The first five chapters of Acts revolve around the Temple in Jerusalem (Acts 2:46; 3:1-10; 4:1; 5:20-24, 42). In Acts 6, Luke’s narrative turns toward Jews from the wider Diaspora whose common language is Greek.
The Hellenists’ complaint: Acts 6:1-8
Outside of Jerusalem, Jews spoke Greek, the imperial language. Those who immigrated to Jerusalem from this Diaspora brought Greek language and Hellenistic culture with them. The early church included this diversity (Acts 2). In Acts 6 a conflict arises between the Hebrew- or Aramaic-speaking members of the early church and the Hellenist or Greek-speaking immigrant members.
The conflict concerns the Hellenist widows and the daily diakonia (6:2). The Greek word diakonia describes some ministry, here involving service at table, that parallels the diakonia of the word practiced by the apostles (6:4). Scholars think this diakonia may have involved care for the poor. However, preachers should not assume that the Hellenists’ widows were themselves poor.1 The neglect may involve the equal distribution of responsibility and honor between the local “Hebrew” widows and the immigrant “Hellenists.”
The apostles repair the injustice by ordaining seven immigrant Hellenist men to ensure diaconal parity. All seven have Greek, not Hebrew, names. One, Nicolaus, is even a proselyte, a former polytheist and convert to Judaism.2 Consider how here Acts models reparative justice for excluded groups. Note also that here Acts presents parity between the diakonia of service and of the word in Christian ministry.
The Hellenists versus Stephen: Acts 6:9-14
Acts 6:9 focuses on formerly enslaved Hellenist Jews from North Africa and Asia Minor who had organized a synagogue, perhaps to study the scriptures and pray in Greek, their mother tongue. Conflict erupts between them and Stephen, one of the seven chosen Hellenist men.
Luke’s account here parallels Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees (for example, Luke 11:53). Unable to best Stephen in debate, they bring him before the elders of the Sandhedrin (the council of Jerusalem elites) on false charges. The scene invokes the trial and crucifixion of Jesus (see especially Luke 23:1-5). The Hellenists charge Stephen with slandering Moses and the Temple, with threatening the Temple’s destruction, and with proposing changes to the customs handed down by Moses (7:14). Their charges recall Jesus’ prophecy about Jerusalem (Luke 21:5-34). However, the Hellenist Jews charge that Stephen expects Jesus himself to destroy the Temple. Stephen’s actual beliefs on the Temple’s destruction are never clearly stated. More likely Luke’s narrative reflects his community’s discussions about the theological importance of the Temple a decade after its destruction.
Stephen’s jeremiad: Acts 6:15-7:1a, 44-53
Stephen’s speech begins with a change in his appearance, perhaps recalling Moses (6:15, see also Exodus 34:30). Rather than self-defense, he delivers a jeremiad, a prophetic accusatory speech. Stephen begins with stories of the patriarchs, highlighting the people’s repeated rejection of Moses’ leadership (7:1b-43). In verses 44-50, he discusses the Tabernacle or Tent of Witness. For the refugees from Egyptian slavery, the Tent marked God’s continuous presence and guidance until the days of Solomon (see Exodus 25-31, 33; Joshua 18:1; Psalm 132:5).
However, in verses 47-48, Stephen challenges Solomon’s decision to build a Temple. Quoting Isaiah 66:1-2a, he asserts that God does not live “in what is made by human hands (en cheirpoiētois).” The phrase en cheiropoiētois normally denigrates statues created for the worship of other gods. Through Stephen, Luke implies here that the Temple building constitutes a kind of idol. This may assuage a community struggling with Rome’s destruction of the Temple, but it misrepresents actual Jewish beliefs.
Next Stephen launches into a diatribe, accusing his mixed Jewish audience of betraying and murdering the prophets and Jesus, an ongoing argument in Acts (see 7:52-53; see also Acts 2:24, 3:14; Luke 6:23; 11:47). Stephen’s speech reflects the insider rhetoric of Luke’s audience as they interpret the hostility they may experience from fellow Jews. This insider narrative blames their opponents for Jesus’ death. Avoid adopting this rhetoric as historical fact. The Romans, not the Jews, destroyed the Temple. Violent Christian anti-Judaism has often been stoked by passages like this. Rather, in this season of pandemic-enforced virtual church, ponder Christian fetishization of buildings, and other permanent, non-moveable structures.
Stephen takes a knee: Acts 7:54-60
The crowd is already enraged when Stephen announces a theophany: Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Stephen’s deliberate, almost hypermasculine calm here contrasts with the crowd rushing at him with uncontrolled fury. Even as they stone him—the equivalent of a lynching rather than a state-sanctioned execution—Stephen quietly takes a knee (7:60). Then, echoing Jesus, Stephen speaks words of forgiveness and relinquishes his spirit (Luke 23:34, 46). Stephen’s final protest marks him as a faithful witness, a martyr. His final posture echoes others in today’s society, who raise their voices in a jeremiad for justice and who, in face of societal rage, take a knee.
Holy Giver and Receiver of life, Your martyr, Stephen, shined with the light of your Holy Spirit. When his opponents took his life, he offered up his spirit to you, and prayed mercy for theirs. Make Stephen an example of faith and courage for all your followers, for the sake of the one who brought light and life to this world, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Alleluia! Sing to Jesus ELW 392, H82 460, 461, NCH 257 Lord, you give the great commission ELW 579, H82 528 Praise, praise! You are my rock ELW 862
Praise to the Lord, Hugo Distler