Today’s reading might not be as exciting as stories about the apostles being thrown into prison and threatened by the Sanhedrin, but there are some important lessons we can learn from this. Let’s look at it.
At various times in their history, the Jews were forcibly dispersed all over the known world. Israel was invaded multiple times, and often the conquerors would take huge segments of the population and carry them off to other countries. The empire in charge would give way to another, but often the Jews stayed where they'd been scattered. As a result, there were Jews in all the corners of the Roman Empire. So the question became: “How should we respond to the culture around us?” In the apostles' day, that meant Greek culture. The Romans conquered the Greeks, but it could be said that the Greeks conquered the Romans as well: The Greek language was the Lingua Franca everywhere, the Romans worshiped the Greek gods with different names, etc. Some Jews quarantined themselves against the prevailing culture and said “It’s all condemned by God, so we’re going to participate enough to survive, nothing more.” Others said “It’s not all bad. Let’s pick out the good and leave the bad behind.”
That difference is found in the first verse here. The “Hebraic” Jews were the ones who shunned the culture. They used the Scriptures in the original Hebrew, for example. The “Hellenistic” Jews spoke a lot more Greek than Hebrew, and they preferred the Scriptures as translated into the universal language at that time (also known as the Septuagint).
As you might've guessed, there was little love lost between the two groups in the Jewish (non-Christian) world. The Hebraic Jews saw the Hellenists as traitors to everything they stood for, and the Hellenists saw the first group as sentencing their belief system to a slow death.
Unfortunately, it looks like this animosity had some carry-over into the church. Hellenistic (Greek-oriented) Jews complained that their widows were being neglected when it came time to distribute charity. It looks like the verses hint at some suspicion that this wasn’t just an accident. So what happened? Was there a major rift in the church?
That’s what could've happened, but thankfully the Spirit’s wisdom intervened and plugged the hole before it became a real problem. The apostles didn’t get involved in the nitty-gritty details of the dispute. This was not their job. Macarthur says that it’s possible that the “tables” mentioned might refer to financial affairs, and not just literally food at tables. The point was that their purpose in life was preaching the Good News and caring spiritually for the church, not getting directly involved in administrative details.
So on the counsel of the apostles, they chose seven men to take care of the oversight so that no one was overlooked. I don’t know if you noticed it, but all the names of the Seven are Greek names. In other words, they appointed Greek-oriented believers to make sure that Greek-oriented widows wouldn't be neglected. Of the Seven, only two are mentioned later in Acts. Stephen was the first martyr of the church (which we'll discuss later), and Philip opened the door further to the Gentiles by leading the Ethiopian Eunuch to the Lord.
Now let’s be clear on this. I know that there are some people out there who claim that these are the first deacons. That’s possible but not likely. They had some of the characteristics of deacons: Taking care of practical matters instead of being spiritual guardians of the church. But they’re never called deacons anywhere in the passage. And it’s clear—from what we see later in Acts--that Stephen and Philip were primarily evangelists, not deacons of a church as we think of them.
Having said that, I think the principle is sound that the church needs people who are spiritual guardians of the church (elders) and those whose main tasks are the practical and administrative needs of the church (which we can call deacons).
And what happened? The word of God spread, and the number of disciples multiplied. Even quite a few priests came to faith in the Messiah. What’s my point here? When the Church is organized properly and its Spirit-led members work towards solutions instead of bickering and back-biting, it’s amazing what can be accomplished. We’re part of one Body, and if we function as such, the Church will grow. What a concept.
Lord Jesus, am I helping to add to the Body? Am I hindering anyone from participating by offending them unnecessarily? All I want is to glorify and please you. Please help me do that, by your grace.