This shorter chapter serves several purposes: 1) it gives further evidence of the church’s internal life and external rapid growth in Jerusalem; 2) it introduces us to Stephen—a man who will be prominent in the next chapter; 3) it continues the theme of growing tension and persecution from Jewish leaders.
In verses 1-7 we see the first church of Jerusalem confront an internal challenge that arises due to the convergence (perfect storm) of rapid growth (“the number of disciples was increasing”—1), economic need (“daily distribution of food”—1) and racial blind spots and preferences (“their widows were being overlooked”—1).
Here we see the human dynamics involved in a growing church, especially where there is diversity in ethnic background. Here the diversity was due to the geographic mix of Jews that comprised the church. Some were from other parts of the Roman Empire and were Hellenized in culture, compared with the homegrown Hebraic believers.
There are lessons here for churches today. First, we humans tend to look after our own and overlook outsiders. In this instance, the slight may have been unintentional, as the apostles do not take the blame or verbally reprimand anyone when correcting the problem. Diversity can cause discrepancies if we are not diligent to avoid it. Second, growth in size can create strains on organizational processes to meet needs. Third, leaders can’t do it all themselves. Up to this point, the apostles seem to have been overseeing this ministry (perhaps since the money given for benevolence was “put at the apostles’ feet”—4:37). Here we see the need for godly, Spirit-filled, wise leaders to oversee ministry areas in a church. The Seven chosen may be seen as the first deacons—or at least the precursors to the role of deacon.
Stephen, one of the Seven, is the focus of the rest of this chapter and the next. Three times he is described as one who is Spirit-directed and Spirit-empowered. He qualifies as one who is “known to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (3). He is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (5). His Jewish opponents could not “stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (10).
One reason the apostles wanted leaders who were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” is because the ministry they were overseeing was already complicated by tension. Feelings had been hurt. Charges of discrimination had been laid. To calm the turbulent waters and navigate a racially-charged situation would require people who were Spirit-filled and wise. This is true for any ministry, but especially for ministries with high potential for conflict.
As a man who was full of the Spirit, Stephen is described as “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (8). Previously, only the Twelve had been described as doing miraculous works (2:43; 3:4-8; 5:12). After they lay hands on Stephen (and the other members of the Seven), Stephen participates in doing miraculous signs and great wonders.
One of the reasons I’m studying the book of Acts is to learn more about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, especially in the context of ministry. From this chapter I conclude that those who are full of the Spirit are known to be so; the apostles trust the believers in the church to recognize this reality in one another (“choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom”—3). Just as we can recognize a wise person, we are should also be able to identify someone who is full of the Spirit.
Being full of the Spirit is linked to wisdom (3) and faith (5). Whereas wisdom is listed after the phrase “full of the Spirit”, faith comes before it. Perhaps the implication is that wisdom results from being full of the Spirit where faith is a reason one is filled.
In verse 8, Luke uses a similar phrase to describe Stephen: “a man full of God’s grace and power.” Here it would seem that being full of the Spirit is equivalent to being full of God’s grace. The Spirit is given as a gift of grace (in response to an obedient faith—see the end of verse 7 where we read “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith”). If this reading is correct, then power (like wisdom) is a result of being full of the Spirit/grace.
The evidence of Stephen’s fullness of the Spirit is seen in his works and words. God uses him to do powerful works (8) and he speaks powerful words (10). His words, proclaiming and defending the truth of Jesus, are said to wise and Spirit-directed: his opponents “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (literally “was speaking” – an imperfect verb tense, signifying ongoing action in the past).
Several observations strike me as significant. First, being full of grace and wisdom and speaking “by the Spirit” does not mean all will receive our words. The truth still alienates, no matter how graciously and wisely it’s spoken. Second, Spirit-filled people are not argumentative but will engage in arguing (or at least spirited discussion; the Greek word used means to dispute, argue or discuss). My reading of the text is that Stephen was proclaiming the truth about Jesus and this proclamation triggered arguments (“These men began to argue with Stephen”—9). While we should not go looking for arguments, we can’t always avoid them. We are to proclaim the message of the gospel. When we do, we can expect some pushback. We will need to be Spirit-filled and wise to respond in these situations.
Stephen is arrested and dragged before the Sanhedrin; this is the third time in the opening chapters of Acts that disciples are brought before this judicial body. Stephen is charged with hate-speech (against the temple) and blasphemy (against God). In spite of it all, he remains Spirit-filled. In fact, those looking intently at him see that “his face was like the face of an angel” (15). Stephen experiences Psalm 34:5: “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” Stephen is seeing unseen realities and is filled with courage to bear witness (as he does in chapter 7).