(Act 6:5-6 ESV) 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.
It’s something of a mystery how the early church selected these men. After all, how do 15,000 or more people, without computers, telephones, or PA systems, select seven men from among themselves?
Do they follow Robert’s Rules of Order? Do they appoint a nominating committee? Do they take nominations from the floor?
My theory — and it’s just a theory — is that the leaders of the house churches knew their members and put the names before the congregation.
The point is that we shouldn’t imagine that qualified people just bubble up to the top without some sort of structure. Indeed, without some serious thought given to how to put men forward, the church may be stuck with those who volunteer for less than noble reasons. Indeed, the best men may be too humble to volunteer at all.
But the Scriptures tells us just enough to whet our appetite for more. Therefore, there is no pattern. God gave us his Spirit and good sense to design the best system for the churches we have today, in today’s culture.
Next, notice that the apostles took the time to specially commission these men to their task through prayer and through the laying on of hands. There is no mention of the impartation of special gifts of the Spirit. Rather, the hands seem to have symbolized the impartation of a special task — a ministry.
Also, the apostle’s list of qualifications for this responsibility is simple: “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” We err when we favor the 1 Timothy 3 list and exclude these essential elements in our consideration.
Of course, many want to argue that we can no longer be “full … of the Holy Spirit,” but if that’s so, we can no longer have men in this position, as that’s an apostolic requirement!
But, of course, the Spirit is still alive, quite well, and very active in the Churches, even if we want to deny it. And men who aren’t full of the Spirit have no business being in any role of real responsibility.
(Act 6:7 ESV) 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
There were thousands of Levites qualified as priests, and so this hardly means that the leaders of the priests — who were politically very powerful — converted. But it does mean that men who were likely Saduccees and highly respected as teachers of the Torah, who held the rare privilege of serving God at the Temple as a priest, chose Jesus.
This becomes particularly important when we see Stephen, in a few verses, accused of speaking against the Temple, even though he was part of a congregation in which many priests participated.
(Act 6:8-10 ESV) 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. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.
Luke doesn’t say that all the deacons did miracles or even preached. We only know about Stephen and Phillip. Therefore, I’m inclined to say that their preaching ministries were because they were full of the Spirit — chosen from among thousands — not because they were given a position of responsibility for the widows.
We aren’t told the exact nature of this dispute or why it was this particular synagogue that disagreed with Stephen’s preaching. The synagogue appears to have been made up of former slaves (or their sons) — “freedmen” — and others from outside Judea (no Jew would be a slave of another Jew).
It may be that, because these men were immigrants, they chose to take a particularly conservative stance, rejecting this new teaching about a new Messiah. Indeed, former slaves may well have been anxious to appear orthodox to those in authority, in an effort to avoid being looked down on. It’s easy to imagine those who saw themselves as outsiders would toe the line of the Temple authorities — seeking the approval of those in authority in order to improve their social station.
(Act 6:11-14 ESV) 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
“Secretly instigated” is too soft a translation. The word means “suborned perjury.”
There is, of course, an element of truth in the charges, as least as they applied to Christian teaching in general, although there is no evidence that Stephen himself said these things, and his sermon does not address these accusations at all.
There are a number of remarkable parallels between Stephen’s trial and Jesus’s as recorded in the other gospels — too many to be a coincidence — even though the coincidences aren’t always found in Luke. In both Luke and Acts, Jesus/Stephen commits his spirit at his death and intercedes for his accusers.
The coincidences surely teach that all Christian martyrs should be seen as standing in Jesus’ shoes. Indeed, martyrdom is any many ways the ultimate means of emulating Christ.
(Act 6:15 ESV) 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
The chapter concludes with evidence that God had given Stephen a special presence and peace — in preparation for what was to come.