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Who Were the Seven?

27 Nov

When we come to Acts 6 Luke immediately plunges us into a controversy within the now multiplying body of Messianic believing Jews (Acts 6:1). In fact, in Acts 6:7 Luke offers us his fifth church-growth report up to this point in time, but the first of six multiplication records that divides his thesis into three major sub-themes addressed in two parts each. The point is that in Acts 6 Luke shows us that the body of believers is no longer simply Jews of Palestinian origin, i.e. Jews who grew up in Judea and Galilee. The Church has become what we call today bicultural. That is, a sizable portion of it is made up of Hellenist Jews who have resettled in Palestine, and when one adds two cultures together, there is bound to be some friction.

The widow issue was probably merely the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. It was but a symptom of a deeper polemic involving both differences of culture and methods of preaching the Gospel—that is, how controversial should evangelism be? Knowing that Luke unveils a cultural problem within the body of believers in Acts 6 helps us to understand what occurs in this and in the next few chapters of Acts. In fact, I don’t believe one can properly understand the issues between Paul and Jerusalem that occur later, if we don’t see that the Church had to face cultural issues, as its numbers began to multiply and bring in brethren who were not culturally linked with the Jews of Palestine.

In Acts 6:2 Peter called the multitude of disciples together and told them (v.3) to look out among themselves and choose seven leaders to look after their business. Who did Peter call together? Was it the whole body of believers or just those disciples who murmured over the widow issue? If all the disciples were called together, it is awfully odd that only Grecian Jews (one Gentile proselyte) were set up as leaders. This should show us that the issue was a cultural one. If it wasn’t cultural, why were only Grecian believers chosen as leaders?

Many biblical scholars pooh pooh the idea of an organizational split occurring in Acts 6, but I think we need to look at what occurs here before rejecting the idea outrightly. I don’t mean to say the Seven no longer considered the Apostles as their leaders. Philip’s behavior in sending for the Apostles in Acts 8 shows that, even in persecution, the Jerusalem church was considered the governing body. What occurs in Acts 6 is like one single church of the same denomination in a city decides to break up into two bodies—still fellowshipping together, but two separate governing bodies under the leadership of the same denomination—who in the case of Acts 6 are the Apostles.

For all intents and purposes, the Seven were evangelists in every sense of the word. Stephen’s ultimate arrest and stoning did not occur over his “serving tables” or helping poor widows. No, he got into trouble with the authorities over his evangelistic practices—arguments that no one could counter. Later, Philip was the first to evangelize Samaria and continued preaching Jesus along the Mediterranean coast until he settled in Caesarea (Acts 8:40; cp. Acts 21:8).

I believe the controversy in Acts 6 stems from how important the Jerusalem church was to preaching the Gospel to the world, and how aggressively a believer should be in the name of the Gospel. I have said it before in a previous blog, and I’ll say it again: “the importance of the Jerusalem church to the Gospel cannot be overestimated.” As long as the Temple stood, pilgrims from all over the Empire and beyond would come to worship there during the three great annual holy day seasons: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The Apostles didn’t have to travel the world to preach the Gospel to their brethren, the Jews. They came to them! The Jerusalem church was extremely important for the Gospel’s sake, and its safety needed to be guarded against the assault the enemy, who up to this point in time was the Jewish ruling body at Jerusalem, the same body who had Jesus crucified.

On the other hand, there was the growing body of Hellenist Jews who had resettled in Jerusalem from the Diaspora. They had little regard for the ceremonial practices of the Pharisees, and were more inclined to make a statement of belief without regard to the consequences—a let the chips fall where they may kind of people.

When you have two very different groups of people in one body, as appears to be the case in Acts 6, it is best to do as Peter did—separate the two groups, and permit them to govern themselves with the understanding that both bodies are still one in Christ—i.e. one brethren. If this was not what was done, it is very difficult to explain why almost immediately afterward a large group of believing priests joined themselves with the Apostles (Acts 6:7). They would have had ceremonial issues with joining themselves with the Grecian element within the Messianic movement, but not with the Apostles who were born and raised in Palestine. The fact that this ultra-conservative body of Jews joined themselves with the Apostles adds emphasis to that cultural issue, in that the ceremonial issue was solved by dividing the two culturally distinct but equal bodies of believers who, nevertheless, continued to communicate with and have respect for one another.

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4 Comments

Posted by on November 27, 2011 in Kingdom of God

 

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4 responses to “Who Were the Seven?

  1. Eddie

    April 17, 2013 at 07:53

    Okay, I think I understand now. I believe I’ve heard it best explained this way. The one group had a problem. It doesn’t make sense to gather the whole church to solve a problem one particular group within the church was experiencing. The Hebraic widows were well treated according to Luke’s wording of the passage. It was only the Hellenist widows who were neglected. It makes no sense to replace the Jews who were taking care of the Judean-born widows. These Seven were given the responsibility for taking care of the Hellenist wing of the church in Judea. They not only cared for their physical needs but their spiritual needs as well.

    This wasn’t a complete break in church unity, but it was like creating a new church group, independent of the mother body, but in fellowship with it. The Hellenists had grown in number in Judea and wanted a greater voice and more responsibility within the church. They got it, and it was this same group that was the first to be persecuted, as Acts 8:1 implies, in that the Apostles (and those with them) did not have to leave Judea. It was only the Hellenist wing that scattered, due to the persecution.

    I hope this is better suited to your inquiry. Lord bless you.

     
  2. Eddie

    April 17, 2013 at 07:30

    Greetings Kirsty and welcome. We get the term “Seven” because they were seven in number according to Acts 6, and they were still referred to by this “name” in Acts 21 when Paul visited Philip in Caesarea. We understand them to be “Hellenist” Jews who had resettled in Jerusalem because Acts 6:1 shows they had a problem with how their widows were being neglected by the Hebrew, or Judean-born Jews who had authority over that administration. We do not believe this was a gentile community for two reasons. First, there wouldn’t be a large, believing gentile community in Jerusalem at this early date (or any later date either). Second, Luke mentions a gentile among the Seven (Acts 6:6) who had become a Jew–i.e. he was a proselyte who had converted to Judaism. Therefore, he seems to be the only gentile among the “Hellenists” mentioned.

    Lord bless you, Kirsty, and thank you for reading my blog and especially for taking the time to leave a comment/question.

     
    • Kirsty

      April 17, 2013 at 07:38

      Sorry – I don’t think my question was clear! I realise they were all Jews, not Gentiles (except Nicholas). But from reading the passage I don’t see that the Seven were necessarily all chosen from the Hellenistic community. It could have been a mixed group of Hellenists and Hebraic Jews, chosen to make sure that both were fairly treated.

      I do realise that doesn’t fit with your theory in the article, though.

       
  3. Kirsty

    April 17, 2013 at 07:16

    I don’t understand why it’s always assumed that the Seven were Hellenistic Jews.

    I’ve seen it explained that they all had Greek names. But then so did several of the Twelve: Peter, Andrew and Philip. These might have merely been the translations of Hebrew/Aramaic names – certainly that was so with Peter/Cephas. But in that case the same could be true of the Seven.

    I have no axe to grind either way – I’m just puzzled! Can you shed any light on this?

    Thanks

     

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