The wise men

This is the story of the seven wise men.

No, not those wise men. It’s not Christmas yet.

I’m talking about the seven men described by Luke in Acts 6, who were nominated to serve by the people of the Jerusalem church, and who were subsequently appointed by the Twelve.

As we’ve seen, the Greek-speaking Jews in the early Jerusalem church had a complaint: the widows among them, who were poor and vulnerable, were getting neglected when the church gave out food. The majority of the church were Aramaic-speaking Jews, and they had (perhaps unwittingly) overlooked the other group.

What to do? When the Twelve had gathered the congregation, they said,

It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables. Brothers and sisters, carefully choose seven well-respected men from among you. They must be well-respected and endowed by the Spirit with exceptional wisdom. We will put them in charge of this concern. As for us, we will devote ourselves to prayer and the service of proclaiming the word. (Acts 6:2-4, CEB)

This isn’t a matter of the apostles refusing to stoop to a lowlier form of service (unless the Eleven had completely forgotten what Jesus had said to them as he washed their feet). Rather, their proposed strategy was wise in its own way:

  • The apostles knew that the health of the church rested on the foundation of proclamation and prayer, and that it was their responsibility to remain true to that calling.
  • They allowed the congregation the freedom to nominate whomever they pleased.
  • But there was a firm requirement: nominees had to have a solid reputation for Spirit-filled wisdom. (Imagine putting that in a help-wanted ad. For that matter, imagine that as a job description in a church bulletin.)

The congregation loved the idea, and put forward seven men. Interestingly, their names suggest that some if not most of them were Hellenists, that is, of the minority Greek-speaking group. The practical response to the complaint, in other words, was to give power to the disempowered minority. I doubt that this would have happened if the rift between the two groups was intentional or represented any real ill will.

We know relatively little about these men, save that they must have been wise. Luke puts Stephen and Philip at the head of the list, probably because they will play prominent roles in the chapters to follow. Nicolaus of Antioch is the only one specifically labeled as a “convert” (literally, a “proselyte”), meaning a Gentile who became a Jew and was circumcised (now that’s commitment for you).

The congregation brought these seven forward. The apostles prayed and laid hands on them to commission them to service. As we’ll see later, that doesn’t mean that all these men did was serve food. Both men would perform miraculous signs. Stephen would speak boldly to the Sanhedrin, at the cost of his life; Philip would become a traveling evangelist.

In short, the growing pains of the church were handled wisely. But Luke’s way of telling the tale doesn’t suggest that this is because the apostles were organizational geniuses. Their wisdom was empowered by the Holy Spirit, who gave such remarkable growth to the church in the first place.

Indeed, as Luke adds, “God’s word continued to grow. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased significantly. Even a large group of priests embraced the faith” (Acts 6:7). Within the city, the gospel has crossed important social lines: Jews who speak different languages; Gentiles; and now, even a significant number of priests. These latter converts were not likely to be of the high-priestly caste, but were more ordinary priests like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.

That’s important, because Luke is about to give a significant amount of space to telling the story of one of the seven wise men, Stephen. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen will be martyred for his testimony before the high priest and the Sanhedrin.