Studies in the Book of Acts
Persecution Strikes the Church, continued
Hebraic and Grecian Jews (6:1)
Luke turns away from the conflict between the Sanhedrin and the church leaders to introduce two groups within the Jerusalem church. They were the “Grecian” Jews (Greek, Hellenistai, or “Hellenists”) and “Hebraic” Jews. We may be surprised that subgroups exist within the first church. But these groups are crucial to the story of Acts. It’s important we identify these Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews, for it will help us understand the situation of the Jerusalem church, and how the gospel message is being preached.
Most commentators divide the Grecian and Hebraic Jews along linguistic and geographic lines. The Hellenistic Jews are those who speak mainly Greek, and formerly lived outside of Judea and Galilee. But they had settled in Jerusalem — retired, as it were, to the homeland. Nevertheless, they still have affinities with lands of the Jewish dispersion from which they came. The Hebraic Jews are those who speak mainly Aramaic, and were born in Jerusalem or Judea. A parallel in modern Jerusalem would be the distinction between Jews who were born in the land of Israel (sabras) and those who migrated to Israel from other nations. The Hellenistic Jews in the church probably attended Greek-speaking synagogues before they became Christians. The Hebraic Christians attended synagogues in which Aramaic was used.
Defining these two groups solely by their language and place of birth lacks some precision. Paul called himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5) and classed himself among the Hebraioi (2 Corinthians 11:22). But he was fluent in Greek and came from Tarsus in Asia Minor, not Jerusalem. In that sense, Paul was a Hellenist who spoke Aramaic like a native. While Paul had been born a Diaspora Jew, it’s probable that he lived since his youth in Jerusalem, where he was immersed in Judaism.
Clearly, we must go further when trying to understand the difference between Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews. Some commentators feel that the Hellenistic Jews are more devoted to the ancestral religion and culture than the Aramaic-speaking Jews. Why would they have returned to Judea, whose culture and economy were less attractive than those of other regions of the Roman Empire?
Further, we can probably assume that Diaspora Jews who settled in Jerusalem may have been looked upon with dislike and suspicion by the natives. The immigrants would have had different languages (Greek and native tongues), values and culture. We can see this suspicion and resentment in many nations today by native-born people against immigrants.
According to the Talmud, Pharisaism made little secret of its contempt for Hellenists and, unlike those from Syria or Babylonia (regions that are often considered extensions of the Holy Land in Talmudic discussions), they were frequently categorized by the native-born … populace of Jerusalem as second-class Israelites. [Longenecker, 329.]
As the church in Jerusalem grew larger, more and more Hebraic and Grecian Jews came into the church, and some of the prejudices between the two groups carried over into the church. As the case of Ananias and Sapphira showed, all was not well with everyone in the church. One of the difficulties is that the Greek-speaking Jews feel that they are being discriminated against in the Jerusalem church. Perhaps the slight is not intentional, but it is nonetheless felt. Luke implies that the Hellenists are a somewhat neglected minority, and for a time, not well served.
Widows neglected (6:1)
The problem is that the Hellenistic widows of the Jerusalem church are “being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (6:1). That is, the church apparently has an organized charity, such as a daily “soup kitchen” for the needy, including widows. But the immigrant widows are not getting an equal share. This is a blight on the church. Both the Torah and the example of Jesus mandate that the community pay special attention to helping widows. [Deuteronomy 10:18; 14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17, 19-21; 26:12-13.] The law even specifies a curse for those who neglect the poor (Deuteronomy 27:19).
The prophets stress the responsibility of “doing justice” for widows. [Malachi 3:5; Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:2; Jeremiah 5:28; 7:6; 23:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Psalm 94:6.] In the New Testament, the epistle of James reflects the importance of such justice, insisting that true religion includes looking after orphans and widows in their distress (1:27). Mechanisms for aiding widows had long been promoted in Judaism. Jews had developed a system of aid to the poor and those in need. Religious communities such as the Essenes had a kind of social security system that provided for members’ needs. But here Christians are neglecting their own.
As in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, this neglect of church widows is no incidental problem. Although Luke presents the situation without condemnation, the affront threatens the spiritual integrity of the Christian community. It’s possible that the inequity in the distribution of food was merely the surface issue. This may be part of a larger conflict between two groups who had different cultural backgrounds. (We will eventually see doctrinal differences become more evident between the two groups.)
Earlier, we saw the Christian community taking care of the needy. Believers were freely sharing their possessions with the less fortunate among them (2:44-45; 5:32, 34-35). But as the church grows, so does the number of widows who need help. To make matters worse, widows from the Diaspora would probably be especially in need. They would be less likely to have relatives nearby to help them. And if they do not speak the local language very well, they may be missing out on some of the information.
They are the ones with the most need, but the church is neglecting them. Almost certainly, discrimination is involved in the inequity, but Luke tends to downplay controversies in favor of showing how problems were resolved. The distribution of food is probably in the hands of the Hebrews, and they unthinkingly take care of their own, and the Greek-speaking widows cannot communicate their needs to the people doing the distribution.
Ultimately, the apostles are responsible, because they administer the common fund (4:34-35), but they have more work than they can handle. Since they are Hebrews, it is easy for them to be unaware that the Greek-speaking widows are being neglected. As soon as they learn that the immigrant widows are being neglected, they immediately take steps to correct the problem.
“Choose seven men” (6:2-6)
When the neglect comes to light, the Twelve gather the church together and tell the members that the apostles can no longer manage the food distribution program. They simply lack the time to do it right. The apostles are too occupied with evangelism to “wait on tables” (6:2). They ask the group to chose seven men to handle the daily distribution. The apostles will turn the responsibility of the “soup kitchen” over to them (verse 3).
The apostles do not ignore the problem, nor chastise the widows for complaining. Nor do they try to hold on to this important responsibility, because they can do it only if they neglect their duty to preach. Members of the Jerusalem congregation are therefore asked to choose seven people who can take over the social-service work of the church.
The Twelve obviously have great stature and power in the church community and could have chosen the leaders on their own. But on this critical decision they are willing to give up their authority and ask the community to decide. The apostles turn the authority for working out the solution of the problem to those who feel it most acutely, for they are probably the best ones to solve it.
The apostles give requirements: The men are to have both wisdom and the Spirit, or we might say, a wisdom inspired by the Holy Spirit (6:3). Clearly, the apostles are no longer jockeying for power, as when they were unconverted (Luke 22:24; Matthew 20:20-28). The seven men chosen are Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch (6:5). The men have Greek names, and it is likely that they all come from the Hellenistic wing of the Jerusalem church (though many Judean Jews also have Greek names).
Stephen and Philip (6:5)
Stephen, introduced here almost as an aside, will become an important figure in Luke’s story. (Luke often casually introduces important characters a short time before they become important.) His activities in the next chapter link the Jerusalem church to the Christian movement beyond Judea. He is a pivotal character whose death ends Luke’s story of the Jerusalem church. Luke mentions Stephen later in Acts, and his book shows how Stephen provides a turning point for the spread of the gospel (11:19; 22:20). In particular, Stephen’s speech is the catalyst that sparks a great persecution. This causes Christians to flee to other areas, bringing the gospel with them (8:2). What looked like bad news at first, turned out to be good in the long run.
Of the other six individuals Luke mentions, only Philip plays a further role in Luke’s account. It is an important one. Philip became a prophet-evangelist. Luke shows him doing signs and miracles (8:6, 13) and being empowered by the Spirit to preach the gospel (8:29, 39). His seven daughters prophesy (21:9). Philip carries the gospel to Samaria (8:5); proclaims salvation to the Ethiopian (8:29); and takes the message along the Judean coast from Azotus to Caesarea (8:40). Some years later on his final trip to Jerusalem, Paul visits Philip in Caesarea (21:8). It’s possible that Philip was one of Luke’s sources for the story of Acts, especially for the events narrated in chapters 6-8.
The interesting thing about Nicolaus, the last-mentioned of the seven, is that he is a convert (proselyte) to Judaism from paganism. Only full converts are called proselytes. They are instructed in Judaism, baptized and circumcised. The God-fearers only worship and study in the synagogues; they are not circumcised. Luke notes that Nicolas comes from Antioch in Syria. This is the first reference to the city that will soon become the launching-point for the Gentile mission. And the church already has a leader who is Gentile by blood.
Laying on of hands (6:6)
The church community as a whole, or perhaps the Hellenistic part, selects the men it wants to handle the daily distribution. They are taken to the apostles, who officially place them in office. The apostles give a community prayer and “laid their hands on them” (6:6). This is the first mention of this practice in Acts. In Acts it accompanies several events — baptism (8:17, 19; 19:6); healings (9:12, 17; 28:8) and a commission to ministry (13:3). The practice has ties with the Old Testament, where the laying on of hands is mentioned in a variety of contexts. [Genesis 48:13-20; Exodus 29:10; Leviticus 1:4, 3:2; 4:4; 16:21; Numbers 27:23.] In general, it symbolizes a conferring of office and responsibility (Numbers 8:10). In the Old Testament, it was the community of Israel that placed hands on the individual, though it would have been physically impossible for the entire community to do it. People representingthe community laid on their hands. The same thing is true in Acts as the apostles lay hands on the seven men on behalf of the whole community. This ritual signals that the church as a whole approves the men to supervise the daily distribution.
It is not quite as clear as NIV makes out who prayed and laid their hands on them. If the grammatical agreements of the Greek are any guide, then it was done by the whole church acting “in the presence of the apostles”.… By this act the people made them their representatives, as the Israelites had once made Levites their representatives by laying hands on them (Numbers 27:18; Deuteronomy 34:9). [David J. Williams, Acts. New International Bible Commentary. (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1990), page 123.]
It is often assumed that the Seven are appointed to the office of deacon. However, Luke does not refer to them by this term. He uses the ordinary verb for service, diakoneo, but not the noun diakonos. When Philip is described by a title, he is called “Philip the evangelist” (21:8), not “Philip the deacon.” (The first New Testament mention of deacons is in Romans 16:1 and Philippians 1:1.)
Actually, the Seven are not given a title — they are in a service role. Their responsibility is similar to what deacons later did (1 Timothy 3:8-13), but over time, it becomes apparent that these men are appointed by God to serve in a special ministry. Stephen and Philip, the two of the Seven about which we know something, seem to have no further connection to the daily distribution or “waiting on tables.” They are prophets who preach the word, do signs and wonders, and extend the work of the apostles.
They are formally named as the Seven (Acts 21:8), even as the original apostles are called the Twelve. In effect, the office of the Seven is as unique as that of the original apostles.
While not minimizing the importance of the apostles to the whole church, we may say, that in some way Stephen, Philip, and perhaps others of the appointed seven may well have been to the Hellenistic believers what the apostles were to the native-born Christians. [Longenecker, 335.]
Jerusalem church grows (6:7)
Luke ends the account of the Seven with a summary statement of the progress of the gospel and church: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7). This is one of Luke’s regular pauses to summarize the state of the church’s growth in Jerusalem (2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14). Six of these general reports have been noted in Acts, each one showing a further outreach of the gospel from Jerusalem. [Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:31.]
The events of the first panel probably take place in the first year or so after Jesus’ resurrection. The second panel occurs in the mid-thirties A.D. The second panel (6:8-9:30) focuses on the work of three Hellenists whose ministries were essential for spreading the gospel beyond Jerusalem — Stephen, Philip, and Saul (Paul). Stephen had a brief career. He was martyred after giving a scathing speech to Jews who were members of one or more Hellenistic synagogues in Jerusalem.
Luke records only a brief ministry for Philip in Samaria and the coastal area of Judea. However, he probably continued to preach, and is still part of the community about 20 years later (21:8-9). Also in the second panel, Luke records Saul’s conversion and early ministry. He is, in a sense, the third “Hellenist.” (Though Saul is a Hebraic Jew in some respects, he is also a man of the Diaspora and the Greek world.)
In the second panel, Luke’s interest moves from Peter and the Twelve to focus more on the Hellenistic Seven and Paul. The church in Jerusalem has expanded among Jews who are connected with the world at large — the Hellenists. They may be “Hellenists” because of one or more characteristics — language, place of birth, custom or psychological orientation. This means that the preaching of the gospel has begun to go beyond the traditional preoccupations of Jewish culture — its land (especially Jerusalem), the temple and the Law.
The church has resolved some of its major potential problems — especially injustice and disunity. Now, in a spirit of prayer and with the power of the Holy Spirit, it is ready to move on — “So the word of God spread” (6:7).
Luke has successfully portrayed a restored people and the authority of the Twelve over it. Now, he prepares for the second stage of Jesus’ programmatic prophecy in Acts 1:8, that the Gospel would move out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the world. [Johnson, 110.]
Luke informs his readers that a large number of priests are converted and become part of the church (6:7). One commentator estimates that as many as 8,000 priests and 10,000 Levites serve at the temple. We should distinguish these ordinary priests from the high priestly families. The working priests are a marginalized group — far removed from the world of the enormously wealthy high priestly families — and perhaps even disaffected from them. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:181; Wars 2:409-410.] It is from the ranks of the common priests that many were converted to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.