The spirit of the gospel, 6:1-7
The persecution of the apostles, and particularly of Stephen, leads to an expansion of the Christian church, 6:1-9:31. This outward thrust of the gospel from Jerusalem was mainly the work of the Hellenistic believers. Before relating the martyrdom of Stephen, Luke tells us something of this group and their status in the Jerusalem church, v1-7.
v1. The Jewish world was divided between Aramaic speaking Jews from Palestine (Hebrews), and Greek speaking Jews from outside Palestine (Hellenists). The Hellenists were either emigrants from Palestine or descendents from the dispersion. Thus, "racial" tension (often focused on religious purity) existed in the Jewish community and found its way into the New Testament church, revealing itself in a dispute over the care of widows. The Hellenists claimed their widows were not getting a fair share of the church's welfare budget.
v2-4. The apostles see their main function as administering the worship of the church ("give our attention to prayer") and the preaching and teaching of the Word of God ("ministry of the Word"). They don't want to be sidetracked into a social-welfare role. The congregation therefore chooses seven men who are "full of the Spirit", gifted with wisdom, men who are capable and intelligent, able to perform a social-welfare role. When Luke uses the phrase "full of the Spirit", "filled with the Spirit", he often has in mind endowments for Christian ministry, ministry gifts, especially those for preaching, eg. "Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said.....", Ac.4:8, cf. Lk:21:14. So, these men must exhibit the gifts of the Spirit, particularly that of wisdom. Of course, it goes without saying that having been endowed with spiritual gifts they have also received the Spirit in the sense of being born again, ie. they are believers.
v5. The seven have Greek names, which may indicate that they were all Hellenists. One wasn't even a Jew, but rather a proselyte. Stephen heads the list and is described as a man "full of faith and of the Holy Spirit." He is a gifted person, the most evident spiritual gift being his strong faith, his total reliance on Jesus. His appointment recognizes this fact.
v6. The church (the assembly of believers) selects the seven, while the apostles appoint them to their office. The laying on of hands may serve to either express a prayer for blessing, or a commissioning for service. It is very unlikely that this act imparts spiritual power, as they were already "full of the Spirit". The ministry function of "deacon" comes from this passage and is derived from the Greek diakonos - servant, minister. A special class of ministry is certainly not being established here, rather these men are being set apart to serve the church community.
v7. Luke now gives us a brief report on the state of the church, telling us that there is an increasing communication of the gospel in Jerusalem and beyond. Luke is most likely thinking of the gospel message in particular when he uses the phrase "Word of God." As a result, the number of believers increase. This includes converts who are priests - an unlikely source of believers. The phrase "obedient to the faith" may well reflect Romans 1:5, but may also simply mean that they "put their faith in the Lord", CEV. At any rate, many priests opened their hearts to the gospel.
The spread of the Word of God
Acts serves to illustrate the truth that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to those who believe, for the Jew first and then the Gentile. It records the gathering of the lost and the building of the people of God through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God, beginning at Jerusalem and spreading outward to the ends of the earth (for Luke this means Rome). At this point in his narrative, Luke records the central place the Hellenists had in this outward thrust of the gospel.
In an age when believers are overly focused on the need to secure the survival of the institutional church through presentation (relevance of style), marketing (selling), management (directive leadership)..., it is good for us to see again the big picture. Christ builds his church on the confession of a true faith such that the powers of hell shall not stand against it. "The Word of God spread", or as we would put it, the good news of Jesus was increasingly made known to the wider society. The clear communication of the gospel was the means by which "disciples.... increased rapidly."
The equipping of the people of God for gospel ministry takes place in the gathering of believers. The apostles did not want their prayer and Word ministry diverted by the management of the church's meals-on-wheels programme. Their task was to lead the church in prayer, praise, thanksgiving, confession.... and above all, in the exposition of the Word of God. In this way a diversity of gifted members emerged to minister, in this case in social care, but also in evangelism beyond the church.
May our gathering together Sunday by Sunday be a time of spiritual renewal, a strengthening through the indwelling Spirit of Christ, and may we grow in an understanding of his Word. May we then be equipped to spread the Word of God.
"A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." Spreading the Word of God in partnership with others enables us to contribute in a way that reflects our abilities. Discuss ways your group could aid the spread of the Word of God and how each member could contribute to that end.