And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews…
In the beginning of the preceding chapter, we had a sad account of an act of fraud and falsehood on the part of some that contributed to this common fund among the disciples in Jerusalem; and now we have an account of the murmuring of some of those who received it. The first was the offspring of great depravity; this is the result of human imperfections. The one was met by a very strong measure; this is met by conference, by advice, by calling into exercise the principles of common sense and the feelings of their common Christianity.
I. THE NARRATIVE. Notice —
1. The increase of the disciples. In spite of the persecution which the Church was continually meeting with, we have continual statements of its prosperity and increase. I have no doubt that by this time the number of Christians in Jerusalem was ten thousand.
2. When you think about these ten thousand people, you see at once that this common fund cannot mean that all these people had given up all their property, and that there was a distribution made to every one of this whole multitude. What! had they given up their trades? had they left their workshops, their farms, and merchandise? No; they were going on, I suppose, fulfilling their daily duties. Then did they bring all their wages and profits, throwing all this into a common fund, and taking back every day what was required, more or less according to their circumstances? You cannot suppose any such thing. Why, if they were to call the whole ten thousand together every morning, and give them only a shilling each, there would be five hundred pounds wanted every day. We must look at this fund as just a provision for those who were in necessitous circumstances.
3. Now things went on for some time, till at last "there arose a murmuring," a dissatisfaction. Some began to feel that there was not proper attention paid them, and it reached the ears of the apostles, who proceed to make the arrangement here mentioned. You will see at a glance that previous to this somebody must have done this work. The thing had been done before. In Acts 2:44, 45, it is said, "All that believed were together, and had all things common, and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need" — i.e., each one at first distributed his own benevolence. The advance upon that you have at the end of the fourth chapter. The first rude idea was for every man to act for himself, and come with his hands full and his heart full, and just dispense according to the impulse of his feeling; and the first modification of that was, for all to bring what they had to give, and lay it down at the apostles' feet, and so there would be something like regularity in the distribution, and investigation, and examination of the particular case and circumstances; whereas in the other way it could not be done, and one might be receiving from many. And that goes on, the apostles (I suppose) trying to do it. But not, I apprehend, without assistance from the hundred and twenty, who would probably all be Hebrews. But here were the Grecians; and there might be a feeling rising up, with no foundation, that there was a neglect of their widows in the daily ministration. So difficult it is, you see, even under the guidance of the Divine Spirit, and with the first love and strong affection of the early Christians, to get rid of all those party prejudices and suspicions which rise up in society and array class against class. But the murmuring comes to the ears of the apostles, and something must be done to meet it.
4. "Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them," Does that mean the whole ten thousand? Supposing there were not ten thousand? Could five thousand men transact business? Any of you that know anything about business, know how difficult it is to get anything done even in a large committee. In order to get through business, you must have a few heads, with strong hearts and hands connected with them, that will really do something. I cannot, therefore, feel myself warranted in stating that this is really to be taken positively and literally. I do not know where they would meet in Jerusalem — so many of them. I know that, afterwards, when Peter was in prison, "prayer was made without ceasing of the Church," meeting in a private house — in the house of the mother of John Mark; and I dare say there were little knots of such all over the city. I think, in this case, the principal part of those they would call together would be Grecians — the principal persons of that party — and it would be a full meeting, and open for any to attend who felt interested in the matter; but we cannot suppose that there was the whole, or anything like the whole, of the mass of Christians in Jerusalem. When they were come together, the apostles said, "It is not reason that we should leave the Word of God and serve tables," which may mean, "The thing does not work well, does not give universal satisfaction; we are doing the best we can, but it is not reasonable that we should be exclusively devoted to this thing; we have had our heads and our hearts full of anxiety about this matter, and we find it is not reasonable that we should 'serve tables,' for we feel that in doing so we must 'leave the Word of God,' and we must not do that; and therefore, as we have already made one departure from the first rude idea to a better, we must try now to get a best, and we propose now that seven men be looked out for this duty."
5. "And the saying pleased the whole multitude; and they chose Stephen," etc. It is remarkable that all these names are Greek; and this was probably done to satisfy the Grecians. Or if, in "the multitude of the disciples," there were included some of the principal persons among the Hebrews, then this marks also the kindly and liberal feeling among them, arranging that from that party and that class that complains, every individual of the seven was chosen. "Whom they set before the apostles." We do not know how they chose them. There was some meeting of the brethren — the more distinguished and influential, I think; and these individuals were fixed upon, and they were presented to the apostles.
6. "And when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them." I think this was just the solemn and public representation before the eyes of the people that they parted with so much of that power which they had hitherto exercised in relation to this business, and that henceforth these men were to be held responsible for the exercise of it.
7. There was peace restored to the Church; no longer divisions, or heart-burnings, or jealousies; and then, as the result, one might think, we immediately read again that "the number of the disciples multiplied greatly." Just as you find in the beginning of the fifth chapter, that when purity was restored, then as the result there was a great increase of the Church, so now peace and purity are favourable to all those affections and feelings and activities by which an increase of the body may be expected. The Word of God increased and prevailed in two ways.
(1) With respect to the number of the disciples.
(2) With respect to a particular class of person; so that some of the most unlikely men; — "a great company priests, Were obedient to the faith." Some people can hardly believe this; but "why should it be thought a thing incredible with us," that in those days of miracle and the pouring down of the Divine Spirit, there should be manifested the power of the faith and grace of Christ upon these men?
II. THE LESSONS. Now see —
1. How difficult it is, even when men's hearts are in the right place and in a good state, to prevent jealousies and misunderstandings among a large body of people.
2. How a liberal, open, manly, common-sense pilicy, under the blessing of God, may meet and allay this sort of thing; when men will calmly look at it, and observe that something must be done, and endeavour in an open and honest spirit to do it.
3. What an admirable opportunity this would have been to mention something about priesthood! There are some men that are very fond of getting priests into the Christian Church; but here was a great number of real priests actually brought into the Church, and we hear nothing about them. They stand as simple disciples. Standing there upon the common floor of the Christian temple, they had a greater, purer, more elevated priesthood than that which they had sustained as the offspring of Aaron.
4. Have we the origin of the office of deacons here? They are not called deacons. The word, indeed, from which "deacons" comes, is used in the account two or three times. It is used with respect to the apostles' "giving themselves to the deaconship of the Word"; and then these men to "the deaconship of tables." The word "deacon" is a very general term, signifying ministry or service, occurring a great many times in the New Testament. It is applied to the apostles, to Timothy, to Jesus Christ. But yet it did come to a technical and an official sense, and to signify a particular officer in the Christian Church, as the Church began to grow. And I think that this was the origin of the office of the deacon; though, perhaps, that office, in the course of time, took some degree of modification, as distinct from the one thing for which these men were appointed; for they were chosen with a very limited duty with respect to this particular thing.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.