In verse one, the phrase “in these day,” accompanied by the context, implies that some time had passed. The number of the disciples was still increasing. The Hellenists were Jews of foreign birth and Greek education. It is likely that many had ended up staying in Jerusalem after the events of Pentecost and the beginnings of the church had profoundly affected them. But a complaint arose from them that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food and such. The New American Standard version translates the issue as they “were being overlooked,” and it is likely that it was unintentional. The language difference would also result in some separation physically as well, so such an oversight in such great numbers could be expected.
When brought to the attention of the Apostles, it would of course be remedied, but they recognized that the work they were doing of preaching the word of God could not be neglected. So they told their brothers to choose seven men “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” There is some discussion as to whether these were the first deacons, but as Coffman notes:
“…the record here does not so name them, nor is there very much similarity between their status and that of the deacons Paul commanded Timothy to appoint. The men here were not assistants to elders of the church, but to the Twelve; and, furthermore, they were endowed by a laying on of the hands of the apostles.”
The point is academic however, as the scripture does mention the Apostles using the words “serve tables.” The significance to us is mostly the selection of Stephen as one of the seven. He is described as full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, grace and power; and “was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” But before moving to Stephen’s story, let’s not overlook the significance of verse 7’s description of the growth in numbers – that “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” We are not told what is meant by “a great many” but the lower echelon of the priesthood numbered in the thousands; and conversion of a significant number of them would offer some explanation of why the Pharisees reacted so viciously in their treatment of the early Christians.
In a dispute that evolved into a conspiracy of lies and false witnesses, Stephen is seized and brought to the Sanhedrin. Verse 15 says “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Although we do not know precisely what that means physically, it is clear that the Holy Spirit was at work in Stephen.
some images © V. Gilbert & Arlisle F. Beers
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