9), which was probably a gathering of Hellenistic Jewish proselytes who were former Roman slaves. Interestingly, Paul’s home city of Tarsus was in Cilicia, which explains his presence here (cf. Acts 7:58; 8:3). Since these Jews could not verbally resist Stephen in debate, they leveled false charges against him that were strikingly similar to the false charges raised at Jesus’ trial (cf. Mark 13:2; 14:58; John 2:19–22). Note that the false charges show the Jews understood that the gospel message entailed the sacrificial system no longer being necessary (cf. Heb. 10:1–10). Luke reports that, like Moses, Stephen’s face shone like that of an angel (cf. Acts 6:15; Exod. 34:29–35).
Martyrdom of Stephen (7:1–60)
Acts 7:1–53 contains Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin regarding the charges that he had spoken blasphemy against the law. Stephen’s defense essentially consisted of a review of the history of God’s people. He mentioned the call of Abraham (cf. Acts 7:2–8), the captivity in Egypt (cf. Acts 7:9–16), the exodus under Moses (cf. Acts 7:17–36), the rebellion of the nation (cf. Acts 7:37–43), and the possession of the Tabernacle (cf. Acts 7:44–50). Stephen concluded his defense with an accusation against the Jewish leaders (cf. Acts 7:51–53). Interestingly, Stephen twice cites the Jewish tradition, not clearly mentioned in the Old Testament, that the law was given to Moses by angels (cf. Acts 7:38, 53; Deut. 33:2; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). Gatherings of angels rarely occur in Scripture, only happening in God’s presence at Sinai, Jesus’ birth, and in heaven.
In response to Stephen’s defense, the members of the Sanhedrin were “cut to the heart” (Acts 7:54), yet they did not repent. Then, like Isaiah (cf. Isa. 6:1–3), Ezekiel (cf. Ezek. 1:26–28), Paul (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2–4), and John (cf. Rev. 1:10), Stephen received a vision of God’s glory in heaven. Interestingly, Stephen refers to Jesus as “the Son of Man” (Acts 7:56), which is the only reference to Jesus being the Son of Man in the New Testament apart from Jesus’ own self-designation in the Gospels. Furthermore, Stephen notes that he saw Jesus standing at God’s right hand, as opposed to sitting (cf. Dan. 7:13–14; Zech. 4:14). Stephen’s announcement of this vision led to a mob-mentality reaction to kill him. By way of foreshadowing, Luke reports that at this time Saul watched over the peoples’ garments (cf. Acts 7:58). This is the first appearance of Saul in the New Testament.
- What is the role of a deacon in the church? How do deacons differ in ministry than elders or pastors? Who is qualified to be a deacon?
- Do you think the charge of unequal distribution of goods was correct? Was it caused by prejudice, lack of administration, or some other reason?
- How important is it that pastors give time to prayer and study, while deacons give time to service and practical ministry? Do most churches get this correct?
- Why do you think Stephen chose to defend himself by rehearsing a history of Israel? Did Stephen clearly answer the charges against him?
- Jesus taught, “The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God” (John 16:2). Is this still true today?