"Showing the way, Teaching the truth,
Experiencing the life in Christ"
A Problem Solved
(Acts 6:1, NKJV)
“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.”
At the conclusion of last week’s lesson, we watched as the apostles—in spite of the intense persecution they endured—just wouldn’t stop teaching and preaching about Jesus. Luke wrote, “Daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42, NKJV). The apostles were engaged in two distinct speaking ministries: “teaching and preaching.”
“Teaching” is primarily for the benefit of believers. It is one of the two essential activities that God has designed to transform believers into “disciples.” That was what Jesus told His disciples immediately before He ascended back to heaven. He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV).
“Preaching” is primarily for the benefit of non-believers. The Greek word translated “preaching” in Acts 5:42 is “euaggelizō” which means “to announce the Good News.” The English word “evangelism” is a transliteration of this Greek word—and, of course, “evangelism” is announcing the Good News to non-believers so they can believe it and be saved! This is exactly what Jesus commanded His disciples to do when He said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15, NKJV).
When the leaders of the church consistently engage in “teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ,” the result is that non-believers become believers; and believers become disciples! That is exactly what happened in the Jerusalem Church. Luke began chapter 6 of the Book of Acts with an incredible statement. He wrote, “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” (Acts 6:1, NKJV). Did you get that? He declared, “In those days…the number of the disciples was multiplying” (Acts 6:1a, NKJV).
The question that cries out for an answer is: “Why was the number of disciples multiplying?” The answer is because of what the apostles were doing. Luke wrote, “Daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42, NKJV). When God’s people are “preaching” the Good News to non-believers so they can believe it, and are “teaching” believers what it means that Jesus is “Christ,” then the number of disciples multiplies! That, my friends, is the only way to grow the church! No other method will do.
II. The Problem
We should not be surprised in the least that when “the number of the disciples was multiplying,” the Devil would do everything in his power to cause problems. He certainly doesn’t want non-believers to become believers; and he doesn’t want believers to become disciples! On this occasion the church’s problem came in the form of an internal conflict. Luke described it like this: “There arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1b, NKJV). The Devil often hinders the effectiveness of God’s church by motivating its members to complain!
The nature of the complaint was quite simple. There were two categories of Jews who were members of the Jerusalem church. There were “the Hebrews” and “the Hellenists.” Both groups were Jews.
“The Hebrews” were Jews who had remained in Judea in spite of the various attempts of the Romans to drive them out for almost three generations. They still spoke Hebrew as their primary language. They still dressed in a very traditional Jewish style. They still clung to a very rigid, traditional interpretation of the Law of Moses. It was to this group of Jews that Paul belonged before he became a Christian. He described himself as “a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5b, NKJV).
“The Hellenists,” on the other hand, were Jews who had migrated out of Judea and had lived in the provinces of Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire. They no longer spoke Hebrew as their primary language. They no longer wore the traditional Jewish dress. And, most disturbing to “the Hebrews,” they no longer clung to a very rigid, traditional interpretation of the Law of Moses. It’s not that hard to see how there could be tension between these two groups of Jews in the same church.
It was for the benefit of “the Hellenists” that God gave the apostles “the gift of tongues” on the Day of Pentecost—because they no longer spoke Hebrew fluently. Luke was describing the reaction of “the Hellenists” to the apostles’ “gift of tongues” when he wrote, “There were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven…they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, ‘Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?’” (Acts 2:5…7-8, NKJV).
The Twelve were all “Hebrews,” and they were obviously in charge of the church’s benevolent ministry of providing food for the church’s destitute widows. So “the Hellenists” complained that these “Hebrews” were neglecting “Hellenist” widows in the “daily distribution” of food. Luke wrote, “There arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1b, NKJV).
III. The Solution
As soon as the Apostles became aware of the complaint of “the Hellenists” against “the Hebrews,” they did what good leaders do. They offered a solution to the problem. Luke wrote, “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’” (Acts 6:2, NKJV).
When the complaint materialized, the Apostles had two choices. They could become even more involved in the benevolent ministry of feeding the widows in an effort to solve the problem which would distract them from their primary responsibilities of prayer and preaching, or they could delegate this responsibility to reliable, spiritual men and let them solve this problem. They chose “Option B.” Luke wrote, “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 we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word’” (Acts 6:3-4, NKJV). They refused to be distracted from their primary responsibilities of “prayer and the ministry of the word.”
God was evidently pleased with this solution, because the Holy Spirit brought unity into the disunity that the complaint had caused. Luke wrote, “And the saying pleased the whole multitude’” (Acts 6:5a, NKJV). When a proposed solution pleases everyone, the Holy Spirit must be at work. In fact, you might call it a miracle!
Following the advice of the apostles, seven men were chosen. Luke wrote, “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” (Acts 6:5b-6, NKJV).
The amazing thing is that six out of the seven men chosen have Grecian names! They were “Hellenists.” The seventh was not even a Jew. He was a Gentile convert to Judaism who had then become a Christian. Luke described him as “Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch.” There wasn’t a “Hebrew” among the seven who were chosen to assume responsibility for feeding the widows. I see an important leadership principle in this story. Those who are complaining should be willing to “step up” and be responsible for solving the problem they are complaining about or stop complaining. In short, either “step up or shut up!”
When the seven men had been chosen, the apostles “prayed” over them and “laid hands on them.” Luke wrote, “When they had prayed, they laid hands on them” (Acts 6:6b, NKJV). They must have prayed because they knew these men could be part of the solution to the problem or they could create an even bigger problem! The fact that the “Hebrew” apostles “laid hands on them” was their way of saying to the entire congregation, “We affirm these ‘Hellenist’ brothers…they have our support and our approval in this ministry role they are assuming.”
The problem was solved, and the work of God continued! I like the way Luke described what happened next. He wrote, “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” (Acts 6:7, NKJV).
Because the apostles refused to be distracted from their primary responsibilities of “prayer” and “the ministry of the word,” countless lives in Jerusalem were eternally impacted. Luke wrote, “The word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7a, NKJV). When the complaint was originally voiced, “The number of the disciples was multiplying” (Acts 6:1a, NKJV), but now because their leaders had the courage to face the problem heat-on and solve it, “The number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7a, NKJV).
Also, because this new church in town was able to maintain harmony between “the Hebrews” and “the Hellenists,” it caught the attention of “the priests,” who were so amazed that many of them became believers. Luke wrote, “A great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7b, NKJV).
(Acts 6:10, NKJV)
“They were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.”
On the last night of His life, during His final teaching session with His disciples, Jesus said two things that must have been very confusing to them. First, He said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18, NIV). They must have wondered, “Hate us? Why would they hate us? After all, we’re followers of Jesus, and He fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He delivered the demon-possessed. Why in the world would anyone hate us? Or for that matter, why would anyone hate Jesus?”
Later during that same teaching session, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33b, NIV). Wrapped up in that statement is the fact Christians live in enemy territory. Therefore, as long as we are “in this world” we “will have trouble,” and that trouble comes in varying degrees of intensity.
The story of Stephen is an example of how extreme the “trouble” Jesus was warning about can become. Luke recorded the horrible end of Stephen’s story when he wrote, “They cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:57-58a, NKJV).
Stoning was the most common Jewish form of execution. The convicted criminal’s accusers threw stones at him until he died a horribly painful death of either head trauma or other internal injuries. That’s exactly what happened to Stephen. Luke summed it up with the words, “He fell asleep” (Acts 7:60b, NKJV), which was the Hebrew way of saying, “He died.”
Let me remind you that we actually met Stephen in last week’s sermon. He was one of the Hellenist men chosen to work in the benevolence ministry of the Jerusalem Church. He was chosen to work in “the daily distribution” of food to the widows. Luke wrote, “They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch” (Acts 6:5b, NKJV). At this point, all we know about Stephen is that Luke described him as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Those two traits alone made him a great man in the eyes of God!
During the course of the next few weeks we will examine Stephen’s story in its entirety, but today we will take a look at how his story began.
II. Stephen’s Ministry
Not only was Stephen chosen as a deacon to serve in the Jerusalem Church’s benevolent ministry of feeding the widows, he was also the first non-apostle the Scripture records as working “wonders and signs” to authenticate his teaching and create a spiritual environment for effective evangelism. Luke wrote, “Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8, NKJV).
Stephen was also either teaching or preaching or both, because Luke indicated that “he spoke” with wisdom and the Spirit. He wrote, “They [his Jewish opponents] were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (Acts 6:10, NKJV).
Any time God’s people preach or teach with “wisdom and the Spirit” one of two things happens: either non-believers become believers—that’s evangelism; or believers become disciples—that’s discipleship. The Devil hates these two kingdom building accomplishments, so we should not be surprised that he would spring into action. And he did. This time he used Jews from a particular synagogue in Jerusalem to silence the voice of Stephen. Luke wrote, “Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen” (Acts 6:9, NKJV).
“The Synagogue of the Freedmen” was a particular synagogue in Jerusalem that was made up of Jews who had formerly been slaves; thus, the name, “Synagogue of the Freedmen.” This synagogue was made up of people who were “Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia” which means they were Hellenist Jews. Since Stephen was also a Hellenist Jew, this is probably the synagogue he attended and in which he taught and preached. This would explain why they were “disputing with” him. Because he had been profoundly influenced by the apostles, Stephen would have been preaching that Jesus was the Messiah. The Jews who attended “The Synagogue of the Freedmen” didn’t believe it, and argued with Stephen about his preaching.
Next Luke made an incredible statement. He wrote, “They were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (Acts 6:10, NKJV). Stephen’s ability to answer all of the objections of his opponents to his preaching was the result of the Holy Spirit’s work in him. Several months earlier Jesus had said to his disciples, “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (Luke 12:11-12, NIV). Because the Holy Spirit was teaching Stephen what to say, “They were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (Acts 6:10, NKJV).
In the next scene of Stephen’s story, we will see “Religion at Its Best.” You see, when religionists can’t win a debate legitimately, they will often resort to evil schemes. In this case, the religionists persuaded men to spread a false rumor about Stephen. Luke wrote, “They secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God” (Acts 6:11, NKJV).
Once the rumor had been leaked, the religionists used the very rumor they had fabricated to stir up the crowds against Stephen to the point that he was arrested and dragged him before Israel’s Sanhedrin Court. Luke wrote, “They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council” (Acts 6:12, NKJV).
With the trial underway, the religionists knowingly produced false witnesses to officially accuse Stephen of blasphemy. Luke wrote, “They also set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us’” (Acts 6:13-14, NKJV).
Jesus didn’t say He would destroy the Temple, He said if the Jews destroyed this temple—referring to his physical body—he would raise it again. John recorded the scene when he wrote, “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:19-21, NIV). The apostles were present to hear Jesus make that statement, so they probably repeated what He had said. Stephen was instructed by the apostles, so in all probability he would have repeated what they said Jesus said, but the religionists were twisting and misrepresenting what Stephen had said. Religion does that when it’s convenient!
The next scene in Stephen’s story demonstrates just how consistently religion refuses to respond to overwhelming evidence. Luke wrote, “All who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15, NKJV). With all of the damaging testimony by the false witnesses that might surely result in his execution, Stephen’s face would normally have been etched with fear or dread or distress; but instead, it looked like “the face of an angel.” I don’t know exactly what an angel’s face looks like, but Stephen’s face was evidently radiating some sort of angelic glory. It is as if God was revealing Himself through Stephen’s face to his accusers, but they refused to see Him! Religion does that. In fact, it has been wisely observed, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”
Sunday Service Times
Morning Worship: 10:00 a.m.
M*PACT Kidz: 10:00 a.m.
Helping Hands: 6:00 p.m.
ONE WAY Youth: 6:00 p.m.