Acts 6:1– 8:3 are an important transition in Luke’s account of the Apostles as he begins to turn from the early beginnings of the Church in Jerusalem to its maturing, growth, and spread throughout the known world. The significance of these chapters can be seen in the fact that the longest speech in Acts is given, not by Peter or Paul, but by Stephen – who becomes the first Martyr in Christian history.
Up to this point, Christianity was considered to be part of Judaism, and Christians still went to and taught openly in the temple as Jews. But the story of Stephen’s martyrdom dramatically changes the story of the Church as Christians are plunged into persecution and begin boldly confronting Jewish unbelief by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Peter’s sermons that confronted Jewish unbelief (2:23-24; 3:14-15; 4:10-11; 5:30-31) focused on God’s forgiveness towards their sin of murdering the Messiah, but Stephen’s sermon openly blames Jewish leadership for Jesus’ death and makes them guilty of his blood.
Luke begins this account by showing Stephen’s character and the power of the Holy Spirit that remained on him. And the parallels between Christ’s trial and Stephen’s trial are striking. Luke clearly intends to illustrate what Jesus said when he warned his disciples:
John 15:20 (CSB) — 20 Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.
I think it is also important to note that there are different approaches to interpreting Acts 6:1-7 that lead to different conclusions. I am approaching this portion of the text from the perspective that Luke is recording the growth of the Church and using this as the setting in which he will introduce the next three main characters of the story.
Some people disagree that this section pertains to the office of “deacon”, but I am going to teach from the perspective that Acts 6:1-7 introduces us to the first diaconate even though the first diaconate did not carry all the meaning that many modern churches have imbued in their deacons.
>>READ ACTS 6:1-15<<<
VERSES 1-7: Deacons & Deaconesses – Servants of the Church
The Church Body is growing and begins to take new shape as the ministry of the deaconate is born out of the love and service being performed by the Church body.
Luke’s description of the young growing church is particularly relevant to us today as it gives us our first insight into the developing organization of the Church body. This is important today because much of our confusion comes from being unable to differentiate between the church itself and the organizational structures of the church. The real tragedy is that the Church in the West has become so institutionalized that it is losing its sense of communion and community in the Holy Spirit, and I see many churches in the East pushing to replicate this habit, which I hope and pray does not happen.
However, organization is necessary to the life of the church.
In our text today we will see several organizing principles that will guide us in God’s will for how the Church organizes:
- Deacons were formed in proportion to the growth of the Church (v.1)
- Deacons were formed in response to a need in the Church (v.1)
- Deacons were formed on the platform of pre-existing Christian “love” and “service”
In other words, Deacons were created as a natural extension of the life that already existed in the Church.
- The whole body was already taking care of one another’s needs
- Their growth in this exercise of love exceeded the ability of volunteers to meet the need
Verse 3: The Deaconate Established
(NET) But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task.
“ἐπισκέπτομαι (carefully select)”: This verb comes from the noun “ἐπίσκοπος” (episkopos), from which we get our words for “overseer”, “guardian”, and “bishop”, and carries the meaning of carefully selecting or visiting someone as one would compassionately visit someone in a hospital or prison (Mt. 25:36, 43; Acts 7:23) or how one would serve widows and take care of orphans (Jas. 1:27).
Their careful attention to this matter shows that they recognized the importance of preserving the purity and integrity of their Christian service of love.
The mission of the diaconate is to be the physical embodiment of Christ’s servanthood in the Church on earth.
#1. Qualifications to Serve: Ac 6:3; 1st Tim 3:8-13
The men and women appointed to serve the Church as deacons and deaconesses must embody the servanthood of Christ in their ministry to the physical and spiritual needs of the Church.
Read: Acts 6:3 and 1st Timothy 3:8-13
- Deacons and deaconesses must have honorable character
- They must be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom
- They must be in monogamous relationships with honorable households
- They must not be malicious gossips
- They must not live hypocritical lives
- They must not be greedy for monetary gain
- They must not overindulge in wine
- They must be proven to be faithful to Biblical truth
#2. Appointment to Serve: Ac 6:6; Rom 12:4-7, 16:1-2; 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 3:13
The men and women appointed to serve the Church as deacons and deaconesses are first called and equipped by God with the grace necessary to embody the servanthood of Christ, and recognized by Church leadership with prayer and laying on of the hands to show the Church’s approval of their ministry.
Read: Acts 6:6; Romans 12:4-7, 16:1-2 and 1st Corinthians 12:28
- Deacons and deaconesses are appointed by God
- They are given the gift of service by the grace of Christ
- They are confirmed by Church leadership with prayer and the laying on of the hands
- They are richly rewarded in the faith that is in Christ Jesus
Note on Romans 16:1
“διάκονον” is the feminine form of the word “διάκονος”, which is open to interpretation regarding whether or not women can occupy the office of Deacon.
#3. Ministry of Service: Ac 6:1, 4; 1 Tim. 3:13; 5:3-16; Mt. 25:31-36; 1st Pet. 4:11; Rom. 12:4-7
The diaconate exhibits the servanthood of Christ in ministering to the diverse physical and spiritual needs of the Church wherever those needs exist.
Read: Ac 6:1, 4; Matthew 25:31-36; 1 Tim. 5:3-16; 1st Peter 4:11
- Deacons and deaconesses are the testimony of Christ’s gospel servanthood
- They serve with diverse gifts of helping and administration
- They serve the spiritual and physical needs of the Church
Deacons appeared to fulfill the roles of serving the Church’s physical needs with the service of love in spiritual wisdom.
Many churches have made their deacons into accountants, but that was not their first priority. They were supposed to be servants of the Church that demonstrated the love and care of Christ to the body.
#4. Discipline, Correction, and Removal: Matthew 18:15-20
Error in deacons or deaconesses are addressed directly in private for the purposes of restoring them to service and with witnesses according to Jesus’ instructions when the weight of their error or unrepentance demands.
Read: Matthew 18:15-20
- Deacons and deaconesses who come into error are first addressed in private, then with witnesses, and finally before the Church.
- They who ultimately refuse to correct their error are removed from their service and fellowship.
In this case, an error would be considered some kind of lifestyle or decision that undermines their ability to serve Christ in love and holiness. There is no text that specifically deals with removing deacons, but this was Jesus’ directive for restoring or removing brothers and sisters who get entangled in sin.
Verse 4: Each Member Ministers According to The Gift They Received
But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
The apostles demonstrate one of the most important principles of Christian unity by giving us this wisdom:
1 Corinthians 12:4–5 (CSB) — 4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different ministries, but the same Lord.
1 Corinthians 12:12–15 (CSB) — 12 For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all given one Spirit to drink. 14 Indeed, the body is not one part but many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” it is not for that reason any less a part of the body.
1 Corinthians 12:27 (CSB) — 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it.
The “superstar personality” that does everything in the Church is not Biblical. Every member belongs to Christ’s Church and has a job that they must fulfill because every member has received some measure of grace from the Lord for building up the Church.
Some mistakenly believe that this indicates that all other gifts in the body are subservient to the ministry of the word. I believe this view fails to take into account the reason given for their decision. The apostles were appointed by Christ for the ministry of the word, not serving tables, therefore, it would have been wrong for them to neglect the ministry to which they were assigned by Christ to fulfill the ministry that Christ has assigned to others.
I knew a pastor in America who had a really big heart and frequently neglected the ministry of the word to serve others. He would often receive phone calls on Saturday night from people asking him to come help them with something; sometimes widows would ask him to come fix something that was broken, or once he was asked to help someone move to a new house on Saturday night. He consistently neglected his duty to prepare quality spiritual food for the Church from the word of God. The consequences were that his assembly became malnourished and people were not being fed from the word of God.
This view of the “super-pastor” who does everything and meets every need in the body while the members of the body sit around and do not serve one another is antithetical to the Biblical concept of the Church Body.
Verse 5: Their Agreement Established The Matter
This proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a convert from Antioch.
Another important principle given to us in this text demonstrates that deacons were appointed by the agreement of the whole congregation of believers.
One way of understanding this principle is to see that the Spirit of Christ can make the will of God known through the collective unity of the whole congregation. The apostles did not push through the candidates that they wanted, but instead, entrusted the whole body with the task of selecting these servants for the Church.
By now the language of “being filled with the Spirit” is familiar in Acts. The apostles instructed the believers to choose seven men known to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” This phrase suggests a lifestyle in which the Holy Spirit’s presence was obvious to fellow believers. They were men of faith, boldness, and holiness. The term “wisdom” indicates that they also were men who had skills in ministry and, perhaps, problem-solving.
Verse 6: Their Appointment
They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
One final observation that we should make regarding the appointment of the first deacons in the Church is that after the congregation selected these men, they were presented to the apostles, who prayed over them and laid hands on them to confirm their appointment in Christ.
This concept is rather foreign to our thinking:
- In the Old Testament, laying hands on someone signified conferring the authority and responsibility to someone, as from Moses to Joshua (READ: Num 27:16–23)
- In the New Testament, the gesture is also used in healings (Acts 9:17)
- In giving the gift of the Spirit (Acts 9:17; 8:18)
- And in commissioning to a task (Acts 6:6; 13:3)
In this sense, their laying hands on these men signified conferring authority on them to carry out their mission to be the physical embodiment of Christ’s servanthood in the Church on earth.
Verse 7: Luke’s First Mission Summary
So the word of God spread, the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly in number, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.
This is Luke’s summary statement of the first panel of material that he covers in the Acts of the Apostles.
Acts 6:7 (CSB) — 7 So the word of God spread, the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly in number, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith.
Acts 9:31 (CSB) — 31 So the church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
Acts 12:24–25 (CSB) — 24 But the word of God flourished and multiplied. 25 After they had completed their relief mission, Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem, taking along John who was called Mark.
Acts 16:5 (CSB) — 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
Acts 19:20 (CSB) — 20 In this way the word of the Lord flourished and prevailed.
Acts 28:30–31 (CSB) — 30 Paul stayed two whole years in his own rented house. And he welcomed all who visited him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
Luke intends to summarize his opening thematic statement of the first chapter:
Acts 1:8 (CSB) — 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Everything in the first seven chapters centers around receiving power from the Holy Spirit to become Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea.
We will begin Luke’s next panel of material in chapter eight with the disciples being scattered across Judea and into Samaria with Philip’s ministry in Samaria.
Luke’s account of these seven deacons and Stephen’s martyrdom plays a very important role in the narrative of Acts by concluding and summarizing Luke’s first panel of material and introducing the three main characters of Luke’s second panel of material: Stephen, Philip, and Saul.
Stephen is crucial to advancing the narrative of Christian witness in suffering for the sake of Christ and provides the setting to Luke’s redemptive theme in Saul, who later becomes the apostle Paul.
Philip is crucial to advancing the evangelistic narrative of Acts because he is the first missionary to Samaria, he demonstrates the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the ministry of evangelism, and is seen again at the conclusion of Acts preaching on the coast of Macedonia.
Saul is the central character of the gentile mission and advances the evangelistic, redemptive, and suffering narratives of Acts.