God’s Word for You
Acts 6:1-2 Their widows were being overlooked
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, November 29, 2019
Choosing the Seven
In the early 1960s, a few American test pilots became world-famous as the Mercury Seven, the first humans to be shot into space and return safely in their vehicles. When another group of pilots was selected to follow them in the Gemini program, publicity agents struggled with what to call them: the “Gemini Nine,” the “New Nine,” or the “Next Nine.” Eventually people gave up with a label for the subgroups and just called all of the space-going test pilots “astronauts.” We have a similar problem with the second group of Christian pastors. Are they “the Seven Deacons”? The Bible doesn’t call them anything but “seven men.” (The English term “deacon” only occurs in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-12, but the Greek word deakonos occurs other times translated in various ways such as “helper”). These “next seven” were pastors; ministers called to serve the needs of the church, both physical and spiritual.
In chapters 6 and 7, Luke shows the way that the early Christian church was growing. It expanded to such a large number of people that there were too many for the twelve apostles to see to the spiritual and physical needs of everyone. Theologians sometimes quip how interesting it is that the seven ‘deacons’ chosen to wait on tables in this account never do anything but preach the gospel, but details about the routine of the soup kitchen or the food pantry would not really find a place in a narrative like this one (especially if it ran smoothly and was managed well). But just to show us what kind of preachers these “next seven” (mox hebdomas) were, Luke presents the account of Stephen, a magnificent early preacher and the first martyr of the Christian church.
6 In those days, as the disciples were increasing in numbers, a murmuring arose from the Greek-speaking Jews against the Hebrew-speaking Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
One conservative estimate of the number of Christians at this time is between twenty and twenty-five thousand people. The congregation where I serve has around two thousand souls in all. Twenty-five thousand Christians served by twelve apostles would mean about two thousand souls per apostle, and I can easily imagine that they would have needed help with the task every bit as much as my associates and I do (I am one of three pastors, and two staff ministers also serve with us).
The problem of Greek-speaking “Hellenistic” Jews and Hebrew-speaking Jews was not new. In 174 BC, the Jewish high priest Onias III fled to Egypt when his support of the Egyptian (Ptolemaic) regime conflicted with the present Greek (Seleucid) government of Israel. His brother Jason seized the high priesthood. He embraced the Greek culture, sent representative Jews to the Olympic games at Tyre and gave a very large sum of money (3,000 silver drachmas) as an offering to Hercules (this was diverted by the messengers to fit out warships instead, 2 Maccabees 4:18-20). The tendency of liberal Jewish rulers from this time onward is known as Hellenization (“Greek-ification”), and it continued to be an issue through New Testament times.
Among the Christians, this caused some political dissent and favoritism. Christian widows were being passed over in the “daily handout” (Luther’s term, der täglichen Handreichung, was picked up by Coverdale’s ‘daylie handreachinge’ in his version of the English Bible some hundred years before the King James Version appeared).
2 So the Twelve called together this large group of disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.
The twelve apostles called a meeting and explained that they could not carry out their call to preach the gospel and to reach out into other nations and at the same time attend to daily matters of food distribution there in Jerusalem. A solution needed to be found. The prophets warned that oppressing or neglecting widows was a sin right alongside sorcery, adultery, perjury and other wickedness (Malachi 3:5; Isaiah 9:17; Job 22:9). But how should the apostles proceed? “Teach me knowledge and good judgment” the Psalmist prayed (119:66), and good judgment was needed for this matter.
Here was a case where the word of God does not give a specific directive, but Christian love called for something to be done. Whatever course of action was to be adopted could come from anyone, but the group needed to agree about it. Here was a case where Paul’s later words would apply: “But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40). And again: “For I am absent from you in body, but I am with you in spirit. I delight to see how orderly you are and the firmness of your faith in Christ” (Colossians 2:5). When Christians need to accomplish something but have no specific command about how to do it, they should discuss it to hear the wisdom of more than one possible solution, consider these things with prayer, and proceed by asking God’s blessing on what they do. Finally, we must listen to the excellent instruction: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Use your best judgment according to whatever task the Lord has given you.
Pastor Timothy Smith