In Acts 6 we see brought out very vividly Satan’s two master methods by which he has endeavored to hinder the work of God throughout the centuries. In the first half of the chapter we see him endeavoring to hinder by inward dissension; in the second half by outward persecution. In the Epistle to the Philippians Paul urged the believers to go on together in the unity of the Spirit. He told them that as long as they work together in love and unity they need never be afraid of the attitude from without. Even their adversaries realize it is impossible to hinder those who stand together in Christian harmony. But if that inward peace is destroyed, then the church is weakened when it has to face a godless world.
Choosing the Seven (Act_6:1-7)
In the first four verses of Acts 6 we see Satan trying to disturb the inward peace of the church. God had accomplished a wonderful thing. Day after day and week after week ever since Pentecost, God had “added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Three thousand definitely stepped out from among the multitudes who rejected Christ on the day of Pentecost; another two thousand were added shortly after. Then in Acts 5 we learned that a great many believers were added to the Lord, and it looked as though Christianity was to sweep everything before it.
Satan saw that he must busy himself if he was to hinder this work. He found access to the hearts even of God’s own children and started a spirit of murmuring and complaining among them, for he knows that if he can set believer against believer, he will easily accomplish his fell purpose.
Oh, how many a church, how many a testimony for God, has been destroyed in that way! God may be graciously working, precious souls are being saved, and then some member gets an idea that he is not being appreciated. He begins murmuring and goes around in the church complaining against his brethren. Little unkind things are said reflecting on others, and so a spirit of opposition develops. Then people wonder why the work of God does not make more progress, and why there does not seem to be more power in the ministry, and why more souls are not being saved. It is all because there is a root of bitterness inside, which is not judged. How many warnings we have in God’s Word against such things! He has told us to avoid murmuring and evil speaking.
A brother was strongly denouncing another brother to a friend of mine, and pointing out his faults and inconsistencies. My friend turned to him and asked quietly, “Is it because you love your brother that you are talking like this?” The calumniator blushed with shame. It is not love that leads people to do this; it is Satan acting through God’s people and leading them to take an unkind or discourteous attitude toward their brethren.
In this way Satan tried to disrupt the church at Jerusalem. In the days when so many were being saved and the Spirit of God was working so mightily, one would think that there would have been no place for murmuring or selfishness. But it was in those very days that “there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” The word Grecians does not mean “Gentiles.” It should be translated “Hellenists.” It signifies Jews who were born not in Palestine, but in other lands where Greek was the language commonly used. In other words, they were Greek-speaking Jews. Up to this time the Gentiles had not been brought into the church at Jerusalem. Those converted on the day of Pentecost were Jewish and the Gentiles that had been converted or proselytized were all linked with the house of Israel in some way. The Hellenist Christians had a great many Gentile ways about them because they were brought up among the Greeks. The Hebrews were the Jews of Palestine who were much more rigid observers of the law of Moses than the Hellenists. A great deal of bitterness existed between these two groups. The Hebrews of Palestine, very proud of their heritage, looked with suspicion and sometimes with contempt at their fellow Jews who were born among the Gentiles. The Hellenistic Jews, who gloried in their wider freedom, felt that the Hebrews of Palestine were very narrow-minded and self-centered.
This spirit of dissension, which existed before their conversion, cropped up after they were saved. When people are saved, the new nature they receive does not entirely change their old nature. We still have our natural tendencies which we must judge continually in the presence of God. A brother lost his temper during a meeting and at the close apologized: “You must excuse me, it’s the Irish in me.” A dear brother quietly said, “God can make the Irishman behave like a Christian.” We are not to excuse ourselves if we go wrong because of national characteristics.
These Hellenist Jews and the Hebrews of Palestine were converted and brought to Christ, yet Satan found a means of creating dissension among them. The Hellenist Jews said, “Our widows are neglected in the daily ministration.” In other words, “If a Jewish widow born in Palestine comes for help she gets two loaves; but a Hellenist widow only one. Our widows are not being treated fairly.” So they began to complain and murmur.
I have no doubt that those disciples who had charge of the food distribution tried to be fair and upright, but it is not easy to please everybody. It is so easy to imagine people treating us coldly and indifferently. We find fault with so many things for which we have no real ground of complaint.
However, the twelve immediately called the rest of the disciples together and said, “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.” I suppose the complainers had gone to these leaders and said, “You ought to do something about this; there must be a fairer method of administration.” But the twelve answered in effect, “Brethren, we have an important job to do. Our business is to minister the Word of God.” But recognizing that the care of the physical needs of the people required attention, they commanded: “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” In other words they said, “You think that some are not acting honestly? Then you choose seven men, seven deacons of your own selection, so you will have no more reason to complain, but they should be men of honest report.” It takes a man of integrity to handle the finances of the church; a man full of the Holy Ghost to care for the temporal things of the assembly as well as to preach the Word. The disciples continued, “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.”
Notice the order-prayer first, and then the ministry. Often the ministry of the Word seems so powerless and weak because there is so little prayer behind it. A man of God must be a man of prayer; he must know the importance of waiting on God in private if he is to have the power of God in public. The twelve said as it were, “Our business is to spend our time in the presence of God in order that we may receive a message from Him and present that message in the energy of the Holy Ghost, that it may be used in the building up of the saints.” God grant that we too may ever have this ideal before us!
We are told that “the saying pleased the whole multitude.” Apparently everybody had an opportunity to express himself. It. is amazing how little of church politics you find in the selection of these seven men. I do not know of any worse form of politics than that wherein someone tries to dominate or control a certain situation in the church. There was nothing of that here.
One might have expected the people to say, “We must be sure to have three Palestinian Jews, three Hellenists, and then we will let these six decide on the seventh one.” That’s the way we might do it today. But they did not do that at all. When the matter was put up before the whole church they met together and chose seven Hellenistic Jews! Every one of them had a Greek name: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas. Nicolas was not even a Jew, but a Gentile who had been a proselyte to Judaism and a convert of Christianity. Instead of having a mixed committee, one not likely to dominate the situation for any one group, they said, “We will make up a committee entirely of the party that is doing the complaining.” Imagine their putting these brethren in charge of the care of physical needs.
“And the word of God increased, and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly.” When dissension is checked within, then Satan’s work is hindered without, and the work of God continues in great power and blessing. My brethren, is there not something here that ought to speak to every one of our hearts? Are you praying for a revival and blessing in the church of God? Do you ever go into the presence of God and say, “Lord, revive me. Is there something in me that hinders a revival; has this tongue of mine been working overtime to hinder the work of the Spirit of God?” If we have, we may all say, “God, give me grace to judge it in the presence of the Lord, that the Holy Spirit may have free course and the Word go forth with great power.”
The Persecution of Stephen (Act_6:8-15)
We are told in a later Epistle of Paul’s that “they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1Ti_3:13). And we find in Act_6:8 that one of these men who had been appointed as a deacon to serve tables fulfilled his ministry so blessedly that God said to him, “Stephen, I have a wider ministry for you; I have something more for you to do.” We read, “Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.” This is the first time we read of any member of the church, other than the apostles, doing miracles. God put His hand on Stephen and He used him to perform miracles and wonders. If you are faithful in a little place, God will have a much larger place for you. If you are faithful in things that are small, He will put you in a place over things that are large (see Mat_25:23). People want to do such big things, but they are often not willing to do the little things.
Stephen had been true and faithful in serving tables and so God said, “I want you to go out and preach.” But this led to renewed persecution. The devil had not been able to disrupt the work by inward dissension, so he decided to try another method with Stephen. We read: “There arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.” These objectors argued with him; they would rise up in the meetings to ask questions and find fault. But Stephen, full of faith and the Holy Ghost, was more than a match for them all. When they could not accuse him openly they acted underhandedly. “They suborned men, which said. We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.” We may be sure of this: Stephen never said one blasphemous word against either Moses or God.
But these false witnesses, goaded on by others who had been opposing the truth of God, “stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council.” What were the blasphemous words? Well, they tried lamely to suggest something: “We heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.”
Had Stephen said that? Certainly not. Had they heard anything like it? Yes, for Jesus Christ had prophesied that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed (as they were in a.d. 70). Also, Jesus Christ had declared the new dispensation would succeed the old (as it did in the providence of God). And so they were simply misusing the words that had been reported from the lips of Jesus Christ. You know the old saying, “Half a truth is a whole lie.” If you take someone’s words out of their context and turn them around you can easily make him out a falsifier.
We are told of Stephen that “all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” I wish I could have a photograph or picture of Stephen standing before the council, listening to all those false accusations, and noticing the expressions of rage, ridicule, and indignation on the faces of his accusers. Yet he stood there, looking at them with a radiant countenance, full of love, trust, peace, and confidence, undisturbed by all the bitter things that were being said. His heart was not filled with malice because of their hatred toward him, but joy in the realization that he was there as Christ’s faithful servant.
In the next chapter we read of his defense, but we leave him now facing the council with a countenance like an angel. Stephen has been with the Lord for many years but he has never lost that countenance. He is in glory, still with the face as that of an angel.
We remember the story that our Lord told of the nobleman who went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. But his citizens hated him and sent a message after him saying, “We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luk_19:14). Evidently when the Lord Jesus related that parable He looked forward to this very day. He had been crucified and had gone into the far country. Now after some months the Word of God had been preached to Israel, but nationally they were unchanged, as proved by their attitude toward Stephen.