Acts - Lesson 9
Acts Chapter 5 - 6:7
In this lesson, you will learn about the events in Acts chapters 5-7. This includes the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied about the price of their property, the church's growth, the appointment of the seven to help with the Hellenistic widows, Stephen's defense before the Sanhedrin, and his subsequent martyrdom.
You will gain an understanding of the early Christian community and the challenges they faced, including opposition from the religious authorities. Additionally, you will learn about the importance of honesty and integrity in the church and the consequences of lying.
Acts Chapter 5 - 6:7
NT619-09 Acts Chapter 5-6-7
A. Recap of previous chapter
B. Setting of Chapter 5-7
II. Chapter 5
A. Ananias and Sapphira
1. Lying about the price of the property
2. Punishment by God
B. Growth of the church
III. Chapter 6
A. The problem of Hellenistic widows
B. The appointment of the seven
IV. Chapter 7
A. Stephen's defense before the Sanhedrin
1. The history of Israel
2. The rejection of the Messiah
B. Stephen's martyrdom
- Acts is often referred to as "Luke: Part 2" suggesting that Luke was the author. Internal and external evidence confirms this authorship. It is believed that Acts was written in the 70's or 80's of the first century as a historical monograph with a biographic focus.
You will gain knowledge and insight about the authorship, date, and genre of the Book of Acts. The lesson will present evidence that Luke is the author of the Book of Acts and provide historical context to help determine the date of its writing. The genre of the Book of Acts will also be discussed, giving you a better understanding of its composition and purpose.
Acts is not a novel because it doesn't fit the style that novels of that time period were written in. It has elements of both common folk literature and elite literature. One motive that Luke had in writing Acts is as an apologetic to support a Jewish perspective. Acts is an apologetic, ethnographic history in a monograph form.
- In this lesson, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of the genre, historiography, purpose, and historical reliability of the book of Acts and its implications for interpretation.
This lesson teaches you about the themes of theology, history, culture, and miracles in the book of Acts, including Christology, the Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God, and the historical and cultural context of the first-century Roman Empire and Jewish culture. You'll learn the role of miracles in establishing the credibility of the gospel message and its relationship with faith. By the end, you will have a complete understanding of the main themes in the book of Acts.
In this lesson, you will learn about the role of miracles in the early church and how they were used to support and advance the gospel message in the book of Acts. The purpose of miracles, such as healings and other supernatural events, were seen as signs of the Holy Spirit's power and evidence of the truth of the gospel, which helped attract people to the message. Through exploring specific examples from the book of Acts, you will see how miracles played a crucial role in the growth of the early church and the spread of the gospel.
- This lesson covers the historical context of Acts, including the Jewish World, Roman Empire, political/social structures, and Mediterranean Geography. The purpose and authorship of the book, including Luke as the author, the purpose of the book, and its theology, will be discussed. The narrative structure, major sections, and events will be overviewed.
- The lesson is about the historical and theological context of the ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit in the early Church as described in the first two chapters of the Book of Acts.
In this lesson you will learn about Peter's healing and sermon, the persecution and expansion of the church, and Stephen's martyrdom. You will gain insight into the early church's growth and the challenges they faced, as well as the impact of Stephen's death on the spread of Christianity.
- The lesson teaches about the events in Acts 5-7, including the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the growth of the church, the appointment of the seven, Stephen's defense, and his martyrdom, providing insight into the early Christian community and its challenges.
- The lesson is about the early events of the Church of Jerusalem and the role of the seven men chosen to serve the community, the first major persecution of the Christian Church, the spread of the gospel, and the conversion of Saul to Paul.
- The lesson covers the spread of the gospel in Jerusalem and beyond following Stephen's death, including Philip's preaching in Samaria, conversion of Simon and the Ethiopian Eunuch, and the challenges faced by early Christians.
- This lesson provides an overview of Saul's conversion and the events that took place on the Damascus road, including his baptism and ministry, and the implications for our lives today.
- This lesson provides an understanding of the events leading to the inclusion of Gentiles in the early Christian church and the spread of the gospel to non-Jewish people.
- This lesson explores the early Christian church's growth and challenges through the events of Acts 12 and 13, including the arrest and deliverance of Peter, Herod's death, the mission of Barnabas and Saul, and the first missionary journey.
- The First Missionary Journey in Acts 13-15 provides insight into the early Christian church through covering the team sent out, their ministry, and the results of their ministry.
- In this lesson, you will learn about the major issue that arose in the early Christian church regarding the relationship between Gentile converts and Jewish customs, the decision of the Jerusalem Council, and the implementation and response of the Gentile churches.
- In this lesson, you'll learn about the spread of the gospel in Philippi through Paul and Silas and the conversions of Lydia and the jailer, showcasing the gospel's power.
- In this lesson, you will learn about Paul's encounter with the philosophers of Athens and his message to them about the one true God, the judgment of humanity, and the resurrection of Jesus.
- This lesson provides a comprehensive overview of Paul's ministry in the city of Corinth, including the challenges he faced, the Lord's encouragement, and the significance of this episode in the book of Acts.
- This lesson provides insight into Paul's second missionary journey and his preaching, as well as the importance of the Holy Spirit's work and the ministry of the Word.
- The lesson provides an overview of Paul's journey to Jerusalem and the events that took place during his arrival in Jerusalem, the incident at the temple, his arrest, and his appearance before the Sanhedrin and its significance in the early Christian church.
- The lesson covers Paul's defenses in the final four chapters of Acts and his navigation of political and religious tensions while remaining faithful to his beliefs and mission.
- In this lesson, you will gain insight into Paul's journey from Caesarea to Rome, including details about the voyage and shipwreck, the aftermath of the shipwreck, and the significance of Paul's ministry.
The book of Acts portrays, in a narrative way, the life of the early church. The theme of the book is, "the mission of the early church." It tells how Jesus continued to carry out his mission that he started as recorded in the book of Luke, by working through the people of the early church. Dr. Keeener discusses the growth of the church from its Jewish roots through reaching the ends of the earth to fulfill the Great Commission.
Dr. Craig Keener
Acts Chapter 5 - 6:7
1. Chapter 5
a. Ananias and Sapphira
God has been doing marvelous things through the apostles in Jerusalem with miracles taking place. Two people were struck dead because of their rebellion against the Lord, echoing Joshua 7 and maybe Leviticus 10. For the authorities, they realized that the threat wasn’t going away; these people were still holding the authorities responsible for Jesus’ death. They thought that the movement might go away by itself as they didn’t want come against them, but now they decided that they would have to do something. After their arrest, they were immediately released by an angel of the Lord and then the angel then commanded them to go and preach in the temple. Toward the end of the chapter, they end up with the support of a pharisaic moderate. We will look at this in greater detail a little later. In regards to Ananias and Sapphira, Peter said that Satan had filled their hearts. In early Jewish sources, Satan was viewed as an accuser, a tempter and a deceiver. These three roles of the devil came from the Old Testament and early Jewish literature. God striking those who were against what was holy was seen in Leviticus 10:2 and also in 2 Samuel 6 where it was perhaps more inadvertent because the Ark had been kept in a home for a long time and so this priest was concerned about it. They were carrying it on a cart instead of carrying the way they were supposed to on poles by the Levites. So when the Ark wasn’t steady, a person reached out to touch it and God struck him dead and David became upset. But it was a warning not to treat lightly what is holy.
Now, Sapphira comes in and doesn’t even know where her husband was. Unknowing to her he had been struck dead and buried without her even knowing? It was the custom to bury people right away and if they had contributed their resources to the church, then the church was responsible for the burials. Often back then people contributed to burial associations so when they died, somebody could take care of their burial. It was kind of like an insurance policy. The groups would take care of it, you paid into it; it was used for other people and it would be used for you. In this case, the church had taken care of it and it says that they wrapped up the body which was meant to protect the honor of the deceased; people wouldn’t be looking at the face, etc. As in Leviticus 10:4, the body was carried out. And the church acts as a family providing the burial. Sapphira comes looking for her husband; naturally enough Judean women unlike classical Athens were allowed to go to the market, etc. by themselves provided that their hair was covered. Notice that in contrast to some other values of antiquity, women and men are equally held responsible by God in the Book of Acts. In some cases, that was bad news for the women as in this case. Also it says that Saul arrested both men and women alike which means that he was particularly zealous. It is also good news for the women where both men and women believed. Luke likes to emphasize both; he doesn’t want you to miss the point that God cares about both genders. In Acts 5:11, great fear comes on the people, judgement miracles usually generated that, you have this in Numbers 16. After judgement people want to get away and not face it themselves. In 2 Kings 1 where the fire came down and consumed them; the commander of the next group of fifty comes up and begs Elijah not to send fire on them; he was just following orders. Executions were meant to provide the deterrent of fear in ancient Israel. In Acts 5:13, others were afraid to join, but yet in 5:14, more and more believers in the Lord were added to their number, crowds of both men and women.
b. Further Trouble for the Apostles
We have already talked about the shadow of Peter healing people; this was a pagan magical concept that was known in that day; it was also a Jewish concept. Whether it was a true concept or not, it was something that God was ready to use to touch people anywhere near Peter. They were arrested again, their first warning was ignored and the Sadducees weren’t used to that. Their honor is now at stake because they had given their word that these people would be punished. But Peter and John didn’t listen, but now the whole group was brought before the Sanhedrin. You must realize that the Sadducees were not very popular with the people; however, the Pharisees were. And now this apostolic movement, these followers of Jesus had also become very popular, much more than the Sadducees. The Sadducees were hoping the problem would go away but now they are forced to put actions behind their words and to discipline them, otherwise they would become less popular as the crowds were being turned against them. The Apostles were preaching that the execution of Jesus was wrong, even though this was all part of God’s plan. So in 5:17 it mentions the motives of the chief priests, jealousy. With some today, this is considered a novelistic feature, but in reading ancient historiography, the motive of jealousy is mentioned in many places; it is in political histories, and it was a very common motive in reality. Ancient urban Mediterranean male society was very much into rivalry and honor which was considered something that was competed for. Sometimes they would have political allies but they also had political adversaries. Well, obviously the Sadducees didn’t want the apostles to be the popular ones; they would rather have the popularity for themselves, so an element of jealousy is a likely point here.
Luke calls the Sadducees a sect (in Greek: hairesis); Josephus uses this language also for the Sadducees and for the Pharisees and for the Essenes. In one of his writing he uses this for the Zealots, a revolutionary movement. But later on in the case of the Nazarenes, they are also called a sect, along with those who followed Jesus. When Josephus uses this language, it is the language used for Greek Philosophical schools. It was a particular school of thought, a movement at that time. So in Acts 5:18, the apostles are put into jail until they were brought to trial; they were not always nice places and some would have a lot of people crammed into one room. And you didn’t always have toilet facilities which made it very unsanitary and unhealthy. This jail may have been better, we don’t know, but in the next verse, an angel of the Lord lets them out. This was something that ancient hearers would have been very interested in. The Greeks had miraculous escape stories. Going back to Euripides in 400 BC, he told a story of how King Pentheus didn’t trust a particular movement, called the followers of Dionysus, many of whom were women. His own mother Agavey was a member of this movement also. But he tried to suppress it and put them in jail and the story says that Dionysus let them out and eventually vengeance comes on King Pentheus who is opposing this god and thus he is torn to pieces and the women eat his flesh. Well, that wasn’t just a Greek story; there was also a pre-Christian story involving Moses. But in terms of releasing people from captivity, you have even earlier sources where God has his people from slavery such as in Egypt. This account is not an old myth but it is accounting for within a generation. But the audience and especially Luke’s audience who live in the diaspora, they would be familiar with some of these stories. These stories had been appropriated in Jewish form by Jewish people. So, it is like, oh! Here, the authorities are resisting God and God is delivering his servants. Immediately, they go and preach in the temple courts. The gates of the temple open again at midnight; they close at sundown but open again at midnight. The people returned only at daybreak, but according to the law the hearing had to be scheduled during the day. So, they were miraculously released before they had been brought to a hearing. So, they were in the temple count where people began to gather before the morning offering and they began preaching. This is very bold, you have just been arrested for preaching; however, you go preach some more.
They didn’t care what the authorities did because they answered only to Jesus’ authority. They didn’t care if they got killed; they know that these authorities don’t have the final power over life and death. God will still fulfill his purpose whether in this generation which they thought would happen soon; whenever God’s purpose would be fulfilled. In 5:22-26, the guards were sent to bring them from the jail to be arraigned before the authorities and what do they find; the Levite guard has no explanation how these people got out of the jail. It was secured but yet they weren’t there. So, they found them and brought them before the authorities in Acts 5:28 and the charge was, inciting unrest against the municipal aristocracy. That could merit a sentence of death. You might think that the apostles would now become conciliatory. They knew how to speak in very conciliatory ways under certain circumstances, but this wasn’t one of them. The apostles confronted these authorities as they were the ones in the wrong. They speak boldly saying that they must obey God rather than people; this is something like what Socrates said. Well, the authorities executed Socrates and thereafter people looked upon Socrates as a hero. Peter speaks of the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him; so we are obeying God rather than you. And God has given us the Holy Spirit, not you. You are disobeying God, we are obeying God for he is the higher authority and we answer ultimately to him, and if you had any sense you would too. It doesn’t say that but of course it doesn’t need to. In Acts 5:33-42, the leaders of the Sanhedrin are ready to have them killed. This was a group of people that had power to govern things concerning religion. There were supposedly seventy of these people that met together to govern the affairs of religion of the people.
But a Pharisee by the name of Gamaliel comes to the apostle’s support. He has the apostles removed because everything they were saying upset the Sadducees and made them even madder. In this situation, the honor of the Sadducees was at stake; they could have more honor being merciful than by listening to a Pharisee instructing the Sadducees how to govern. So, Gamaliel was a pupil of the Pharisaic teacher Hillel; there were two main schools of Pharisees in Jesus’ day, the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. But Gamaliel was an influential Pharisee and may have known Joseph of Arimathea who was looking for the kingdom of God and was probably a Pharisee as well. Pharisees were a minority within the Sanhedrin; they didn’t command as much political power as the Sadducees. The Pharisees had held power once under Salomé Alexandra, but that was a couple of centuries earlier. The Sadducees were primarily in power; they had gotten along better with Herod the Great. They didn’t always get along, especially when fifty of the disciples of two Pharisaic teachers tried to take the Roman Eagles down off the walls. Herod executed all of them. So, the Pharisees were not the most powerful, and Gamaliel was certainly in the Sanhedrin. We know from Josephus that Gamaliel’s son Simon was the prominent member of the Sanhedrin and his son Gamaliel II appears in the earliest layers of rabbinic tradition as one of the most authoritative leaders of the early rabbinic movement. So, Gamaliel is a prominent person, probably the most influential of all the Pharisees. He was also a Jerusalem aristocrat; we gather this from the role of his son Simon. Later rabbis extol his piety and learning. At first he saw little political power but they tended to be much more lenient than the Sadducees.
This was of course convenient because Roman law didn’t allow them to execute people anyway. But the Roman governor only came to Jerusalem during festivals to control crowds. The roman governor was there at the time. They couldn’t do an illegal killing as there was a cohort of soldiers in the Fortress of Antonio at the temple mount. This wasn’t too far away from the Sanhedrin was meeting. But the Pharisaic approach was mainly over the concern of people keeping the Torah. So, if the Christians are keeping the Torah, they shouldn’t be punished; that was the approach later on of Pharisees. By Acts 15:5 you have some Pharisees who are members of the church, although their views differed a little from other church members. During the early 60’s when James, the brother of Jesus is executed by the high priest; at that point some who were meticulous in the Law, a phrase used by Josephus for the Pharisees. So, these people complained about what the high priest had done when the new Roman Governor came. The high priest was deposed from office because of that. So the Pharisees actually got along better with Jewish Christians than the Sadducees did. They were both popular sects, the Pharisees and the Jewish Christians. So, the Pharisees were known for their leniency and they liked people who kept the Law. The Jewish Christians were very pious; they were keeping the Law in Jerusalem, especially under the leadership of James, more than under the leadership of Peter. So, Gamaliel convinces the Sanhedrin not to execute them; he gives some examples which show that he may not have understood Jesus either. He understood Jesus as a leader of a messianic movement, but he classified him with revolutionaries which even Josephus did not do when he talked about Jesus in Antiquities 18. He compares two revolutionaries, Theudas and Judas the Galilean. Now, in so far we can reconstruct from Josephus, it looks like Theudas led a revolt against Rome as a messianic leader around the year 44. The problem with this is that it is about ten years after Gamaliel’s speech. One solution to this, Josephus may be wrong and another possibility is that Luke is wrong. Since Josephus spend more time in Judea than Luke and cared more about revolutionaries than Luke, scholars think that this is a place where Luke may be wrong. But most conservative scholars say the most likely solution perhaps, there was more than one person named Theudas as that was a common name. The problem with the argument is that it wasn’t actually a common name. Or perhaps it is an abbreviation of some other name. This is possible. Interestingly, Judas was a common name, but not Theudas.
However, Luke would be within his rights as an ancient historian to simple fill in the names with the most prominent revolutionary leaders known for that period. The apostles weren’t there when this was spoken, but undoubtedly word got back to them. They were about to be killed, but instead they were obviously released after a beating. There is one witness who would have known what Gamaliel said, who was a very good source for Luke and that was Paul. Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel; he would have known what Gamaliel said. But, whatever the case, most people outside Judea and Galilee hadn’t heard of any of these revolutionaries. So, it behooved Luke to name the most prominent revolutionaries to communicate the idea; this is characteristic of the way ancient historians wrote speeches. You can’t impose a genre on a later genre that didn’t exist. Sometimes people go too far trying to make up evidence such as Theudas being a common name and sometimes people go too far in the other direction saying that Luke wasn’t a good historian which they would say about Cassius even though you have the same thing with his speeches. In any case, Josephus says that Theudas was a magician which was a very negative title given to a wonder worker who didn’t agree with the person. It is the same term used for magi, but in applying it to people who weren’t magi, it was normally used very negatively. Theudas actually promised to part the Jordan; he was going to be like a new Joshua. It didn’t happen; the governor Fadus arrested Theudas and beheaded him.
Judas of Galilee led the tax revolt in the year 6 AD; later, his sons were involved in the revolt against Rome during the year 66AD and they were crucified. But Judas the Galilean led the tax revolt of year 6 AD that led to trouble for Judea’s governor and led to the destruction of Sepphoris, a town just four miles from Nazareth; that is why carpenters were in great demand as the town was being rebuilt in Jesus’ childhood. With his father being a carpenter along with Jesus, all of this made sense. Judas was helped by a Pharisee named Zadok which were theocratic nationalists who preached that God alone was the ruler of Israel and urged that no taxes should be paid to Rome. Even though some of the Pharisees sympathized with these Zealots, the Sanhedrin however had a vested interest in Roman rule and in keeping peace between the people and Rome. They cared about the people apparently; they didn’t want the Romans decimating their people, but they also profited economically, politically and through the honor the stability of Roman rule provided. They didn’t like revolutionary movements. So Gamaliel compared what was happening here to these two revolutionaries. He is classifying Jesus as being like a revolutionary; these two were executed and Jesus was executed. The movements of Judas and Theudas died out; the movement founded by Jesus didn’t die out. In Acts 5:38 & 39 Gamaliel brings up the idea that perhaps Jesus’ movement is of God.
Gamaliel was well educated, in fact, his household was known not only for teaching the Scriptures but also providing Greek education. The Sadducees would have also had Greek education. So, the apostles had been released apparently miraculously from prison. So, he says that we need to be careful, less we are found fighting against God. This was the exact language used in Euripides and later works that followed him of how King Pentheus was fighting against Dionysus. Another expression that was used with what Pentheus, it was like kicking against the goads which is how later Jesus confronted Paul on the Road to Damascus, Gamaliel’s own pupil. The danger of fighting against God; he misunderstands Jesus in a political way, but he allows for the possibility that God may be in it. If God isn’t in it, the movement will eventually die out, like the movements of Judas and Theudas died out. So, in Acts 5:40, they are beaten according to Jewish Law. The Sadducees did want to follow the Torah. They are given up to thirty-nine lashes. This would have been very painful unlike the beatings by the Romans lashing a person until they got tired. So, they are beaten and they go on their way, probably in a lot of pain. I have been beaten before in sharing my faith with people. More than once, my head was slammed on the ground with my hair being pulled out. One time, when it was very painful, I kept preaches anyway. But another time I didn’t feel any pain as my head was hit against the ground. On another occasion I was being beaten by somebody and I ended up with two black eyes and some blood on by face. I was sore for a while. What the apostles did was remarkable, as they went on their way; they were praising God that they had been counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. In Jewish literature when it talks about suffering for God’s name as being good.
This whole section talks about the name of Jesus, by which those calling on his name will be saved. It was an honor to suffer for his name and Jesus had promised this in Luke chapter 6; if you are persecuted on account of me, leap for joy for that is what happened to the prophets before you. Then, it says that they continued teaching and preaching. Sometimes there are other ways to do things; Jesus did say in Matthew 23 when they persecute you in one town, flee to another. We see Paul doing this in certain settings. In this setting, they knew that God had called them to Jerusalem and they were going to keep ministering there. They were teaching; language that primarily had to do with instruction and they were preaching; they were continuing to proclaim the saving Gospel. Both overlapped with one another. In today’s circles, in preaching, sometimes, people think that they have to shout. I don’t mind this; I sometimes do the same thing when I get exciting about what I’m talking about. Having said that, this is not a Biblical distinction between the two; teaching has an emphasis on instruction and preaching is usually on the saving Gospel. The meanings actually overlap but the idea of having parrhesia, this is boldness, being ready to speak boldly. It is much easier to do this in a congregation than with people that want to beat on you. So, things seem to be going well apart from the persecution.
2. Chapter 6:1-7
a. Care for the Widows and Orphans
The church continues to grow, but now we are about to come to a division within the church itself. Acts 6:1-7, we are going to read about the seven charity distributors. Know that complaining minorities were usually depressed, just like what the Sadducees did with the apostles. But that is not what the apostles do here; the minority group speaks out saying that they are being discriminated against. We are not told whether that was true or whether they just felt that way because of their margination due to their numbers. It may have been true; the apostles may have had some prejudice that they didn’t recognize. It may have been false, but just because somebody is serving God, doesn’t mean that they are always right about everything. Remember, Paul had to challenge Peter in Galatians 2. It is helpful to listen to people and not shut them down when they have complaints. In this case, they were going to respond in a very positive way. Widows and orphans were the most powerless group in antiquity and also in Jewish society. There are some societies where the husband’s relatives will seize the widow’s home putting them out with the children. I hope if you are in one of those societies and preaching, you should preach against that so that members of your congregation will not act in that manner. In Jewish society it was very important to understand that God was the defender of widows and orphans and you should do that same thing. You should defend the windows and orphans. Women could sometimes get away with things that men couldn’t. Sometimes they would cry out in a court and sometimes the judge would listen to a woman, especially a powerless elderly woman. We see this sometimes in the Old Testament where Joab wants to persuade David of something but couldn’t do it himself, so he hires a wise woman to speak to David and then Joab, himself listens to a wise woman in another case. We have this in Luke 18:7 where the unjust judge spoke of those crying out day and night. At first he wouldn’t listen but she continues to cry out and so he listens. But normally the widows could get away with things without being shut down; however they didn’t always get what they wanted. In this case, the problem isn’t that they are widows, as the church is taking care of them. There is a food distribution program and they are taking care of the poor. The problem here, they are widows of a minority cultural group within the church.
We need to pay attention to minorities in our midst; sometimes if these minorities are empowered by the Spirit, they may be the bridge to the churches’ future. That can be good or it can be bad, especially if the churches’ future rest on those who do bad things. But if these are people who are empowered by the Holy Spirit, then it is a good thing. Understand that at this point, they don’t have gentiles in the church, but this minority group who are culturally more familiar with the Greek world than the apostles are. This minority groups will be a bridge to the future in reaching the gentiles. The apostles don’t have any reason to know that. We only see that in retrospect looking at the way things developed in the Book of Acts. We can think of groups in our churches who are minorities. The youth aren’t the ones with the power in our church but they are a bridge to the future. It is very important to be bringing them up in the ways of the Lord and help them to understand; they may have insights on how to reach their generation that we don’t. We can learn from them on those points as long as they are not compromising with the values of the generation that are antithetical to the Gospel. There is a give and take where we can learn. So in Acts 6:1, these are widows of the Greek-speaking Jews; the Old Testament teaches care for the widows as they lacked a means of support, especially if they were without families. Luke has a special interest in widows; you have Simon, who is a prophet in the temple in Luke chapter 2 and you also have Anna the prophetess who has been a widow for a long time. You have this unjust judge and the widow crying out in Luke chapter 18; you have Pharisees who oppress widows; Jesus talked about this. You also have this poor widow in Luke chapter 21 who puts in these two copper coins which seemed so little by some. But Jesus said that she gave more than anyone else. She gave all that she had. Then you have the church caring for the widows here; you have Tabitha in Acts chapter 9 caring for widows. So, there is a special concern for these powerless people in society.
The powerless people in our society may not always be widows, but we need to help those who need help. We need to notice them and reach out to them. Sometimes, if you are part of the dominate culture or you are in a position of power, you don’t notice what other people are going through. Of course, they know what they are going through and they can see what you are going through. That is the way it is with the minority culture. So, we need to notice and listen like the disciples were doing with the widows. Looking at the particular cultural dynamics here, these were from the Hellenists, which meant those who had absorbed some of the Greek culture. This phrase was used in Maccabean literature and elsewhere. Here, it probably means foreign Jews verses Judeans and Galileans; we have already come across them in Acts 2 and in Acts 4. Why was there such a large foreign Jewish community in Jerusalem? Well, Jerusalem was the heart of the Jewish world, not just for Judeans but from all over the ancient world. Some have estimated the eighty percent of Jewish people lived outside of Judea and Galilee. They either lived to the east in Parthia or they lived in the Roman Empire. And it was considered virtuous to be buried in Israel; we have a lot of reports from later rabbis about this. It was considered virtuous to be buried in the Holy Land. So many foreign Jews after having saved enough money; they would migrate there and spend their last days there. When the men died, they left widows and therefore you had a disproportionate number of foreign widows. Not everybody was older, not everyone died before their wives, but you had a higher proportion of foreign widows for the number of foreign Jews that settled there compared to local Jews. The foreign Jewish community couldn’t necessarily take care of all their widows, which was a problem that spilled over into the church. We know today that problems of society do spill over into the church and this happens often. There is one later tradition in regards to migrating to the Holy Land said that the resurrection in Ezekiel 37 would happen in the Holy Land, therefore if Jewish people were buried anywhere else, their corpses would have to roll underground back to the Holy Land to be resurrected. Apparently they thought that this was a very painful thing for a corpse.
b. Seven Hellenist Jews were Appointed
Acts 6:9 tells us of foreign synagogues that were in the Judea, but they probably didn’t have enough resources to care for all the widows as well. So, what do the apostles do? They handed the whole food distribution program over to the offended minority. They chose seven new leaders, one of the holy numbers from the Old Testament. Josephus tells us that most villages usually had seven elders who would judge things. Other holy numbers included 12, 70 and 72. There is an allusion to Exodus 18 where Moses through the wisdom of his Midianite father-in-law, Moses delegated his administrative duties to those who were God fearing and trustworthy. So, for these seven, they had to be members of the respected in Israel and they also had to be God fearing and trustworthy. The reason Exodus 18:19-20 gives, so that Moses could devote himself to prayer and teaching; just like here with the apostles. So, this is a clear illusion to Exodus 18. Being of good reputation, one of the issues here was important for public credibility. That was obviously important during this time in Jerusalem and it was important throughout the Mediterranean world; this was one of the qualifications for leaders. You had to be of good reputation and integrity, etc. We have this requirement also in 1 Timothy 3:7. Well, they let the people choose leaders which apparently came from Greek practice of electing officials. This practice had spilled over into the Essene community also in regards to electing officials. This is what has been said of the Essenes. Deuteronomy 1:13 tells us that people would make a choice and the leader would ratify the choice. So, you have something like that going on here. But qualifications wasn’t just having a good reputation, but also full of the Holy Spirit. So, they chose people like this; they lay hands on them and prayed. This is what happened with Joshua after Moses laid hands on him in Deuteronomy 4:9. So, what kind of people was chosen for this? There was another reason why they were chosen and that was for the purpose of affirmation of that diversity, the minority group within the church. Not just anybody, but it had to be people full of the Holy Spirit and people who could resolve this issue of tension within the church.
All of these seven that were chosen had Greek names. We know that many Jews in Jerusalem had Greek names as Scripture shows us this, but not the majority of them. Even in Rome where the majority of the Jewish community spoke Greek, less than forty percent of the Jews in Rome had any Greek at all in their names. If you look at the twelve, who were from Galilee, only one or two of them had Greek names, Philip being one of them. So, the Hellenists are complaining and with that the food distribution was handed over to these Hellenists, of which all had Greek names. One of them was even a proselyte from Antioch; he had been a gentile but had converted to Judaism. He had migrated to Jerusalem. Josephus tells us that there were a lot of proselytes in Antioch. The apostles lay hands of these seven Hellenists. The laying on of hands could be used for blessings as in Genesis 48:14 when a father could lay hands on his children but in this case, it was his grandchildren to impact a blessing to them. It was also used to appoint a successor; Moses laid hands on Joshua to appoint him as a successor and he was filled with the Spirit of Wisdom. This is the same language as in Acts 6; this became a tradition where rabbis later did this as if they were ordaining people for ministry or consecrating them, setting them aside for ministry. But, in this situation, it was accompanied with the pouring out of the Spirit. We see something like this in 1 Timothy 4:14 and 2 Timothy 1:6 where the elders laid hands on Timothy, there were prophecies given and Paul laid hands on Timothy for the sake of his ministry. He received a spiritual gift for his ministry; apparently from the context, it was the gift of teaching. But notice what they are setting them aside for; it is not initially for teaching and preaching but instead for the caring of the poor. This was something originally the apostles were doing and had to be done by people who would not act with prejudice. These would be people who would care for the Hellenists properly and they would not be prejudice against others.
c. Summary Statement
Then, we have a summary statement in Acts 6:7. Summary statements often concluded sections of ancient works. And we see that many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith at this point. Well, upper class priests mainly belonged to the class of the Sadducees, but lower class priests didn’t necessarily belong to the Sadducees. People like Zechariah didn’t belong to the Sadducees either. We read that some of the priests were actually Pharisees. The priestly aristocracy who controlled things sometimes actually abused and exploited the poorer priests. We read from Josephus that later on they exploited them so much that many of the poorer priests were put out of office. They couldn’t do the priesthood anymore; they had to go and work on the land.
So we see signs and wonders being performed by Stephen which now both, draw people to Christ and draw opposition. Jesus had commanded the gentile’s mission in 1:8, but the apostles remained in Jerusalem as late as Act 15:2. They were probably thinking along with Isaiah 2 where the Law of God would go forth from Jerusalem. If they had succeeded and Jerusalem had been converted, the end would have come. They would expect after the repentance of the Jewish people, the coming of the end. So they remained faithful to their calling, staying in Jerusalem, expecting the Word of the Lord to go forth from there. But it wasn’t until later, that they actually begin to go out themselves. Peter went on some missions in Acts 9, but they would come back to Jerusalem. The bicultural minority within the Jerusalem church is what held the promise for the future. The Hellenists had come from other places; they understood these other cultures better than those who grew up in the Judea. Even though they were newer believers, they were ready to cross cultural boundaries that initially, the apostles were ready for. Luke focuses on two examples: Stephen in Acts 7 and Philip in Acts 8. Well, Stephen is going to be arraigned and in debate with one of the Hellenist synagogues. Most likely his own Hellenist synagogues, the synagogues of the Libertines, but it becomes such an issue that he ends up being taken before the high priest. He is put into a situation like the apostles before him and like Jesus was before them. But while the apostles have so far survived, Stephen’s fate will be different.