Sunday, July 22, 2018

Acts 6 Explanatory Notes

We move on to Acts 6 after finishing notes on the first five chapters. You can also follow my daily podcast commentary on Patreon, as well as YouTube videos on the Greek (see at the bottom for links).

Acts 1
Acts 2
Acts 3
Acts 4
Acts 5

3. Move into Hellenistic Judaism (6:1-8:3)
a. The dispute over widows (6:1-7)
  • 6:1. A dispute arises within the earliest church. We have already seen a problem within the church in terms of Ananias and Sapphira. However, this was not a dispute. This was a couple who were (visibly) in the church but not truly (invisibly) in the church. 
  • Now we see the first conflict between individuals who are all truly believers. There will always be conflicts within the church because we are human. The story thus gives us some insights on how to go about our conflicts.
  • As growth takes place in churches and in fact in any collection of people, we should anticipate conflicts arising.
  • The conflict is between Aramaic-speaking Jewish believers ("Hebrews") and Greek-speaking Jewish believers ("Hellenists"). There were far more Greek-speaking Jews in the world at the time of Christ than Aramaic-speaking ones. In fact, there were more (Greek-speaking) Jews in part of the city of Alexandria than in all of Jerusalem.
  • Greek was the lingua franca of the Roman world, much as English is today in the world. Jews had been scattered throughout the world for hundreds of years prior to Christ. "Diaspora Jews" traced to the early 500s BC with the Babylonian captivity, a time when Jews also emigrated to Egypt.
  • The dispute has to do with the distribution of food to widows. First, we are not surprised that the church took care of its widows. There were no safety nets for such individuals if they did not have family to take care of them.
  • Apparently, the Aramaic-speaking community was doing fine taking care of their own widows, but they were not taking care of Greek-speaking widows in the church. We can imagine the kinds of excuses made--1) not our responsibility but yours, 2) latent prejudice--(immigrant) Greek-speaking widows aren't as important as the (native-born) Aramaic-speaking ones, 3) simply oversight (out of sight, out of mind).
  • 6:2. The disciples call a meeting to address the problem. This is good, rather than let things fester below the surface.
  • There does seem to be a bit of defensiveness on the disciples' part. "We have more important things to do than serve tables." It's true that preaching the word of God was their primary responsibility, but there nevertheless seems to be a failure of leadership taking place here.
  • 6:3. The people choose a committee to take care of the problem. There are a number of good insights here. First, the people are empowered. Second, the apostles delegate, which is always good when a leader cannot get it all done. The people will nevertheless be under the authority of the apostles.
  • 6:4. Now the apostles can focus on their primary function--prayer and preaching.
  • 6:5. The people like the proposal and appoint seven men. There are some curious aspects to this event, however. The men chosen are all Hellenistic. That is to say, this is not a committee appointed to take care of all distribution to widows in Jerusalem. It is a group to take care of the Hellenistic widows. In other words, the leaders simply seem to be authorizing the Hellenists to take care of themselves. 
  • They are to be full of faith and the Spirit.
  • We don't have enough details to know whether this simply passes the issue off (not our business) or whether it is truly empowering a community to take care of itself.
  • We don't actually see these individuals serving tables and this passage never calls them deacons. Rather, we see Stephen and Philip as evangelists, which suggests that there was more missing in the Hellenistic church than food distribution.
  • Nicolaus is a proselyte from Antioch, perhaps suggesting that there are already churches in Antioch. Nicolaus represents a step toward the Gentiles.
  • 6:6. The laying on of hands is an ordination of sorts, practiced by the church ever since when individuals are commissioned to serve.
  • 6:7. The number of believers continues to spread and multiply. We had 3000 on the Day of Pentecost (2:41), 5000 after the healing of the lame man (4:4), then a large number (5:14). In this case, the spreading crosses a distinct social barrier--it now multiplies among Greek-speaking Jews.
  • A number of priests believe. These are not likely the higher level priests but lower level priests like the father of John the Baptist had been. One wonders if any of these were Essenes.
b. The ministry of Stephen (6:8-15)
  • 6:8. Stephen shows his evangelistic fervor by preaching boldly among Hellenistic Jews. Since he is full of the Holy Spirit, these include wonders and signs like those Peter and John had done, and Jesus had modeled before them. 
  • Stephen gets in more trouble than Peter had. This could either be a climax of conflict and/or also the possibility that he was more edgy or confrontational in his preaching. Interestingly, it is the Hellenists who seem scattered in 8:1, not the Aramaic-speaking apostles.
  • 6:9. Stephen's audience and opposition come from Hellenistic synagogues, possibly two: 1) one that is the Synagogue of the Freedman, including Alexandrians from Egypt and Cyrenians from Cyrene and 2) one of Jews from Cilicia and Asia. It is perhaps worth noting that Paul was from Cilicia and may have had a connection with the second synagogue (if there are two alluded to here).
  • 6:10-11. Stephen seems to prevail in argument about Jesus, so they shift to underhanded tactics.
  • Their false accusation is that Stephen is speaking against Moses and God. This is a straw man, as often happens. A caricature of his real position is created to raise anger and incite emotional furor.
  • 6:12. They are so successful that they get him before the council. Perhaps the council saw him as an easier target than the apostles had been.
  • 6:13-14. There may be an implicit comparison between Stephen and Jesus here. Luke would know of Mark's indication that false witnesses were brought against Jesus (Mark 14:56-57) and Luke mentions false charges as well (Luke 23:2).
  • The false charge is that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs of Moses. Jesus does predict the destruction of the temple in Luke 21, but he does not say he will do it himself. Rather, the Romans would, an irony perhaps not lost on Acts' audience.
  • Acts maintains that Jewish believers continued to keep the Law of Moses (e.g., Acts 21:20-24).
  • 6:15. Stephen has the face of an angel. Acts makes it clear that he is the one in the right here, with heavenly approval.
Podcasts on the English of Acts 6
Acts 6:1-7 podcast
Acts 6:8-15 podcast

Videos on the Greek of Acts 6
Acts 6:1-7 video on Greek
Acts 6:8-15 video on Greek

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