Apostles Appoint Deacons
Acts 6 begins with, “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.”
So who were the Hellenists and who were the Hebrews?
Long before The Roman Empire dominated the countries surrounding the Mediterranean, “Alexander the Great”, king of Macedon (northern Greece) conquered the same area around 332 BC. Jews living in Antioch (Southern Turkey), Alexandria (Egypt) and even parts of the Middle East gradually stopped speaking their native Hebrew and only spoke in Greek. They also began to take on aspects of Greek culture.
These Jews became known as the Hellenists and, in the 1st century, could be found all along North Africa, not just in Egypt. The Jews in Judea continued to speak Hebrew and Aramaic and were called the Hebrews.
The Hellenists also had their own version of the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Tanakh or Mikra). It was called the Septuagint and was written in Greek. It contained extra books that were not in the Mikra, and do not appear even in today’s English Old Testament. It also had different takes on the books that were common between the two. This caused friction between the two groups, and would later be a major hurdle for the apostles spreading the Word in Hellenist regions.
The distrust between the two groups was resulting in the Hellenist widows not getting the benefit of the shared resources of the new church. In Judaism, women did not receive any inheritance when their husband died, and relied solely on family members for support.
So the apostles realized something needed to be done about this discrepancy, “Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.'” In other words, their role was teaching – not distributing.
“Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but [and] we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The local council in Jewish communities usually consisted of seven men, called the “seven of town”. Many scholars believe this is the first example of appointing what we now call Deacons.
“And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.” A “proselyte” was a Gentile who had converted to Judaism. For men, that included circumcision, not a pleasant procedure for an adult in those days.
These are all Greek names, so they were most likely chosen from within the Hellenist group itself. Stephen is believed to have been the eldest, and what we would call the Archdeacon. The purpose of laying hands on them, was not for them to receive the Holy Spirit, because it says they already had that. It was an acknowledgement of their important new role, and a tradition dating back to the time of Moses. [Ex#29:10; Lev#1:4; 3:8; Num#8:9-11; 27:15-23; Deut#34:9]
“Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” It is estimated there were some eight thousand priests in Jerusalem at that time. They were humble, devoted men such as the father of John the Baptist, and not from high priest families who were part of the Sanhedrin.
Notice also the use of the word “faith”. Along with “church”, it is another word used to refer to the fledgling Christianity or Christians.
“And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” But that did not go down well with everyone, as we shall see.