The First Deacons

Acts 6:1-7  (January 1, 2011 — Happy New Year!)

There is great confusion in the plethora of denominations concerning the nature and organization of leadership and governance in the church today.  Part of that confusion concerns specific roles identified in the New Testament, especially when those roles are based on the early chapters of Acts, which we have amply demonstrated to be a part of Israel’s prophetic program.  Theologians rightfully recognize I Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9 as definitive for the qualifications of three types of leaders, “elders” (presbus, an ambassador, with emphasis on the dignity of the role), “overseers” (episkopos, a benevolent supervisor, wth emphasis on the duties of the role), and “deacons” (diakonos, a voluntary servant, different from a slave, a dulos).  Unfortunately, many denominations take great liberties with these qualifications or ignore them outright.  It is not uncommon to find both elders and deacons identified as roles in church consititutions, but their duties consist only of participation in a board that makes business decisions.  (For a thorough treatise on this subject see Biblical Eldership — An Urgent Call To Restore Biblical Church Leadership  Revised and Expanded edition by Alexander Strauch, 1995, Lewis and Roth Publishers, Littleton, Colorado USA, ISBN 0-936083-11-5.)

When it comes to understanding the duties of church leaders, we can infer some things from Paul’s lists of qualifications, but generally have to turn elsewhere for examples.  The passage we consider in this post is the principle example of the nature and duties of deacons, as well as the first instance of their existence.  This passage is an example of a historical narrative that illustrates an operative principle that has carried over from one dispensation to another.  (There are many such principles, communion being one of them.)  Even so, we should be careful to remember that the context of this passage is still entirely the offering of the Kingdom to Israel, and one of the passage’s main characters will have a major role in the High Council’s most telling rejection of that Kingdom in the very next passage we will consider.

By the biblical definition of deacons, they are people who voluntarily meet the needs of others by ministering to them.  Their serving is by appointment (in this case apostolic appointment) and out of a willing heart and a devout spirit. All of that is reflected clearly and accurately in this passage.  Interestingly, the men chosen for this special servanthood in this passage are never referred to with the title of “Deacon” within the passage.  Actually, the word diakonia and diakonian do appear in the passage in the Greek New Testament.  They’re just not translated literally as “deaconing” and “deacon,” which would be meaningless in English.  The title of Deacon as a noun or adjective doesn’t appear in the passage, and thus is missing in English translations; the duty of deacons as a verb or adverb does appear in the passage, better translated “serving” and “serve”.  It is only modern-day commentators who put a heading of “The First Deacons” on this passage.

Please take the time to read the entire passage (Acts 6:1-7) now if you have not already done so, before we begin a verse-by-verse analysis.

Verse 1 reminds us immediately of what we learned in Chapter 2 about the population in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost.  Here, a few weeks after Pentecost, we still find Jews of the Diaspora not only in Jerusalem, but as followers of Jesus Christ among the ever-growing numbers of disciples.  In my NASB study Bible, it is printed as “Hellenistic Jews” — the word Hellenistic is not italicized, but the word Jews is.  That means that the word Jews was added by the translators for clarification, and does not appear in the original manuscripts, which is true.  In the Greek New Testament they are simply called Hellayniston.  We must be careful here, because much later in the book of Acts the Apostle Paul will encounter Jews from Asia who accuse him of bringing gentile Greeks (Hellaynas) into the Temple.  The Hellayniston were genetic Jews who had been born and raised in Greece and who were in Jerusalem for the high festivals and who had witnessed the events at Pentecost, becoming believers.  These believing Jews from Greece were upset because their widows were not being included in the daily distribution of food that was part of their communal lifestyle.  We aren’t told why they were being left out, just that they were.  It was probably a simple oversight.

Verses 2 through 4 describe the Apostles’ solution.  Management of food distribution was not receiving careful attention, and the Apostles could not give it the attention it needed because of the more important demands of spiritual leadership.  They suggested that the several-thousand believers choose seven exemplary men who they trusted to oversee the food distribution.  Here we should pause to note the characteristics of these men specified by the Apostles:

  • good reputation
  • under the full influence of the Holy Spirit
  • under the full influence of wisdom

Note that these qualifications are much simpler than those indicated much later by Paul in his letters to Timothy and Titus, but they certainly are not out of line with them.

Verse 5 indicates that the whole body of believers thought it was a great idea, and proceeded to select seven men:

  • Stephen, full of faith and the Holy Spirit
  • Philip, who we will see again in Chapter 8, and who became known as “Philip the Evangelist”
  • Prochorus
  • Nicanor
  • Timon
  • Parmenas
  • Nikolaos, a proselyte from Antioch

Nikolaos (Nicolas) is an interesting case because he was a proselyte.  This is a good opportunity to review the New Testament meaning of that term.  It means he was not a Jew by birth (a genetic Jew), but was a gentile who had adopted the Jewish form of religion with all of its practices and promises.  Is his presence in this list evidence that God, at this point in Luke’s narrative, has broken down the barrier of separation between Jew and Gentile and made one new body of the two, the Body of Christ as described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 10-11?  No, indeed.  For a careful reading of these two chapters in Romans reveals that Israel had been set aside and her redemption, when she will be grafted back into the vine, is still in the future.  Second, Nikolaos had chosen to seek God by becoming a Jew in every way, because that was the only way revealed to men at that time.  The mystery hidden in God was still hidden, waiting to be revealed through the Apostle Paul later in Acts.

In verse 6 the Apostles publicly commissioned these seven men for their task.  Many churches do this today through a “commissioning service.”  Usually those being commissioned are called to stand in front of the congregation surrounded by the local leadership.  The leaders place their hands on their heads, shoulders and backs and pray, usually on the strength of this passage and others in Acts (see also 13:3).  However, read this verse carefully.  The order is different!  My NASB study Bible says they appeared before the Apostles, who after praying, laid their hands on them (not before or while).   We have come to think of “the laying on of hands” as something that mystically transfers spiritual power from person to person.  But is that necessarily true?  These men were already full of the Spirit and wisdom.  Nothing needed to be transferred to them at all for the performance of their duties.  Of course the Apostles and Jesus Himself miraculously healed the sick by touching them, but were also able to do so simply through the spoken word without the “laying on of hands”.  James does not instruct elders called to the bedside of a sick person to “lay hands on him” and pray, but to only “pray over” him, anointing him with oil (which some believe means to give him a theraputic backrub with olive oil — the word translated “anointing” is aleipho, to rub).  These are all small errors in understanding, but are often wrapped up in larger misunderstandings that ultimately reveal a failure to “rightly divide” the Word of God.  What purpose did the “laying on of hands” have in this instance?  Frankly, I don’t know and Luke doesn’t explain.  But IMHO it had nothing to do with a mystical transferrence of anything.  It might have been nothing more than a personal social affirmation that each of the Apostles agreed with what had been prayed and supported these new deacons personally.  (Was it possibly a hearty pat on the back?)  Whatever this was about, it’s a good lesson for us in recognizing sloppy thinking and scholarship when it is revealed by the careful study of God’s perfect Word.  Like the myth of the number of the Magi in the Christmas story, it is probably not what we have humanly made it out to be.

Our passage concludes on an interesting note.  Not only was the number of believers continuing to increase, but they were beginning to make inroads into the priests as well.  This, of course, would frustrate the High Council even more.  God is about to confront them in the most powerful manner yet.  He is watching them.  Will they finally receive Him and repent, or will they reject Him with greater finality and violence than ever before?  It will be the beginning of something wonderful for Israel, or the beginning of the end…  For now, it’s all still about God’s offer of the Kingdom to Israel.

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