Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Importance of Stephen Lesson 1: The Choosing of the Seven

The Importance of Stephen 
Biblical text: Acts, Chapters 6 and 7 
Primary extra-biblical source: The Book of Acts, F. F. Bruce, Rev. Ed., 1988. 

Lesson 1
The Choosing of the Seven

1In those early days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:1) 

We are at the point in the early church where an explosion in evangelism of the Gentiles is primed and ready. This outreach owes its beginning to the work of Hellenistic Jewish Christians (the Hellenists). The Hellenists were Jews from outside Palestine, while the Hebrews were usually Palestinian. (Paul, from Tarsus and yet a Hebrew’s Hebrew, will be an exception.)

The Hellenists spoke Greek, the Palestinians (which included the twelve apostles) were Hebrews and spoke Aramaic and/or Hebrew. Their language differed and their culture differed. There was tension between the two groups of early Christians. Nothing like that would happen today in the church—we would never segregate ourselves over insignificant differences. (That last sentence was dripping with sarcasm.)

At this point a non-theological dispute arose. Resources had been donated by wealthier members of the community to be distributed, as needed, to the poor. A significant number of the poor were widows, and the Hellenists complained of bias in supplying the needs of these women—more was going to the Hebrews than to the Hellenists.

The bigotry against the Hellenists, shown throughout Acts and arising from both Hebrew Christians and persecutors, would be providentially used, by God, for good. For the Hellenists would preferentially be chased to outlying areas where they began proselytizing. You can read more about that on this post: The New Community.

2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 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. (Acts 6:2-6) 

The apostles (the Twelve) listen to the complaints of the Hellinists and take quick action. They didn't choose, instead they wisely had the community choose seven men, all apparently Hellinists (all had Greek names) to attend to these practical matters. These men were of excellent reputation: wise and filled with the Spirit. Of two, Stephen and Philip, we hear much more. Of the other five, nothing.

While the community selected these men, it fell unto the apostles to install them into office. This they did by the laying on of hands. This method of initiation or blessing (both, actually) has a long history in the Old Testament. 

Today we call these men deacons, although the text does not apply the word diakonos, normally translated as deacon, to these men.

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. (Acts 6:7)

This introductory section ends with an optimistic progress report including a tantalizing piece of information. The number of disciples in Jerusalem was exploding, and included in their ranks were a great many priests. These were undoubtedly lower ranking priests, not the powerful and wealthy from the chief-priestly families. There is no indication that the priests relinquished their temple duties. This is consistent with the majority view held by those in this new group of believers, that they were not a new religion, but the next phase of Judaism. Providentially, the integration of priests with close ties to the temple activities provided a level of “inside” protection to the early church.

Of course, this is all about to change. And Stephen, one of the seven, would be instrumental in severing the temple connection.

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