Acts 6:1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
The church was still essentially Jewish, but there were two distinct groups: Hellenistic and Hebraic. The Hellenistic Jews were born outside Judea, spoke Greek, and were more Greek in culture. The Hebraic Jews spoke Aramaic, and were more Jewish in culture.
Tension grew between the two groups because one felt that their widows were being slighted in the distribution of food. The church looked to the apostles for direction, but the apostles refused to get involved. It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables (Acts 6:2), they said. And they were right.
Instead of getting involved themselves, the apostles instructed the church to choose seven men . . . full of the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3), to oversee the food ministry. That way, the food ministry would be improved, and the apostles could give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). Everyone was pleased, and the word of God spread (Acts 6:7), wrote Luke.
If the apostles had turned from prayer and preaching to other things, the word of God would not have spread. But the church might have split if the food ministry was not given proper oversight. The problem was solved through a division of labor, which remains a good model for the church today.
Most ministries are important, but the most important ministry of any church is the prayer-powered proclamation of God’s word. It is what Jesus did, what the apostles did, and how the word of God spreads. Preach the word (2 Timothy 4:2), wrote Paul. The church can survive without many things, but not without the preaching of God’s word. This was the highest priority of the apostolic church, and should be the highest priority of every church.
Acts 6:8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
Stephen was not an apostle, but God used him to preach the gospel, and confirmed his message with miracles. His enemies were unconvinced, however, and accused him of blasphemy, and brought him before the court.
Acts 7:1 Then the high priest asked Stephen, Are these charges true?
Stephen responded with a lengthy speech about Israel’s history that ended with this charge: Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him (Acts 7:52).
Acts 7:54-60 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Look, he said, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Then he fell on his knees and cried out, Lord, do not hold this sin against them. When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Stephen has the noble distinction of being the first official Christian martyr. He courageously refused to compromise his message, and prayed that God would pardon those who killed him. An important beneficiary of that prayer was Rabbi Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul. From this we learn that praying for those who harm us, may lead to their conversion.
Acts 8:1 On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
The church enjoyed about a year of public favor (Acts 2:46) after it began. But with the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60), a persecution broke out, and most believers had to run for their lives. This was a terrible hardship, of course, but there was a positive side. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went (Acts 8:4), wrote Luke.
They may have thought Jesus was returning soon (Matthew 16:27), so their words were especially urgent. And since Christ is the only way to be saved (John 14:6), they preached this message wherever they went.
Persecution has destroyed the church in many places, and should not be desired. But here we see that God can actually use persecution to advance the gospel. This has happened often enough that it has even been said, The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church (Tertullian). This was certainly true in the case of Stephen.
Acts 8:5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.
Like the apostles and Stephen, Philip could do miracles to authenticate his message. Crowds paid attention, and many who were paralyzed found healing. This was noticed by Simon, a man who practiced sorcery, and was known as the Great Power of God (Acts 8:10). He was so amazed by Philip’s miracles that he also believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13).
When the apostles heard about all that was happening, they sent Peter and John to investigate. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers to receive the Holy Spirit. The text is not explicit, but elsewhere this was accompanied by praise, prophecy and speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4, 10:46, 19:6). Simon was so impressed that he offered Peter and John money saying, Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:19).
Peter replied, May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin (Acts 8:20-23).
This makes us wonder if Simon was truly converted, even though he was baptized. Jesus taught that many who think they are Christians are only deceiving themselves (Matthew 7:21-23). They are like Judas Iscariot who appeared to believe, but did not truly believe (John 6:64). Genuine faith and counterfeit faith can be very similar, so we should not make assumptions. Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5), wrote Paul.
Acts 8:26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.
While he was on the way, Philip encountered a high ranking official from Ethiopia. He was sitting in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah. Do you understand what you are reading? Philip asked. How can I, he said, unless someone explains it to me? So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:30-31).
The man happened to be reading a passage that describes the death of Jesus Christ, hundreds of years before it occurred. He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth (Acts 8:31-33, Isaiah 53:7-8). Philip promptly explained that this was about Jesus Christ, and the man believed and was baptized (Acts 8:38).
Notice that God was at work in this person’s life before Philip arrived. The man had been to Jerusalem, where he probably bought the scroll of Isaiah. And he happened to be reading about Christ when Philip arrived. Philip explained the gospel; God gave him faith to believe (Ephesians 2:8), and he was baptized.
Whenever we share the gospel, we partner with God in the work of evangelism. We never know how God has been working in a person’s life, and how he may use our witness. But as we spread the word of God, we know that some will fall on good soil, and produce an abundant harvest (Matthew 13:8). This allows us to share God’s word with confidence.
Reflection and Review
How did persecution help advance the gospel?
What can we learn from Simon about conversion?
What can we learn from Philip about evangelism?