December 12, 2013

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

Topic #II: The Church in Jerusalem, Acts 2.1-8.3

            Subtopic D. Struggle from Within and Without (5:1-6:7)                   

                Secondary Topic 3: The First Racial Tension in the Church (6:1-7)                             

Lesson II.D.3.a: The Problem (6.1)

Acts 6.1 (KJV)

1 And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. 



Previous to the incident recorded here the disciples had been of one accord; the church was fellowshipping and believers were experiencing the filling of the Spirit. In the prior lesson the apostles had been jailed and then beaten for preaching the gospel. However, believers were united and their lives were a testimony to their faith in Jesus Christ; the Church was off to a good start. It’s at times like this that you must be careful, because Satan will take advantage of Christians who let their guard down; sometimes prosperity is the worst thing that can happen to the church or even to an individual. Now there is a PROBLEM in the Jerusalem church.

The New International Version renders this verse as: “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.”

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing” suggests that the church, at the outset, began to grow rapidly, and in verse 7 of this chapter we are told that a large number of priests became obedient to the faith: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”  Even some of the Jewish religious leaders had been converted.

“In those days” or rather about that time, points to when the Christian church was experiencing rapid numerical growth. The text doesn’t reveal when that occurred; it may have been several years after the planting of the church. The believers had become very numerous in Jerusalem.

The word "disciples" was a common name applied to all Christians, to all that believed in Christ, and was the name they went by, before they were called Christians—“And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26).

“The number of the disciples was increasing;” from the original hundred and twenty men who met in that upper room in Jerusalem there was added three thousand more, and then five thousand more, and after that a multitude of men and women were added, and still they were increasing—“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). (Also see Acts 1:15[1]; Acts 2:41[2]; Acts 5:14[3])

“There arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews.” “A murmuring” refers here to a complaint by the Grecians against the Hebrews that there had been partiality in the distribution of alms or food made to the church’s widows who were of Greek descent. It appears from this and the instance of Ananias and Sapphira, that this first and pure Gospel church was not free from hypocrites; it also shows, that though they were united and harmonious at first in their affections and judgments, yet there were times when feuds, animosities, and contentions surfaced. Satan did his worst, and got a foothold among them, as he commonly does where the Gospel is preached, and he created all sorts of problems of which this is only one example. When Satan has assailed the Church on the outside, and with little result and in vain, he assails it on the inside, with civil dissension and strife among the brethren.

“The Grecians” (Grecian Jews; Hellenists) were the Greek-speaking Jews who were mostly born in the provinces. They were those Jews relocated during the dispersion who lived in countries where Greek was spoken, and who themselves spoke Greek. It was for them that the Alexandrine Version of the Scriptures, commonly called the LXX was made. This class of Jews was found in almost every city where Paul preached (Acts 13:14-16[4]). Admittedly, there has been much diversity of opinion in regard to these persons, whether they were "Jews" who had lived among the Gentiles, and who spoke the Greek language, or whether they were proselytes from the Gentiles. The former is probably the correct opinion. The word used here is not what is commonly employed to designate the inhabitants of Greece, but it properly denotes those who "imitate" the customs and habits of the Greeks, who use the Greek language, etc. In the time when the gospel was first preached, there were two classes of Jews - those who remained in Palestine, who used the Hebrew language, and who were appropriately called "Hebrews"; and those who were scattered among the Gentiles, who spoke the Greek language, and who used in their synagogues the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint. These were called "Hellenists," or, as it is in our translation, "Grecians." These were doubtless the persons mentioned here—not those who were proselyted from Gentiles, but those of Jewish origin who were not natives of Judea, who had come up to Jerusalem to attend the great festivals (See Acts 2:5, Acts 2:9-11). Dissensions would be very likely to arise between these two classes of persons. The Jews of Palestine would pride themselves on the fact that they dwelt in the land of the patriarchs and the land of promise; that they used the language which their fathers spoke, and in which the prophecies of God were given; and that they were constantly near the temple, and regularly engaged in its ceremonies and rituals. On the other hand, the Jews from other parts of the world would be suspicious, jealous, and envious of their brethren, and would be likely to charge them with partiality, or of taking advantage in their contact with them. These occasions of strife would not be destroyed by their conversion to Christianity.

“The Hebrews” were those Jews born in Palestine, and were the inhabitants of that country, and chiefly of Jerusalem, who used their native tongue (Hebrew, or rather the Syriac language), and were inclined to look down on the "Grecians" as an inferior class; some of this spirit was present in the Jerusalem church.

“Because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.” The cause of the murmuring mentioned in the above clause seems to have been this: When all the disciples had put their property into a common treasury, it was intended that out of it each should have his needs met. The foreign or Hellenistic Jews began to be jealous, and they complained that their widows were neglected in the daily distribution of food, that they received less than what was given to the Hebrew widows; the reason being that the Palestine Jews were partial to those of their own country. The Hebrew widows might be related to many in the community, therefore they were more highly regarded and better supplied every day, than the Hellenistic widows were, whose husbands had dwelt in foreign lands, and were not so well known, and had fewer acquaintances and relatives. It seems the ministration or distribution was made every day: and such a practice was common among the Jews, who used to collect every day for the poor, and give it daily to them. This affair shows that the concept of relying upon community property could never have been designed to become general. Indeed, it was no ordinance of God; and, in any state of society, it must eventually become impracticable (The failure of Communist society in the Twentieth Century bears this out.). The apostles, hearing of this murmuring, came to the resolution which will be discussed in the next lesson.

“Were neglected” has the idea of being "overlooked" by those whom the apostles employed, and who were probably from the Hebrew class, which was the most numerous. The complaint was in all likelihood well founded, though we cannot suspect the distributors of intentional partiality. It was really just a matter of communicating love, each party wishing to have their own poor taken care of in the best manner.

“The daily ministration” was the daily distribution of alms according to need, and/or of food, probably the latter. This was carried out at first by the apostles (Acts 4.35[5]) and later by collectors appointed by the apostles, who receive "every day", a piece of bread, or any sort of food, or fruit, or money, from whoever freely offers it; and they distribute that which is collected, "in the evening", among the needy. It is clear from the Epistles that "widows" were objects of special attention in the primitive church, and that the first Christians regarded it as a matter of indispensable commitment to provide for their needs (1 Timothy 5:3, 1 Timothy 5:9-10, 1 Timothy 5:16; James 1:27[6]).

[1] And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,)

[2] Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.

[3] And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.)

[4] Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem. But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down. And after the reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. Then Paul stood up, and beckoning with his hand said, Men of Israel, and ye that fear God, give audience.

[5] And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

[6] Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.