“Select 7 men”—The First Deacons
Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, October 18, 2020
What do you know
about the Christian Church’s first deacons?
We hear a lot about the 12 Apostles,
and Acts, the book that follows the 4 Gospels,
is actually titled “The Acts of the Apostles.”
But did you realize
that the 6th, 7th and 8th chapters of Acts
are all about the first Deacons?
We don’t have Apostles of Christ in our churches today,
but we still do have Deacons,
so we can be blessed as we look into
what Acts tells us about these first Deacons.
Their names were Stephen, Philip, Prochorus,
Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus.
And, just as we know more about Peter & John
than some of the other Apostles,
the Bible tells us more about Stephen and Philip
than the other deacons.
We all know that Jesus chose and appointed
the 12 Apostles, to carry on his work,
and build the Christian Church,
but when and why were the first deacons appointed?
Acts Chapter 6 tells us it was to fill a need.
Actually, a problem developed in the early Church,
and the first deacons were appointed
to remedy that problem.
It was still just a few months
after Christ’s death and resurrection.
From heaven our Lord Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit
on 120 disciples on the day of Pentecost,
and they spoke miraculously in foreign languages
to crowds of Jews from many nations
who had come to Jerusalem
to celebrate that Jewish holiday.
Thousands of those visiting Jews heard the Gospel,
were baptized in Jesus’ name,
and remained on in Jerusalem
to grow in the faith
under the teaching of the Apostles.
So, the Christian congregation grew suddenly
from 120 disciples to well over 5,000—
many, if not most of them, out-of-town visitors
who needed to be provided for.
To meet those needs,
the believers shared in common everything they had.
Food was distributed to those in need.
And the widows among them were in particular need.
Without husbands or sons to care for them,
and with no Social Security or state welfare system,
they depended on the Church
for their daily meals.
There was plenty to go around,
because the people in the Church
were all selling their lands and properties
and donating the money to the Apostles
to provide for everyone else.
But a problem arose in regard to
the distribution of those resources.
In Acts 6:1 we read,
1 Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, a complaint arose from the Hellenists against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily service.
So, it was a matter of discrimination.
Not racial discrimination, in this case—they were all Jews—
but cultural discrimination—
the local Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians
who lived in and around Jerusalem,
discriminating against the foreign visitors,
who spoke Greek—
and were called Hellenists.
After centuries of domination
by the Greek Empire,
many Jews throughout the world had adopted
the Hellenistic culture of the Greeks,
and spoke Greek as the common language
that united the Empire,
even after the Romans took over.
They even read their Old Testament Scriptures in Greek—
the Septuagint Version.
So, the thousands of Jews who accepted Christ
from the day of Pentecost onward,
and who made up that early Church in Jerusalem
were culturally divided
between local Hebrew-speaking people
and foreign Greek-speaking people.
And the local Hebrew-speaking Christians
were neglecting the Greek-speaking Christians,
when they distributed food daily to the widows.
The complaint evidently reached the ears
of the 12 Apostles,
and they knew what had to be done
to remedy the situation.
They would appoint men to oversee the food distribution.
Verse 2 tells us,
2 The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables. 3 Therefore select from among you, brothers, seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. 4 But we will continue steadfastly in prayer and in the ministry of the word.”
The 12 Apostles could have
taken over the food distribution themselves,
but they knew the Lord wanted them to
continue leading in prayer and preaching,
so they called for 7 other men to be selected.
They would actually become the Church’s first deacons,
although the term “deacon” isn’t actually used here.
By the way, this passage
where the Apostles said to ‘select men’
is where we originally got the title
of the Selectmen who govern
many of our New England towns.
A college history book tells how the Pilgrims
who settled Plymouth Colony in 1620
had at first considered settling on the North Shore
where the Mass. town of Ipswich is today.
They ended up choosing the South Shore location
that became Plymouth,
but some of the settlers moved north anyway,
and the town of Ipswich was founded
about 10 years after Plymouth.
I’d like to quote from that college history book,
where the secular historian shows
that the Ipswich selectmen were modeled after
what we just read in Acts Chapter 6.
The history book says,
The selectmen of Ipswich were usually referred to as
the “7 men.” Although no specific number was ever mentioned in any Massachusetts law, and the number of aldermen varied from one English borough to another, this figure is suggestive of the selectmen’s role and stature in Ipswich town affairs. “Wherefore, brethren,” admonished Acts 6:3, “look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” On nearly every matter of local business, it was the selectmen who took charge...
So, the instruction there in Acts to ‘select 7 men’
became the pattern for town government
that we still have today in surrounding towns.
But, getting back to the early Church in Jerusalem,
we read that the call from the 12 Apostles
to select 7 men was well received
by the congregation.
5 These words pleased the whole multitude. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch; 6 whom they set before the apostles. When they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.
Acts doesn’t tell us anything about
the background of these first deacons,
except that they were godly men.
But their names indicate they were all Hellenists—
all Greek-speaking Jews who had accepted Christ.
All 7 names are Greek names, not Hebrew names.
So, they would easily be able to look out for
the needs of the Greek-speaking widows
in the Church.
And they were, indeed, godly men
who would be able to rise above cultural prejudices.
As the Apostles said, these first deacons were
“men of good report,
full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom.”
And we read that when the Apostles “had prayed,
they laid their hands on them.”
This laying on of the hands of the Apostles
accomplished two things.
First, it constituted their official appointment
to serve as deacons.
And, second, it endowed them with power—
supernatural power through the Holy Spirit.
It seems from Scripture that only the Apostles of Christ
had that ability to lay on their hands and
to perform miraculous signs and wonders.
Now that this problem regarding distribution of food
had been settled,
and now that there were deacons
to free-up the Apostles’ time for the preaching work,
the Church was able to focus again
on spreading the Gospel of Christ.
Verse 7 tells us,
7 The word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly. A great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.
These, of course, were Jewish priests
who served at God’s Temple in Jerusalem,
who now became believers in Christ,
along with the many other Jews
who now looked to the risen Christ
as their promised Messiah.
And the “7 men”—the 7 new deacons—
used the supernatural power the Holy Spirit gave them
to draw people to Christ
in the same way that the 12 Apostles did.
For example, Verse 8 tells us,
8 Stephen, full of faith and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
The “signs and wonders” performed in public
by the 12 Apostles and the “7 men”—the 7 deacons—
confirmed that the New Covenant was now in place.
The “signs and wonders” provided miraculous proof
that God was replacing the old Mosaic Law Covenant
with the New Covenant through Christ.
The Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament
foretold this would happen at Jeremiah 31:31
where God said,
31 Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt
The Old Covenant was instituted through Moses,
and the New Covenant was instituted by Jesus
when he said at the Last Supper,
“This cup is the new covenant in My blood.”
Luke 22:20 and 1 Corinthians 11:25
All those “signs and wonders” the Lord performed
through the Apostles in Jerusalem
authenticated that Christianity was indeed
the New Covenant promised through Jeremiah.
Over the centuries
since Moses freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt,
God had accepted the worship Jews offered
through the sacrifice of bulls and goats
at the Temple,
according to the instructions
God had given through Moses.
But now the Christian Church—the body of Christ—
was God’s new spiritual Temple
to replace that building in Jerusalem
—that would soon be torn down by Roman armies
who would not leave one stone upon another.
Peter would later write to believers at 1 Peter 2:5,
“you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
But the transition from the Old Jewish Covenant
to the New Christian Covenant was difficult.
The rest of the Book of Acts is filled with
the efforts of the 12 Apostles and the 7 Deacons,
not only to share the Gospel
with Gentiles of all nations and nationalities,
but also to convince the Jews
of the New Covenant in Christ.
Just as the chief priests in Jerusalem
refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah
and, instead, condemned him to death,
many Jews now rejected the message
spoken by the 12 Apostles and the 7 Deacons.
So, we read at Verse 9, how Stephen,
one of the 7 men appointed as deacons,
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Stephen
performed great wonders and signs
among the people
as he shared the Gospel of Christ with them.
He offered his listeners powerful proof
that Jesus was their long-promised Messiah,
and many listened and became believers,
but some stubbornly refused,
and instead debated with Stephen
and disputed the things he said.
It appears from the rest of Acts Ch. 6, 7 and 8,
that the 7 Deacons—the 7 ‘selected men’—
who all had Greek names,
directed their Gospel outreach
at an audience of Greek-speaking Jews—
Hellenists like themselves.
We see that in Verse 9, where we read the names
of some of the Hellenistic Jewish groups
that Stephen spoke to.
9 But some of those who were of the synagogue called “The Libertines,” and of the Cyrenians, of the Alexandrians, and of those of Cilicia and Asia arose, disputing with Stephen.
These Jews all argued against Stephen
and the message he was preaching about Christ.
But Stephen was empowered by the Holy Spirit
to prove from the Hebrew Scriptures
that Jesus was the Christ.
And the proofs he presented were irrefutable.
Those Jews who opposed him could not answer
the proof he showed them from the Scriptures.
But, instead of accepting his message about Christ,
they determined to kill Stephen.
And they decided to do it
by bringing false charges against him.
Verse 10 tells us,
10 They weren’t able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”
So, they produced false witnesses
to testify against him falsely,
accusing him of things he never did—
things that carried the death penalty
in Jewish courts.
These Hellenistic Jewish groups
would not accept losing their public debate.
Since they couldn’t answer
the proof Stephen showed them from the Old Testament—
proof that Jesus was the promised Messiah—
they accused Stephen of crimes
before the Jewish high court—
the Sanhedrin council.
Verse 12 continues,
12 They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes, and came against him and seized him, and brought him in to the council, 13 and set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops speaking blasphemous words against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”
The witnesses who testified against Stephen
were false witnesses.
They took the Gospel message that he gave them
and twisted it into something sinister and destructive.
The council that put him on trial
was the same council that condemned Jesus to death
just a couple months earlier.
And the hatred that they had for Jesus
was now transferred to his followers.
It’s just as Jesus said at John 15:18,
“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.”
And, again, at Matthew 10:22, Jesus said,
“You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.”
And we know that this applies to us, today, as well,
because in describing events leading up to
his Second Coming, Christ said at Matthew 24:9,
“Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name.”
How did Stephen react to the hatred
that was directed against him, on account of Christ,
by the false witnesses
and the unfaithful council judges?
Verse 15 tells us,
15 All who sat in the council, fastening their eyes on him, saw his face like it was the face of an angel.
His face looked like the face of an angel.
What does that mean?
The Bible consistently describes angels
as bright and radiant.
Matthew 28:3 says of the angel who rolled back the stone of Jesus’ tomb,
"His appearance was like lightning"
Daniel 10:6 says of another angel,
"his face [was] like the brilliance of lightning"
And Revelation 10:1 says of an angel,
"his face was like the sun"
So, even before Stephen opened his mouth to speak,
everyone who sat in the courtroom
saw the radiant glow.
Even facing this hostile Sanhedrin court,
and the death penalty they could hand down,
Stephen was not afraid,
and did not cringe before them.
Rather, he glowed with confidence, courage and strength
God’s Holy Spirit imparted to him.
The laying on of the hands of the Apostles
gave those ‘7 selected men’—those first Deacons—
the supernatural power to do ‘signs and wonders.’
We today, whether Deacons, or pastors, or believers—
we can’t perform those miraculous healings and signs,
but we still can use the Scriptures as Stephen did,
to boldly share the Gospel of Christ.
And, even if our message is rejected,
and the listeners persecute us instead of repenting,
we can still radiate God’s peace and joy,
just as Stephen did.