1 Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.
2 Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.
3 Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business;
4 but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch,
6 whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.
7 Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
Hellenists (v.1) — Greek-speaking Jews who lived (or had lived) in Gentile lands
Hebrews (v.1) — Aramaic-speaking Jews who lived in Palestine
distribution (v.1) — Acts 4:35
We don’t know if the Hellenist widows really were being neglected or if this was just their perception.
serve tables (v.2) — distribute food
good reputation (v.3) — well spoken of by all
business (v.3) = necessity
All seven names (v.5) are Greek — probably six Hellenistic Jews and one proselyte, removing all grounds for discontent
Stephen (v.5) = “crowns”
laid hands on them (v.6) — the apostles were identifying themselves with the work these men were to do
word of God (v.7) — the Old Testament — None of the New Testament had yet been written.
priests (v.7) — probably Pharisees
Who can read this passage with an unbiased mind and contend that it records the breakdown of the Pentecostal program? That program broke down later and was superseded by another, but as to the Hebrew assembly dying out during the Acts period, let us look at the record:
- Acts 2:41 — 3,000 added to the original group
- Acts 2:47 — Believers added daily
- Acts 4:4 — The number has grown to about 5,000 men
- Acts 5:14 — More added; multitudes both of men and women
- Acts 6:1 — The number is multiplied
- Acts 6:7 — The number is multiplied greatly and a great company of the priests become obedient to the faith.
Thus, while the apostles are threatened and imprisoned and beaten by the rulers, the cause for which they stand continues to grow steadily.
Even the fierce persecution led by Saul after the stoning of Stephen, while it drove this multitude temporarily from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) did not by any means diminish its numbers, for “they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Moreover, God saved Saul, the flaming leader of the persecution who, misunderstood and distrusted on every hand, had to be sent back home to Tarsus (Acts 9:30).
And now see the result: Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, were multiplied (Acts 9:31).
All the enmity and persecution of the rulers had proved fruitless. The enemies of Christ had been defeated. God had crippled the opposition by saving Saul! From this point on the high priest and the rulers went into bitter seclusion, staying practically out of sight until, toward the close of Acts, we find them leaping like a viper out of the fire to attack Paul, but, like the symbol in Acts 28:3-4, this “generation of vipers” was shaken back into the fire, while Paul and what he stood for remained unharmed.
Meanwhile, in Acts 15 we find the multitude back in Jerusalem again for the great council there, which is apparently held without opposition from the rulers. And before we have closed the book of Acts we find the believing elders there saying to Paul: … thou seest, brother, how many thousands [what myriads] of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the Law (Acts 21:20).
This does not mean, of course, that either the majority in Israel, or the rulers in Israel had turned to Christ. As a nation Israel still remained unrepentant.
We bring this all in here because it is so important to understand that the present dispensation of the mystery was not ushered in, nor the kingdom postponed, because of the failure of the Jewish believers (whatever their failures may have been) but because of the grace of God to His enemies.
The company of Jewish believers described in the passage above formed the nucleus of the kingdom to come. God did not give up the twelve apostles or the Hebrew church. He gave up unbelieving Israel, and that only “that He might have mercy upon ALL” (Romans 11:23). Thus, humanly speaking, Israel was set aside because of her persistent rejection of Christ. From the divine side, however, Israel was set aside to demonstrate the failure of man and the infinite grace of God. God had made a difference between Jew and Gentile to show that essentially “there is no difference,” and those who suppose that God was a “respecter of persons” in giving Israel such great advantages over the Gentiles for 1,500 years, should observe that God has set her aside and allowed her to remain out of His favor for some 1,900 years.
And thus in early Acts we witness the fulfillment of Luke 2:34 concerning “the failing and rising up of many in Israel.”
In these early chapters of Acts the kingdom is being taken from the rulers (Matthew 21:43) and given to the “little flock” (Luke 12:32). The rulers fall while the despised followers of Messiah rise to take their place. — Acts Dispensationally Considered, by C.R. Stam, pages 207-210
Stam includes a footnote with the above passage in which he says, “With the raising up of Paul, however, all who were still alive came into an additional hope as fellow members of the joint body (2 Corinthians 5:16-17; 1 Corinthians 12:13), a dual position theirs.”
I think I basically agree with him, but I still have some questions. I don’t know if all the kingdom believers believed Paul’s message and became members of the Body of Christ, although I certainly think most of them did. If there were some who didn’t hear or were resistant, I don’t think they lost the salvation offered under the kingdom. I don’t think the 2 Corinthians passage Stam refers to really speaks to the issue. The 1 Corinthians passage does, but doesn’t answer it totally, in my mind. More study needed!