The title for this post comes from the ESV section heading for Acts 6:1-7 which reads:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7)
This passage is usually recognized as the installment of the first “deacons”. However, before we decide what is actually being described here, let’s recognize that most of what is taught from this passage is based on assumption and speculation.
For example, the title “deacon” is not used of the seven men chosen here. Instead, the noun διακονία (diakonia) is used to describe the “daily distribution” or “daily service” (Acts 6:1) and the “service of the word” (Acts 6:4), and the verb διακονέω (diakoneo) is used in the phrase “to serve tables” (or “to serve food”).
Also, we are not told how the Hebrew widows received their daily food, nor are we told why the Hellenist widows were not getting their daily food. In fact, we are told very little about the details or organization involved in this distribution of food. We can assume or speculate as to how this was being done, but apparently this was not important enough for Luke to include. Perhaps, that means that what Luke was trying to communicate is not related to these details.
Neither does Luke tell us how “the full number of the disciples” chose the seven men who were going to take care of this problem. Again, we can make various assumptions and speculations, but it appears that Luke is more concerned with the character of the men chosen than the method used to choose them.
Finally, and this is one of the most interesting parts of this story to me, Luke does not tell us how, when, or even if these seven men actually supplied food to the Hellenist widows. Instead, the only subsequent times that any of these men are mentioned, they are mentioned in the context of evangelism. In fact, if it is the same Phillip, one of the men is called “Phillip the Evangelist” in Acts 21:8. Apparently, these men did not find their identity or their “job” in being a “deacon”.
So, what does Luke tell us in this episode from the early life of the church? First, Luke tells us that there was a problem. The Hellenist widows were not receiving their daily amount of food. This problem reached the ears of the apostles.
Second, we see that the apostles told “the full number of the congregation” to take care of the problem themselves. The apostles told the people to choose spiritually wise men with a good reputation. Again, the apostles did not tell the people who to pick or even how to pick these men.
Finally, we see that “the full number of the congregation” picked the men and presented them to the apostles. In Acts 6:6, Luke does not specify exactly who “laid their hands own” these seven men. It could have been the apostles – which is usually assumed – but it also could have been the people who chose them, presented them to the apostles, and also laid hands on them.
What is Luke communicating in this passage? It looks to me as if Luke is showing that the apostles expected all believers to take part in service. The apostles did not run things or control how problems were met. Instead, when a problem presented itself, the apostles expected the people who knew about the problem to take care of it.