Although the first converts to Christianity were all Jews, they were Jews of two distinct classes. First, the natives of Palestine, who spoke the vernacular Aramean dialect, and including perhaps the Jews from the east, by whom the same dialect was in use; and, second, the western Jews, who, being settled in the different provinces of the Roman empire, generally spoke the Greek language. As Jews, there was always a sort of jealousy between these two classes, arising from the pretensions to superiority of the Jews of Palestine, and particularly those of Jerusalem, on account of their birth and residence in the Holy Land, especially in the Holy City, and because the foreign Jews could not so accurately observe the ritual worship as those living in Jerusalem or Palestine; and also, because they used what was still popularly regarded as the holy language, being in fact a dialect thereof. This state of feeling towards them on the part of the resident Jews, was, naturally enough, resented by the foreign Jews, who, although they did not despise the privileges on which the others rested their pretensions, considered that they were prized too inordinately, and formed no just ground of religious distinction. In fact, from their residence abroad, where many of them had been born, the local ties of this religion were in them considerably loosened, and they did not so absorbingly estimate the ritual observance with which, as they were practicable only at Jerusalem, they were comparatively unfamiliar; and this state of feeling prepared them, better than the native Jews, for the reception of the Gospel. It is always to be remembered, that Judaism always was, and was intended to be, a local religion—confined to the Land of Promise; and such a state of difference, between those who remain in and those who overpass the territorial bounds, is inevitable, under any local religion.
It is to be lamented that conversion to Christianity did not entirely extinguish this state of feeling between the two parties, making them entirely and completely one in Christ Jesus; and we now come to a painful indication of its existence.
The recent establishment of a sort of universal hospitality among the followers of Christ, under which the rich lay aside the distinctions which wealth confers, and the poor were liberally supported from the common fund which the self-denial of the former provided, began to be attended with some difficulties as the numbers of the converts increased. Even the apostles were embarrassed by the multiplication of their duties, which extended, not only to the instruction of the people, but to the administration of the secular business of the community. Negligence or partiality cannot be ascribed to persons whose motives were so pure and spotless as theirs; but it is clear, from a subsequent avowal of Peter’s, that they were not equal to all the duties that grew upon them, and there was much danger that their daily cares in the distribution of the bread that perisheth to so many claimants, left them too little leisure for the impartation of spiritual food to the hungering multitude.
Au unpleasant incident supplied occasion for the application of a wise and effectual remedy for this serious and growing evil.
It came to the knowledge of the apostles, that “there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” It may be asked why the “widows,” in particular, should be mentioned. In answer we may remark, that the claims of widows to charitable consideration are prominently produced in the Epistles, and always engaged the special solicitude of the early church. In their case was involved that of young fatherless children; and it was one of peculiar urgency, when their conversion cut them off from the aid of their natural connections. An Oriental widow so circumstanced presents a case of even more absolute destitution than with us; for, in the East, any resources of remunerative occupation to a woman can be scarcely said to exist; and the comparatively secluded habits of life which custom exacts, prevent her from pressing her claims and wants upon the attention of others, with that vigor and effect which among ourselves a widow may properly do. And it may also be observed, that widows then were more numerous than with us, as the feeling of society, though it did not forbid, or even openly blame, the remarriage of widows, was decidedly unfavorable to the second marriages of women. Hence this consideration for the widows; and the susceptibility of the Hellenist converts, at the apparent neglect of “their widows” in “the daily ministration.”
It is quite possible that there may have been some foundation for the complaints of the Hellenist converts; for where the numbers to be attended to were so large, it may have happened that the least obtrusive dependents on the common fund, kept back also by the use of a foreign language, might be somewhat overlooked. It will further be observed, that the “murmurs” were not against the apostles, but against “the Hebrews”—probably the agents who assisted the apostles in the distribution—for it was clearly impossible that the apostles could deal out what was required to every individual with their own hands. Indeed, by the promptitude with which they provided a remedy, the apostles seem to have in some pleasure admitted the grievance, which we are not to suppose was urged upon their attention with any bitterness, but as an amicable representation of the fact.
The apostles convened the body of the believers, and declared their intention to abandon to other hands a trust which was already burdensome, and might become invidious. There had been a great increase in the number of the disciples, the charge of whose spiritual interests was quite sufficient to engage their entire attention; and if the temporal charge became incompatible with the spiritual, it could not be a question which of the two they ought to forego. They had decided to give their whole time and thought to the furtherance of the Gospel, and to the discharge of the spiritual trust committed to them. The terms used are remarkable, “And we will give ourselves continually unto prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” Here it is seen that “the ministry of the word” is not placed in the fore-front of their duties, and prayer thrown in as the incident of convenient seasons—but “prayer” is placed in the front as the chief and primary matter, and “the ministry of the word” follows in the second place—perhaps as a sequel or consequence. By this, if we like to be taught, we may learn that prayer holds no second place among our duties, or rather among the qualifying privileges of useful service. Since all success in the furtherance of the Gospel is of God, prayer stands even before effort in the ministry of the word; if it be not rather that prayer is in itself effort—and effort of the most prevailing and effectual kind.
Determined, therefore, to free themselves from the inferior trusts, which others might discharge as effectually as themselves, and to reserve all their strength for their spiritual labors, they directed that the church should, after due inquiry, select seven men of exemplary character, and already in possession of spiritual gifts and graces, and present them to the apostles, that they might commit to them the trust they were themselves ready to lay down. Thus course was very acceptable to the church, which in due time made choice of seven qualified persons, who were then solemnly set apart to this service, by prayer and the imposition of the apostles’ hands.
The names of the persons to whom this high and honorable trust was committed, were Stephen, who is specially distinguished by the sacred writer as one eminently endowed with faith, and other high gifts of the Spirit; Philip, of whom we shall hear more anon; Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, who is noted as “a proselyte of Antioch.” From this it may be surmised that none of the others were proselytes; but as all their names are Greek, it may be inferred that they were all Hellenists; that is, that, in the fulness of Christian confidence and brotherly love, the whole seven had been selected from the body which had felt itself aggrieved—a step which could not fail to cut off for the future all grounds for suspicion or complaint against “the Hebrews” on the part of “the Grecians.”