Do you consider yourself prejudiced—racially biased? I had no idea I held any prejudice in my heart until a precious African-American friend lovingly showed me how my attempts to embrace her actually mirrored historic attempts at forced conformity. I thought respecting her as an equal meant saying, “You are no different than me.” Not true. To truly respect my dear friend, I should recognize and celebrate her rich and vibrant heritage, one that she values, celebrates, and can trace back many generations.Do you consider yourself prejudiced—racially biased? I had no idea I held any prejudice in my heart until a precious African-American friend lovingly showed me how my attempts to embrace her actually mirrored historic attempts at forced conformity. I thought respecting her as an equal meant saying, “You are no different than me.” Not true. To truly respect my dear friend, I should recognize and celebrate her rich and vibrant heritage, one that she values, celebrates, and can trace back many generations. I can only recite back to my great-grandmother. We’re different in other ways, too. When my friend and I travel together in certain parts of the country (especially small towns), she won’t go into a store by herself. All the white faces stare, some angry, most just curious. Fear is a very real part of her everyday life. I don’t have to live that way. But surely we’re not different at church, right? Well, yes and no. My friend and her family attended a “white” church for quite some time and were warmly welcomed. But being the only chocolate chip in a blonde cookie is lonely no matter how warm the oven. She and her family now worship in an African-American church, but she maintains strong friendships with her “Golden Oreo” friends. Is that wrong or bad? I don’t think so. Sometimes we segregate, not because we must, but because we enjoy being with “like” people. But no group is completely alike. We learn that even if we’re alike in one aspect, we may face conflict in another…or conflict from outside.
Acts 6:1-4 – “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’” (emphasis added)
Can you hear the apostles’ frustration—that they can’t be distracted by “waiting tables”? The seven men they proposed would obviously do more than wait tables if they must be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (I’ve never seen filled with the Spirit and wisdom on a waiters’ job application). And why pick seven men? Why not fourteen? Or twenty? Perhaps because seven represents the perfect number in Scripture, representing the perfect number of godly, wise men that would heed the Spirit’s direction to administrate the ever-growing new church. The apostles realized it wasn’t about appeasing Greeks or Hebrews. It was about choosing leadership that was on intimate terms with the Spirit, people who could deal on a spiritual level with earthly problems.
Acts 6:5-7 – “This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” (emphasis added)
Consider the variety of cultures, religions, and backgrounds congregated in this early church. But as a group they showed unity and chose the seven men. Then the apostles prayed and commissioned them for service. Notice that at least one of the seven men was from outside Israel—from Antioch—and not even a natural-born Jew! Also notice Jewish priests began coming to faith in Jesus Christ. These once “holy” men, no longer needed to make Temple sacrifices, now joined with lowly Jewish converts to commission seven men for leadership over them. Amazing. I’m sure the argument between the Greek and Hebrew widows was only the first tiff of the early church, but the unity modeled in settling the situation laid a strong foundation for future conflict resolution. Humility. Service. Open-mindedness.
Acts 6:8-10 – “Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.”
Stephen did NOT just wait tables! God’s Spirit working through him wasn’t limited to the function of administration assigned by men. Part of his wisdom played out in evangelizing the “Freedmen” who had once been slaves in foreign lands and were now bound by the Old Law of Moses. These devout “Freedmen” formed a synagogue in Jerusalem of freed slaves—a commonality that drew them together—with others of Jewish faith. The Cyrenians and Alexandrians from Northern Africa, and the Greek-speaking Jews of Asia and Cilicia argued their religious (and perhaps cultural) differences with Stephen. But the same Holy Spirit that united divisions in the Church gave Stephen wisdom. The Freedmen might have known more about their context than Stephen, but the Holy Spirit in Stephen knew more about EVERYTHING than the Freedmen.
Acts 6:11-15 – “Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.’ So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.’ All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (emphasis added)
In order to have Stephen arrested, these Freedmen had to convince several groups of folks that he’d blasphemed God and/or the Temple—all of them Jews, but all sorts of Jews. Elders. Teachers. Pharisees. Sadducees. Even the common Jewish man on the street. To stir up the kind of hate we’ll soon see directed at Stephen, misunderstandings and deception must be at the root. But only in the midst of that kind of injustice do we see such strong evidence of God’s comfort. Others saw the face of an angel on Stephen’s features. Scripture tells us Stephen saw the face of God.
- Lord, I wish that Your presence meant no more injustice, no more hate, no more segregation. But this world is fallen, and as long as I live in it, I will deal with the consequences of its sinful state. My comfort comes when I walk in Your light and reflect it to others. Hold me close. Keep my face tilted upward, to see You standing victoriously at the Throne. And illuminate the beautiful differences between me and my brothers/sisters-in-Christ so that I can appreciate the kaleidoscope You’ve created in Your Church!