This is part of an ongoing study of the book of Acts. If you’d like to catch up, you can read the previous studies here. Before you begin today, be sure to read the entire chapter of Acts 6 here, and don’t forget to sound off in the comments below.
Luke begins chapter six with some interesting words we need to pay careful attention to. The NIV says “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing.” (emphasis mine) The New King James Version uses the word “multiplying” instead of increasing, which I believe to carry more of the weight of what is happening here. It may sound like semantics, but the importance of what changes in this chapter cannot be underestimated.
We should recap what has already happened in Acts up to this point to begin to make sense of this word. So far, the church has seen an explosion of believers join the original 120. They are up to over 5,000 so far after just two sermons delivered by Peter. We have seen that they are selling property to care for the poor among themselves and that the Lord is blessing their efforts with great supernatural power through healings, signs and wonders.
Luke has stated previously in Acts 2:47 that, “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” Now in chapter six he changes his tone from the additions of Peter’s sermons and the daily addition of converts to this phrase that connotes multiplication. In the church, addition happens when the few in charge work very hard to bring people in. Multiplication happens when an increasing number of people start bringing people in.
What Luke is trying to convey is that more than just the apostles or the original 120 are now evangelizing others and bringing them into the church community. We cannot make too much of this concept. When the book of Acts is done, chapter six can easily seen as the turning point in church growth, something we should pay careful attention to today.
Chapter six starts with a problem. As they say, “necessity is the mother of all invention.” Jesus uses this idea very well here to motivate the apostles to make some structural changes to how they carry out the mission Jesus gave them in chapter one. The problem the apostles face is with the daily distribution of food to widows. First, we could learn something important here. From nearly day one we see that the believers have taken it upon themselves to create a system to care for widows, something we see James place a high value on in James 1:27. How many church ministries today cater to those who can afford to pay for the services they receive? Widows and orphans in this cultural context cannot repay what they have been given by the church. Who are they we can help today who cannot repay us? The church would do well to ask itself this question today.
The issue at hand was that the “Hellenistic Jews” felt their widows were being treated less fairly than the “Hebrews.” We discussed in detail in chapter 2 who these people are. Remember that at this point, all the believers are converts from Judaism. There are no Gentile Christians at this point. Hellenistic Jews are Hebraic people who have been born in other nations outside of Israel and have as a native language and culture something besides that found in Israel. In Israel, there was a natural prejudice against them and it seems that some of that prejudice is still in operation within the feeding program.
This becomes the breaking point for the apostles. They realize that with the accelerating path of growth the church is already on, they cannot continue to manage things by themselves. They decide to have the disciples choose from within themselves seven people who can “wait tables.” Incidentally, Luke never tells us about any of these men waiting tables. We only hear about two of them, and that is in the context of them sharing the gospel with boldness.
When the apostles released these men into ministry, it changed things. Already the church had gone from just adding people on a daily basis to multiplying. Now we see in Acts 6:7 that the church is now multiplying rapidly.
One thing that has always stood out in Acts 6:7 is why Luke connects this activity to priests coming to faith in Jesus. There are many ways to speculate why they would have, but we can draw no conclusive reason for it, only that it happened. Such a dramatic shift this was in the life of the church that even the priests coming over and joining the ranks of the believers stuck out to everyone. No doubt it cost the priests their entire way of life. They were completely supplied for out of the coffers of the temple, so to become believers they surely would have been excommunicated from Jewish life.
Perhaps it was the unsettling nature of the backbone of Jewish life, the temple priests, leaving their duty to fellowship with the fledgeling church that led to what came next.
We are not told about Stephen waiting tables. We are told about him performing miracles and preaching about Jesus with boldness. This is the way it is in God’s kingdom. Wherever we are called upon to serve has no bearing on our fruitfulness. If you are a janitor for a church you can still be the greatest evangelist in your community. Stephen was responsible for distribution of food to widows yet he couldn’t contain the good news of Jesus’ salvation to himself.
The place he was speaking, the Synagogue of the Freedmen, was a Synagogue for Hellenistic Jews. Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew, as all of the seven who were chosen in verse 5 were, so he was speaking to others who shared Jewish faith and Roman culture like himself. “Freedmen” was a term in Roman culture that meant you were born a slave but purchased your freedom and citizenship in the Roman society. This was an aspect of the Roman world that was much different from what Americans think of as slavery. Roman slaves were not thought of as less than human as black people were in America’s founding (3/5 to be exact). They were simply at a lower station in life and they had the ability to work themselves out of that station, albeit with great difficulty.
While Stephen preached to the Hellenized Jews, they could not refute what he had to say, as much as they wanted to. That led them to do the next best thing. Lie. They decided to cobble together some false witnesses who would twist Stephen’s words around to make it seem as though he as blaspheming God, a charge punishable by death.
We end chapter six as Stephen is arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the religious rulers, just as the apostles had been before him. Next time, in chapter seven, we will see one of the most unique Gospel presentations in Scripture.
Questions for Chapters 6
- Why do you think the apostles felt it was wrong for them to wait tables?
- Why had the number of disciples started multiplying?
- What made the multiplication move rapidly?