May 23 – Stephen: Grace and Serenity in Suffering

“And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 6:5


Stephen’s excellent character teaches us much about responding to suffering and death.

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is one of the most inspiring biblical examples of faithfulness in life and ministry. But his personal excellence shines forth most through the familiar account of his death by stoning.

As one of the first deacons in the church, Stephen was recognized early on as a man of great faith and spirituality (Acts 6:5). And a few verses later Luke describes him as “full of grace and power” (v. 8). That was a grace of loving–kindness toward others, which he displayed in a most powerful way just before his death.

In Acts 7:60, as the Jews were pelting him with rocks, Stephen was able to look up to Heaven and say, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” That kind of faith–filled, grace–filled reaction to those who were hatefully killing him was possible only because Stephen believed in God’s sovereign control over his life and death.

At the very start of his encounter, Stephen manifested another amazing response to his horribly unjust treatment: his enemies “saw his face like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). It’s impossible for us to know precisely what such an expression would have been like, but it denoted a supernatural tranquility and joy that comes from being enveloped by the Lord’s glorious presence. Stephen’s awesome expression must have been an extremely forceful rebuke to the Jewish leaders who claimed to know God.

The typical reaction from many of us in the same situation would have been to exhibit much anxiety, stress, and anger. But Stephen demonstrated no such response. Instead, he is a role model for how any believer ought to behave during the most challenging trial. He had more than adequate grace to cope well in every circumstance (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9; James 4:6), which is true of all genuine Christians—those “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”


Suggestions for Prayer: Thank the Lord for Christian friends who are role models to you. ✧ Pray that your behavior today would be special and Spirit–filled, not ordinary and man–centered.

For Further Study: Read Exodus 33:7–11, 17–23; 34:29–35. What does Moses’ experience reveal about the power of God’s glory?[1]

6:5, 6 Judging from the names of the seven men who were chosen, most of them were Greek-speaking Jews before their conversion. This was certainly a most gracious concession to the very group that had made the complaint. Hereafter there could be no charge of favoritism from that quarter. When the love of God fills men’s hearts, it triumphs over pettiness and selfishness.

Only two of the deacons are well-known to us—Stephen, who became the first martyr of the church; and Philip, the evangelist who later carried the gospel to Samaria, won the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ, and entertained Paul at Caesarea.

After praying, the apostles expressed their fellowship with the choice of the church by laying hands on the seven.[2]

5–6 The apostles made a proposal, but the church, which is the community of God’s Spirit, made the decision. The apostles, therefore, laid their hands on the Seven and appointed them to be responsible for the daily distribution of food. The laying on of hands recalls Moses’ commissioning of Joshua (Nu 27:18–23), where through this act some of Moses’ authority was conferred to Joshua (cf. Lev 3:2; 16:21, where, conversely, by the laying on of hands there was the symbolic transference of sin). This is evidently what the laying on of hands was meant to symbolize here, with the apostles delegating their authority to the seven men selected by the church (cf. 8:17; 9:17; 13:3; 19:6 for other instances in Acts of this practice).

All the men appointed have Greek names. One of them is singled out as having been a Gentile convert to Judaism—i.e., a “proselyte” (prosēlytos, GK 4670). But it is impossible to be sure from the names themselves whether all seven were Hellenists, for at that time many Palestinian Jews also had Greek names. Nevertheless, the fact that Luke gives only Greek names suggests that all seven were, in fact, from the Hellenistic group of believers within the church. Likewise, the text does not expressly speak of these seven in terms of the ecclesiastical title “deacon” (diakonos, GK 1356), though it does use the cognate noun diakonia (“service,” “ministry,” “distribution”) in v. 1 and the verb diakoneō (“wait on,” “serve”) in v. 2 in describing what they were to do. It also uses diakonia [“service” or “ministry”] in v. 4 as a synonym for the proclamation of the apostles. Yet the ministry to which the seven were appointed was functionally equivalent to what is spoken of as the office of “deacon” in 1 Timothy 3:8–13—which is but to affirm the maxim that in the NT “ministry was a function long before it became an office.”[3]

  1. This proposal pleased the whole community. Thus, they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch, who had been a convert to Judaism. 6. They introduced these men to the apostles, who prayed and placed their hands on them.

The apostles propose and the church approves their suggestion. The word pleased denotes a basic harmony between apostles and the Christian community. The complaint has been withdrawn and the irritation concerning the financial neglect has subsided. As a result, the church enters into the work of finding seven capable men. How the people instituted and regulated the search for these men is not known. Luke says nothing about casting the lot (compare 1:26), but the verb to choose indicates that a selection was made based on the rules stipulated by the apostles. Incidentally, Christ chose the twelve apostles (including Matthias; see 1:24), but the church chooses the seven men whom the apostles installed.

Who are these seven men? All the names are of Greek origin. Although some native Jews had Greek names, among them the apostles Philip and Andrew, scholars favor the explanation that all seven were Hellenistic Jews whose native tongue was Greek. The first name is Stephen, which actually means “a crown.” In a sense, he received the crown of righteousness when he died a martyr’s death. Stephen meets the requirements the apostles set, for Luke reports that he is a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” He is known for his faith, as he demonstrates in his teaching and preaching. Philip is next. He is later known as the evangelist (21:8). Then follow the names of Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, and Parmenas, of whom we know nothing. The last man is Nicolas, a native of Antioch and a Gentile who had been converted first to Judaism and now to Christianity. Perhaps Luke has a special interest in Nicolas, because, according to tradition, he himself was born and reared a Gentile in, Antioch and afterward became a Christian. Here, then, are seven Hellenists, of whom six were of Jewish descent. The seventh is Nicolas, a Gentile who entered the church as a proselyte. Nicolas has often been identified as the father of the Nicolaitans, who are mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15. “The Nicolaitans certainly derived their name from some Nicolas—whether from this Nicolas or another must remain uncertain.” The fact that all the candidates are Hellenists undoubtedly appeases the Greek-speaking part of the Jerusalem church.

The church presents these seven men to the apostles, who approve the choice the church has made. Then the apostles present these men in prayer to God and seek divine approval and blessings upon the work that awaits the seven administrators. After the prayer, the apostles ordain these seven servants by placing their hands upon them. Thus, they adopt the practice that Moses inaugurated for the ordaining of the Levites for special service and for the commissioning of Joshua as Moses’ successor (Num. 8:10; 27:23). In New Testament times, not only the apostles adhere to the rite of the laying on of hands to commission qualified persons; but also the church in Antioch obediently listens to the Holy Spirit and places hands on Barnabas and Paul (13:2–3; see also 1 Tim, 5:22).[4]

The Roster

And the statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. (6:5–6)

The apostles’ plan found approval with the whole congregation, and seven men were appointed to the ministry. That all seven bore Greek names suggests all were Hellenists. If true, it was a demonstration of the loving unity of the church. Since the Hellenists felt slighted,the church decided to appoint seven from among them to rectify the situation. A split was thus avoided, and again Satan’s attack was thwarted.

Stephen was to play a pivotal role in the spread of the gospel beyond Jerusalem. It was the persecution connected with his martyrdom that propelled the church out of Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). The commendation of him as a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit reveals his character.

Philip also plays a prominent role in Acts. He took the gospel to the Samaritans (8:4–25), and to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26–40). Four of his daughters became prophetesses (21:8).

Nothing definite is known about the remaining five men. Some early traditions connect Prochorus with John the apostle, possibly as his amanuensis when he wrote his gospel. According to those traditions, he later became bishop of Nicomedia and was martyred in Antioch (John B. Polhill, The New American Commentary: Acts [Nashville: Broadman, 1992], p. 182).

All that is known for certain about Nicolas is that he was a proselyte (A Gentile convert to Judaism) from Antioch. Some of the church Fathers associated him with the heretical group known as the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6, 15). But there is no evidence, apart from the similarity in the names, to connect him with that group. And as Lenski rightly observes, “It ought to be understood that decidedly more evidence is required in a matter of so serious a charge” (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961], 246).

The congregation brought the seven before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. This first occasion in the New Testament of laying on of hands signified the identification and affirmation of the church with these men, and the support of their ministry. Elders, deacons, and all who served in the early church were ordained this way (cf. Acts 13:3; 1 Tim. 4:14; 5:22; 2 Tim. 1:6).

All though little is known about most of these men, they played a crucial role in the foundational history of the church. But for them, either the apostles’ priorities would have been compromised, or the church may have split. Either would have been disastrous.[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1601). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Longenecker, R. N. (2007). Acts. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 806). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 17, pp. 223–225). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[5] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (pp. 182–183). Chicago: Moody Press.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s