1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. – Acts 6:1-9 ESV
One of the things that’s easy to miss while studying the book of Acts is the sovereign hand of God working behind the scenes. Luke’s retelling of the events surrounding the early days of the church and its subsequent growth can come across as nothing more than an historical record. But Luke, while historically accurate and faithful to provide us with a reliable account of those days, does so much more. Under the inspiration of the Spirit of God himself, he pens a detailed chronicle of God’s divine orchestration of each and every phase of the church’s growth. Events that appear, at first glance, to be little more than chance occurrences or the unplanned results of fate are, on closer examination, the result of God’s sovereign hand.
The fact that the Holy Spirit came during the feast of Pentecost is not to be overlooked. The day of Pentecost was an annual spring feast at which the Jews presented the first-fruits of their wheat harvest to God. In essence, as a result of the Spirit indwelling the disciples and empowering them to speak in foreign languages, thousands came to faith in Christ that day. They became the first-fruits of what would become an ever-increasing harvest of believers. As we read through Luke’s account, we find a steady stream of examples illustrating God’s behind-the-scenes activity in the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church.
Peter and John didn’t just happen to run into the lame man at the Gate Beautiful leading into the Temple. It had been a divinely ordained encounter. The fact that Peter’s healing of the man took place at the hour of prayer, when the Temple grounds were filled with people, was not a case of good timing, but of God’s planning. And more than 5,000 people came to faith as a result. Even the arrest of Peter and John, clearly the decision of the high priest and the Jewish council, was actually preordained by God. Their arrest provided them with an opportunity to speak truth to these important religious leaders, but more importantly, it forced the rest of the disciples to pray, asking God to provide them with boldness. Their arrest proved that there would be strong opposition to their efforts and created in the disciples a growing dependence upon God. It was all part of the plan. And when you consider the fact that the early converts to Christianity were made up of people from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, it explains how the church was able to meet the physical needs of its growing congregation. The rich were selling their properties and giving the proceeds to the apostles so that no one had any need. This was not a case of human generosity, but divine planning. God was at work, bringing into His rapidly growing family a diverse group of individuals, then moving in their hearts so that the needs of all were met.
And we see that same thing illustrated in these opening verses to chapter six. Luke describes a situation that had arisen within the church, that was the result of its continued expansion. He mentions two groups of individuals: The Hellenists and the Hebrews. These were all Jews who had come to faith in Christ and who “worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity” (Acts 2:46 NLT). But Luke mentions that “there were rumblings of discontent” (Acts 6:1 NLT). A dispute had arisen within the church between these two groups of people. There was conflict in the camp. And it would be easy to assume that this was out of God’s will and not a part of His plan. But look closer. Take notice of what is really going on here. Sometimes we must look beyond what appears to be the obvious in order to see the subtle, invisible hand of God at work. First of all, this dispute was taking place between two different sets of Jews: First were the Hellenists, or Greek-speaking Jews. These were Jews who had left Palestine as a result of one of the many diasporas or forced dispersions. They had ended up living in foreign lands and had picked up the Greek language and customs. Some would have been in Jerusalem in order to celebrate Passover and the Feast of Pentecost. They could have been part of the original crowd that heard the disciples speaking in tongues and came to faith. Others could have accepted Christ as a result of the message Peter preached in Solomon’s portico. These were Jews who were not native to the land of Israel and who would have been looked down on by the native Hebrews. And that seems to be the source of the conflict. The Hellenistic Jews were complaining that their widows were being overlooked by the native Jews. Keep in mind, this was all taking place within the church. These were new converts to Christianity who were arguing over an issue of discrimination within their own ranks. How could this be of God? Why would He allow this to happen? What good could come from this kind of conflict within the body of Christ?
Luke records that “the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples” (Acts 6:2 ESV). The 11 disciples of Jesus, plus Matthias, Judas’s replacement, called together what was probably the original group of 120 disciples who had been in the upper room at Pentecost. They recognize that the growing church is creating an increasing demand on their time, distracting them from doing what Jesus had commanded them to do: To teach and lead. They express their concern: ““It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2 ESV), and then ask that recommendations be made for men who might step in and help with this dispute and the future distribution of funds and resources within the church. The men whose names are submitted must meet a set of standards. They must be “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3 ESV). Now, had this conflict not taken place, this selection process might never have occurred. It was the growth of the church and the inclusion of Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews that had caused the problem. And the problem had exposed an even more important need: The expansion of the leadership team to meet the growing demands of the ever-increasing congregation.
And Luke records that, “they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch” (Acts 6:5 ESV). What is important to notice here is that these seven men all have Greek names. Since the original complaint had come from the Greek-speaking Jews, it made sense that men who were more than likely Hellenists themselves, would be the best choices for handling the issue. And, whether we see it or not, this is where God’s sovereign hand is at work. Note that one of the men mentioned is Stephen. We will hear more about him in the days ahead. He will play a significant role in the continued spread of the church. But what is really happening here is the divine plan of God preparing the church to spread beyond the confines of Jerusalem and outside the context of Judaism. If you recall, Jesus had told the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere–in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NLT). So far, they had not left the city of Jerusalem. They had not ventured beyond the city walls. Jesus had clearly commanded them to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19 NLT). But they were still in Jerusalem.
That’s where God comes in. He was working behind the scenes, orchestrating events in such a way that the gospel would eventually spread beyond the city of Jerusalem and into the rest of Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. In fact, that is what the rest of the book of Acts is all about. And this little dispute between the Hellenists and native Jews would be the impetus. These godly men with Greek names were chosen to meet the needs of the Greek-speaking widows. They were selected to serve. But they would do much more. As we will see, Stephen will end up sharing the gospel and sacrificing his life for the cause of Christ. In the verses that follow, we will see Stephen doing far more than serving widows. He will be sharing the gospel, and the group to whom he ministered was made up “ Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia” (Acts 6:9 NLT). They were part of the synagogue of the Freedman. These would have been former Roman slaves who had been granted their freedom and who had become Jews. They would have been considered Hellenists, and who better to share the gospel with them than one of their own: Stephen.
A dispute had resulted in the appointment of a new set of leaders. And those leaders had been Greek-speaking Jews, of whom one was a man named Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, full of grace and power. And he would to be far more than an adequate servant or deacon. He would be an evangelist. And, because of the mighty hand of God, working behind the scenes, the gospel was about to break through the confines of Jerusalem and burst beyond the ethnic barrier of Judaism, all the way to the ends of the earth.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.