And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.
On the Office of the Diaconate
I. The origin of the office. (1) We are introduced here to a class of people called Grecians. They were proselytes to the Jewish worship, and Jews born and bred in foreign countries, whose language therefore was Greek. The home Jews or Hebrews looked down on the foreign Jews or Grecians as having contracted contamination by their long contact with the uncircumcised heathen. (2) The Grecians murmured. This disposition to grumble seriously threatened the well-being of the Church; it formed the gravest danger it had yet had to encounter. The Grecians complained that their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. The diaconate was instituted when the temporal requirements of the Church urgently demanded it, and not a day before.
II. The duties of the office. (1) The seven men, according to the text, were elected to "serve." (2) They were elected to "serve tables." Speaking broadly, this means that they were to attend to the temporalities of the Church. Their chief duty is to manage the finances of the kingdom, but that done to their own and others' satisfaction, they may extend the sphere of their usefulness, and assist in the furtherance of truth and goodness. (3) The deacons are to serve the tables of the ministers. One important object in the institution of the diaconate was to relieve the preachers of anxiety and distraction in the zealous pursuit of the work peculiar to themselves. (4) They are to serve the tables of the poor.
III. The qualifications for the office. (1) The first qualification is integrity. (2) Next comes piety, "Full of the Holy Ghost." (3) The third qualification is wisdom. Without wisdom, the deacon's administration will do incalculably more harm than good. What is wisdom? A right application of knowledge. But this implies two things. (1) That he possesses the knowledge to be applied; (2) that he possesses tact to apply his knowledge in the pursuit of his official duties.
J. Cynddylan Jones, Studies in the Acts, p. 114.
Acts 6:1-6Hellenist and Hebrew
From the very day of Pentecost, the Jerusalem congregation had embraced a number of Hellenists, or foreign-trained Jews, though we have no means of knowing what proportion they bore to those born in Palestine, called by Luke "Hebrews." It is certain that their influence must have been out of proportion to their numbers. They were men of higher average intelligence and energy than the villagers of Judæa, or the small traders of the capital, and were not likely to acquiesce silently in any neglect which, from being in a minority, they might suffer at the hands of the home-born.
I. The creation of the office of deacon showed all the better that it did not mean to show anything, how unfettered the new kingdom of Christ is by external regulations; how full of self-regulating power, how unhierarchical, how free, how unlike great modern Church establishments; how like a great family of brothers dividing among themselves the work to be done.
II. Another thing which the act of that day did, and was recognised even at the time as doing, was to begin the severance between the spiritual and temporal work of the Church. It had become impossible any longer to continue the serving of tables with the ministry of the Word. That the work might be well done, a division of labour was called for, and the Apostles could not hesitate which side of their double office they should abandon. To bear witness to the saving work of Jesus Christ is not a secondary or accidental function of the visible association we call the Church. It is its very end, its raison d'étre, its one task, to which all else is a mere accessory. Still, it deserves to be remarked how carefully the new office and its duties were lifted out of the atmosphere of mere business into that of worship. The men eligible to office are to be full of the Holy Ghost as well as of wisdom. They are to be set apart to their work with equally solemn religious services, and symbolical acts of consecration, as if their work had nothing to do with serving tables. The earliest instinct of the Church was a perfectly true one, that no office in the kingdom of God can be discharged as it ought to be, no matter how exclusively external or secular it may appear, unless it be discharged by a spiritual man, and in a spiritual way. All the servants of the Church must be first servants of her Master, "men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost."
J. Oswald Dykes, From Jerusalem to Antioch, p. 207 (see also Preacher's Lantern, vol. iv., p. 641).
References: Acts 6:1-7.—E. M. Goulburn, Acts of the Deacons, p. 1; Homilist, 3rd series, vol. iv., p. 311. Acts 6:2.—J. Baldwin Brown, Christian World Pulpit, vol. viii., p. 309. Acts 6:5.—Bishop Simpson, Sermons, p. 159. Acts 6:7.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiv., No. 802; J. N. Norton, Old Paths, p. 292. Acts 6:8-10.—E. M. Goulburn, Acts of the Deacons, p. 41. Acts 6:8-15.—Homilist, 3rd series, vol. v., p. 12.
Acts 6:11-15The first Christian Martyr. Look:—
I. At Stephen as a man. The third verse gives us to understand that he was a man of "honest report:" literally, a man well testified of—the public bore him good witness. (1) This means that he was an honest man; and not only honest, but that he had a reputation for honesty. (2) But the words further imply that he was a good man. He was good, and he seemed good. A good character should be clear as glass, or, to use the Biblical illustration, transparent as light—a character men can not only look at, but look through, and see God behind and beyond.
II. Stephen as a Christian. (1) He was full of faith. (2) He was full of the Holy Ghost.
III. Stephen as a deacon. (1) He was full of grace. (2) Being thus full of grace, he was of necessity full of power. (3) Moreover, he did great wonders and miracles among the people. For a while he is the most promising and interesting figure in Christian antiquity, and if we possessed his grace we should also inherit his power, and do great wonders, if not miracles, among the people.
IV. Stephen as a disputant. (1) They were not able to resist the wisdom with which he spake. (2) They were not able to resist the spirit by which he spake.
V. Stephen as a prisoner. His character as a prisoner is set forth in the eleventh and succeeding verses. His speech before his judges was remarkable: his bodily appearance was more remarkable still. They all, "looking steadfastly on him, beheld his face, as it had been the face of an angel."
VI. Stephen as a martyr. Nowhere outside the religion of the New Testament do we behold such majesty and meekness, in the grim presence of death. Pagans may die heroically, Christians only die forgivingly. Heathens may die bravely, believers in Christ only die Divinely. "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."
J. Cynddylan Jones, Studies in the Acts, p. 135.
Reference: Acts 6:13.—E. G. Gibson, Expositor, 2nd series, vol. iv., p. 423.
Acts 6:15The Angel-face on Man
There are certain things common to the angel-face on man, amid all the endless variety of type and form—certain things which we may look for (with at least but little exception) on all the faces which carry on them any image, or resemblance to higher worlds, and holier creatures, and by the mention of these we shall make the subject quite practical.
I. Brightness. We cannot be wrong in supposing that there was something luminous in the face of Stephen, which was seen by those who looked steadfastly on him. We always associate brightness with the angels. If Stephen's countenance had been dull or sad on that day, this in the text had never been recorded of him.
II. Calmness. Stephen was preternaturally calm, and calm in a scene of the utmost excitement. And it is not enough to have a general cheerfulness as the result of a survey of life and the world on the whole. There must be superiority to particular disquietudes, and a keeping of the heart in the stillness of grace, in the great and deep peace of God, in the very presence of any immediate agitations. No one can hope to get the angel-face who furrows and flushes his own with daily excitements, and yields without a struggle to particular temptations in the hope that a general obedience will get him through. The peace of God is to keep the heart and mind as a garrison is kept.
III. Benignity shone out in that wonderful arresting face; without this there could be no resemblance to God Himself, or to His dear Son. He that loveth not, is not of God, and cannot wear an angel-face.
IV. Fearlessness. If an angel were here, to live for a while the life of a man, you would see what it is to be brave. The celestial courage is attainable in terrestrial scenes, if not perfectly yet in large measure, and those who attain it will, by so much more, put on celestial resemblance, and look on human scenes, as it were, with the face of an angel.
V. He who would have the angel-face must look high and far. He must learn to look not so much at things, as through them, to see what is in them and what is beyond.
A. Raleigh, The Little Sanctuary, p. 295.
There is a very awful power of rebuke entrusted by God to His chosen servants; and well may it fill us with awe that He has invested man, to such a degree, with his own attribute. Yet this history of St. Stephen furnishes us with limitations of its use, which are still more needful for us. For man, in his waywardness, often reverses the method of God; He is silent when He should rebuke in what concerns God's honour: rebukes when he should be silent, in what concerns his own.
I. They who rebuke should have the commission to rebuke. When we rebuke we speak in His name, and this we dare not presume of ourselves. Since rebuke is the voice of God correcting us, they who utter it should be themselves such as to hope that they speak that voice. We must listen to those in authority as our Lord bade to hearken to those who sat in Moses' seat, but they who speak must, that they sin not, speak the words of God and see that they mingle not their own.
II. Further, since rebuke is of so awful a character and inflicts suffering, it must be given, not without suffering to ourselves also who give it. We may not inflict pain without pain, suffering without suffering. It were to forget our common Master whose office we take; our common frailty, alike liable to be tempted and to need rebuke; it were to make ourselves as God, who alone cannot suffer. It were rather to make ourselves like Satan, who alone torments without suffering, and is made to suffer, since of himself he will not.
III. We must reprove with humility. To reprove with humility we must reprove only those whom we have a right to reprove; not our elders; not those set over us; not those manifestly superior to ourselves. And to those who seem to be our equals, or who are in any way subject to us, we dare not assume any superiority, as though we were, on the whole, better than they.
IV. Lastly, we must reprove in love. We must not, as we are wont, measure the fault by the vexation it causes ourselves. Rather should we be tender, in proportion as the fault affects ourselves. Our one object should be to win, as we may, souls to Christ, and so we should reprove as may best win them.
E. B. Pusey, Sermons from Advent to Whitsuntide, vol. i., p. 75.
The face of Stephen in this world we can never see. We can never read here its revelation of character. Now it is in perfect loveliness, like Him who is seen by His saints in His perfection. One day we may read—if we attain—that special message which God traced before the council in momentary beauty before it was hidden in a bloody grave. The vision of the martyr was a mighty message; but his lips threw that message into words. These words are in part at least recorded for our learning; and if we cannot see the face, the record we can read.
I. Note, first, that earnest desire for truth, which is the first real requisite to its attainment. St. Stephen had evidently desired truth, and searched and studied the Scriptures, and that eager and loving spirit had had its reward. One example of that reward is seen in the vigorous intellectual grasp of the subject, which he had to handle with readiness and under the appalling pressure of a trial for life. All the gifts of Stephen, his earnest desire for knowledge, his subtle dialectic, his noble eloquence, were turned full upon the subject of highest interest, upon the mysterious revelation of eternal truth.
II. There were higher endowments in the martyr than any mere attributes of mind. No mental vigour in such a desperate crisis would have availed to any purpose, unless it had been seconded by a boldness and intrepidity of spirit. Struggling for a cause, new, untried, and deemed altogether contemptible, he possessed his soul with a heroic patience, and bore his part with literally unexampled courage.
Note also his wealth of tenderness. The scene at the death of St. Stephen reminds us of the scene at the death of Christ; the words of prayer, which rose amid the hailstorm of cruel stones, ring through our souls with an effect of penetration, like that of the looks of the great Intercession, at the moment of the nailing to the cross. Do you ask the secret of such a combination of tenderness and courage in any tempted man? There is one answer: an unshaken, a deep, and supernatural union with Jesus Christ.
III. We all surely must, in our degree, hope to bear our testimony at all hazards to truth. Well then, let us note the conditions on which such fulfilment of our reason of life depends. (1) The soul must be true to itself. (2) In the world of revealed faith, all power of witness depends upon conviction. Act with courage upon conviction, and act with charity. (3) When all possible struggle is over we may witness to Jesus by the calmness of a loving resignation.
W. J. Knox Little, Manchester Sermons, p. 215.
The First Martyr
I. Religious persecution began with Christianity. This is a simple fact of history. Strange as it may seem, there is no record in earlier times, amid all the cruelty and reckless disregard of the sacredness of human life, which sullied the annals of the old world, of suffering and death deliberately inflicted on account of religious opinions. Martyrdom, in the strict sense of that word, was an unknown thing when Stephen stood up before the council. In him the terrible prophecy of his Lord began to be fulfilled. If he had failed in the trial, humanly speaking, Christianity would have failed. Had he relented under fear of stoning, the faith of the infant Church would have been shaken. On the other hand, Stephen's boldness—that calm, high bearing, that face irradiated as an angel's, rejoicing in danger and death for the Master's sake—rooted the Christian Church as a living power in the earth. The world and the Church had confronted each other. Did Stephen realise all this—that for a brief hour the world's destinies had rested with him? It may be so; hence, in the consciousness of that high calling, his face was seen as the face of an angel.
II. There is much to be noted in the Providence of God with regard to Stephen. The chapter before us dwells emphatically upon the singular power of his ministry. Yet this ministry, full of such mighty promise, was cut short at the very outset. Was there, then, a waste of power in that early cutting short of the martyred deacon, in the midst of his days? Was it premature, that dying under the stony shower outside the gates of Jerusalem? Not so. It may well teach us two lessons. (1) The power of a short life. Who has not known instances of the sudden dropping into the grave of some gifted intellect, some character of more than common loveliness and promise? May it not be said that, like the Hebrew hero, such have been mightier in their death than in their life. The memory of Stephen may have been more to the Church of the Firstborn than Stephen's protracted ministry. (2) And there is a further teaching still. Was Stephen content to die at the beginning of his race? Then do we learn not to be impatient ourselves to behold a completed work; to be willing to lay the foundations, and leave to others to bring forth the top stone with joy; willing ourselves to sow the seed, and let other hands gather in the harvest.
Bishop Woodford, Sermons on Subjects from the New Testament, p. 92.
Acts 6; Acts 7
From the history of Stephen we learn:—
I. That fidelity to truth provokes antagonism; holiness and sin are mutually repellent; love and selfishness are the opposites of each other; and sooner or later the followers of the one will come into collision with the votaries of the other. The opposition of the ungodly is one of the seals to the genuineness of our discipleship; and if we bear ourselves rightly under it, who can tell but that it may be the occasion of blessing to multitudes? The banner which hangs in idle folds round the flagstaff in the sultry stillness of the summer noon, is fully unfurled by the wild rudeness of the wintry wind; and men may see in the latter case the emblem and inscription which were invisible in the former. Even so the antagonism of our spiritual adversaries is valuable, in that it brings forth anew those traits of Christian character and points of Christian doctrine which otherwise would have been unobserved.
II. The deep interest which the glorified Redeemer has in His suffering followers. He cannot sit in such an emergency, for He is Himself persecuted in His dying disciple, and must go to soothe and sustain Him. Our foes can strike us only through our Saviour's heart. He is our shield and buckler, our high tower and our deliverer.
III. The peacefulness of the believer's death. "When he had said this, he fell asleep." These words tell of the peace that was in the martyr's heart. You cannot go to sleep with anxiety fretting your spirit; but when your mind is calm and undisturbed, then the night angel comes to you with her gift of forgetfulness and her ministry of restoration. So when we read that Stephen fell asleep, we see through the words into the deep unbroken quiet of his soul.
IV. Words which seem to have been in vain are not always fruitless. Stephen's defence was unsuccessful so far, at least, as securing the preservation of his own life was concerned. But his argument was not lost, for when not long afterward the zealous Saul was converted on his way to Damascus, this address, I have no doubt, came back upon him, and became the means which, in the hands of the Holy Ghost, were used for his enlightenment in the significance of the gospel of Christ.
W. M. Taylor, Paul the Missionary, p. 1.
References: Acts 7:2-17.—E. M. Goulburn, Acts of the Deacons, p. 80. Acts 7:9.—Preacher's Monthly, vol. iv., p. 61; E. D. Solomon, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxvii., p. 235. Acts 7:9, Acts 7:10.—J. N. Norton, Old Paths, p. 104. Acts 7:13.—Spurgeon, My Sermon Notes, Gospels and Acts, p. 183. Acts 7:20-22.—F. W. Robertson, The Human Race, p. 51. Acts 7:22.—H. Wonnacott, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xiv., p. 46. Acts 7:30.—Ibid., p. 59. Acts 7:35.—J. B. Mozley, Sermons, Parochial and Occasional, p. 182; C. J. Vaughan, Church of the First Days, vol. i., p. 244. Acts 7:35, Acts 7:36.—Christian World Pulpit, p. 75. Acts 7:37-55.—E. M. Goulburn, Acts of the Deacons, p. 126; H. Melvill, Pulpit, vol. iii., p. 1627. Acts 7:38-53.—E. G. Gibson, Expositor, 2nd series, vol. iv., p. 427. Acts 7:39.—H. P. Liddon, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xxx., p. 152; Ibid., Contemporary Pulpit, vol. v., p. 129; Ibid., vol. vi., p. 129.
Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables.
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.
But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.
And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch:
Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.
And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.
And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.
Then 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.
Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.
And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council,
And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law:
For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.
And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.