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CHAPTER VI, VII.
In the sixth chapter we have an account of the institution of Deacons; an order of men appointed to preside over the ministration of food, raiment, and necessaries to the sick and poor ; and also to make preparations for and assist in the common feasts of love, and celebration of the Eucharist. The occasion of their appointment was as follows: " When the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration." The Grecians here mentioned were what are called Hellenistic Jews ; that is, born of Jewish parents, yet not in the land of Judea, but in some country where the Greek tongue prevailed, in which language they studied the Scriptures. Such, for instance, were the Jews of Alexandria ; who had received great privileges from the Ptolemics, kings of Egypt, and for whose sake, as well as from his own love of learning,
Ptolemy Philadelphus had a translation of the Scriptures made into Greek, called the Septuagint, above 250 years before Christ. As an intercourse was maintained between those Hellenistic Jews and their mother country, they were indulged with synagogues and other benefits at Jerusalem. Now, while the ministration of which we speak, was left at large, and of course fell chiefly into the hands of the natives, (who were far most numerous) the widows of this latter class were more favoured than those of the former ; as was natural enough, from the strong love we bear to those of our own country, above foreigners. This partiality caused the present murmuring, for which the Apostles seeing there was but too just ground, proposed a remedy, having first excused themselves from taking part in the affair ; “It is not reason," say they, 66 that we should leave the word of God, and serve fables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost, and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” In obedience to this counsel the people proceeded to chuse out and recommend seven persons, whom they set before the Apostles: and when they (the Apostles) had prayed, they laid their hands on them;" a ceremony common upon other occasions,
and with other persons, beside Christians, when investing men with important offices, either in churon or state. Thus we find Moses, by command of God, laying his hand upon Joshua, who was to be his successor in the government, and giving him a charge in the sight of the congregation : and so Barnabas and Saul, as we read in this Book of the Acts, were by imposition of hands appointed to their ministry. I would only furtner werve upon the institution of these deacons, that they resembled certain ministers in the Jewish synagogue. Whence we may perceive, that the Apostles were not influenced by a violent love of change, but were ready to adopt any wholesome regulations, wherever found, in their government of the primitive church. Had all Christians, in succeeding times, been moved by the same spirit of moderation, greater unity and concord would prevail at this day; nor should we be distracted by various sects, which, though agreeing in important and essential doctrines, yet dissent and separate upon matters of mere discipline and form.
Among the deacons was Stephen, a man said to be full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, who 6 did great wonders and miracles among the people." He was the first martyr we read of to the Christian cause : and as the remainder of the sixth, and the entire seventh chapter, relate the origin and occasion of his martyrdom, with the particulars of the
event itself, we shall employ this lecture upon the proceeding against him.
The first attack upon him began on the part of “ certain of the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen.” I have already spoken of the synagogue of the Alexandrians : that of the Cyreneans was of the same kind, belonging to the Jews of Cyrene, a city of Africa; as also those of Asia and Cilicia, to others settled in these countries. But the word Libertines is not the name of a particular nation or people ; it means Jews, or proselytes of the Jewish religion, who having been taken in war, and made slaves to Roman masters, had become free ; or rather the children of such. There were certainly great multitudes of Jews living at Rome, who occupied à large quarter of the city ; and a famous Roman historian, speaking of the Egyptian and Jewish rites, says, that 6 four thousand of the Libertine race, infected with that superstition, were banished by Tiberius from Rome.” So large a settlement, as these things imply, was entitled to the privilege of a synagogue at Jerusalem, not less than many of their colonies.
The members of these synagogues, not being able to resist the wisdom and the spirit, by which Stephen spoke, suborned false witnesses, who charged him with speaking blasphemous words against Moses
and against God. We are not told the express words which gave rise to this charge ; perhaps he had cited part of the remarkable prophecy of Daniel, “ the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.” But whatever he had said, without doubt they exaggerated and misrepresented to the people, as if it had been spoken by him in malice and contempt. St. Luke calls them false witnesses ; which certainly they would be, in giving a false turn or colour to his discourse, (although not very much changing the language,) nearly in the same degree as if they imputed to him something he had not said. No. thing is more common than this mode of calumniating innocence; extracting from words their entire original spirit and design, and then infusing one completely different, so as that the dead letter shall become quite a new thing. He might have been, and very probably was, zealously exhorting them to repentance and faith, warning them to flee from the terrible vengeance of God, which hung over their nation, and in a few years after was fatally accomplished. He might also have been explaining to them the nature of Christ's religion, « a light to lighten the Gentiles,” and thus have shewn the grace of God no longer exclusively confined to one people. These topics of discourse were in themselves not only just and innocent, but even in the highest degree friendly and benevolent to his