And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews…
From the first the Church had held within its bosom two opposed tendencies. So long as its numbers were not too large, and its enthusiasm had not spent itself, this underlying division created no difficulty. A moment, however, was reached when the jealousy of Hellenist and Hebrew began to give promise of that deep schism which ended only by the extinction of one of the divisions (the Hebrew) altogether.
I. THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN HELLENIST AND HEBREW. Its origin goes back to the captivity. Previously to this the Jews had dwelt as far as possible alone, but through that catastrophe they were scattered through all the huge empire which stretched from India to the AEgean. The numbers that returned under Zerubbabel, and again under Ezra, fell far short of the number of the dispersed; and it was impossible but that prolonged contact with pagan nations should greatly modify their customs and modes of thought. Especially was this the case during and after the wars of Alexander. .4. new spirit of commercial enterprise awoke within them as a new world opened to their wandering feet, and the ancestral faculty for acquiring wealth which their Palestine life had crushed, developed itself. While the home Jews recoiling from defiling contact with foreigners grew prouder and more narrow, their foreign brethren took on a strong tinge of Greek culture, and the spirit of secular gain broke down the feeling of separatism which had been the very kernel of ancient Judaism. All this tended to modify their religion, and for the better. Cut off from the temple ritual, they carried with them neither priest nor sacrifice; they carried only the Septuagint and the synagogue. What they retained was just what was portable, and what was most portable was most spiritual. When at last Christianity arose it found everywhere in the synagogues its first base of operations. It was from Hellenised Jews that Christianity obtained its first and best missionaries, and it is to them we owe it that the Church grew out of all risk of continuing a Judean sect and became the religion of civilised mankind.
II. THE MURMURING OF THE HELLENISTS AGAINST THE HEBREWS. Being men of higher average intelligence and energy than the villagers of Judea or the small traders of the capital, the former were not likely to acquiesce silently in any neglect on the part of the other. There was always a tendency amongst the Palestine Jews to pride themselves on retaining the purest type of orthodoxy, and to suspect as well as dislike their countrymen who had taken on Greek manners. On the other hand, it came very naturally to the foreign Jew to look down on stay-at-home and old-fashioned Hebrews as bigoted and ignorant. A grave danger threatened the young Church if her members imported into her communion such mutual jealousies as these; and the slight "murmuring" about the widows' rations meant nothing less.
III. How THE MURMURING WAS ALLAYED. The apostles took alarm, for the murmurs reflected on them. The work had evidently grown beyond their power of personal supervision, and now that one side of the Church grumbled about an unfairness some new arrangement was clearly called for. Even the apostles were no autocrats; the Church was an oligarchy which rested on a democratic basis. The supreme legislative power was felt to reside in the "crowd of disciples." What the apostles did at first was to initiate measures, and at the last to confirm appointments. But the adoption of the measure and the election of the officers were the work of "the whole multitude." This act —
1. Established certain principles — the right of the Church to transact under Christ its own business; the ministerial, not lordly character of even its highest offices; the subordination of all material interests to its spiritual work; and the ultimate seat of Church authority in the whole body.of believers. Any Church system whose arrangements flatly contravene these principles must be held to have departed from primitive order.
2. Began the severance between the spiritual and temporal work of the Church. It became impossible to combine the serving of tables with the ministry of the Word. 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 Christ is not a secondary function of the Church, but its one task for which all other things must minister. The Church, however, declined to treat even its secular work as wholly unspiritual, and lifted it out of the atmosphere of mere business into that of worship. The candidates are to be full of the Holy Ghost as well as wisdom, and are set apart with solemn services. The only two among them of whom we know anything are known for the zeal and success with which they preached Christ. Stephen and Philip were a good deal more than almoners.
IV. WITH THE ORDINATION OF THESE SEVEN MEN A NEW PAGE OF CHURCH HISTORY OPENED.
1. It marked a stage in the Church's progress towards separate existence.
2. It was the first step towards permanence. The apostles cannot live for ever; but if the new society has the power, under Christ, of founding new orders of office bearers, then it carries within itself the conditions of self-preservation and self-adaptation to changed times and perpetual progress.
3. It brought a new element to the front. The seven bear Greek names, which affords a presumption that they belonged to that section of the Church whose complaints had led to the election. The result, therefore, was this, that, through the murmurs of a few widows, those members of the Church were lifted into office who represented its most free, spiritual, un-Hebrew, and catholic elements. One man especially was thrust forward who was destined to rouse the narrow and ultra-national party of the Pharisees to persecution, as Peter had already roused the Sadducees, and whose death was to be a signal for the scattering of the Church. It was even to lead to the conversion of another man who should one day become an apostle himself and vindicate as an inheritance for Christendom that larger and more spiritual view of Christianity of which Stephen was the first exponent.
V. THE STORY REBUKES OUR SHORT-SIGHTED ALARMS AT THE SMALL DISSENSIONS AND APPARENT DISASTERS OF THE HOUR. We see the divided congregation; we hear its murmuring voices, but we forget to see the hand which guides the Church's destinies, and causes all things to work together for its good.
(J. Oswald Dykes, D. D.)
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.