Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Kingdom of God is Bigger Than Us part 1 - Acts 6 - The Hellenist Controversy

(Read Acts 6)

The Gospel of Luke records the exciting expansion of Jesus' ministry from hometown Galilee to the cultural centre of Jerusalem City. Act's, Luke's follow-up continues the story of growth through his followers from Jerusalem to the heart of the Roman Empire.

These new and as-yet-unnamed Jesus People continue to proclaim the Gospel (good news) of the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus did. (Start with Luke 12 and Luke 13 for more on the Kingdom of God.) this proclamation was a personal and a political reality. In Jesus' execution by the empire, he utterly defeated the power of empire from the highest ranks of power to the deepest depths of the human soul. The Jesus followers proclaimed the truth that all humanity had been set free to live in justice and love, and demonstrated the New Kingdom in their communities of mutuality and generosity, empowered by the living Holy Spirit within them (see Acts 2 and Acts 4 for more on these radical and generous communities).

Acts 6-12 tells the story of the first steps of this early community toward an inclusive and universal message and practice. Luke's message of the gospel for the outsider is potently demonstrated in these chapters as the new community wrestles with their own boundaries, and rejoices as they gradually receive the revelation that the Good News of Jesus' Kingdom really is for everyone, everywhere, for all time. Every incident in this passage (Acts 6-12) serves to illustrate and reveal this truth and it's consequences for the early Jesus People.

The Hellenist Controversy (vv1-7)

The growth of the community and its challenges begin largely because of increased persecution in Jerusalem and dispersion of the Christians into other territories. This persecution is first demonstrated in Acts in the personal story of the first martyr, Stephen. Luke suggests that this first murder leads to increased violence that causes the dispersion. Paul, the early apostle responsible for writing much of the New Testament, is also introduced during this time of persecution. He is complicit in the death of Stephen.

Stephen is introduced as the first in a list of people chosen by the community to deal with conflicts in the distribution of food. All of the generosity described in Acts 2 and Acts 4 has grown to such a degree that widows receiving the support are arguing over the fairness of the distribution. Luke describes it as a conflict between “Jewish” and “Hellenist” widows. Hellenists were the Jewish people who lived among the Greeks and spoke Greek, so this was likely a simple problem of language barrier. Still, it shows at the beginning of this section how the community is already becoming more diverse as it grows.

The community chooses from among them the people who will be responsible for the administration of the food distribution. The apostles have been tasked with teaching the community. I love how they are able to prioritize, set personal boundaries, and enable others to lead by letting go of this responsibility to others, chosen from the community and by the community. The elders describe the work of these people as “waiting tables”. The Greek word “deacon” also suggests serving food, so these may be the church's first deacons. The apostles affirm the congregation's decision by laying hands on them.

It's good to notice that the early community considered the practical ministry of administration and service to be as important to affirm as preaching and teaching. The church picks people who are “full of the Spirit and wisdom” and “of good repute”. The apostles lay hands on them to commission them to their work. These are not lesser roles in the church, they are necessary, complementary, and equal to the other roles in the community.

Stephen is among them. Luke follows this introduction by saying the church continues to grow, showing approval of the decisions of the community organizing, and of Stephen himself. Stephen and the other food administrators are described as having a good reputation, full of the Spirit and wise.

Stephen's Arrest (vv8-15)
Luke wastes no time in describing the conspiracy to arrest Stephen. Verse 8 says that Stephen is performing miracles, as Jesus did. This is probably the reason he was described as “full of the Spirit” in verse 3. Stephen's ability to perform miracles in the power of the Spirit did not prevent his arrest. His arrest demonstrates that “power” in the Kingdom is very different from the “power” demonstrated by the old order, the authorities of the world. The Kingdom of God operates in a different way. It is an upside down Kingdom, not a Kingdom of oppression and corruption like the power of the world.

His arrest is closely comparable to that of Jesus. The religious elite could not stand the wisdom and authority by which he spoke of Jesus, just as the religious elite could not stand the authority in Jesus' open criticism of their corruption and hypocrisy. They create a false rumour that Stephen has spoken against Moses and the temple, the same accusation that had been made of Jesus. Stephen is arrested and brought before the council for questioning.

These events will continue to follow in Jesus' steps until his death. But unlike Jesus, Stephen will have a lot to say before his final breath.

Acts 6:12-15 (ESV)
12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

v1 – always increasing
v2 – First deacons – waiters. This is what the word means
Also, responsible for distributing alms and benevolence.
v4 – Deacons enable elders to preach, study, and pray
v6 – Elders anointed and appointed deacons to do their jobs
v8 – Stephen – a deacon – wise – moves in the Spirit – bold

(Click here to read Acts 6)

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